Editor’s Note: As we conclude yet another week in which I had barely any time to write, I am more relieved than ever that I have a decent archive of old writing to keep the blog on life support at least until next Jheri Curl June. This week, in advance of next Monday’s 34th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, here’s a piece I wrote on the occasion of the 26th anniversary. I’m not gonna lie: even more than my usual “throwback” posts, I kind of hate this one. Its particular blend of heart-on-sleeve earnestness and smirking ironic detachment is sooooo early-twenties blogger, and I have long since graduated to an “early-thirties blogger” level of discourse, thank you very much. So this will probably be more heavily edited than most of my old stuff. But I still wanted to post it, both because it chronicles such a personal and important part of my development as a music listener/cultural subject, and because it’s a nice companion piece to Callie’s more recent–and much less embarrassing–tribute to Marc Bolan. At the very least, it’s a decent enough list of my favorite solo songs by Lennon. So here goes. – Z.H.
John Lennon was my hero when I was growing up. Mind you, “hero” isn’t a word I use lightly. There have been many icons, musical or otherwise, to whom I have looked up over the years: Bob and Bowie and Johnny and Jack are all very important to me. But John Lennon was my first, and last, hero.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember exactly what it was that drew me to John above all others. Like most fans, I was first introduced to him by his music with the Beatles, and so theoretically I could have just as easily become a Paul or George or even Ringo obsessive. But something about Lennon had me from the start; he provoked in me the kind of passionate and highly personal sense of identification that is the province of only the very young or the very unhealthy. I was strongly attracted to his sense of individualism: that larger than life, acerbic personality that brought about as much chaos in his personal life as it did glorious success (and glorious failure) in his artistic career. This was a guy who didn’t take any bullshit. He did what he wanted, suffered no fools gladly, and when he fell in love with a woman of whom practically no one in his circle approved, he went right ahead and spent the rest of his life writing songs and sharing albums with her. John Lennon was nobody’s puppet. In short, he was the best hero an alienated preteen with misplaced pretensions to greatness could ever have asked for.
And so I paid tribute. A lot of it. I spent the years between fifth and ninth grades obsessively committing to memory Beatles lyrics, anecdotes, and quotes. I would get into fierce and often barely coherent arguments with anyone who said “[X band, artist, person place or thing] is better than John Lennon.” I grew out my hair, wore the closest things I could find to his trademark wire-framed granny glasses, and tried to learn to play the guitar. I even ceremonially took “Lennon” as my de facto middle name, the way Catholic kids choose a patron saint when they’re confirmed; to this very day, somewhere in my hometown of Williamston, Michigan, there is a charity fence picket inscribed with the words “ZAK LENNON HOSKINS.”
As much as his persona used to mean to me, though, I don’t listen to John Lennon all that often anymore. Maybe it’s because, like the rest of the Beatles ouevre, I spent so much time in my formative years obsessing over his music that I no longer need to hear it: it’s all up there, locked in my brain to play any time I like, my own personal jukebox. But there’s also another, harder truth, which is that by and large what the critics say is right: Lennon’s solo work is notoriously uneven, neither as arty or experimental as his later work with the Beatles seemed to promise nor as effortlessly catchy and commercial as the best of his old sparring partner McCartney. So I, as I imagine do most fallen Lennon fans, tend to leave the records on the shelf. Sure, the classics will come back out every once in a while–Plastic Ono Band helped me through some very difficult times my freshman year of college–but that’s pretty much it.
But even today, there’s a special place in my heart for John Lennon; especially around December 8, the anniversary of his death, which I still never fail to remember even if I don’t quite mark the occasion the way I used to. He and I may have grown apart in some ways, but I haven’t forgotten. How could I, when his influence was so important to me at such a formative time in my life? And as much as I’m now finally able to admit that Sometime in New York City was a piece of shit, I am still a John Lennon Fan. Seriously, just try and say something denigrating about Walls and Bridges; I will defend that record to the death.
So with that in mind, and in an effort to commemorate the life and death of a man who’s meant so much, here are nine songs that I feel represent the best John Lennon had to offer as a solo artist. There’s plenty more where it came from–his career wasn’t that patchy–but if you’ve never given the man his fair shakes, or if you’ve forgotten just how sublime some of those old tunes could be, or even if you’re simply looking for a way to remember him on this solemn day, here’s a good place to start.
1. “Medley: Rip It Up/Ready Teddy”
(from Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1975)
John Lennon himself often said that he was a rock and roller first and foremost; if ever one needed proof of that claim, then they need look no further. Cramming two classic ’50s rock platters into just over a minute and a half, this rip-snorting trip back to Lennon’s teddy-boy heyday ranks with the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” as one of his all-time golden oldies. And when it comes to establishing his reputation as a good old-fashioned rock and roll singer, its vastly underrated parent album is second only to Plastic Ono.
2. “Cold Turkey”
(1969 single, available on Gimme Some Truth)
Of course I could recount the same old back story about how this song came out of Lennon’s late-’60s struggles with heroin addiction and prefigured his brief embrace of Arthur Janov’s “Primal Scream” therapy. But let’s face it, the real reason “Cold Turkey” is on this list is because it rocks. The Beatles (who rejected it as a single) never reached this level of heaviness; guest musician Eric Clapton’s guitar tone was never so abrasive; and, especially at the fadeout, Lennon’s vocals would never again be so frighteningly intense. Best of all, this is a hard rock song that understands how a little tension and ambience can pack just as much of a punch as full-throttle rocking out: the moments in the chorus when Clapton’s relentless riff drops out of the mix, revealing nothing but Klaus Voormann’s deep-in-the-gut bass and Ringo Starr’s heavy-trodding percussion, send chills down the spine.
3. “I Found Out”
(from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970)
The opening lines (“The freaks on the phone / Won’t leave me alone / So don’t give me that ‘brother, brother, brother, brother'”) smack of the kind of rock-star solipsism that tends to spoil Lennon for class-warrior types. But once his pick-up band–again featuring Voormann and some guy named Ringo–lurch into the shuffling, sloppy proto-grunge groove, all is forgiven. Bitter, excoriating, trial-by-fire rock and roll, by the man who did it best.
4. “Jealous Guy”
(from Imagine, 1971)
Yes, it’s a gorgeous piano ballad on the same album as the mother of all gorgeous piano ballads. For my money, though, this sensitive-man confessional rings a damn sight truer than “imagine no possessions.” As emotionally raw as “Cold Turkey,” but with a melody that will bring tears to your eyes. And believe me, you’ll learn to appreciate that melody even more after you see Lou Reed make mincemeat of it on national television.
5. “What You Got”
(from Walls and Bridges, 1974)
What, you thought I was kidding when I said I’d defend this record to the death? “What You Got” may be a throwaway, but just try and name me another throwaway with this much rage and pathos–not to mention this powerful a vocal performance. And when Lennon ironically appropriates a classic Little Richard line for the second verse, it’s as concise an illustration as any of post-breakup “Lost Weekend” bacchanalia gone off the rails into deep depression: “Well it’s Saturday night and I just gotta rip it up / Sunday morning, I just gotta give it up / Come Monday, momma, and I just gotta run away / You know it’s such a drag to face another day.” Rocking your blues away has never sounded so desperate.
(from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band)
If this isn’t the best song John Lennon ever wrote, then it’s got to be in at least the top five. Wounded, soulful and cathartic, “Isolation” is the kind of song that ought to melt the hearts of even the most determined of Yoko-haters: the sound of two people against the world, and the world is winning.
7. “(Just Like) Starting Over”
(from Double Fantasy, 1980)
I shouldn’t like this song. Hell, I’m not even 25, and a jovial, inoffensive Roy Orbison tribute like this one could only have been written for members of the generation immediately preceding my parents’. But the sweetness and sentimentality Lennon brings to this ditty about growing to middle age with the woman he loves–made even more poignant by his assassination less than a month after the song’s release —is infectious, even if it does make me feel like I’m in a Viagra commercial. (Seriously, if Pfizer hasn’t looked into the advertising rights for this one yet, they’re missing out on a doozy.)
8. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”
(1971 single, available on Gimme Some Truth)
I’ll be the first to admit that this is, bar none, the John Lennon song I get most sick of hearing between the months of November and January. In the spirit of the season, however, I just couldn’t resist: after all, the soaring melody is among Lennon’s most anthemic, the words aren’t any dumber than any other Christmas song’s, and when it comes to liberal humanist holiday anthems, this still might be the only one we’ve got.
9. “Oh Yoko!”
Finally, I’d like to bring this John Lennon tribute to a close with a song that may well provoke anti-Yoko readers all over the Internet to slap their foreheads in exasperation–but frankly, don’t you think that after 38 years it might be time to bury the hatchet? Whatever your answer to that question, I find it hard to believe that anyone whose heart is not made out of stone could resist “Oh Yoko!”; if not for its almost unparalleled sentiments of love and devotion, then certainly for its joyful tone and its lovely, tinkling barrelhouse piano. Wes Anderson got it right when he used this song for a sequence in his 1998 film Rushmore: “Oh Yoko!” isn’t just a song about Yoko Ono. It’s a song about all the women and men who we’ve loved, no matter what anybody else might have said.