Thursday, August 20, 2009

John Lennon Talks with Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhanBy Ritchie Yorke/June 28, 1970

John and Yoko spent the next couple of days meeting press for personal interviews and occasionally frolicking in the snow on the Hawkin's farm.

On the Saturday afternoon before Christmas, John met Marshall McLuhan, Toronto's silver-haired communications prophet. The meeting was arranged by CBS television.

McLuhan: Can you recall the occasion or the immediate reasons for your getting involved in music?

John: I heard Elvis Presley.

McLuhan: Ah.

John: And that was it. There were lots of other things going on but that was the conversion. I kind of dropped everything.

McLuhan: You felt you could do it at least as well as he could?

John: Yeah. But I thought we better get a few people together, because maybe we wouldn't make it alone. So we did a team job.

McLuhan: The British are still more team-oriented than the Americans. In terms of performance. The star system doesn't play quite as well in England. The private star.

John: They have a reaction to that in England - treating their stars and entertainers like animals. We're not like the Americans, to be hyped by Hollywood. The attitude is be quiet, do a dance at the London Palladium, and stop talking about peace. That's what we get in London.

Professor McLuhan then outlined this theories about why rock festivals are becoming larger and larger. "Frustration creates bigness. And when people are frustrated, they feel the need to expand, to get more room and length. The man who gives up smoking gets so frustrated that he puts on huge amounts of weight, even when he doesn't eat anything.

"Frustration in organizations results in huge growth of cities, businesses, countries, territorial imperatives and so on.

"Frustration releases adrenaline in the system. Adrenaline creates much bigger muscles and bigger arms and legs and has tremendous weight on the political body.

"This is why dinosaurs ended in sudden death, because as the environment became more and more hostile, more and more adrenaline was released into their bodies and they got bigger and bigger and then they collapsed.

"It could happen to America; it already happened to the British Empire. Adrenaline just gave out. In fact, your songs represented the end of that big adrenaline flow. As far as the U.K. was concerned, Beatles music was the end of the adrenaline. And the beginning of peace and contentment."

McLuhan then switched to a more familiar topic: the medium as message.

McLuhan: Language is a form of organized stutter. Literally, you chop your sounds up into bits in order to talk. Now, when you sing, you don't stutter, so singing is a way of stretching language into long, harmonious patterns and cycles. How do you think about language in songs?

John: Language and song is to me, apart from being pure vibrations, just like trying to describe a dream. And because we don't have telepathy or whatever it is, we try and describe the dream to each other, to verify to each other what we know, what we believe is inside each other. And the stuttering is right - because we can't say it. No matter how you say it, it's never how you want to say it.

McLuhan: The moment you sing, you feel you are communicating much more.

John: Yes, because words are irrelevant.

McLuhan: Rowan and Martin say "We don't tell jokes; we just project a mood." You're concerned with projecting a mood and defining it. Putting down some pattern so that other people can find the pattern, participate, and . . .

John: As soon as you find the pattern, you break it. Otherwise it gets boring. The Beatles' pattern is one that has to be scrapped. If it remains the same, it's a monument, or a museum, and one thing this age is about is no museums. The Beatles turned into a museum, so they have to be scrapped or deformed or changed.

McLuhan: They're in danger of becoming good taste?

John: They passed through that. They have to be thoroughly horsewhipped.

McLuhan: What do you think we're moving into in the way of new rhythms, new patterns?

John: Just complete freedom and nonexpectation from audience or musician or performer. And then, when we've had that for a few hundred years, then we can talk about playing around with patterns and bars and music again. We must get away from the patterns we've had for these thousands of years.

McLuhan: Well, this means very much in the way of decentralizing our world, doesn't it?

John: Yes. We must be one country and stick together. You don't have to have badges to say we're together. We're together if we're together, and no stamps or flags are going to make anybody together . . . folks.

The snow was falling in great white sheets as John and Yoko left McLuhan's office and climbed into the Rolls for the drive back to the farm.

It was still snowing the next morning when they met Dick Gregory at the airport. Gregory entered the Peace Festival discussions with vigor, pulling out ideas about festival spinoffs and entertaining the household.

On Monday morning, everyone was up early and rushed to Union Station for the trip to Montreal. First came a press conference and then twenty-four hours of meetings with politicians and representatives of the commission investigating the legalization of marijuana in Canada.

Tuesday morning at 10:30, the press in Ottawa was stunned to learn of an impending meeting between Lennon and the prime minister. One of the conditions which the prime minister's office had imposed on Lennon if there were a meeting between the two, was that there would be no advance publicity of any kind. At precisely 10:55, John and Yoko were rushed by limousine to the Parliament building.

The Lennon's fifty-one-minute meeting with the PM was private and, afterward, they were besieged by the press.

"If there were more leaders like Mr. Trudeau," John said into a field of microphones and cameras, "the world would have peace." Later John told me Trudeau had talked about how important it was for him to keep in close contact with youth, and how he would like to meet the Lennons on less formal ground for further discussions.

From the PM's office, the Lennons were escorted to the ministry of health for a lengthy meeting with Health Minister John Munro and senior members of his department.

When the generation-gap subject hit the table, Munro seized the opportunity to get some Lennon advice. "Often when I talk with young people," he said, "I can't even get my mouth open before I'm battered with placards and posters and catch phrases. Quipped Lennon: "Get your own posters together and fire them back."

Back in London, Lennon said: "It was the best trip we've ever had. We got more done for peace this week than in our whole lives."

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