But the record is ordinary. The thirteen tracks fade into one another (one or two are soulful, deeply personal, but you might have to play the record a dozen times before you remember which ones they are); the arrangements feature mechanical renderings of ’50s riffs, with none of the delight and liberation that made the ’50s performance of those riffs so profound. Occasionally, extravagant production is brought in to make up for the lack of raucous energy, but of course it doesn’t.
When I first heard that this LP was in the works, I couldn’t wait to find out what Lennon would pick from the past; this man, after all, knows a lot of rock ‘n’ roll secrets. But Lennon has chosen only the most familiar rock classics, ignoring early Elvis, Huey Smith, or “Give Me Love,” the flip of “Angel Baby,” which John once called “the great strange record of our time”; he runs through the biggest hits of Berry, Richard, Holly, Cooke, and Vincent, not singing the songs so much as noting their existence. These songs were all of them perfect as records; they entered the public mind not merely as music, but as events. As such they’re virtually unapproachable, and Lennon’s versions never put the originals out of one’s head for a second. The songs diminish him, because he brings nothing to them but a formal recognition that, a long time ago, the songs mattered to him more than anything in the world. He sings as a footnote to their history; when he sang such songs in 1964, they seemed like a footnote to his.
I suppose I bring the same sort of recognition to Lennon’s album. A lot of people, myself included, once idolized John Lennon, and he was a good man to idolize. He didn’t offer answers: he made one realize a good life could be lived without them. What most of us didn’t understand, 10 years ago, was that Lennon too was looking for an idol, even though his talent was for rebellion, not acceptance. Lennon had begun by giving as much of himself to Elvis as many of us gave to the Beatles, but Lennon found it necessary to replace Elvis with himself, just as we found it necessary to replace the Beatles with ourselves. At one time, we—the audience—served as an idol, because Lennon could see himself and more than himself in his audience. Then the audience became indistinct to Lennon, a mass, unreal, and it was no longer satisfying to see himself as part of it, or no longer possible; the more his audience confirmed his existence, the more desperate he became to find out exactly what the nature of his existence was. Lennon went off seeking new idols, seeking to find and lose himself in them, as he had found and lost himself in Elvis and the audience he inherited from Elvis. Lennon failed as an idolizer, no matter who he idolized—the Maharishi, Janov, Yoko—just as we failed in our attempts to idolize him. Lennon lived a great public drama, but, desperate for an ending, for a feeling of completeness, of justification, he looked for someone to offer him a finale. He didn’t get it; he wanted deeply to say Yes, but his instinct to say No always won out. So now, still searching for the finale that will make sense of his twenty years as a performer, he has gone back to his beginnings, to the early rock M’ roll that brought him to life in the first place. and that trip back has produced a failure he should never have had to face—failure not as a seeker, or a saint, or a man, but as a rock ‘n’ roller. And that, for John Lennon, the truest rocker of his time, is the cruelest failure of all.
Only on “Just Because” does Lennon’s desperation redeem itself. It’s no longer solipsistic; it comes directly from his heart to you. “Just because you left and said goodbye,” John sings, so beautifully. “Do you think that I will sit and cry?” It’s hard not to hear that line as aimed straight at the audience that no longer lives through John Lennon, or even with him, and it’s a bitter, saddening moment. But then the song takes a step forward. “Maybe I am asking for too much,” John cries. Of course he is; he always has. That’s what made him great.
Village Voice, 1975 (specific date TBD)