Old Dirt Road

Keep on keepin’ on, John…

I would call this song autumnal in spirit. It’s got an emotional palette of resigned wistfulness that, and a lovely melody. The lyrics make no sense because they were co-written relay style with Harry Nilsson. Harry also provides backing vocals. Also Nicky Hopkins and Jesse Ed Davis really shine here. John Lennon’s legacy is such that low-key songs like this one get overshadowed by more dramatic material, but this is a reminder that among everything else, he was really great at contemplative low-key ballads. Without a political message, an intense emotion or an experimental new direction. Just a really nice song with a pretty piano bit.

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Nobody Told Me

Listening to Walls and Bridges the other day made me want to listen to more John Lennon, and I started digging around a little and I found Milk and Honey. I haven’t listened to this record in what has to have been a decade. I forgot this record existed. I forgot these songs existed. And, oh wow, these are some of John Lennon’s best songs, and I forgot how great they were. The record was recorded around the same time as the acclaimed Double Fantasy,  but put together and released by Yoko Ono several years after Lennon was killed. I guess there’s this expectation that posthumous releases don’t count as ‘real albums,’ and yeah, a lot of dead artists have suffered the indignity of having their crappiest demos thrust out into the world by unscrupulous record companies and/or greedy relatives. In this case though, the record was nearly complete at the time of Lennon’s death, and the only reason its release was held back by several years was because it was too painful for Yoko to deal with. When she finally did, though, she not only finished the older demos, she also recorded new material, making sure the final result didn’t sound half-baked or hastily thrown together. Contrary to popular belief, Yoko’s songs are good, though the contrast between her weirdness and John’s more meat-and-potatoes rock and roll can be jarring. I find some of her songs reminiscent of Bjork, whose music did not exist at the time. Yoko pulled it together really well, all in all, and I’d say it deserves to be remembered as one of the team’s stronger collaborations.

Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)

And then there’s John Lennon, who was the biggest emo kid who ever lived. That’s a slight exaggeration; Lennon did write about things other than his feels. Nobody wrote a better song about going to the circus than John Lennon. But nobody wrote about their feels better than John Lennon either. When John sang about his feels, you damn well felt the feels. This is far from being the most raw that he could get, but it’s still pretty affecting. It is not the voice of a man who’s loving his life, and indeed it was written and recording during some pretty dark times. It’s also a sad but true fact that, like many creatives, John Lennon produced some of his best work when he was at his lowest. But what’s suffering through a little trial separation when it benefits your creative juices?

Mind Games

What we think of as ‘mind games’ are the manipulative shitty things people say to each other (especially in relationships) in order to get their way and/or generate drama, but that’s not at all what John Lennon meant. His point was rather more literal; that you should playfully open your mind. If it sounds acid-baked and corny in its optimism, that may be because he first started germinating the idea back in ’69. By the time he got around to finishing and recording the song, Lennon was actually going through some difficult times in his life. In 1973 he was in and out of court trying not to get deported from the US, he was under FBI surveillance, his last record had flopped, he was drinking heavily and his marriage was on the rocks. He didn’t have much to be exuberantly optimistic about. Yet he still managed to create one of his most triumphant and uplifting solo singles. There are lyrical references to all the hopeful bright things from the sixties that might have seemed goofy in hindsight, including the gallery show where he first met Yoko (YES is the answer.) You can debate whether love really is the only answer you need, but John Lennon held on to that mantra.

Rock and Roll Movies

I have finally – finally! – gotten around to watching Nowhere Boy, the 2009 film about the youth of John Lennon, and feel bound to report on it. In a nutshell, it is a pretty good movie, although overly romanticized. What it mostly did was raise thoughts about the appeals and pitfalls of making movies about real life rock and roll heroes. Rock stars, being who they are, lead dramatic lives, so the temptation to make films about them is huge. No exaggeration necessary – the drama just writes itself! The obvious downside is over-familiarity. You can take creative liberties with the life of a historical figure who died centuries ago and no besides history buffs knows much about anyway, but not so much with an icon whose story everyone is intimately familiar with and who may even still be alive. (SPOILER ALERT: John Lennon is not still alive.)

There have been multiple movies about The Beatles, the earliest of which starred the actual Beatles in a thinly fictionalized mockumentary of their lives. I have, for the most part, studiously avoided any movies about The Beatles not starring actual Beatles. In fact, this may be the first one, not counting satirical portrayals such as The Rutles (which, come to think of it, did feature an actual Beatle.) (It was Beatle George.) The main problem with movies about The Beatles is, of course, that the Beatles didn’t happen all that long ago, we all know their story, and their faces are as deeply ingrained in our mind’s eye as those of our family members. For some of us, our memories of The Beatles are more vivid than those of family members. For some of us, The Beatles are cherished as honorary family members, if only in our own heads. And nobody wants to see a movie making mockery of beloved family members. So, it’s very important for a movie to get it right.

Does Nowhere Boy get it right? For the most part. It’s factually accurate to a reasonable degree and believably staged. It does simplify and romanticize the story, but not exorbitantly so. The main focus is not, as one would expect, on the thunderously important formation of the nascent Beatles, although those events are portrayed faithfully. The story remains intimately focused on Lennon’s relationship with his first love; his mum. Lennon’s abandonment by his parents as a small boy was, famously, a deep trauma that he struggled to deal with throughout his life. Nonetheless, he adored his vivacious, irresponsible mother and became very close to her, until (SPOILER ALERT) her untimely death. He also loved his stern, pragmatic Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him when his mother was unable to. The tug of war between fun-loving, possibly unstable mum, and rule-loving, reserved aunt is the main dramatic tension, as young John tries to establish his identity as a cool rocker and come to terms with his living situation. It’s an inherently affecting story, and it’s a good thing director Sam Taylor-Wood presents it without trying to milk any extra drama. The make-it-or-break-it factor, obviously, is casting. Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas are both excellent as Julia and Mimi, respectively, so you can breathe a sigh of relief there. The actor playing Paul McCartney looks about twelve years old, which is good, and has a prominent Adam’s apple, which is not. The nominal George Harrison appears in exactly one scene, not counting stage montages. So how is the leading man? Aaron Taylor-Johnson (then billed without the Taylor) is a talented and charismatic actor. I like him a lot. He is very attractive and I thought it was both adorable and distinctly Lennonesque when he married Sam Taylor-Wood and took part of her name. He does not, however, look anything like John Lennon. He does get enough of the swagger that a certain suspension of disbelief eventually sets in, and you start to see the Lennonicity. And he does affectingly capture the wounded child side of John. But not his acerbic mean side. The tough, defensive John Lennon who was very frequently a royal douchehole is largely absent. This John Lennon is all about crying and hugging. This lopsided portrayal isn’t accurate, but it’s an understandable artistic liberty, and on the whole I would recommend it as a good biographical introduction for novices. If you can set aside the fact that you know very well what Lennon and McCartney looked like, and those guys just don’t look like them at all.

Those shortcomings are inevitable when trying to represent such well known real life figures, and I doubt there’s ever been a biopic that didn’t similarly grapple with verisimilitude. Some succeed and some fail, but the danger of failing doesn’t ever seem to stop anyone from trying. An upcoming film about Jimi Hendrix that uses none of his music? Greenlight that baby! Supermodel-gorgeous Zoe Saldana portraying the tortoiselike Nina Simone? Greenlight! One safe route would be the one Todd Haynes took when he made the absolutely 100% fictional totally imagination-based film Velvet Goldmine, which was very pointedly about David Bowie. That film worked because it struck a neat balance between authentically capturing the spirit of its un-subject, and taking grand imaginative liberties with him, all without making any attempt at literal emulation, because that would obviously be doomed to fail. Or, Todd Haynes again, the rather surreal but convincing Bob Dylan fantasia I’m Not There, in which Cate Blanchett performed the most accurate Dylan impression anyone had ever seen. Among more traditionally plotted music pics, there have been many earnest but square prestige magnets like Walk the Line, which seemed to have aimed more squarely at Academy Award voters than Johnny Cash fans. Cadillac Records sticks in the mind as a standout, maybe because instead of focusing on just one larger-than-life career trajectory it traced the story of entire record label, Chess, and gave equal attention to many stars. Also, in that movie, the eternally underrated Jeffrey Wright finally proved your lifelong suspicion that Muddy Waters and Jean-Michel Basquiat were really the same person. I mean, have you ever seen them together?

I’d also like to briefly mention The Rolling Stones, because I can’t fucking write a comprehensive article about anything without mentioning them, could I? They don’t get the cinema love the Fab ones do, presumably because only a fucking lunatic would have the balls to touch Mick Jagger’s legend. Jagger and Richards are portrayed in brief cameos in the Uschi Obermaier bio Eight Miles High, and it wasn’t bad, especially the believably dissolute Alexander Scheer as Keef. And both appear in passing in the aforementioned Cadillac Records. There is one Stones focused biopic out there, which I also put off watching because I feared it would be too gratuitously salacious, and it is appropriately called Stoned. That film, released in 2005, is a speculative narrative of the final days of Brian Jones. Jones died under mysterious circumstances, and though the conspiracy theories surrounding his death aren’t as popular as the ones Marilyn Monroe enjoys, they do have a devoted following. The proliferation over the years of wingnut theories are exactly the reason I feared the movie would be disrespectful and melodramatic. I found it to be surprisingly less so, though there is definitely way too much uncalled for nudity and Performance-inspired visual effects. (I recommend a Stoned/Performance double bill, and you should be stoned.) Given the mysteriousness of the real events, I can’t fault it for inaccuracy. We don’t really know what happened, and what happens in the movie isn’t too far-fetched. I was also pleasantly surprised that Jones’ personality was portrayed in an accurate manner. He receives a more well balanced treatment that John Lennon just did. Like Lennon, Jones could be an enormous asshole, and unlike Lennon’s movie, this one doesn’t shy from showing that side. Jones, of course, is not as dear to as many people’s hearts as Lennon, so it’s ok to show him being unlikable. Much credit goes to leading man Leo Gregory, who looks at least somewhat like the golden Stone, and also shows both his selfishness and his vulnerability. His dickish behavior to everyone around him is balanced by his isolation, his paranoia and his childish desire for approval. He was a complicated, troubled man, and we can see that. I was also delighted to see Ben Whishaw as Keith Richards. Whishaw has also portrayed Bob Dylan and John Keats, so he knows about playing rock stars, and he certainly has the elegantly wasted pirate ghoul look so necessary for the task. Like its heroes, Stoned is somewhat sleazy, but sexy and entertaining. And thank goodness it carries no ambitions of seriousness or prestige.

(Just Like) Starting Over

One of the best of John Lennon’s solo singles, and by far his most popular. Unfortunately, its goodness was not the primary reason for its popularity. It was Lennon’s first single after five years of living quietly out of the spotlight, and the title was representative of his state of mind. He was excited to jump back into music, feeling inspired by the freshness of post punk and new wave music, reinvigorated by his extended stint as happy house-husband. As Yoko described it, “John is saying in his song Starting Over, OK, we had the energy in the Sixties, in the Seventies we separated, but let’s start over in the Eighties. He’s reaching out to me, the woman. Reaching out after all that’s happened, over the battlefield of dead families, is more difficult this time around. On the other side of the record is my song, “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which is the other side of the same question. There is the sound of a woman coming to a climax on it, and she is crying out to be held, to be touched. It will be controversial, because people still feel it’s less natural to hear the sounds of a woman’s lovemaking than, say, the sound of a Concorde, killing the atmosphere and polluting nature. Altogether, both sides are a prayer to change the Eighties.” He really felt like he was making a fresh start. It was a stroke of cruel irony that quite the opposite turned out to be true. Lennon was murdered mere weeks after the release of Double Fantasy, and what was meant to be a new beginning became a eulogy. Despite the tragic context, it’s hard not to enjoy the positive energy of the album. It’s pretty clear from the music that he and Yoko were having a great time working together, and Lennon’s habitual angst is not in evidence. If there’s any comfort to be found, it’s in knowing that Lennon died having found the happiness he’d been seeking all his life, and his final album a testament to that.

Julia

All you need to know is that Julia was John Lennon’s mother. John’s family history is a long and rather sad story, and it’s the thing that lies at the root of much of his music. Little John was deeply traumatized at the age of five,  when his father abruptly abandoned the family. The story goes that Alfred Lennon tried to make his son choose which parent to stay with. At first John chose his father, but as Julia was walking out the door, he broke down and ran after her. The father then disappeared and reappeared only twenty years later, making no bones about his desire to cash in on his son’s fame. Though Julia would eventually settle down and start a new family, she was not able to take care of John, who would spend the rest of his childhood in the care of the famous Aunt Mimi. Julia was hit by a car and killed when John was 17, another trauma that scarred him for life. John Lennon didn’t have the most dysfunctional upbringing; he wasn’t abused or neglected, Aunt Mimi was strict but loving, and he had a close relationship with Julia and her new family. However, the cruel way in which his father left, and the separation, however necessary, from his mother, were profoundly painful, and he would struggle with those issues for the rest of his life. Any child who sees his father march deliberately out of his life and has to go live with relatives is bound to have deep feelings of resentment and insecurity, fears of abandonment and difficulty forming relationships. All of those things John Lennon struggled with and did his best to overcome, and that struggle was well documented in his music. His sadness, anger and longing for love are plain to hear, because he wanted to be honest about those things, and it probably made him feel better to do so. Those qualities sometimes made him a not very nice person to be around, but they’re indisputably part of his legacy, and they’re part of his appeal; Lennon was a big star who, through his honesty made himself seem small and human and it’s the humanity of John Lennon that makes people still love him so much