Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Mourning Of John Lennon

by Anthony Elliott

"The Mourning of John Lennon is the deepest and most thoughtful book on popular culture and the culture of celebrity to appear in a long time. It explores Lennon's emotional and artistic complexity with rare insight and intelligence. Desire and fear, freedom and pain, irony and nostalgia, rebellion and loss are analyzed not only in Lennon's life and work, but also in the generation that grew up with him."
JON WIENER, author of Come Together: John Lennon in His Time

"John Lennon's death has left an appreciation of loss. Yet, through Elliott's book, we recover a powerful sense of those qualities - honesty and idealism, irreverence and excitement - that Lennon represented while he was alive. It's a story we should take heart from."
PAUL DU NOYER, author of We All Shine On: The Solo Songs of John Lennon

ANTHONY ELLIOTT is Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Melbourne. His most recent books are Subject to Ourselves (1996), Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction (1994), and Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition (1992). He is the editor of Freud 2000 (1998) and The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (1999), and coeditor of Psychoanalysis in Contexts (1995).

Mind Games
Identity Trouble

As for show biz, it was never my life.
John Lennon

Shattered beings are best represented by bits and pieces.
Rainer Maria Rilke

The Beatles spent 1964 colonizing the world under the sign of Beatlemania. Having seized Britain in 1963, they expanded their 1964 touring schedule to include Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. But by far the most important country they visited that year was the United States. By late 1963, within weeks of its American release, The Beatles had sold more than two million copies of their new single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" - a feat which took the record straight to number one and gave them an unprecedented six singles in the American top 100. Introducing the Beatles, the band's first album released in the United States, was also rapidly climbing the charts. In fact, all things Beatle began flooding the marketplace: buttons, mugs, wigs, T-shirts, notebooks, and dolls. To ensure the success of their American trip, Capitol Records initiated a seventy-thousand-dollar publicity campaign; Americans everywhere read signs and stickers that said "The Beatles Are Coming!"

On the eve of their departure from Britain, John Lennon was asked if The Beatles were taking the same act to the United States that they performed throughout Europe. "No," he said, speaking in the 1988 film Imagine, "we haven't really got an 'act.' So, we'll just do what we do." Lennon's retort inevitably spawned incredulity in media circles. After all, The Beatles were the hottest band in Britain, and they were about to take the United States by storm. More than that, the Fab Four were transforming themselves from a musical smash into a cultural phenomenon. Against this backdrop, Lennon's comment is interesting precisely because it reveals his tendency to mock the world of show business. He is less concerned, one might argue, with observing the protocols of celebrity than with undermining them. His comment drives at something else as well: it reflects his concerns about authenticity and substance, and his questioning of the limits of entertainment.

Lennon was in equal measure attracted and repelled by the cult of celebrity. He dreamed of "making the big time." He hungered for its rewards: wealth, fame, success. "When The Beatles were depressed," he said in Imagine, "thinking the group was going nowhere and this is a shitty deal and we're in a shitty dressing room, I'd say, 'Where are we going, fellas?' And they'd go, 'To the top, Johnny.' And I'd say, 'Where's that, fellas?' And they'd say, 'To the toppermost of the poppermost.'" Their years of musical apprenticeship in Liverpool and Hamburg had pushed Lennon's dream to the limit. Now that they had gone through the dream, success was their reality - and on a scale unheard-of for a pop group. Lennon knew the value of his fame; he celebrated and enjoyed it. "I dug," said Lennon, "the fame, the power, the money and playing to big crowds. Conquering America was the best thing."

But, for Lennon, the thrills of Beatlemania soon turned to boredom, engendering a sense of suffocation and dread - especially during the group's world tours of 1965 and 1966. He came to see celebrity more in terms of its burdens than its rewards. For the most part, the routine of touring consisted of riotous airport greetings, media interviews, ecstatic crowds outside The Beatles' hotels, and performances at which the screams of hysterical fans drowned out the music. It was a lifestyle in which "there was no switching off," he said. "The elevator man wanted a little piece of you on your way back to the hotel room, the maid wanted a little piece of you back at the hotel - I don't mean sexually, I mean a piece of your time and your energy." No matter how much energy Lennon put into performing, it was never enough; somebody always wanted something more. "The bigger we got, the more unreality we had to face," he said of Beatlemania. In time, he came to regard the cult of celebrity as debasing, in part because its cultural forms seemed at once socially spellbinding and politically gratuitous.

Lennon's response to this dilemma was to deconstruct the entire opposition between art and entertainment. He did this, in his early years as a Beatle, by distancing himself from the group's commercial, respectable image. Dressed in the suits that conservative manager Brian Epstein insisted upon, the moptops sang "whoa yeah!" to the delight of young people everywhere, notching up hits such as "Please Please Me," From Me to You," and "She Loves You." But Lennon sought to debunk and, in time, subvert the whole moptop image. "I used to try and get George to rebel with me," he said. "I'd say to him, 'Look, we don't need these fuckin' suits. Let's chuck them out of the window.' My little rebellion was to have my tie loose with the top button of my shirt undone." Though his little rebellion was hardly a giant step toward overthrowing the image of stardom which dominated pop at the time, he made a good deal about it in later years, seeing it as suggestive of his dissatisfaction with showbiz.

The most significant challenge Lennon made to the entertainment industry was, however, in his songwriting. Bored with the romantic formula of boy meets girl and falls in love, he began experimenting with a more autobiographical prose - the beginnings of which can be detected in "If I Fell" and "I'm a Loser." These songs mark the emergence of Lennon's more introspective, confessional mode of songwriting, in which lyrics are no longer thought of as a decorative supplement to the music but rather as a concrete content in some more formal sense. A privileged place is still accorded to romantic love, but unlike the cute refrains of "From Me to You" or "She Loves You," Lennon's reflections on desire and loss pertain to questions of identity and culture in general. Indeed, Lennon developed this mode of composition brilliantly in such intensely reflective Beatles songs as "In My Life," "Help!," and "I'm So Tired" and during his solo years in "Mother" and "I'm Losing You." Lennon's originality here is in his mesmerizing exploration of the dynamics of emotional life through the medium of popular culture.

The more successful Lennon became, the more he worked against the oppositions which pervade the realm of celebrity - private and public, individual and history, self and image - in his music, painting, performances, and political commitments. Indeed, Lennon's mature work, Wulf Herzogenrath argues, "addresses the media reception of fame itself. This is particularly evident in his last Beatles single, "The Ballad of John and Yoko," which documents the trials and tribulations that celebrity imposes on his relationship with Yoko Ono, their decision to get married, and the bed-in for peace which they staged during their honeymoon in Amsterdam. The song is a biting critique of the media's double standards, as well as of their flagrant disregard for the psychological well-being of their victims. He underscores the media's hounding of him and his new wife in the strongest possible terms: "Christ you know it ain't easy, you know how hard it can be / The way things are going, they're gonna crucify me." At the same time, however, he ironically mocks the press's representation of itself - the way in which it erases distinctions between real life on the one hand and mere appearance on the other. Lennon makes no secret of his distaste for the viciousness of the media attacks upon him and Ono; and in this song he seeks to capture the way the media ignore, or pass over in silence, their dependence on the very celebrities they chastise, castigate, and demolish.

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press said, "we wish you success"
"It's good to have the both of you back."

In all of this we find Lennon at once underscoring and mocking how the media create, invest, and reproduce fame.

"I cannot live up to other people's expectations of me because they're illusionary," Lennon commented in his last Rolling Stone interview, in 1980. He wanted, he said, to distance himself not only from the public's imaginings about his fame but also from his own conceptions. "The hardest thing," he continued, "is facing yourself. It's easier to shout 'Revolution' and 'Power to the people' than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what's real inside you and what isn't." In a culture accustomed to the illusions of celebrity, it is perhaps not surprising that Lennon's effort to distance himself from his own image should be associated with fear - a fear that is, above all, a fear of the unknown. Lennon is, for many people, strongly associated with this fear, not only because he challenges the private/public split in our sexual and cultural worlds but also because his contradictions (personal, artistic, political) are often too scandalous for contemporary culture to contemplate.

No comments: