Wednesday, January 29, 2020

FREE RANGE JOHN LENNON and other notes

Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I had a dim view of the putzy, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work. He still mattered to me in my life quite despite the fact that I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member. For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce, or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name, icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others, has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result. Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snap-shot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that, in essence, attempts to instruct me that my own response through a period I lived in is meaningless. I think such hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their own terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music; it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. 

This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity. It's only business, nothing personal. And that is exactly the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he had the ability to switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon’s' late period were marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory. It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his own terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make-believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his clich├ęs as some of the contemporaries had. Yoko did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with egomania that overrode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft-headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. 

The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game. The sheer genius of the entire Beatle body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music. put Lennon's decline much sooner than the house-husband thing and it seems to me that Ono hindered his work directly and rather obvious. But Lennon being who he was, it probably would have been someone or something to come along and misdirect him. Something in the quizzical murk of a personality needed someone like Yoko: his love for her wasn't fake, and I cannot fault him for that. It's just too bad that following one's heart is no guarantor of good work or even honest work. The only honest thing about Lennon in the latter part of his career was his love for his wife. But Lennon being who he was, it probably would have been someone or something to come along and misdirect him. Something in the quizzical murk of a personality needed someone like Yoko: his attraction and love for her weren't fake, and I cannot fault him for that. It's just to bad that following one's heart is no guarantor of good work or even honest work. The only honest thing about Lennon in the latter part of his career was his love for his wife. "In My Life" is simply one of the finest songs of its kind has ever done, a marvelous melody, sterling harmonies, and an elegantly stated lyric that suggests dually an appreciation of memories for their equal measure of bliss and pain, but also an acknowledgment that on the present and future times matter. The song smoothly sidesteps a noxious nostalgia that would have been easy to slip into and makes the song reflective, places it on another level. Sorry, but the early Beatles albums have some great songs, but are marred by sappy, dippy love songs like "It's Only Love," "Love Me Do," etc., and too many perfunctory covers -- for every "Twist and Shout," and "Money" there's a "Mr. Postman" and "Besame Mucho." The late period albums are more consistent. Sappy and dippy, or straightforward and fresh in their alertness to their real, unvarnished yearnings?

More than ever, the early Beatles songs have a vibrancy and directness that no longer exists in rock and roll, and though one may prefer the later, mature work, the earlier albums remain unique and, for the most part, great rock and pop music. And the Beatles covers of oldies are anything but perfunctory. No one ever did Carl Perkins, The Isley Brothers, or Chuck Berry, et al, like they did. The sound was unique. This is an era where both Lennon and McCartney shined especially well as vocalists. grant the importance of the Plastic Ono Band album, and regard it as a one-off, when the blunt-speaking egotism and skeletal instrumental work achieved a bracing statement about what it means to be a celebrity in a culture that demands genius with every new turn, but it was a direction that rapidly went sour, redundant. Lennon had been passionate about the one thing he knew really very well--being rich and famous and beset with demons no one could imagine -- and after that, the limits of his worldview ran aground. His utopianism was sincere, no doubt, but he wasn't particularly interested in the way he came to write about peace and harmony--give me "Across the Universe" for better poetry, better singing, a better imagination about a better world. My point was that the admirable gustiness of releasing an album like Plastic Ono Band does not compel me to listen to the album again. I never replaced the vinyl with a CD.


That's the problem with dead musical geniuses who die abruptly: we're left guessing what direction they've might have taken, and left as well to wonder if that direction would have been worth the wondering. Lennon might well have found something new to write about, as other songwriters his age have, such as Lou Reed, Bowie, Randy Newman. You can't count someone out while they're still breathing. But it is the mootest of moot points. 

Charlie Watts is a great rock and roll drummer, a timekeeper with sharp instincts of where to lay down the stick on the drum head. He isn't the flashiest or the most technically advanced, but he is absolutely perfect in his field, not a wasted beat or stroke, every motion adding to the unexplainable greatness that the Rolling Stones have been: the Hemingway of Rhythm. Much the same applies to Ringo Starr, someone else who's often dismissed as more loveable oaf than real musicians. In either band, both were exactly the right fit for the music that was being made. McCartney was certainly a better drummer than Micky Dolenz, but in comparison with every other drummer on the planet, he came up seriously short. He usually sounds like he's hammering nails. "Adequate" is almost an exaggeration, and I wouldn't be surprised if Buddy Miles himself took a sneaking pleasure in knowing that there was an even less-capable celebrity behind the skins. 
With the exception of parts of Hearts and Bones and Graceland, Paul Simon has been unexceptional. His work for the last decade has been boring in the extreme. Boring to you, perhaps, but Simon, in fact, has been quite clever and adroit in the last decade, with much of Rhythm of the Saints and Music from Capeman being among the best and varied work of his career. Not being in a rush to release new albums keeps his averages high. Granted, although saying that Simon's work in the last decade or so has music is "... among the best and varied work of his career" isn't an unreasonable statement, since in my skewed take there is more than a little that’s on a par with his best work, career wide. It's a reasonable statement. Simon easily beats the rap of being a dull artist for the last decade. "Boring in the extreme" is implausible, taken as a whole. But no matter. Comparing Lennon, or anyone, to Simon hardly amounts to a description of decrepitude. But it's not likely Lennon would have been anything remotely like Simon: it's a bad comparison when hazarding that kind of guess about what he would have sounded like if he lived. The elliptical feel to some of Simon's lyrics isn't quite the same as him being obscure, a quality in lyricist that too much of the time is ploy by lesser lyricist that disguises a lack of anything to say, or at least an interesting way of talking about what it is they think they know about the world. "Evocative" is the better word for Simon. I like a good number of the songs you've mentioned precisely because he selects his images and detail well, and creates a strong sense of the personality and tone of his situations rather than telling us how we're to respond. 

Again, a listener has a fighting chance of bringing their own ideas to the narrative span in order to complete the scene and the sentiment. It's not always a success when he undertakes this, but there is little of the abstruse density you find in Dylan, or Beefheart, or Cobain, the saddest of all the sad cases. In any case, writing about marriage needn't be Hallmark cards: it's one of the central events in anyone's life, a consolidation of the complicated strands that make up love between two folks, and marriage is indeed a place to find even more inspiration as one finds out more about oneself in relation to the world. It was within Lennon's scope as a feeling artist to suss through these matters: it's a bigger shame that he never had the chance to express more of what he might have found out. You sit and wonder, after listening to the engaging, if unspectacular love songs on Double Fantasy, what interesting moods might have pushed him into his next Great Period. Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Costello are songwriters who entered into new and interesting areas of writing as they came into the later periods of their life, each after some time wallowing and casting about with albums that seemed undecided, repetitive, played out. In each case, some things in their personality and personal circumstances gelled finally and gave them the legitimate voice they sought, the rebirth. Double Fantasy was a transitional album, I think, and one feels the cheat of an honestly seeking and imperfect artist finding that set of riffs and inspiration that would have enlarged his life's work.

My life became richer after over fifteen years of constant record and concert reviewing simply because I survived the accompanying trappings of what I thought a critic needed to have; certainly, plain old burn-out is a factor: what I loved was killing me, and the habits I had to enhance the listening experience became mere habits, after all, booze and copious drug taking. I was a drunk, rattled, a chain-smoking wreck of a pop pundit by the arrival of the early eighties, scarcely able to keep my rants on Monk, Beefheart or Phil Ochs on separate tracks, I couldn't keep deadlines, and I couldn't show up at interviews my editors had scheduled. As the free albums stacked up and my trash can filled with empty vodka bottles, nothing really seemed worth having a passion for. Anyway, I sobered up eventually, taking note of friends and others I knew started to turn up dead by various means and checking into a world famous drug and alcohol treatment center in California. In any event, let us just say that my life is richer because I'm still breathing and I've had the benefit of being the rare alcoholic who has a chance to start over and reappraise what's really of value. Music, indeed, is a richer experience for me, wider and far more curious than it had been, and there is a freedom from not having to construct an instant analysis of usually unattractive people who make exotic sounds for a CD release. Another benefit is that friends don't cross the street when they see me coming since I'm not in the habit these days of laying on them spontaneous rants about Miles Davis' racial theory regarding drummers, or how Wallace Stevens' notion of a Supreme Fiction undermines Steely Dan's surface post-bop cool. It's been more fun actually talking to associates about music (or art, books, film) rather than attempt to deliver a lecture every time I opened my mouth. I'm even invited to places these days. I

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