Archive for October 2009
Lennon took a rather high view of the artist’s role and mission in society. He not only preached it, he indulged himself (and his second wife) in living the life of the socially-conscious avant-garde artist, and living it rather expansively. There was a rationale, if not an ideology behind it. One could conceive Lennon producing a manifesto to the effect that the role of the artist is to animate people by mediating a cultural influence, and, in rare cases, at the tip of the flower of culture, a spiritual influence. This influence comes through in the artist’s work, but as the Lennons saw “art” as a river without banks, it also flowed through their lives. If artists have the privilege of being opinion makers, leaders and teachers, there are also responsibilities and prices. Artists are responsible to use their public profile to spread a positive message. But this profile exacts a price, the notorious down-side of living in the public eye, and being vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse, especially from the jackals of the media.
As one would expect, Lennon’s relationship with his public and journalists was highly charged and strongly polarised in both directions – attraction and repulsion. He wanted people to love not just his work but also himself. Sometimes this was manifested in absurd extremes of self-importance, as, for example, when returning his MBE in protest to the Palace, he cited as one of his reasons that “Cold Turkey” had slipped down the charts. Even if this was meant to be humorous, it was a significant humour, because it is spun out of nothing but vanity. I doubt that it would occur to the average person to suppose that Her Majesty, or even the government of the UK, could have done anything about chart performance of 45 rpm records, let alone be rebuked for not having taken measures to ensure that “Cold Turkey” peaked at the metaphorical Everest. Much as I admire Lennon, he himself was the only butt of that joke, if indeed it was a joke. It was egoism to a delusional degree; and part of the reason I do admire him is because eventually took himself in hand and become humbler.
This conception of the artist’s noble social calling is a contributing explanation of many if not most of Lennon’s more bizarre actions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as the bed-ins. They said that they knew that they were going to get publicity whatever they did, and decided to use it in a manner which they saw as positive. We all see the point they were trying to make: the desire for peace should be a major value in everyone’s real life, and not just a camouflage for a profound apathy, or a tonic to placate the last remaining vestiges of conscience while engaging in war. At the time, important nations in the Western world were fighting the war in Vietnam, which, for everything I can see, was not a just war. Those who resisted the war must have felt frustrated to a point of madness. However, the self-importance and extremity of John and Yoko’s actions were of doubtful value, they were perhaps even counter-productive. A more measured protest, I suspect, would have been more effective. I think that, at that point and until his 1975 reunion with her, John and Yoko were so addicted to publicity and preaching that they did not consider that the wrong type of publicity could do damage to their causes.
After the tour de force of raw revelation which was the John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band album, Lennon cut the Imagine album. He once described the title track, his hymn for a believing atheism, as “sugar-coated”. After its critically acclaimed predecessor, yes “Imagine” does sound rather tailored for radio. And its sales far surpassed the previous one’s, which will not have displeased Lennon. It is
possible to entertain and spread a positive message at the same time. In itself that is not a serious problem: from what I can hear the very best music is played over radio together with everything else. Having fame and solo success, Lennon wanted to use it, and he and Yoko reverted to their favoured style: aggressive and preachy. And so they came to produce the disastrous Some Time in New York City album. Its chart and sales failure deeply upset Lennon, who was always competing with other musicians, especially, of course, Paul McCartney. I never heard, however, that he had acknowledged the record’s patent artistic failure.
But Lennon, being Lennon, could not sit still for long. Three years later, if you can credit it, these are lyrics Lennon was working on in the mid-70s, for a song in honour of Tennessee Williams, which showed how far he had come from the strident days of Some Time in New York City:
Tennessee, O Tennessee, what you’ve shown to me:1
Your words like water, pure and clear.
The sadness of your soul reveals the music of this sphere,
Conceal it behind your spirit mind, your poet’s love and feel.2
If I hadn’t heard Lennon singing these words, I wouldn’t have believed that he had written them, because nothing I’ve read about Lennon (and I’ve read whatever I can get my hands on) discloses the least reason to think that Lennon entertained such an exalted opinion of Williams. Lennon never finished this song, although he spent a lot of time working on it. When Lennon writes about “your words like water, pure and clear”, it is hard not to think of this of a case as one soul calling to another like soul, because Lennon too, aimed at clarity and directness.
On one take of “Tennessee”, the one I’ve most often heard, the opening verse is:
America, America, your heroes are alive.
Your faded men and glory will survive.
The madness of your soul supplies the all-consuming fire,
Beneath your spreaded chestnut lies A Streetcar Named Desire.
As with “Instant Karma!”, the writing is so intense, it is difficult to digest it. The final verse is no less compressed:
Tennessee, O Tennessee, your southern bell will ring.
Music travelled far from New Orleans.
Sling an arrowed mirror in the magic of your dreams
Reflect echoed harmony of the naked human being.
Reflect echoed harmony of the cold and lonely naked human being.
I am indebted to Peter Van Schie’s “Between the Lines” page for the lyrics. I must admit I could not make them all out from the recording. I have also heard another version of the song, where Lennon sings “Memory, O memory, release me from your spell”, and says that “today is really all I need to know”. I wonder whether Lennon wasn’t concerned that a song of homage to Tennessee Williams (who was then still alive and being covered in glory) would sound a little strange, and tried to find other lyrics. But these words, in homage to Williams and to the USA, are the only ones which work for me.
And they do work. The sentiments are so strange and almost forced as to be unsettling: what does it mean to sling an arrowed mirror, let alone to do the slinging in the magic of someone’s dreams? Yet, the anthemic quality of the music, the solemn almost gospel piano, and the patent unforced sincerity in his voice produce, in my opinion, one of Lennon’s greatest achievements. If Yoko Ono is reading this blog, it is the ideal moment for her to release every available version of this jewel, and in return I shall see to it that masses are offered for her and her intentions in every cathedral where I can have incense burned.
One of the important points here is that he seems to have learned something from Tennessee Williams: remember, Lennon’s opening sentiment is “Tennessee, O Tennessee, what you’ve shown to me” (my emphasis). What I think he learnt is that it is possible for the artist to be a poet, and to have a “spirit mind”, and to show people what their lives are like, without hopelessly antagonizing them and ridiculing himself as a fool.
Of course, in the past, Tennessee Williams had suffered more than his fair share of muck-throwing, and Lennon doubtless knew this. But by the mid 70s, Williams had come through, and his star had risen, fixed to if not in the constellation of the revered Marlon Brando (who had starred in the famous film version of A Streetcar Named Desire) and many other major stars with real credibility (e.g. Orson Welles) who had appeared in film versions of his plays. In his ability, in his mastery of his craft, his public penetration, in his history as a subject of abuse, and in his hoped for rehabilitation as an American icon, Lennon partly identified with Williams. Why else would he twice speak of Williams as producing “music”? One can wonder, too, whether Williams’ homosexuality and consequent outsider status may not also have appealed to Lennon.
But I think that the almost startling intensity of this song, and perhaps the fact that it was never completed and released, is eloquent of Lennon’s personal life in the last six years of his life. The significant elements are that Lennon sings of William’s words being “like water, pure and clear”, of the sadness of his soul, that this sadness reveals the “music of this sphere” (which I take to mean that as an artist he had access to higher level of insight), and that Williams could “conceal” the raw perception by virtue of his spirit mind of the love and feeling of a poet. All of these points are important. Lennon stated in one of his last interviews that many people were discomfited when he sang about himself, but if he made it a third person saga, such as Tommy, Ziggy Stardust or Sadie Schmuck (so it sounded to me), that could be accepted.
Could it be that at this point of his life, Lennon was starting to realise that sugar coating could be quite a useful commodity for a pill-maker? Sometimes I think that the vital fact is that both Williams and Lennon were appealing to America. Williams seems to me to have cherished an almost idolatrous love of the USA, after all, he changed his first name to “Tennessee”. But, it is also reasonable to suggest that Lennon’s reference to the country cannot be lightly dismissed. Lennon calls America by name, twice, almost like Elijah summoning the dead to rise. He boldly declares, prophet-like, that “your faded men and glory will survive.” By now the Vietnam war had been lost, and I think that this is Lennon’s theme. But he is not hooting in triumph: did he not mean that although he had opposed the war, he had never opposed the country and its people? He adored America, and he worshipped it partly because “the madness of (its) soul supplies (an) all-consuming fire,” and Lennon wanted fire (as perhaps we all do at some deep level). Be that as it may, the song abounds with soul, love and the value of honesty.
In these lyrics, Lennon see humanity on the slab, as it were, and declares that what Williams “reflects” and “echoes” is accurate. Lennon endorses Williams’ vision that on the marble is “the cold and lonely naked human being”. Can there be any doubt that Lennon saw himself and everyone he knew in Williams’ lines?
Incidentally, two images from this song were also found on the Walls and Bridges album. First, the liquid image (“all we need is water … cool … clear … water!) also recurs in “Old Dirt Road”, which he co-wrote with Nilsson not long before he began working on this song. Second, the “mirror in the magic of your dreams” reminds me of “# 9 Dream”, and the line “through the mirror go round”. Indeed, that song with its references to magic and spirits is close to “Tennessee”, in that both are visionary recitals.
This leads me, at last!, to the chief point of this blog, and that is this: while it is easy to criticise Lennon for not living his philosophy of love, he was, in my view, trying to transfer what he felt deeply as a reality in one state to his life when in another state. The higher, and truer state was, for Lennon, the one he experienced making and writing music. And yet he did not despise the world. Consider these words from the matchless “Real Love”, which he was working on about the same time as “Tennessee”:
All my little plans and schemes pass like some forgotten dream.
Seems that all I really was doing was waiting for you.
Just like little girls and boys playing with their little toys.
Seems like all we really were doing was waiting for love.
No need to be alone, no need to be alone.
It’s ree-yal love, it’s re-e-e-e-eal, yes it’s ree-yal love, it’s re-e-e-e-eal.
… No need to be afraid, no need to be afraid.
Thought I’d been in love before, but in my heart I wanted more …
Like “Tennessee”, the piano version has the simple dignified quality of the best of church music. The film “John Lennon: Imagine” opens with him playing it on acoustic guitar. Each has a disarming directness about it, and the Beatles’ edition from the third volume of the Anthology has an energy which adds an endearing vim, redolent to me of the early classics “I Want to Hold your Hand”, “She Loves You”, “I Feel Fine”, and so on. “Real Love” could, I think, well have fitted onto Rubber Soul or Revolver.
These lyrics, seemingly so naive, yet reveal so much: his plans and schemes have vanished like the merest of dreams. The occupations with which he kept himself so terribly busy were the pleasant bubbles of childhood. By stressing as he does that he has found real love, he is stating that there is an unreal love. He had always known it was possible, he says. It is as if he had been fooling himself. But no more. Beyond shadows to realities, as so many have said in different ways.
This, I think, is the key to both songs. Lennon was questing for the road to reality, and sometimes he found his feet on it. The way to the road lay, for him, through art and through love. So Lennon had had glimpses of this, but how to make it a part of his life? In a way, I feel that this was the theme of Lennon’s life and striving. What he wanted was reality.
Sometimes Lennon knew that reality lies not in personalities (as he sang in “God”), or in occupations or callings (such to the avant-garde), but in a change our internal states. As he sang in “Revolution” to all those agitating for political change, “you better free your mind instead”. But precocious as this understanding was, Lennon often forgot it. In fact, even when he wrote “Revolution” a part of him was not convinced of it.
One of Gurdjieff’s great insights was that we can know the truth, but the level of truth we can know depends upon our state. We cannot really speak of ourselves in an absolute way: to be more precise, and so freer of illusion, there is myself in this state, and myself in any one of the endless number of states we move from. Our state is always changing, but the range through which it changes can be higher or lower. The speed with which our state can fall is so bewildering that it can lead to despair. But with time, one can learn to raise one’s state just as quickly. And with time, too, our state will cease to fall so low as to sink into danger.
So that was John Lennon: he knew that there were certain states where love was real. That is what he wrote of in “Real Love”, and it supplied the fire that he then projected onto the USA and one of its greatest playwrights. The tragedy was that he was murdered while he was learning to bring something of this state to all the rest of his life, and to spread “The Word”, as he sang on Rubber Soul.
Note: Since I wrote the piece on “Imagine”, I have come to see one important matter: the song is actually addressed to believers. The famous opening words “Imagine there’s no heaven” can only make sense if spoken to those who believe in the existence of a heaven. “Heaven” is often a way of referring to “God”, just as “the White House” can often mean the President of the USA. Throughout the addresses those who also believe in hell and religion. Lennon does not outright invited us to imagine no God, but it comes to the same thing.
So what follows from this? To my mind it strengthens the impression that “the song aspires to ideals usually associated exclusively with religion.” Lennon was correct to say in 1980 that he was a religious person. It strengthens my sense that a spiritual or even mystic interpretation of Lennon’s life and work is fitting, and is potentially productive of good clear light.
27 September 2009
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.