Thursday, December 08, 2011


Well, let's see, I count, ummm, half-a-dozen unfinished blog posts since we last spoke; as per usual, when I try to write, I either find myself with too little or way too much to say about a subject.  And since, of course, I choose the subjects I blog about, it's the latter option that maintains more often than not, and I wind up feverishly composing two or three long, clotted, overly-digressive paragraphs at a time, I try stuffing too much into too small a space (between that statement and the image above, I shudder to think of the comment-thread spam I'm in for now), and I wind up exhausted, frustrated, with protruding forehead veins and thoughts jammed  together like gnarled typewriter keys.  (Ask your parents what those were.)  Sometimes I luck out and catch a wave and composition goes relatively smoothly; most often (when writing prose in particular) not.  Long, slow sessions with the compositional hammer and chisel have become commonplace, unless there's a deadline involved, in which case I seethe and pace and chain-smoke in a black haze of high anxiety and self-recrimination until the last possible moment (or, to be more precise, a minute or two past the last possible moment), at which point I snap into adrenalized focus and the words just gush out.  Some of the work I've produced in those circumstances turned out to be rather good, really, but at the cost of a lot of good will from editors and patrons and possibly large chunks of my health and sanity.  (It's said that Doug Kenney of National Lampoon/Animal House/Caddyshack fame had the same guilt-ridden procrastinatory m.o.  I don't know if I should be pleased that I share an idiosyncratic working method with a bona-fide comedy genius or frightened that I too will wind up coked-out, alienated, and eventually impaled on rocks beneath some crumbling Hawaiian cliff or its rough equivalent.)

So here I am again, not so much blocked but clogged, and desperate to keep some thin tributary of the content stream flowing, if not for my readers - I'd be foolish and delusional to believe that I have any, apart from the more indulgent of my family and friends and the occasional hapless sap who stumbles upon this place while doing a Google search on "what smells like ian mcculloch" or "billy ray cyrus as a girl" - then for my much-damaged sense of accomplishment, which could stand to be jacked up occasionally, even if it's just an inch or two.  And hell, I've got a backlog of material from my younger, more prolific days that, if it was published at all (and a fair amount of it was), hasn't been seen in years by anyone.  Anyone apart from me, of course, sighing over the browned-edged newsprint of a fifteen-year-old copy of a low-rent music and entertainment rag, the aging-lamestain version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, choked up with nostalgia for a time when it all came so much easier.  I compare where I'm at now with how I was then (or how I remember I was then, which is assuredly wildly inaccurate, all the misery and pain of those days made over into ease and triumph through a rose-tinted rearview mirror, darkly) and am reminded of my all-time favorite Hunter Thompson quote: "...I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work.  I suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs.  Old whores don't do much giggling."  Of course, that doesn't exactly apply to me, since I'm hardly an old whore, more a lifelong amateur who can barely even give it away anymore, and I do still find myself giggling quite a bit in the act of compositional congress, albeit more like Richard Widmark at the top of the staircase these days.  But I think the old bastard was onto something (it's probably best not to read too much into the fact that, for the second time in two paragraphs, I've cited an idolized writer who crumbled from brilliance to self-destruction and premature death); writing is a little like fucking.  It comes easy and frequently when you're starting out (if you're lucky and you're good at it).  You're constantly chasing it, engaging in constant congress with whatever subject matter has the angles and contours you favor (though after a few drinks, you'll write about almost anything).  Then, gradually, it all changes.  You begin to realize that what was once fun hides all kinds of consequences, traumas, hurt feelings, broken hearts, performance anxiety, etc.  Suddenly, it's not so easy anymore.  Your creative drive diminishes. You run through the same tired variations over and over again. Maybe you start writing slicker, flashier sentences to overcompensate for the fact that your thinking's gone flabby and your ideas aren't big enough, but deep down, you know you're not fooling anyone.  It gets harder to rouse yourself.  Sometimes you can't get a piece up at all, and when you can, it sometimes takes forever to get to the climax.  But then again, when you do, it's often better and more satisfying than when you were young, dumb and full of cumbersome pretensions.  Experience counts for something; you know a few moves that the young ones don't.  And maybe some of your readers will find your receding punchlines distinguished.

("Receding punchlines," huh?  That's the best I can do?  Guess my stamina's not what it used to be...)

These rambling ruminations came about because I remembered that today marks the 31st anniversary of the day John Lennon was killed.  I think it's fair to say that there's pretty much nothing left to say about Lennon - a cursory online book search turns up over one thousand titles, including John Lennon and the Jews - Edition 2: A Philosophical RampageBiographies of Famous Stamp Collectors, Including Freddie Mercury, John Lennon, Maria Sharapova and More, and, of course, Stephen King Killed John Lennon - but that's never stopped anybody else, so why should I be any different?  

I can't think of any other dead rock icons who continue to resonate so strongly so long after their death.  There's Elvis, of course, but that's different - he was sui generis, remote, not even human somehow: a mythical figure placed among us, only to be corrupted and destroyed by sex, cheeseburgers, sequins, celluloid and time-release capsules.  The Man Who Fell to Earth, as directed by Norman Taurog.  (Michael Jackson came along a little later to star in his own, Terry Gilliam-helmed remake.)  Lennon, on the other hand, was all human, and thus far more interesting.  One of the few to be blessed/cursed with the same level of fame as Elvis, but too smart, self-conscious and insecure to feel comfortable with it.  So he pushed it, prodded it, stretched it out as far as he could, performed periodic acts of public self-immolation just to see how much heat and light he could give off, used the reach it gave him to embrace and push away in the same motion (walls and bridges, indeed), placed himself at the center of the universe and then conspicuously absented himself from it.

Imagine (ullgh, sorry) what it must have been like - to have your whims become movements, your offhand remarks turned into gospel (or heresy), your appetites considered sacraments, and your efforts to reclaim the basic choices in life (where to live, where to work, who to spend your days and nights with) looked upon as betrayal.  To have every single moment of your life subject to intense scrutiny.  And all because a couple of cosmic flukes - talent and timing - came together with enough combined force to change the landscape irreparably.  

The talent part we need neither discuss nor debate.  We can talk about the Beatles being the textbook definition of "greater than the sum of its parts," argue over how much Paul's presence (even after they stopped collaborating regularly) impacted/improved John's songwriting (and vice versa), etc. etc.  You can even reject his/their music wholesale, as many do, whether it simply doesn't move you or you're looking to topple the whole edifice of Boomer hegemony by knocking down the retaining wall.  But what John Lennon did, he was good at, and there are moments when he did what he did as well as anyone that's ever done it.  That alone is not enough to change the world; something greater and more powerful than yourself has to thrust you forward.  Which is where timing comes in, and Lennon was the prime beneficiary/victim of the most sustained run of perfect timing in modern popular culture.  Consider:

The Beatles wouldn't have made the tsunamic splash they had if they hadn't hit the American stage at precisely the right moment - just a few weeks after the mass trauma of JFK's assassination left a huge hole in the American psyche just waiting to be filled with youthful exuberance, trans-Atlantic cheekiness and mop-topped charisma.  Every pivot point on the cultural graph for the next few years coincided with the Fabs' arrival at those coordinates.  (Chicken/egg, I know, given the nature of parasitism and symbiosis that attends such phenomena, but their ability to feed off the culture and feed it back to them at exactly the right moment, which they did unerringly through the summer of '67 [give or take a Christ-bashing slip of the tongue here and there], transcends the cleverest calculation.  They synched up with the times as tightly as their guitars and harmonies locked in with Ringo's unflashy, rock-solid drum fills.)  The Beatles' split happened at exactly the right moment, conveniently ensuring that the chronological and emotional ends of the sixties happened at the same time.  (Okay, fine, you can throw in Altamont too, but even that could be looked at as the Stones' knack for scuffing up the coattails of their Northern rivals taken to its ultimate, unconscious extreme.  The Beatles filmed the terminal throes of their internal disintegration and opted to Let It Be, the Stones went them one better and invited cameras over to capture the whole damn counterculture destroying itself while they watched.  Tragic, horrific and stupid though it was, it was the final, decisive victory in the War of the Zeitgeist - the Beatles closed their circle and let their self-generated bad vibes blow them apart, while the Stones opened up and fed off the inexhaustible supply of bad vibes coming from without, fortifying their woozily triumphant stumble through the pure decadence that epitomized the decade to come.) 

As the four component parts of the Beatles split and drifted without apparent aim through the following decade, it seems that Lennon alone, even through the haze that enveloped him through much of it, retained that innate sense of timing.  Feinting and lurching, stabbing at significance, embracing self-parody, bottoming out at the dead center of the decade, and then - in his shrewdest, most brilliant move - disappearing for the rest of it.  No embarrassing disco moves, no attempts to grapple with the CBGB's crowd or catch the gob-shrapnel from the Sex Pistols' tragicomic perversion of the British Invasion.  (One of the Pistols' founding members, remember, was infamously booted for "liking the Beatles," but good ol' Johnny Rotten unwittingly followed the Lennon playbook anyway, loudly denouncing his band, making bizarre appearances on unlikely TV shows, and making an LP-sized declaration of independence calculated to alienate the vast majority of his fanbase.  The first Public Image Ltd. album is a direct spiritual descendant of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, whether he likes it or not.)  Lennon may have exiled himself simply to bake endless loaves of bread and look after his kid, an admirable personal choice (not that it hasn't stopped dozens of people from ascribing more sinister motives to it, casting it as the long-term effects of Japanese avant-garde hypnosis or some such thing), but in doing so, he also recused himself from having to deal with the messy chaos of the late seventies, from which few of his peers escaped unscathed.  

Of course, once he re-emerged, he wound up paying a greater price than any of them, but - as horrible as it is to say - his final act may have been the best-timed of all.  Lennon's death would have been one of the great rock tragedies no matter when it happened, but it wouldn't have been quite as devastating at any other time.  If it had happened ten years earlier, maybe - but that was such a bear market for rock star death that he might not have stood out that much, just another "J" in the alliterative litany of premature pop demise.  (And besides, Paul was already dead at the time.)  If he passed on somewhere in the middle of his "lost weekend," that would only have been pathetic - probably something like drunkenly swallowing the Kotex that fell from his forehead or being beaten to death by Pam Grier.  Or sometime in his househusband years, the result of accidental poisoning via tainted yeast - it would have been almost anticlimactic, an afterthought after putting what looked like a full stop on his public life.

Now consider when and how it actually went down.  He comes back after a five-year absence.  He collaborates with the wife on a new album, all about themselves, each other, and their lives.  He breaks his silence in a major way, granting more interviews than he's done since well before his old band broke up.  He's still feisty and outspoken, but seemingly at peace with himself and his legacy for the first time.  He's bursting with plans - more music, his first tour in a decade and a half, maybe even that reunion everyone's been fantasizing about... in other words, every single thing that came out of his mouth seemed composed for maximum irony.  Songs both written and mooted - "(Just Like) Starting Over," "Grow Old With Me," "Life Begins at 40"... making reference to martyred world leaders in every other interview... all those renewed hopes and ambitions... he couldn't have set himself up better if he'd been the cop with two days left 'til retirement or the flyboy about to marry his fiance after one last mission.  It would have been almost unnatural not to snuff it when he did, at that peak moment where nostalgia meets what-might-have-been.  (He even died in early December, thereby giving DJs everywhere license to play "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" once an hour for weeks thereafter.)

If he had gone on, what then?  A sold-out tour, further albums full of slickly-crafted, less-angst-ridden tunes, the potential return of the Fab (Fortyish) Four... how could any of those events live up to expectations?  Martyrdom was John Lennon's best possible career move.  (If you don't believe me, compare the reviews Double Fantasy got before 12/8/80 with those that came after.)  As a man, father, husband, colleague and friend, John Lennon's death was an unthinkable tragedy.  As an icon, trademark, symbol, trademark and Facebook avatar, it's the best thing that could have happened.

If the above comes off a trifle cynical, don't mind me.  Chalk it up to the fact that I, like every other obsessive, constructs their own personal Lennon from the materials - few of them tangible - left behind.  Mine lies somewhere between the simple, peace-loving saint figure some would make of him and the nasty, self-centered, henpecked bastard of others' invention.  I try to think of him as a flawed, troubled, blessed, cursed, regular human being.  Yet I still find myself seduced by the power of legend and wind up fighting against the forces that have rendered him more (and therefore less) than a man.  Somehow, ridicule and demystification seem like acts of respect.

Which brings me, after an increasingly typical pre-ambular meander (I thought I had no fresh content to contribute - I may well have been right!), to the thing I came here to post.  The following exercise in ridicule, demystification and exaltation was written in collaboration with my friend and mentor Kerry Joyce and published on the back page of the April, 1996 issue of Lollipop.  I love a good collaboration, but too few of them ever come off - in fact, after this one, we tried to replicate the effect on several other occasions and failed miserably every time.  Maybe this one worked because, even though we were a decade apart in age and similarly dissimilar in upbringing, we found a common language when it came to the subject of this piece, a language we could play with and toss back and forth.  It's a flawed piece, with so much I would do differently if I (co-)wrote it now, but, apart from repairing a typo or two and fixing a joke I misworded that's been driving me crazy for the last fifteen years, it appears here exactly as published, a tribute to its subject, who delighted in leaving imperfections in his finished product, and out of respect to my collaborator, who I've neither seen or heard from in over a decade but retain fond memories of.  I believe John Lennon wrote a song about that once.  I think it might have been "Happiness is a Warm Gun."

an exclusive interview with John Lennon

Mr. Lennon, you're one of the most successful pop performers of the century, and you've been dead for, I dunno, 15 years or something.  How does it feel?

Well, you know we all shine on and all that roobish but it gets to be a bit of a drag, you know.  EVERYBODY shining on all at once and that.  I mean it doesn't have to be me that's shining the brightest, but if somebody, anybody would, it'd liven up the place some.  It's worse than bloody Hamburg.

So are you still singing and performing?

No more than anybody else, all the bloomin' time.  I mean, that's all we do up here is sing praises unto God.  The accommodations are nice, splendid in fact, don't get me wrong,  It's better than the Dakota.  Heavens, yes.  But I didn't have to sing to the concierge about how GOOD the accommodations were eight days a fookin' week at the Dakota.  It gets a bit tedious, it's like when Paul wanted to do a hundred fookin' remixes of "Octopus's Garden."  We spent an eternity on that bloody song.  He thought it was some kind of brilliant song, and I mean it wasn't bad and all that, but you know, "Octobloodypus's Garden," after a while you just wanna come oop for some bloody air, have a smoke and look at something besides a bloody octopus.  You'd've needed a fooking octopus in the studio turning every knob in the place to make that song more than it was, which was a little bit of not mooch.

Have you been able to follow the trends in popular music from your new vantage point?

Well, I saw Paul on Saturday Night Live, if that's what you mean.  "He was a biker, and the biker didn't like her, but she loved that biker like an icon."  What a load of old shite.  He should get Linda to write his songs for him.  It would be an improvement.  I did meet that kid, what's his name, Cobain?  I was joking with him about how every fookin' bastard in the press was calling him "the new Lennon" and all that.  I told him, "You got it all wrong, Kurty-boy, someone else has to shoot you."  We had a bit of a giggle over that one.  Well, I did, anyway.

What do you think of the Beatles reunion and the remix of some of your outtakes?

Well, you know George and Ringo.  They were always whining about money.  They'd set my farts to music if there was a quid in it for 'em.  And you know, I wouldn't mind hearing it.  I haven't had the chance to really rip one in quite some time.  That's what I miss about living, really living, it's the little things.

You obviously didn't have much of a chance to state your case on The Beatles Anthology.  Are there any misconceptions you'd like to clear up for the record?

The walrus was Ringo.  I'm surprised nobody's figured that out yet.  I mean, compare the two sometime.  It's fookin' uncanny.

Are there any opportunities to explore your creative side up there?

Well, I could, you know.  I've been approached by Saint Paul, and Saint George, and even some bloke who calls himself Saint Ringo, but you know, without Yoko, there really isn't much point.  I told them if they could hook something up with her, maybe we could work something out, you know.  At least an album cover or something, but they won't go along with it.  They think she's evil or some bloody thing, but I keep telling them she isn't.  Pretentious, yes.  Evil, no.

So, how do you keep yourself busy up there?

We take turns beating the fook out of Albert Goldman.  Boy, was I well stoked when he came to town.  Usually, I'll take one arm, Lenny Bruce will take the other, and Elvis pummels the shite out of him.  He's a black belt, you know.  Of course, I don't see much of the King these days.  He's always going back to Earth, you know, showing up in a trailer park, just to keep the plebes happy.  And when he is up here, he's usually hanging out with Nixon.

So what's God like?

He's pretty small.  Tiny delicate hands, with the huge saucer eyes, and his ears are fookin' enormous, but his taste in music is up his arse.  How much Andrew Lloyd Webber can one God listen to?  But he's so small, it's almost freakish, really.  Foony fellow, though.  My first day here, he came up to me, sized me oop a little   and said, "So I'm a concept by which you measure your pain, am I?"  Then he leaned in and whispered, "That's why I called you home early.  Don't piss off the big guy."  His son's okay.  One of the first things He said to me was, "You know, you four are more popular than me.  Try as I may, I just can't sell as many albums."  Still, he somehow thinks that He and His Dad are real and that I'm just a bloody metaphor.  What an ego.  He's not the only martyr in the place, you know.  I was teaching him guitar for a while, you know, so that when he comes back, He can really make an impression.  I gave up on Him after a while.  Keeps asking me to teach him "Rocky Raccoon."  Fook, man...

Any message for the folks back on Earth?

Just one.  Hey Paul, go to bloody Hell, and take Linda with you.


Oh, and while I'm here, I've contributed another piece to Hipfish, on more or less the same subject as the first one, and with predictably diminished returns.  But it's not utterly worthless, so, if you care to, you can read it here.

No comments: