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The Death and Life of John Lennon

I‘ve lived in New York City my entire life, but on the night John Lennon was murdered I was in a grubby little post-industrial ash-heap of a Connecticut town, a newly-minted adult working for a newspaper and trying to earn the right to call myself a writer. Early in the evening, I’d gone to watch a movie called “Resurrection” in an empty theater, so I could write a review probably no one would read about a film that almost no one would see. Then, feeling homesick, I went to the library and looked for copies of the Times and the Post. Why the place was open that late in a small town, I don’t know. A few minutes after I got there, a homeless guy in a baseball cap with wings on the sides started screaming and banging on the glass doors. I went over to see what was wrong and for no discernible reason he punched me in the nose.

I walked back to my rental apartment with a Budweiser in a bag and dried blood on my chin, and turned on “Monday Night Football,” trying to figure out if this was what grown-up life was about. The Patriots and the Dolphins were about to go into overtime. Then Howard Cossell came on and said Lennon had just been shot twice in the back outside the Dakota apartment building on the Upper West Side, and was dead at Roosevelt Hospital.

Which didn’t make any sense either.

Well, what could you do with that? A beloved musician shot dead in front of his home. Assassinated in the city that helped to make his name, on the Ed Sullivan show and later at Shea Stadium. My hometown, which he’d adopted as his own. In the country he’d given solace to when a beloved president was assassinated seventeen years before. Killed in a notoriously violent city by a visitor from beautiful Hawaii. An absurd end for one of the greatest of all absurdists.

John Lennon made at least half a career out of assaulting notions of common sense and propriety. He told the Queen to rattle her jewelry before he shredded his throat howling “Twist and Shout” at a famous command performance. He stuck a Coke bottle up his nose in “A Hard Day’s Night.” When asked at a press conference “how did you find America?” he replied, “turn left at Greenland.” At the height of his pop idol fame, he published two books, In His Own Right and A Spaniard in the Works, which had sentences like “I was bored on the 9th of Octover 1940 when, I believe, the Nasties were still booming us led by Madolf Heatlump (who only had one).” As a child not quite mastering the guitar, I took heart from his delight at mangling the language and hatched the notion of maybe someday trying to play with words of my own.

From that first Sullivan appearance, Lennon was my guy in the Beatles. Standing apart from the others, legs bowed, eyes squinting, not taking the business of screaming teen idolatry too seriously as he chopped away with casual determination at his guitar, as if it hadn’t been all that hard to come up with “She Loves You” and “Help.” He wasn’t an obvious people-pleaser like Paul, making lover boy eyes at the camera and shaking his mop for the girls. And he wasn’t a studious grind like George, hunched over his Gretsch, making sure to get his Carl Perkins licks just right, before scurrying over to huddle next to Paul at the vocal mike. And he wasn’t Ringo, bashing away in the back seat, the ultimate good sport, making sure everyone was having fun and keeping time.

John was more his own man. It wasn’t exactly that he was aloof or didn’t care. His raspy imperfect voice raged with commitment. But everything about his stance said that he wasn’t going to change or adapt for your standards. You had to figure him out, or stay away. You don’t get me was the implied taunt, before he actually sang the words. And so “And Your Bird Can Sing” always seemed, to me, the most John Lennon of John Lennon songs.

For some reason, the track was left off the original American release of Revolver, so like a lot of other kids, I discovered it as the theme song for the awful Beatles Saturday morning cartoon that briefly ran on ABC-TV in the mid-60s. The show was a crass exercise executed in bad faith with cheap animation, dumb jokes, and excruciating plots about cannibals and karate masters and the like. But even the sight of the cartoon’s stiff-limbed, lazy-lidded figures flailing away unconvincingly at their instruments could not diminish the disciplined raucousness, the off-handed invention, the joyous abandon in the original recording.

It’s not a love song, like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “If I Fell.” Or a bordering-on-hate song, like “You Can’t Do That” or “Run for Your Life.” It’s not a rafter-raiser like “Hey Jude” or a maybe-disguised drug song like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” It’s something both more abstract and binding, like an oath to a cause that can’t quite be defined.

So what the hell is it about anyway?

The lyrics start off like a cynical accusation: someone has irked John by claiming to have everything they want. But they won’t get him—even though they’ve seen Seven Wonders and their bird is green. They won’t see him or hear him either. Wha? There’s also the threat of the “bird” getting broken at some point, and God knows what that portends.

But this isn’t an ad hominem attack like Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” (with its Hall of Fame putdown where Dylan says I wish you could stand in my shoes, so you’d know what a drag it is to see you.) Lennon doesn’t sound smug or condescending the way Dylan can sometimes. A tentative note of compassion sneaks across the bridge with its sympathetic minor chords and the guitars deconstructing the main riff underneath the vocal. When the target’s prized possessions become a burden, Lennon says he’ll be around. So is that an offer of friendship? Or a status check? When you’re on the way down, I’ll still be here. And then there’s a hopeful reference to being awoken. But is that a spiritual awakening or a chemical one? Before you can be sure, the break is over, and John has redrawn the battle lines, throwing a final challenge. His target may have heard every sound there is, but hasn’t heard him.

And what about that music? The band comes crashing in on the first note, firing on all cylinders. If a jet taking off had a tune, it might sound like this. Pounding engines, massive propulsion, a billowing aural fireball pushing off and then the machine improbably soaring. Ringo holds the pattern steady with his snare and high-hat while John churns up clouds of distortion with his rhythm guitar. Two lead guitars put wings on a melody that might have been a little twee and precious if it wasn’t played with such proto-psychedelic aggression. And somewhere amid the beautiful noise, the pilot’s voice cuts in, defiant and all-too-human. It took me years to notice that an intricate bass part ties it all together, somehow weaving around the melody while holding down the bottom. Then the song ends on rumbling notes of irresolution that suggest the journey isn’t quite over.

It’s all done in two minutes, but it feels like you’ve been around the world. No wonder McCartney made sure to follow it on the original Revolver album with one of his best songs, “For No One.” This was a time when the Beatles could still play with the force and cohesion of a seasoned live band, but were just beginning to unlock the potential of the modern recording studio as an instrument in the mix.

A few days before, they’d used tape effects and Leslie speakers to assemble a revolutionary brain-melting collage around John’s composition “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “Bird” doesn’t go quite that far. The great musicologist and songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, who once played John in a stage production of Beatlemania, identifies it as one of Lennon’s “last conventional songs,” before he went off on the wild blue yonder streak that included “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Revolution #9.” In its structure and feeling, “Bird” anticipates those later experiments while still rocking as hard as “”Dizzy Miss Lizzie” or “I’m Down.”

Strangely, though, John himself was less impressed. At various times, he described the song as “another horror” and “another of my throwaways.” And when you hear the band’s first attempt to record the track, on April 20, 1966, you can hear what he means. He can barely keep from cracking up in the vocal booth with Paul. It’s hard to tell if something just happened in the studio or if he’s just stoned and overtaken by the nonsense in his own words. One rumor had it that the song was a rejoinder to Frank Sinatra, who’d put down the Beatles and reputedly liked to ask his friends “How’s your bird?” (probably referring to male equipment). But a cursory listen to this early version hints that the real source inspiration was probably the Byrds. George’s twelve-string guitar part sounds like a blatant imitation of Roger McGuinn’s trademark Rickenbacker twang, and, when they aren’t giggling, John and Paul are striving for a harmony blend reminiscent of McGuinn and Gene Clark.

When I heard this version for the first time on the Beatles 2 Anthology, released in 1995, I was a little embarrassed and mystified about why I loved the song so much. The lyrics were close to doggerel, the playing managed to be both desultory and over-busy, the vocals were too strenuous on Paul’s part and lackluster on John’s. The whole thing was a drag. Perhaps Lennon was right. Not only was the song crap, but maybe the Beatles were just a group imitating other groups. Whatever fondness I had for the record was just nostalgia for childhood that didn’t hold up in the harsh light of adulthood.

But then I listened again to the final version they recorded just six days later in the same studio, the bird had somehow taken flight. It was hard to hear where the metamorphosis had come in. The words were virtually the same, the melody was unchanged, and the arrangement was similar. But the song had become a forceful sui generis creation, with all traces of the original influences completely molted away. This could only have been the Beatles, with John Lennon at the forefront, in the full spring bloom of their careers, out of the Cavern and well on the way to Strawberry Fields

So what happened? How did the thing transform in so short a time?

Obviously the band knew the song better, having run through it exhaustively a few days before, but the performance is completely fresh and committed, as if they’re discovering the tune for the first time. Maybe that exuberance is ginned up by studio tricks, hence John’s later suspicion of the track. Having helped to fashion the brilliant soundscape of “Tomorrow Never Knows” less than a week before, perhaps the producer George Martin and the engineer Geoff Emerick felt emboldened to find new ways to fill out the aural canvas for a more “normal” pop song with guitars played through revolving Leslie speakers and a slightly drier than usual drum sound. So it could be that part of the track’s success is not just as a song written by a composer or two, but as a record.

But what truly makes “Bird” a great quintessential John Lennon song is Paul McCartney. Like a lot of prematurely cynical people, I used to take Sir Paul for granted. Yes, he was a great singer and a great tunesmith, but he was a teacher’s pet, a shameless panderer, the self-conscious “cute” one, someone not to be trusted. In the film, “Let It Be,” the other members of the group become visibly annoyed and increasingly disaffected by his relentless pushiness and organization, his determination to sit down and get things done on his terms. No wonder they broke up right after this. He’s like Dad trying to get a bunch of surly children in the car, so they can all get where they need to be, while John just wants to hang out with Yoko.

But once you have children of your own, you start to become more attuned to his point of view. Or at least that’s how it was for me after my two sons were born. I learned that you have to become more like Paul so your kids can be free to act more like John. They get to be free, intuitive, and rebellious while you stand by waiting patiently. They amaze you, they come up with wonderful ideas that you could have never thought of, and sometimes they go off in the wrong direction and waste a lot of time. And then you have to shake the keys and lay down the law, telling everyone to get in the goddamn car already or there won’t be any party.

Yes, I’m going to say it: Famous as McCartney is, the man is still underrated. Okay, the world knows he wrote and sang “Yesterday,” “Penny Lane,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” and all the others. And anyone with half an ear can tell that his bass playing is the supple spine of most Beatles’ records. But listen even more closely and you realize that he’s the indispensable element in the songs he didn’t write or sing lead on as well. That’s his kamikaze guitar tearing into George’s “Taxman” and John’s “Good Morning, Good Morning,” his flute-like Mellotron that leads into “Strawberry Fields,” and his tape loops and wayward piano contributing to the chaotic wonder of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” In his book, “Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles,” Geoff Emerick describes Paul staying in the studio long after the others left, perfecting his bass parts and adding the subtle simonizing touches on other instruments that allow those songs to sound as good now as they did when they were recorded more than half a century ago.

McCartney himself says the song was eighty percent John, twenty percent Paul. But that’s some twenty percent. The foundation is still John’s on the final version, but it’s Paul joining George on the harmony guitar intro, giving a necessary touch of raw urgency to the part that Harrison had just played prettily the week before (and saving the riff from sounding like something the Electric Light Orchestra would play on one of their 70s hits). He trims his vocal part, giving John enough room to state his case while chiming in strategically for just a few words at the end of each verse for the crucial amount of sweetening. And then he lays down that monster bass line, which Marshall Crenshaw compares to the crucial element in a Bach invention, the unnoticed piece that locks everything into place.

It’s still John’s song, but it wouldn’t be worth a second listen without what Paul brought to the mix. Or at the very least it wouldn’t still sound as rudely alive after a half-century without him. Sadly, though, John seemed to rarely return the favor, especially in the later section of the Beatles’ career. Maybe it was drugs or personal estrangement, but John retreated from the collaboration, preferring to declare Yoko his true artistic partner as well as his wife. An understandable choice in some ways, though I can’t really remember the last time I put on “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow)” or “Sisters O Sisters.”

In fact, the older you get and the more you learn about John Lennon, the harder it is not to have complicated feelings about the man. He sang “love is the answer,” but never told his eldest son he loved him. He was, on occasion, abusive toward women. More often, he was ungracious and ungrateful toward his peers and collaborators, discouraging to other musicians, and hurling brutal insults toward McCartney in interviews and songs after the band dissolved.

But that’s how it is when the child listening to records alone in his room becomes the man playing the same songs in the car for his kids. You realize that your heroes are not just human, but deeply flawed in ways you might find hard to forgive even in a friend. The songs that once defined you, that once meant everything to you, change—whether you want them to or not. You realize love is definitely not all you need, that the narrator of “No Reply” needs a restraining order, and that—as Elvis Costello pointed out—a millionaire has a lot of gall to urge his listeners to imagine no possessions. After a while, you put certain records out on the street and forget the times they got you through. They can’t be the same songs because you’re not the same.

But then there are other songs that grow old with you, they reinvent themselves, they evolve and show you sides that even their composers couldn’t have imagined, or maybe you just adapt them to the circumstances of your life. And so when I hear “And Your Bird Can Sing” now, I don’t hear John Lennon being purposefully obscure and inscrutable anymore. I hear a guy singing to himself, trying to work out his own contradictions. What do you do when your prized possessions weigh you down? How can you feel so alone with friends around you? How can you be well-known and still be unseen? How can you exist in a world that demands compromise and still be your own man (or your own woman)? When he sings “You can’t hear me,” it doesn’t sound like a taunt anymore. There’s an undertone of sorrow, maybe even desperation. No wonder the guitars repeat the first few notes of the main riff three times at the end, like a detective knocking on a door. And then it opens, the other instruments drop off, revealing Paul thrumming away softly at his bass after hours, as if mulling a question that can never be answered.

I had the day off from work after Lennon was murdered. My nose had stopped swelling by then and I had access to an Oldsmobile Cordoba. But I didn’t drive down and join the crowds that stood out on West 72nd Street under his apartment’s window, singing his songs and keeping his widow up. In fact, it was many years before I laid eyes on the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park. I never saw the need to visit or to take my kids. Because for me, John Lennon lives on somewhere else. He talked a good game about coming together and power to the people, but the real spirit of the man exists in a more private place. And I go there whenever I hear this glorious ode to being misunderstood.

“The Death and Life of John Lennon” (also titled “And Your Bird Can Sing”) first appeared in IN THEIR LIVES: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs, edited by Andrew Blauner, with a note from Paul McCartney

© Peter Blauner
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