Saturday, October 9, 2010

John Lennon (1940-1980): "I'm not sure what my place is"

photo of John Lennon and Yoko O
no by Rowland Sherman

Today would have been John Lennon's seventieth birthday. With the well-meaning tributes and commercial opportunities surrounding the memory of the musician and his art, it would be good to recall that Lennon himself was uncertain of his legacy in many ways and expressed his doubts in many interviews. As the storm of Beatlemania subsided and Lennon matured he doubted even the impact of rock music on the culture, other than the obvious result that in 1971 "there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes."

Ideas of differences in social class and the realization that nothing had really changed in the status quo began to shape his music and his life. His solo work remains the more challenging aspect of his music. In his private life it was a more satisfying expression of his real-life experience after the Beatles. He entered therapy, then became, by his own admission, a house-husband raising his son, Julian.

As early as 1971, in the interview excerpted here, he was aware that attitudes toward women -- even in an era of changing politics -- were part of a cultural imbalance. "I’m always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women," he tells interviewers Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali, and credits Yoko for opening him to the subtle ways men are taught male superiority. By way of introduction, the Kasama website writes: the interview, which inspired Lennon to write “Power to the People”, ran in The Red Mole... As you’ll see, those were different days.

TA: What did you think was the reason for th
e success of your sort of music?

JL: Well, at the time it was thought that the workers had broken through, but I realise in retrospect that it’s the same phoney deal they gave the blacks, it was just like they allowed blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That’s the choice they allow you – now the outlet is being a pop star, which is really what I’m saying on the album in ‘Working class hero’. As I told Rolling Stone, it’s the same people who have the power, the class system didn’t change one little bit. ... there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes. But nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything.

RB: Of course, class is something the American rock groups haven’t tackled yet.

JL: Because they’re all middle class and bourgeois and they don’t want to show it. They’re scared of the workers, actually, because the workers seem mainly right-wing in America, clinging on to their goods. But if these middle class groups realise what’s happening, and what the class system has done, it’s up to them to repatriate the people and to get out of all that bourgeois shit.

The Lennons at Heathrow Airport, 197
1, from the Daily Mail

TA: When did you start breaking out of the role imposed on you as a Beatle?

JL: ... The continual awareness of what was going on made me feel ashamed I wasn’t saying anything. I burst out because I could no longer play that game any more, it was just too much for me. Of course, going to America increased the build up on me, especially as the war was going on there. In a way we’d turned out to be a Trojan horse. The ‘Fab Four’ moved right to the top and then sang about drugs and sex and then I got into more and more heavy stuff and that’s when they started dropping us.

TA: What relation to your music has all this got?

JL: Art is only a way of expressing pain. I mean the reason Yoko does such far out stuff is that it’s a far out kind of pain she went through. ...

TA: But then you had success beyond most people’s wildest dreams…

YO: It was depriving him of any real ex
perience, you know…

JL: It was very miserable. I mean apart from the first flush of making it – the thrill of the first number one record, the first trip to America. At first we had some sort of objective like being as big as Elvis – moving forward was the great thing, but actually attaining it was the big let-down. I found I was having continually to please the sort of people I’d always hated when I was a child. This began to bring me back to reality. I began to realise that we are all oppressed which is why I would like to do something about it, though I’m not sure where my place is.

RB: Well, in any case, politics and culture are linked, aren’t they? I mean, workers are repressed by culture not guns at the moment…

JL: … they’re doped …

RB: And the culture that’s doping them is one the artist can make or break …

JL: That’s what I’m trying to do on my albums and in these interviews. What I’m trying to do is to influence all the people I can influence. All those who are still under the dream and just put a big question mark in their mind. The acid dream is over, that is what I’m trying to tell them.

YO: That’s why it will be different when the younger gen
eration takes over.

JL: I think it wouldn’t take much to get the youth here really going. You’d have to give them free rein to attack the local councils or to destroy the school authorities, like the students who break up the repression in the universities. It’s already happening, though people have got to get together more.
And the women are very important too, we can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority.
It took me quite a long time to realise that my maleness was cutting off certain areas for Yoko. She’s a red hot liberationist and was quick to show me where I was going wrong, even though it seemed to me that I was just acting naturally. That’s why I’m always interested to know how people who claim to be radical treat women. ...

The Lennons in New York City, by Iain Macmillian, from The New York Times

A year later the Lennons were at the Everson Museum in Syracuse NY on October 9 for an exhibition of John and Yoko's art, as well as a 32nd-birthday celebration. Jonas Mekas made a 16 mm film of the party. Here's a link at the UBUWEB site to the 24-minute film, and a description: ... an unusual group of John's and Yoko's friends, including Ringo, Allen Ginsberg and many others gathered to celebrate John's birthday. This film is a visual and audio record of that event. We hear a series of improvised songs, sung by John, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and their friends,--not a clean studio recording, but as a birthday singing, free and happy. This is the only recording of that event.

On a personal note: as a then-current Syracuse University sophomore on that day, I walked into the museum's open garage area with a film-making buddy. The Lennons' famous Rolls-Royce was parked by the underground entrance, and to our surprise we discovered the doors were unlocked. We hopped into the front seat, had a brief and (as I recall) somewhat nervous exchange about party-crashing, but thought best not to push our luck after all. After five excited minutes we got out, closed the doors, and simply walked away. It's nice to see the Lennons, in the Mekas film, having such a relaxed party with friends. In one 20-year-old rock fan's mind, at least, it was an equally memorable occasion.

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