Above us only sky
Today would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday and here in Liverpool the John Lennon Tribute Season, a two-month programme of events celebrating his life is in full swing – concerts, guided walks, exhibitions, a re-creation of the famous Bed-In, and today’s unveiling of a peace monument (below). Tonight, the Albert Dock was illuminated with an image of John Lennon, taken by photographer Bill Zygmant (above). In the wider world, a flood of merchandise and remastered albums has been released.
But, argues Neil McCormick in The Telegraph, Lennon would have been appalled at the tat surrounding his 70th birthday and tacky souvenirs and adverts insult his memory. It’s a good argument, made by someone who has high regard, as do I, for ‘the raw life in Lennon’s music’. McCormick writes:
‘You get the biggest prize when you die, a really big one for dying in public,” John Lennon said in one of his final interviews, in 1980. “I don’t appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious, or dead James Dean. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? It’s garbage, you know. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”
When do the dead stop having birthdays? If John Lennon had lived, he would have turned 70 next Saturday, an imaginary anniversary being commemorated with the rerelease of remastered versions of his solo recorded output. These can be bought separately, or alongside a hardback book of Lennon’s artwork as part of a handsome, LP-sized John Lennon “Box Of Vision” (“the exact same John Lennon Box of Vision that will be stored inside the John Lennon Time Capsule”). Can you hear a faint voice, twisting in the wind: “It’s money for dope, money for rope…”?
This is the latest offering from a posthumous, multi-million-dollar Lennon industry, partly fuelled by his widow’s sometimes suspect desire to keep the flame burning. It has led to such dubious tributes as a TV commercial for the Citroën DS3, a Mont Blanc fountain pen retailing at $27,000, a limited edition Gibson Imagine guitar ($10,748), alongside the usual array of Lennon-branded mugs, clothing, books, calendars, prints and even an Imagine brand of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
And that’s just the official merchandise. Last month, the lavatory from Lennon’s home in England was auctioned for £9,500. The last album he ever autographed, for his assassin Mark Chapman, went for $525,000 in 2003. In 2009, his bloodstained clothes and glasses were part of an exhibition in New York.
Yet the worship of Lennon – his transformation into a brand immediately identifiable by a scrawled cartoon of a Jesus rocker in spectacles – only serves to obscure the raw life in his music. Lennon’s brutal slaying robbed him of his raging complexity, turning tragedy into martyrdom. Looking back through blood-tinted National Health spectacles, we see only St John, thin face reposed and angelic. And the quest to know more about this icon takes us into some pretty strange places. In its current issue, Vanity Fair has had the temerity to publish an “interview” with a 70-year-old Lennon, imagining (with a banality that insults its subject) what might have been had he survived.
But Lennon doesn’t need to be rekindled through speculation. As he said a few weeks before his death: “I’ve done more in my life than most people would do in 10… even if I never did another damn thing.” The progression of Lennon’s songwriting is the story of popular music in our time: the joyous sexuality of the early Beatles; the explosion of colour and complexity as pop became art, fully embracing the pretentiousness of the avant garde; the shedding of such pretensions in pursuit of truth and beauty, in a spirit of sometimes brutal, sometimes tender candour.
“There is nothing conceptually better than rock ‘n’ roll,” Lennon said in 1970. That was the mine he was digging into from the days of his skiffle group, the Quarrymen (school motto, “Out of this rock you will find truth”). It was there at the very end, snaking through the grooves of Double Fantasy, his final album. On a new, “stripped-down” version released on Monday (the only genuinely worthwhile addition to the Lennon canon among the latest remasterings, offering something closer to the essence of his performance), Lennon kicks off a lean, rocking (Just Like) Starting Over with a whispered “This one’s for Gene and Eddie and Elvis and Buddy!” But we can add another name to that litany: “It’s all about me,” as Lennon explained when he released his first solo masterpiece, Plastic Ono Band, in 1970. “I don’t know about anything else, really.”
Plastic Ono Band is a sparse, uncomfortable, utterly magnificent attempt to blow through the obfuscation and myth making, in order to not just reveal himself but actually discover himself. It is an album that gave birth to the confessional singer-songwriting genre, which reverberated throughout pop culture, from punk to hip hop. After Plastic Ono Band, nothing less than the truth would do.
And it is that truth which keeps Lennon’s solo work so fresh. It certainly wasn’t always great. Imagine is superb, described by Lennon as “Plastic Ono with chocolate coating”. Walls And Bridges (1974), which documents a fleeting break-up with Yoko, is tender yet funky, with some real gems. The lovingly crafted Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975) is brilliant, suffused with joy and purpose, even though Lennon wrote none of the songs.
But even on his misguided political rant Some Time In New York City (1972), the creatively exhausted Mind Games (1973) and the mostly self-satisfied Double Fantasy, there is a visceral, emotional intensity in Lennon’s need to express himself that remains utterly of the moment.
“If I’m singing, ‘a wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom’, I mean it,” he once said. In the end, that’s all that really matters. Why worship the dead Lennon, when you can still listen to the live one?
Back in Liverpool, the White Feather exhibition is certainly worth visiting for a balanced portrait of Lennon through the mementoes and memories of his first son, Julian, and first wife, Cynthia. It is they who have gifted to the city the peace monument, unveiled by them today in a gala ceremony in Chevasse Park.
The monument was commissioned by the Global Peace Initiative, an American arts organization dedicated to creating peace monuments around the world to promote global peace, and was created by 19-year old American artist Lauren Voiers. Tonight, crews were dismantling the stage and moving out equipment. Liverpool One security wouldn’t allow anyone into the area where the monument is located, so I was only able to grab the shot, above, from a distance. For pictures and a report of today’s unveiling, go to the Liverpool Art & Culture Blog.
Liverpool’s Seven Streets blog is not impressed:
The memorial itself, being dedicated to a dead legend and a memorial to peace, is kind of fire-proofed from any criticism. But having said that it’s not exactly subtle. Designed by American artists Lauren Voiers, it comprises a huge globe wrapped in a guitar, saxophone, keyboard and stave. Above it are a pair of hands releasing doves into the sky, one of which has a white feather in its beak. It is, in my opinion, quite hideous; a kind of ‘throw everything at the wall’ effort that doesn’t really say anything about Lennon or peace except in the most literal way imaginable. A kind of Wal-Mart, MacDonalds or X-Factor kind of monument. But, there you go, art is nothing is not subjective; no doubt many will love it. And Julian and Cynthia Lennon, who always seem to conduct themselves with dignity, seemed to approve. For his part Pete Best – one of about 20 different ‘fifth Beatles’ – reckoned Lennon would be ‘bemused’ by it.
Footnote: I’ve just come across this article by Jon Wiener in The Nation, Bob Dylan’s Defense of John Lennon, in which Wiener tells the story of the letter (above) that Bob Dylan sent to the US immigration service in defence of Lennon when he was threatened with deportation in 1972: “John and Yoko,” Dylan wrote, “inspire and transcend and stimulate,” and thereby “help put an end to this mild dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as artist art by the overpowering mass media.” Then he added, “Let John and Yoko stay!”
The Lennon deportation proceedings dragged on under Nixon. After Watergate, Nixon left the White House, and Lennon and Ono stayed in the USA, living in the Dakota in New York until 8 December 1980 when Lennon was murdered at the entrance to the building.