Thursday, February 10, 2005

My Favorite Beatle

Elsewhere I stumbled into a brief flare up of the John Lennon vs. Paul McCartney debate. In this argument John is frequently held up as the tortured genius, and Paul as the glib, facile musical glad-hander. When I think about it, it's the people who take this side of the argument who are most vocal; the people I hear disagreeing tend to note that John was indeed an unhappy fellow, and that he was brilliant, but add that McCartney was also brilliant, but may have had a gift for being less, um, tortured. And being less tortured isn't as cinematic as being tortured; dying violently and too early also adds to one's legend. Somehow John promoted the idea, and it took, that he was the artistic core of the Beatles, that he was the risk taker, the experimenter, the iconoclast, the working man's hero, etc.

I guess all this was on my mind this afternoon when I opened my email and found an offer to buy tickets to Lennon, a new musical based on John's life. According to the copy, "'Lennon' takes us on the remarkable,mythical journey of the man behind the greatest rock legacy and boldest love story of our time--through his own music!"

Whoa. My first thought was, when does McCartney get his own musical? "Macca!" Yeah, like that's going to happen.

I don't quite get the need to choose up sides on which of the Beatles was the leader (I remember the press trying very hard to make one of them be the Beatle-in-chief during interviews). The whole thing winds up being like one of those "which one would win in a fight, Spiderman or Superman?" (Well, duh: Superman.) What I really think is that the Beatles were a pretty perfect demonstration of synergy; John and Paul each did some good work on their own, and some howlers too. But working in the same band, whether they were hating each other or loving each other, they were always trying to impress each other. The sum, in fact, was greater than the parts.

For the record, my favorite Beatle was George.


Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Lennon certainly sang about being tormented in the last few years of the Beatles' existence (and certainly in the first few years afterward). And while everyone regards these songs ("The Ballad of John and Yoko"; that awful I-don't-believe-in-Jesus, etc. wail) are pretty embarrassing, the self-dramatization has created a certain mythology.

What seems plain to me -- I was uneasily aware of it at the time -- is that John Lennon could express a surprising hostility towards women, and a consistent tropism toward a dreamy, leave-me-alone passivity (all those songs about opting out of everything, just drifting away . . . each of which contained the identical rhyme They-think-I'm-lazy / They're-just-crazy, a lazy couplet if I ever saw one). The cryptic lyrics to songs such as "I Am the Walrus," "Strawberry Fields," and "Glass Onion" seemed less impressive when you realized that they didn't actually mean anything, and that Lennon had been going for easy effects. George Martin seemed to have worked harder on some of those songs than Lennon had, and when Lennon was able to disregard his producer's advice, the result would be something like "Revolution #9."

The sunny Paul/stormy John dichotomy was evident in the second half of the Beatles' career -- "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields" opposite each other on the same 45 pointedly raised the issue -- but its fervor really derives from their respective careers in the seventies, when the banalities of Wings and John's abject dependence on Yoko made both men look bad. (Creatively, George owned that decade.) But it's fair to say that, even in the Beatles' heyday, Lennon had a petulant, indolent, and sometimes vicious side that the phrase "tormented genius" doesn't well capture.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I, too, was in the George camp. While John and Paul were being the tortured idealist and the leader of Wings (this coming from someone who loved the songs "Band on the Run" and "Hands Across the Water") George was attempting to find his soul and doing the concert for Bangladesh.

But I liked him when I was a kid because he was shy and funny.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

A few years ago George Martin did a lecture tour; since Spouse is the kind of guy who gets calls from people preparing scholarly books on the Beatles' recording techniques this was a must. It was delightful; Martin has a great conversational style, remembers everything, and hasn't succumbed to the romances of either camp. One of the things he said was that, at first, he didn't recognize any particular musical genius--Martin got his start producing spoken word and comedy recordings, his own taste ran to classical, and what was all this noise? But he was handed the job, met the band, and liked them. And it was George Harrison who made the first impression; Martin was giving them the standard first-time-in-the-studio spiel, this-is-this, that-is-that, let me know if there's anything you don't like. George H. looked up and said, casually, "I don't much like your tie."

As a gormless nine-year-old I got George. Paul was too shiny and pretty; John--I always thought it would be great fun to be in a room with John...until he noticed me. Ringo was adorable in a sort of clueless-puppy way. But George was, as you say, shy and funny. He always seemed to be watching what was happening around him, and without any particular reverence. I just liked him. He aged well, too.

As for John's misogyny--there was a lot of that going around in the rock scene in the late 60s-early 70s. I think part of what drew me toward folk and folk rock at that time was that I thought there was less of it, in the music, anyway. John certainly didn't invent the Angry Young Man, or the sexist rocker, or the dazey withdrawn artist; the roles were already there, and he just slipped into them at need.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

This afternoon I heard the radio ad for Lennon which had snippets of music from the show. What was bizarre was the voices; the guy singing what I presume was Lennon's part had a nice, unremarkable tenor, totally unlike John's distinctive, ather thin burr. But what really got me was the female voice that chimed in for the last line of "give peace a chance," sweet, melodic, in a traditional harmony--sounded like something out of Nashville, and not in the least like Yoko Ono. Weird.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I can't wait to hear this Nashville belle's rendition of "Don't Worry, Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)"!

6:21 AM  

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