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Miscellaneous - July 2009

  by Lisa Torem

published: 24 / 6 / 2009

Miscellaneous - July 2009


In new column 'Rock Salt Row', Lisa Torem will be debating each month with a different Pennyblackmusic writer about a moment in rock history and its impact now. She begins by talking with editor John Clarkson about John Lennon's 1966 controversial quote that the Beatles 'were more popular than Jesus

Two Writers Season One Historic Rock Moment “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now, I don’t know which will go first – rock’n’roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right bus his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” On March 4, 1966, in an interview with reporter Maureen Cleave, of 'The London Evening Standard', long-time Beatle and solo artist, John Lennon, presented this statement in an article entitled 'How Does A Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This'. At the time Lennon was studying religion and was widely known for being a sharp-tongued, frank artist – and, though the quote, embedded in a “slice of life” article went largely unnoticed in Britain - an American teen magazine, 'Datebook', used it, taken out of context, in July of that same year. The result? Radio stations in the American South banned Beatles music, Lennon received death threats, the Klu Klux Klan led rallies when the Beatles performed in Alabama, and American teens burned vinyl records in protest. While Lennon didn’t exactly retract the statement, he did express regret that he had caused such an uproar after faced with accusations that he led his teenaged worshippers astray. But throughout the history of Rock music, the song remains the same – Lennon was, as the group, Pink Floyd, might say, “just another brick in the wall.” Early progenitors of rock’n’roll, Chuck Berry, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were also accused of draping the “devil’s music” over the innocent minds of youth. But were Lennon and these earlier artists mere cuckolds when the actual culprit was the “cheating mistress?” or the extremists that, rather than examine and “own” their own motivations and value systems, chose to scapegoat the Rocker? Should religion and Rock remain mutually exclusive rivals like bare-chested wrestlers in a smarmy ring? Is there a Venn Diagram which allows Rock and its celebrity to be untainted by imposed values? Should this hullabaloo of rock versus religion be put to its death at once? Or will this shrouded conumdrum mystify like Stonehenge - mired in the aftermath of Druid folklore? JOHN For someone who was the perceived intellectual amongst the Beatles, John Lennon certainly had a knack for putting his foot in his mouth and never did so more effectively than with these remarks in which he wound up and offended thousands of Christians in the process. While he could have definitely put things more tactfully, his comments have to be taken within the context of these times. As Philip Larkin put it so succinctly and hilariously in his 1967 poem, 'Annus Mirabilis', something had changed in the world a few years before that and in the crux year of "nineteen sixty-three...between the end of the Chatterley ban/and the first Beatles LP." Contraception had become more freely and reliably available with the pill. Censorship had become less of the issue than it was. Political leaders post the Profumo scandal, which had also broken that year, had begun to be treated with less respect, and religion and especially Catholicism had started to become less of the feared force than it had been just a few years before in the more repressed 50s. Rock, too, had grown out of its infancy. Young people had begun to question authority, which had previously seemed unshakeable, and to look to music for inspiration, and, as religion started to mean less to them, sometimes enlightenment. What Lennon was acknowledging, albeit in typically abrasive fashion, was that religion and Christianity at that stage was less of a concern to the youth of the 60s than in previous generations, and rock music was on the rise and for some had replaced religion as a new form of spirituality. LISA And, on that note, Dylan, in 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' said, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” But, Lennon was a product of his immediate and isolated environment which was at that time in the throes of rampant Beatlemania. Wasn’t he a victim of a media onslaught? And why do you think the American media grabbed hold of a headline that the UK press practically overlooked? JOHN I am not speaking about the American race as a whole, but as a nation you seem to have more of an outspoken fundamentalist element than we reserved Brits do. You are the nation that spawned Jimmy Swaggart, the Klu Klux Klan and George W. Bush. With reactionaries of that vein around, it is inevitable that Lennon’s comments would cause more of a reaction. LISA Oh, good, I believe we have an official “row.” While we Americans may be known for brash and outspoken bravado, I’m in a quandary here. Could the UK possibly adopt me and help me tone down so I can become a “reserved Brit” rather than a KKK member? No, but seriously, there are those of us who are just as surprised as you are by that politic. And, looking back at the history books, Lennon was caught up in an era of madness. JOHN To pick up on your point about an era of madness, we did have Margaret Thatcher though. The British National Party are on the rise. It’s not really that sunny over here either, just mildly less extreme. John Lennon triggered a conflict that had until then been largely simmering between the old order and the new order. Really though he wasn't coming up with anything especially original, and was only saying something which many others of the time - writers, poets, politicians, philosophers, social commentators and religious leaders - also were acknowledging. If Lennon had put things in less truculent form, and, not made the mistake of bringing his band in the same sentence into a popularity contest with Jesus, it is doubtful that it would have created such furore and the reaction that it did. LISA Do we have to extract our own spiritual truths from the world? JOHN Yeah, I think we have to extract our own spiritual truths from the world. Music can be a part of that, as can books, religion, politics, philosophy, therapy and countless other things. You can take from other people’s thoughts, but you shouldn’t though ever rely on anyone else for all the answers, anymore than they should impose themselves, as rock musicians are prone to, as having the sole truth. Ironically, I think that Lennon knew that. I don’t know if you’ve seen 'Imagine', the documentary that came out in 1988 about Lennon. It is culled together from over 240 hours of private footage belonging to Yoko Ono. There’s a scene in that in which Lennon and Ono are out walking in Central Park with a film crew behind them and this over enthusiastic puppy-like kid and fan throws himself at him. “Oh my Gooooood! I can’t believe it is you.” And Lennon is really cutting with him, really cold and totally dismisses him. It makes for really uncomfortable, horrible viewing. He is as usual too acidic, too nasty, too cruel. You can see where he is coming from though and that he has some sort of point. Has Christianity or rock 'n' roll forty years on died? No. Not at all. The Pope still attracts a massive audience for his Sunday morning masses, the majority not being tourists either. The churches may not be packed, but still have a voice and are still busy, and one only has to spend ten minutes on MySpace to realise that in this age of bedroom culture and recordings more rock music is being made than ever. The Satanic heavy metal band may disagree, but the relationship between the two also seems more aligned. Many priests and members of other religious orders have grown up with rock music and are in tune with it. Rock, for all its drugs, alcohol and groupies, seems, too, to have more of a charitable status. Christian music writer Steve Turner in his book, 'Hungry for Heaven', which is about the relationship between music and Christianity, says that he can imagine Jesus if he was alive now dancing to 'Greats Balls of Fire'. I don't know if that much is true, but it is a nice thought. As Pink Floyd's Roger Waters puts it at the end of his 1989 solo album, 'Radio Kaos', in a surprisingly uncynical moment, "the tide is turning (after Live Aid)" To go back to this point, the messianic relationship that many rock stars have with their fans perturbs me. I think you should have heroes, but not idols. There is a difference between the two. Heroes should be those people you admire, idols are those you follow slavishly without thought for deed or consequences. LISA To that end, John, Peter Gibbon, author of 'A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness', says that real heroes have three attributes –extraordinary achievement, bravery or courage and the third attribute is character or greatness of soul. I think we agree about Lennon’s extraordinary achievement, but not entirely about these other attributes. Also, I think Lennon’s genius was not entirely within the realm of his own comfort zone as is typical for one with these gifts. The philosopher Nietzsche in the late 1800s examined his philosophy of the artist and said, “If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic, doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. "Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art.” In addition, Nietzsche poses, “What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing?” “Art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us?” he continues. What I’m saying, John, is that there is a dichotomy between genius/hero/idol that even the artist can’t explain – how can the rest of us? And then there are those who idolize fast-food and Barbie dolls. Why do some choose to elect artists like Lennon to fill a spiritual void? Does this speak more about the idolizer or the idol? JOHN I think it speaks more about the former. Definitely. They have created these false gods and allowed them to exist. You can at one level hardly blame the idols, cynical as it usually is and their motivations are for wishing to enlarge their egos and bank balances by playing along with it. I remember twenty years ago Simple Minds came to play Murrayfield, the local rugby stadium in my home city of Edinburgh. In the weeks before the concert, a poster started to circulate around town, with a black and white live photo of Jim Kerr, standing back to the camera, wearing a long flowing white robe, arms lifted loftily high in the air like he was about to bless the crowd of thousands in front of him. This was Jim Kerr, whose lyrics at the time swung between the banal and the obscure, and has never seemed to have very much to say about much, promoting himself as some sort of Christ-like figure. I had lost interest in Simple Minds several years before that and their increasingly stodgy anthems at the time of 'Sparkle in the Rain'. I wouldn't have gone anyway. Its implications all these years on, however, still stick uncomfortably in my mind and horrify me. It appals me that someone with so little to say would have the arrogance and audacity to allow himself to appear on a poster like that, but it is even more appalling still that people seeing the poster would think that was okay or cool and presumably go out and buy tickets. LISA Okay, and what about Donovan? With his long, flowing robes, tousled curls and somnambulistic voice he parted the seas and attracted the worship of teen groupies. His songs, such as 'Atlantis' where he glamourized underwater utopia, 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' where he embued a haunting, confessional retrospective,'Mellow Yellow', an anthem to psychedelia and 'Jennifer Juniper' a pure-pop love song transfixed a nation. Wasn’t he God-like? Why do musicians have to be on such a short leash as opposed to politicians and spiritual leaders? And was Donovan perceived as an idol or hero back in the day? JOHN He was briefly, but Donovan was a much sweeter, less acidic character than Lennon. His attitudes and thoughts were primarily those of “the flower power generation.” It is usually the gobby, opinionated ones – Lennon, Dylan, Jim Morrison, John Lydon, even the Gallaghers in rock who do best. Dead pop stars are often elevated to saint-like status. Kurt Cobain and Joe Strummer have both been canonised for dying young, and ironically so has John Lennon. He is often described as being some sort of saint. He may have spent a week in bed in Amsterdam, and written beautiful songs about bringing power to the people and imagining the world without possessions, but these are easy sentiments to make when you live in the Dakota Building. He was hardly ever going to have to pawn his guitars, and certainly didn't always practice what he preached. This was a man who dumped his first wife, didn't see his eldest son for many years, spent much of the 70s boozed and stoned out of his mind, and also treated his former band mates and fans with cold regard. Lennon from a young age had to live life permanently under intolerable pressure and in the public spotlight. Who of us is to say that he or she would have he behaved any better or worse in similar circumstances? Sainthood, however, does seem to have been rather too easily bestowed on him for just writing a few pretty songs and with scant thought to the fuller picture. I think Lennon had mellowed a lot, although by no means entirely by the end. He was shot after all by someone whose autograph he had signed earlier that afternoon, but beyond that the lyrics on his half of that last album, 'Double Fantasy', are sweeter, more enthused by life and seemingly content. It’s easy to speculate about someone who died when I was fifteen, but those five years he spent from 1975 to 1980 in the musical wilderness and out of the public shadow seemed to have done him a lot of good. I do suspect though that there was a time in the late 60s and early 70s that, with all the booze and the drugs, his natural capacity for vitriol, and the awful, relentless pressure of fame, he could be something of a monster. I think all too often we ask too much of our musicians, try to expand and blow them up into more than they are, to pretend and convince ourselves that they know something that we don’t, that because they have written a few pretty lyrics and perhaps as a result live in bigger houses that they have some sort of answers that us more ordinary mortals don’t. They don’t. They are like us, floundering around in the dark, trying to make sense of things, often not making a very good job of it, putting different hats on and masks on to see what fits. The only difference is that they are doing it in public rather than private and we, therefore, as a result, expect too much of them. LISA But as we free ourselves from our subconscious and reveal our innermost thoughts, by speaking or writing poetry or songs or creating revolution or social change, isn’t that when the influence is greatest – not when we’re in the thick of it? So, when school children sing, 'Imagine' and send balloons up in the air, they are transformed, aren’t they, even if the original transformer had flaws. So, both the hero and the idol create a trickle-down effect and ultimately disappear anyway. To that end, these children don’t see the grey that we see as we get older, but don’t they still enjoy their heroes? Does it harm us to remember Lennon as “the working class hero” with an expense account if his influence and art so significantly affected our own history?

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