My love for the Beatles is almost organic. Almost cellular. In fact, it’s like loving one’s own arm or leg to say that one loves The Beatles. Not that everyone should. Just that it seems somehow unnatural not to. Impractical. However, I think that the way people fawn over John Lennon and his “idealism” is a bit out of place. If only because it all seems so fake. So contrived.
If you look at his solo career, you find that his one brilliant statement, his one irrefutable masterpiece, “Plastic Ono Band” (1970), was recorded and released when the wounds from his battles with McCartney were still raw, when he had the most chips in the game, and when the one emotion he was trained (and equipped) to facilitate (anger) was at its peak, justifiably or not. After that, the only thing he “done” was “Imagine”, a noble turn of a phrase, but ultimately as meaningless and empty as his other forays into passive politics.
Once that anger subsided, once the battle had clearly no chance to be revisited, he, like all of his brothers in arms, came out with some really regrettable dirges. In fact, pretty much the entirety of his solo career was a sort of winking apology to his own dissipating muse.
I’ve read countless books on the subject, seen and read copious volumes of interviews, and of course, devoured every record he ever put out. And it seems as if he signed a deal with the devil somewhere in Germany or before, to be a big man, to be untouchable, to be a soldier in a war on his own restlessness, fought unknowingly by his four partners, soon to be three, soon to be one. And once that dream came true (primarily due to his unwillingness to accept defeat, and of course because of his talent, and whithering good luck), there he was on the mountain top, fucking anything and everything he wanted to. Seeing the world, not as a sailor or a fighting man, but as a rock and roll Oscar Wilde, getting it up for his required 25 minutes of ringmaster to chaos, and then to the shelter of his concrete bunker once more.
I think Lennon was telling the truth when he said that he was thinking of quitting as early as 1965, and why not? What was there to achieve? He was doing what only Elvis had done before him, only more-so and with three people who could absolutely understand what he was talking about when and if he should ever try to explain what his life was like. I think the reason he didn’t quit is because he found himself in direct and needless competition with Paul McCartney, his only real peer on Earth. And as McCartney’s powers as a musician and songwriter grew, Lennon simply could not bring himself to follow his instincts to stop, as if the group he started could have gone on without him. He probably believed they could, but that’s because he was one insecure puppy. All McCartney ever wanted was a band, that band, and to tour like a normal band of the time.
Even after Manilla, even after Brian Epstein died, they could have toured, augmented their line-up, and played stuff from their most creative period, but I think McCartney demurred in deference to his clearly unstable partner, in an effort to keep the group a going concern.
Lennon did heroin because of his inability to stop those voices that told him that his partner had surpassed him in every way. He was roused to greatness in the psychedelic period not out of ambition or whimsy, but out of fear. He had admitted as much when he bemoaned McCartney’s ever-increasing output. It’s like he was only motivated in order to not be left behind. Which is why once his anger (at himself, no doubt, having never been anything but a whip-smart intellect) subsided, he was left with what can only be termed arrested development as a songwriter. No more innovative or profound than George Harrison at his nadir, he quit after 1975. He gave the line that he was happy to relegate himself a “house husband” but I don’t buy it. His partner was literally conquering the world of music with an entirely unknown group of players. “What does that make me?” he must have thought more than once.
Yet history shows that all he had to do was pick up the phone and all the world would have been able to behold what they were waiting for, circa 1974. It was his frailty as an adult, and his pettiness in the face of almost universal admiration and respect that he chose to make an excuse and leave the party when he could have truly made the biggest difference. All the bed-in, David Peel, Yoko Ono stuff would have been but a strange diversion in the life of a fully formed adult, but that was what Lennon ceased to be when he reached the top of the mountain.
The reason I say all this stuff is because, as my good friend Dan and I were discussing online the other day, Paul McCartney is either an expert at hiding (well-deserved) righteous anger at how his career has been overlooked in favor of the maddeningly inconsistent Lennon canon, or he’s a fucking saint. When was the last time someone was walking around with a McCartney t-shirt?