Archive for December 2009
John Lennnon c 1948
Part 15: “Mother”
Mother. “Mother” is the most harrowing song Lennon ever recorded, and
is the most harrowing piece of rock’n’roll I have heard or could
imagine being put down. There is even something confronting about its
stark title: it isn’t “Mother, You Had Me”, or “Goodbye, Mother” or
“My Mother”. It’s just plain “Mother”. It bears a mute challenge: what
does “mother” mean to you? The word utters a primal reality. Four
other songs on 1970’s classic John Lennon-Plastic Ono Band album also
had one word titles fired point-blank: “Isolation”, “Remember”, “Love”
and “God”. With nothing but single words, Lennon evokes divinity, a
parent, a terrifying state of existence, a poignant faculty of the
psyche, and the most powerful feeling-impulse we know. This is a
record of essential experiences. All artifice, all glossy surfaces,
are sanded back, and the heart, the raw matter of life is presented
through the vehicle of an art so perfectly mastered as to appear
artless. On this album, Lennon means and does business. Yet, it is
also the moment of his greatest apparent hypocrisy, his most signal
failure to live up to his own standards.
Mother. Our relationships with our parents are always in flux, even
after they have died. Nothing seems to remain static for very long:
not how we feel towards them, not what we think of them, not our
dominant memories, and not our overall assessments of them. And it
must be so, because our relationship with our parents is essential,
and as long we change, so will that relationship. This is neither good
nor bad; it is simply a fact. Good and bad become meaningful only when
we have an aim, and so a set of principles. If we are aiming for
conscious growth, then we must aim to become more loving, and this
will mean – at an absolutely fundamental level – to love our parents,
whatever issues we may have had. Until we can find love there, in that
relationship, we can only know passion and obsession mixed with
appreciation and esteem in varying degrees (and passion, I think, is
what passes for love with us).
When we speak about Lennon’s life a little further below, his mother
Julia and his father Fred, I shall mention the distortion which seems
to inevitably affect our memories of our parents. But just to briefly
make the point here, one cannot love while we are subject to these
distortions, irrespective of whether they are “favourable” or
“unfavourable” distortions. Love is impartial, or more accurately, it
includes impartiality, as George Adie said.
Of course, we cannot love anyone, not even mothers, on demand, and
anyone who thinks so doesn’t know. But we can do something in that
direction, and the need to do so becomes more urgent each day we have
not reached that state, because the longer it’s left, the harder it
gets. What we can do is prepare the soil for love by forming attitudes
which might foster or welcome love, by cultivating understanding, and
by striving to make negative emotions passive. Perhaps most
importantly of all, we can strive to acquire being, and with that,
individual will. As Gurdjieff is reported to have said: “Sometimes ‘it
loves’ and sometimes ‘it does not love’. … In order to be a good
Christian (and so to love) one must be. To be means to be master of
oneself. If a man is not his own master he has nothing and can have
nothing.” (In Search of the Miraculous, 102)
Being stands above emotion, and individual will is not just a power of
decision-making, but a manifestation of the real self which is based
on and understands my own unique makeup (so this will is not
experienced as tyrannical or even as an imposition, but more as a
return to home, to where I should be). Making effort, any effort for
being and individual will, allows more emotional control, so that we
can play a conscious role in forming the attitudes we want and need.
There are no guarantees, but we can make honest attempts. The road is
one of self-education, or self-agriculture. We know that if we want
anything to grow in a particular field we need to prepare the earth by
working it, adding substances to it, and removing impediments. And so
it is with loving our parents.
At some point in life, everyone will have issues in their
relationships with their parents, or so I see it. I am not speaking
about resentments, but about issues: ongoing attempts to reconcile
difference of opinion on important matters. I do not believe that it
is possible not to have some sort of serious issue, provided only that
you know your parents long enough and are sufficiently honest with
yourself. The more anyone argues otherwise, the more they convince me
that they’re in denial. So it is not just you, and it isn’t just me:
we’re all in the same position.
One can, of course, form theories about this: for example, that in
growing up in a world different from that which our parents knew they
must inevitably, to some extent, misunderstand us. Or one can theorise
and say that in acquiring our own individuality there must be a
reaction against our parents’ individualities. That is, there is an
inevitable tension between the infant’s natural impulse to imitate the
parents and the adolescent’s urge to become independent individual. We
could say that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and
there’s a lot of truth in all that. However my assertion is not based
on either theory: it’s just an observation. But the observation is
good enough for me. It is based partly on introspective observation,
and also, wherever I’ve been close enough to someone to tell, there
have been issues.
I am not speaking about dislike. I am not saying that we are bound to
dislike let alone hate our parents. On the contrary, I think that what
is real in the relationship is the love. An essence relationship is
always and can only be one of love. My position is that the
differences and issues arise in personality, and can be handled
without rancour. It is an indictment of us that they too infrequently
are. One does sometimes see cases where beneath even the disagreements
and misunderstandings there is a current of certainty in love. True
affection is not given on condition or subject to recall.
The issues are more or less serious, and are more or less harmonised
or aggravated by the passing years, but they’re always there. To take
an example which struck me quite forcibly, one of my friends had the
not a-typical match of the “perfect mother” and the “perfectly awful
father”. In this case, I always found the beauty more puzzling than
the straight-forward beast. One day, when he was already in his 40s
and his mother had been dead for several months, my friend suddenly
said to me, in what was a mildly depressed explosion, that his mother
had silently consented to his father’s rages. She had effectively
collaborated with him. As stated, I think everyone has issues with
More importantly for this article, John Lennon thought so too. When he
performed “Mother” at Madison Square Garden, he introduced it like
this: “… a lot of people thought it was just about my parents, but
it’s about 99% of the parents, alive or half-dead.” I only wonder why
he made an exception for one per cent. Was it just optimism? Yet, the
song itself is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Lyrically, it is
almost clinical in its concise, naked statements of fact:
You had me,
But I never had you.
I wanted you.
You didn’t want me.
I just got to tell you:
You left me.
I never left you.
I needed you so bad.
You didn’t need me.
I just got to tell you:
Don’t do what I have done.
I couldn’t walk,
And I tried to run.
I just got to tell you:
Mamma don’t go!
Daddy come home!
Mamma don’t go! Daddy come home!
I have allowed a separate line for each line of the song as it’s sung.
The lyric sheet doesn’t do justice to the measured barrage of short
addresses. The entire sound of the piece is funereal. It sounded like
that to me the first time I heard it, and it has never sounded any
other way. But the lyrics, when I set out then like this, read to me
like an indictment. Except for the emotion in Lennon’s verse, one
could imagine a clerk of the court reading them, methodically
ploughing on (so too, in “God”, the list of people and things Lennon
does not believe in sounds like a list of convicts read in a
Dickensian criminal court). And who does it indict? Lennon’s parents,
of course, but equally, also himself. Lennon does not preach at his
family from some easily assumed superiority. Even his singing of the
opening word of each verse – Mother! Father! Children! – sounds more
like a calling from island to island.
Another feature of the song is its extreme economy with words. Even
when Lennon sings: “I just got to tell you, goodbye”, he’s being
minimalist. He means that he has to say it, and that’s all there is to
say. He’s driven to impose finality. Even the word “just”, which I
recall Lennon and McCartney once said was a “filler”, to be avoided
where possible, is exactly the right word for the poetry.
Yet, there is no finality. After the prose of the verses bidding
farewell to mother, father and children, Lennon yells: “Don’t go! Come
back!” Which is it, goodbye or come back? It’s both. His mind and his
heart sing that he has to take his leave, and move on. But his
feelings scream that he wants more of them, not less. The song is
made by this tension between the two poles of departure and return,
burying and retrieving the past. The tension cannot be maintained in
life, but only in the song.
The third verse is the key to the whole piece: he accepts that he is a
failure as a parent, and can do nothing more constructive than to warn
his “children” (although he only had Julian, at that point) not to
follow his example. The children are not part of the banshee grief.
Yet, we feel that this verse is related to the rest of the song. There
is a hope that the children may succeed where Lennon and his parents
have not. Lennon tells the children to learn from the pitiful examples
before them, and to this end, he’s prepared to let us see that he had
never recovered from his painful childhood. Was Lennon perhaps saying
that he tried to run too soon because he was running after his
parents? Maybe. Parents spend a bit of time encouraging their children
to take a few steps towards them, and anyone who has ever done this
knows how deep and purely joyous are the feelings evoked in both the
adult and the toddler by this simple play. No parent would dream of
coercing the child to run towards them, and yet, perhaps, they make
the demand that with their emotions the children race the wind. So
Lennon warned the children, and showed them where the dangers are. Of
course, we are the children, and so too, I think was Lennon. After
all, he did try again with Julian and later with Sean.
But here we come to the apparent hypocrisy I referred to above. At the
time Lennon wrote “Mother” he had a child, and had run out on him.
Lennon could have done more for and with his son, but it appears that
he was too selfish to do so. My own view is that he knew he could rely
on Cynthia, his first wife, and this made it easier for him to leave.
I am not seeking either to excuse or to condemn Lennon, but just to
state that whatever Lennon’s subjective culpability, there is an
“apparent hypocrisy”, and Cynthia’s book, with Julian’s forward
effectively says as much. This being so, no wonder he was so cool to
her on the few times they met in the 70s: she reminded him of his bad
conscience. You can even say that Cynthia carried the burden of his
Lennon did not use the word “selfish” on “Mother”, even though, if one
thinks it through, it’s tolerably obvious that selfishness is the
danger Lennon was pointing to. There are almost no bounds to our
selfishness, and yet, once we have risen above it, selfishness has no
strength at all. People will gladly sacrifice their health, their
money, and their own lives, once they have put selfishness beneath
them. Once again, I think of Dickens, and in particular, of Sidney
Carlton from A Tale of Two Cities. But it is not a case of “once
overcome, forever vanquished”. One of the real dangers in parenting,
as in life in general, but especially in parenting, is that while the
real me, the essential I, will make a sacrifice, personality will come
in later on and claim credit. Personality claims its “due reward”, it
speaks the language of entitlement. Obviously, an act of love can
never come with a demand for gratitude let alone recognition. Such a
demand proves that it is not and never was “love”. This requirement of
reciprocation – love me as I loved you – ruins many relationships.
It’s a commerce in the expression of affection, and it excludes love
because it swallows up everything real with selfishness.
Then love becomes mixed – not in itself, because in itself love cannot
be sullied. But love can become mixed in our psyches by an emotional
entanglement. The mother’s love is forever being offered, and then
withdrawn if her prior unstated conditions are not met. The child
becomes confused and hurt: “I thought you loved me for myself, but now
you’ll reject me if I cannot force myself to some display which to me
And yet, I must admit that people who spend all their lives in
personality seem to be content with this state of affairs, or at least
not to question it. How can such situations persist? Surely one part
of the answer is that we do not confront these questions sufficiently,
and with sufficient being. We do not place ourselves before the
issues: we think about things, and our emotions pass over the fields
of our lives in a more or less intense shadow play. And then, with
time, the ordinary tempo of our existence reasserts itself, and the
tender pink membranes of scar tissue are buried deep. But the
“pondering” (or “being-logical-confrontation”, as Gurdjieff put it),
which could lead to a real change – to maturity – is rare.
If we could ponder, we would see the lies we tell ourselves. By
“lies”, I don’t just mean outright untruths, saying that I was there
at 5 o’clock when in fact I wasn’t. I chiefly mean self-deception and
distortion. These deceits always support a particular judgment: “My
mother was the greatest”, or the opposite, or something different. In
their turn, these moral judgments seem to always be that things were
or were not as they should have been.
It is hard not to judge our parents, after all, they teach us to
judge. The irony is that this lesson which we learn only too well,
then works against them. I knew a woman who effectively taught her
children to criticise and be embarrassed of their father. She did not
do it consciously of course, but that was the effect of her incessant
and vicious attacks. It was as if she thought that her children would
rely upon and esteem her all the more if she could alienate them from
their father. With one child, she succeeded, with another she failed,
and with the third the results were mixed. But what she never
appreciated was that if she taught them to criticise and to be
embarrassed of one parent, they could do the same with the other, and
would become suspicious of and hostile to most of the world.
These judgments support what Adie called “justified by God
grievances”, and as he saw so deeply, the more justification there is
for a grievance, the more dangerous it is. Gurdjieff showed that
negative emotions can never be justified. Further, as he said, many of
our grievances are based upon a false belief that matters could have
been different, when in fact, as he said, “If one thing could been
different everything could been different.” (In Search of the
Clearly, “Mother” is entirely founded on Lennon’s belief that his
parents should not have left him. The recent publication of Philip
Norman’s book on Lennon was important not least because it refocussed
the picture we had of Lennon’s parents. This piece is already long
enough, so I encourage anyone interested to read Norman. But the
bottom line is this: the fact of the matter was not so much that Fred
Lennon ran out on Lennon (although there is some truth in that, he
could have made greater efforts to speak to his son). It’s more that
Fred was weak: “just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen”, as
Bernie Taupin said of Elton. Here the queen was probably Lennon’s Aunt
Mimi more than his mother Julia. Further, Norman also reveals that
Lennon knew that there were two sides to the story: one of Fred’s
brothers, John’s uncle, had written to him, setting out their side of
So Lennon’s view of the past had become garbled, and he seemed to be
wedded to the distortion. When we are subject to this distortion, we
can remember mostly those incidents which fit the twisted
world-picture. So, if for example, I have a grudge against someone,
then whatever unpleasant things they did come to mind quickly and
forcibly, and when they do, I feel at once the impact of my
accumulated dislike. Hatred is a feast for a glutton, and it is never
satisfied without revenge, which is why revenge seems so sweet. On the
other hand, if while I’m in the grip of this distortion I do manage to
remember the good things my parents did, they tend to come with less
power. In fact, they often call up with them an accuser, who will
explain them away. This is part of the spell of negative emotions:
they have this defensive quality that they attract similar negative
emotions and supporting memories, and subject reality to a selective
canon of interpretation. Being able to curse is a form of revenge, and
the gladness of cursing then seems to justify the resentment. And so
the fatal cycle unfolds.
There are two vitally important things here. First, we feel we must
judge, and in the rush to judgment, we introduce distortions.
Incidentally, U2 capture this very nicely in one of my favourite U2
songs, “Dirty Day” from Zooropa. Second, we are bound to these painful
untruths by the strongest bonds – our sufferings. As Gurdjieff said:
“Man is made in such a way that he is never so much attached to
anything as he is to his suffering.” (In Search of the Miraculous,
I feel as if I could finish there, but one cannot leave “Mother”
without mention of Janov and the “Primal Scream” therapy he gave
Lennon and Ono. At the opening of this piece, I described the one-word
title “Mother” as a “primal reality”. In the Rolling Stone interview,
the question was raised as to whether John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band
might be the first “primal” album. As I recall, Lennon quite properly
deflected the question as a sterile curiosity about labels. “Was
George’s the first Gita album? It’s that relevant”, he said as I
remember, meaning that what you called it was irrelevant. But while
Lennon may not have been keen about such tags, the album is a record
of a man’s encounter with the first human things.
When I read Janov’s The Primal Scream, I was impressed by certain key
insights, but that was it. It struck me like having a black-tie supper
to celebrate painting the house. I’m not qualified to speak about
Janov’s therapy on Lennon, although I am suspicious. Lennon was quite
enthusiastic about it for a while. He had Janov come to England to
treat him, and when Janov had to return to the USA, he followed him
there. Although he soon left Janov rather abruptly, he retained a
sense of the importance of Janov’s ideas, at least for a while. Thus
in “Aisumasen” from Mind Games, he says “It’s hard enough, I know, to
feel your own pain”. Gurdjieff spoke of “intentional suffering”, but
also of “conscious labours”. There is a lot more to do than relieve
one’s past tortures. From what I can see, Lennon tried to move on. But
primal therapy did not seem to help him tremendously in the middle
term, if Lennon’s experiences in Los Angeles are any guide.
Shouldering the responsibility of raising a child, however, did: it
brought him to the clear-eyed sanity of “Beautiful Boy”, “Clean Up
Time”, “Living On Borrowed Time” and “Grow Old With Me”.
Also, the theory that all traumas go back to childhood, or even to
birth, leases a spurious credibility from a trick of the eye. When we
try to account for anything, we consider its history. An earlier cause
always seems to be a truer cause. So if a problem in an adult can be
attributed to something which occurred in childhood, we seem – by this
trick of the eye – to be really probing the depths. Janov’s idea that
childbirth was causative of later disorders may then seem persuasive
beyond what any evidence would warrant, simply any later conditions or
factors can be explained as derived from, or being potent because of,
the earlier problem – and it is difficult to prove the hypothesis
To try and sum it up, I feel that there is a real danger of
identifying with the pain, and of manufacturing it in accordance with
expectations. Perhaps it’s something like the way that if you think
about headaches long enough, you’ll get one. I have a sense that there
is a good idea somewhere in the slick presentation which was Primal
Therapy, but that it was taken to an extreme, and that other good
ideas were blocked out by the seduction of the “primal scream” theory.
I am not saying that Dr Janov never helped anyone. I would be quite
certain that he did. But I cannot help but wonder if this had more to
do with his considerable personal powers than with the theoretical
value of his Primal Therapy.
As one learns to feel one’s own pain, one needs to learn be able to
bear it. One can proceed only by careful degrees. Perhaps this is part
of the reason why a teacher is necessary on the spiritual path, at
least in the beginning. My own view of people such as Van Gogh is that
they could not bear the force of their own impressions. To be able to
bear any influence, especially perhaps pain and suffering, being and
understanding are needed. There is no such thing as emotional
strength: the emotions do not have muscles of any description. If we
have being, then our emotions will not knock us over. But I cannot
believe that it is helpful to relive the pain and lie on the ground
screaming. The idea of being able to feel your pain is good, but the
idea of being able to feel your own presence is even better. As
Gurdjieff said in his last years, “by so much as one is conscious,
there is no more suffering.”
Lennon returned to some of these ideas later on in a song which was
never publicly released, and which I know as “Memory”. We come to that song next time, and continue this train of thought.
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.