For me, a more fitting Lennon tribute than any out there

Well, as you know, today is John Lennon’s birthday — he would have been 73.

Or maybe you don’t know. As I’ve said in the past, it falls on the same day on which we celebrated Ecuadorean independence, back when I lived there when I was a kid. So it’s easier for me to remember.

It’s not exactly “Ecuadorean Independence Day.” It was the day that the city of Guayaquil managed to free itself from Spanish rule. The rest of the country had to wait a bit.

I lived in Guayaquil for two-and-a-half years — the longest I ever lived anywhere growing up. I attended 5th and 6th grades at Colegio Americano. The city had a major boulevard named Nueve de Octubre, and we celebrated the date with a whole week off from school. By contrast, we only got a day-and-a-half for Christmas. (But then, the school year ended a week or two later, so that was something.) Kids remember things that give them a week off from school.

But I digress. Anyway, I’ve told you all that before.

Today I ran into something on the Web headlined, “It’s Johnny’s Birthday: Nine Lennon Tributes.”

I checked it out, and it contained some usual suspects such as George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago,” and Paul McCartney’s “Here Today.” And the first thing I thought was, wouldn’t it have been great if they’d been at the height of their songwriting powers at the time, which they weren’t? Then the next thing I thought was, no, I’m glad their best was lavished on the stuff we know and love that wasn’t all about the tragedy of Lennon’s death.

So I thought, what would be a great song to remember John Lennon by? Not the overly celebrated “Imagine” — I’m sorry, but he wasn’t even a Beatle anymore then. And definitely not “Across the Universe,” which was an almost entirely ignored song on the ragged “Let It Be” album at the time. Kids who were born years and even decades after the Beatles broke up think “Across the Universe” is a great Beatles song. They even named that movie for it (starring a kid born eight years after Lennon’s death). Personally, I like the Fiona Apple version better. She made me realize how good it was. Great video, too.

And then I thought of something far better.

The first time I heard the live BBC recording of “All My Loving,” I wasn’t ready for it. I was in a music store (remember those?) in Columbiana Mall, thumbing through discs, and it came on, and I thought, Nice… a live version of “All My Loving.” Which, of course, is a song on which McCartney sang lead.

But then, 1:14 into it on the YouTube clip above, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I heard John harmonizing with Paul on the second “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you…” And it was a shock. I hadn’t expected it. It was like he had risen from the dead to sing along with the tune, right there in the store. It was very clear, but raw and immediate-sounding.

I later realized that he was singing behind Paul on the original recording on that part, but George Martin had recorded it so smoothly that the backup doesn’t POP out the way it does on the more primitive BBC version.

Anyway, it caused me to appreciate the song on a whole new level.

There’s just something about that tune…

Sometime later, we went to see McCartney perform at Williams-Brice Stadium. He started out with “Drive My Car.” Then he did a couple of other songs, and it was nice, but not special. It’s like I was seeing and hearing “Wings” Paul instead of Beatles Paul.

Then, without warning or preference, he launched into “All My Loving,” and a tidal wave of You are really here and that’s an actual Beatle washed over me and the whole audience, or the Boomers there anyway. It was the sort of reaction you might expect on “She Loves You” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” but this was the one that did it. We were there with our three oldest kids, but suddenly everything felt just like 1964 — only better, because I didn’t get to see the Beatles live in 1964, even on TV (on account of being in Ecuador). There was a magic, for a moment, that I don’t think I’ve ever felt at another live show. Also, some sadness, since there was no John on the harmony.

So it may seem odd, that being a Paul song, but I like it better as a John Lennon tribute than any of those other things…

29 thoughts on “For me, a more fitting Lennon tribute than any out there

  1. Mark Stewart

    I strongly dislike the Beatles’ music, but it always made my blood run cold when tourists would stop me to ask where, exactly, he died – and then want to stand on the spot to have their photo taken.

    They have great doormen at the Dakota and you could feel their sorrow as they stood impassively watching; at the (in)humanity again revealed.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Strongly dislike the Beatles’ music?”

      How can that be? I mean, there are so many different KINDS of Beatles music; how can you dislike a category that broad?

      It’s a body of work that includes:
      “All My Loving”
      “Love Me Do”
      “Please Please Me”
      Some awesome R&B covers early on, and a broad range of THOSE, from “Twist and Shout” to “You Really Got a Hold on Me”
      “Day Tripper”
      “And Your Bird Can Sing”
      “Nowhere Man”
      “Norwegian Wood”
      “Eleanor Rigby”
      “In My Life”
      “Strawberry Fields Forever”
      “Fool On the Hill”
      “Good Morning Good Morning”
      “A Day in the Life”
      “Hey Jude” (the flip side of “Revolution,” which hardly sounds like it come from the same band)
      “Let it Be”

      And I’m not even counting George Harrison’s contributions, from “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” and “Don’t Bother Me” to “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.”

      That’s a broad category of good stuff to “strongly dislike.”

      It’s not like Mark to sneer at the Beatles to achieve snob status, like the characters in “High Fidelity,” or my good friend Otis Taylor, who years ago said he prefers the Plastic Ono Band.

      So it puzzles me.

      In any case, I can’t see remembering any of these guys by their post-Beatles work. Aside from “Imagine” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” neither Lennon nor McCartney produced anything that, musically, measured up to the Beatles standard. (Paul understood this; John did not. Paul, unlike John, never resented the fact that people appreciated him most as a Beatle; he got it.) And while I dug “All Things Must Pass,” I prefer “Don’t Bother Me.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Here’s a stretcher of an analogy.

        I think running down the Beatles is like expressing disgust with the idea of American exceptionalism. It’s a way of showing yourself to be an advanced thinker, who goes beyond the obvious.

        But sometimes the obvious is obvious for a REASON. There are just so many very GOOD reasons why the Beatles are seen as the most creative, and most broadly appealing, of all pop groups, ever. Dig into the evidence, and you can get lost in it, there’s so much.

        I think a lot of people resent the Beatles’ cultural hegemony. Do you realize that when you type “and your” into Google, you get “And Your Bird Can Sing?”

        Or maybe just I do…

        Anyway, just went and listened to it. That guitar intro provides an uplift comparable to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine.” Barry should have put it on his Monday morning tape, as an antidote to “sad bastard” music…

      2. Bryan Caskey

        The disdain expressed for very popular things goes beyond music, and in this instance The Beatles’ work. I agree that the disdain is put on by someone as their way of broadcasting to other that they are a higher-thinker than everyone else. But it’s not just music. Disdain for the classics cuts across everything.

        For instance, in the shooting/gun world, there are tons of people who take pride in expressing contempt for the Colt 1911 pistol. It’s probably the most widely-accepted and most successful handgun design ever (the Glock being a close second in my opinion), but there are plenty of people who like to run it down to show how “advanced” they are.

        As with the Beatles and Browning’s 1911, sometimes things are popular for a reason – they’re classics that function well and continue to remain relevant throughout the course of decades, as they continue to influence contemporary work.

        Also, as an aside: In “High Fidelity” Barry didn’t scorn The Beatles. He actually had scorn for putting them in a Top 5 list because they were TOO obvious. Barry wanted you to think about music, and he viewed putting The Beatles in a Top 5 list was taking the easy way out.

      3. Mark Stewart

        I haven’t liked them since I was five years old. There is nothing intellectual, or faux intellectual, about it. It’s instinctual, apparently.

        Likewise, I hate tomatoes. Even down to fresh yellow cherry types even my dog likes.

        The Beatles, tomatoes, and sand in my wet swimsuit. Top three avoidants for me.. .

  2. Norm Ivey

    Starting Over has always been the song I think of as a memorial for Lennon. It celebrated the joy he had in his life with his family, and the optimism he had for the future. It embodied an emotional peace within himself that Imagine, Instant Karma, and Give Peace a Chance only wished for. Maybe a little too Pop, but it is sincere Pop. Breaks my heart when I hear it.

  3. Scout

    All My Loving is a good one. The counterpoint between the bass line and melody is really good. But I think If I Fell is my favorite for the harmonies. In My Life is pretty good too. Intuition is my favorite Lennon song. It’s a bit cheesy with the synthesizer but I love the line “When I’m deep down and out, I lose communication with nothing left to say, it’s then I realize it’s only a condition of seeing things that way”

  4. Phillip

    It’s a great song in many other ways too, but of course that’s really mostly to McCartney’s credit, who was the one who wrote that song as Lennon acknowledged. By the time of “remember I’ll always be true” (12 seconds into the song), we’ve gone through eight (8!) chords or harmonies. That’s more harmonic motion than in some current pop stars’ complete oeuvre combined! (well, I exaggerate, but not by much…)

    That sets the tone for the general harmonic restlessness of the song, balanced by the relative simplicity (thus, singability and memorability) of the melody, as Scout points out in referring to the counterpoint between it and the bass line, which has to hop all over the place. Ultimately if you listen closely, the song never really makes up its mind whether it is in G Major or its relative minor, e minor (they share the same key signature of one sharp). It’s always vacillating between the two, a metaphor for the combination of the joy of being in love and the pain over being separated from the one you love, separation being of course the subject of the lyrics of the song.

    As for truly-Lennon written songs…as with so many Beatles songs it’s hard to know just who came up with the idea for which particular musical device…but knowing that Lennon wrote “I want you/she’s so heavy” for Abbey Road, if it was his idea for the three-minute coda with the repeating 5-bar bass line, that alone would cement his greatness for me.

    1. Doug Ross

      To paraphrase Phillip’s brilliant analysis for those of us who are deficient musically, “It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it!”

      1. Doug Ross

        I liked a lot of Beatles songs but never “loved” the Beatles (I know, heresy). My absolute favorite Beatles song of all time is “The Long and Winding Road”.

      2. bud

        I’m with you Doug. Not sure I can articulate why Beatles music is fun to listen to but it is. To me any pop music that isn’t fun to listen to, regardless of any technical virtues, is something to be avoided. (Please note this comment is limited to POP music)

    2. Kathryn Fenner

      The Beatles famously could not read music (leading to the quip about how Sir Paul’s was the first as-told-to symphony). Their chords make sense if you are just noodling around on a guitar, not so much if you grew up on Mozart.

      Jazz musicians love Beatles chord progressions!

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Let’s face it, it you dig into John Lennon’s post-Beatles work, you come up with a lot of bitter, unpleasant stuff that doesn’t make you (or me at least) like him very much.

    For instance, his “How Can You Sleep?” is far more memorable than George’s “All Those Years Ago.”
    I’m just not a big Lennon fan, when it comes to the Yoko era.

    I used to be. When I was young, like most people, I thought John way cooler than Paul. But I decided later that I was wrong. One really doesn’t have to play it cool at the expense of making the world a little colder. Paul’s generous appreciation of his fans, his acceptance of what they loved him for, was a far more positive, life-affirming trait than John’s chilly disdain.

    I wrote a column about that, right after Linda McCartney’s death… Can’t seem to find it, though. Must have been pre-blog…

    1. bud

      “Whatever Gets you Through the Night” was a masterpiece. As good as any pop song ever written. It was lively and fun while at the same time had a masterful saxaphone overture.

  6. Phillip

    “I think running down the Beatles is like expressing disgust with the idea of American exceptionalism. It’s a way of showing yourself to be an advanced thinker, who goes beyond the obvious.” Except that the Beatles’ appeal was and remains quite global, while the doctrine of American exceptionalism is only “obvious” to (some) Americans, pretty much. Also kind of ironic to bring that up in this context given the US government’s own checkered history vis-a-vis Lennon. Maybe on Lennon’s birthday, at least, you could find a different example.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “is only ‘obvious’ to (some) Americans…”

      That is completely untrue. Most of the world has looked to this country since 1945 (OK, since 1991; before that it was only the “free world”) as the chief bulwark of collective security, among a lot of other roles that only the world’s one “indispensable nation” can play.

      Ask Tony Blair. And even though you don’t think I can think outside the American box, I see this nation the way he does. I am able to stand back and ask, “What nation in the world is most likely to be able to uphold liberal values in the world, and act effectively in reaction to everything from a humanitarian crisis to bullying by a local tyrant?” And the answer I come up with — the answer anyone not wracked with envy or American hegemony guilt would come up with — is the United States.

      This is a rational calculation, not some jingoistic emotional one.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and before someone responds with that ridiculous talking point of the left, “Blair was Bush’s lap dog,” allow me to point out the truth: Blair had a far greater understanding of the roles that the U.S. and Britain needed to play in the world than Bush ever did. He went along with Bush because Bush was doing what he, Blair, believed needed to be done.

        For an intelligent analysis of Blair’s role in the War on Terror, revisit this David Brooks piece.

        It’s a shame that the British people suffer from such a post-empire inferiority complex that they couldn’t see that Blair was his own man. They saw him agreeing with Bush and assumed Bush must be the one driving the agenda, a conclusion they could only have reached if they had never listened to what Blair said.

      2. bud

        “What nation in the world is most likely to be able to uphold liberal values in the world, and act effectively in reaction to everything from a humanitarian crisis to bullying by a local tyrant?”

        Much of the world sees US as the bullying, imperialistic tyrant. I guess when you drop napalm, cluster bombs and drone bombs on people it can color your opinion of the so-called “American Exceptionalism”. I really don’t think envy comes into play at all.

        1. Doug Ross

          If you have a country built upon the genocide of American Indians, slave labor of Africans, second class citizenship for women for most of its existence, I’d hate to see an unexceptional country.

          Much of the whatever is exceptional is a function of population, geography, resources, and capitalism. And the willingness (perhaps even desire in some segments) to drop bombs around the world.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          And that was precisely why so many objected to our actions in Iraq.

          We had all the justification in the world to go in there, based on our experience trying to contain Saddam over the previous 12 years, but people didn’t see that. Too many people saw it as Bud does — Iraq was just this guy, walking down the street minding his own business, when the big bad U.S. went and knocked him down, out of pure meanness.

          Anyway, I think there was a lot of emotion directed at the United States by people who did perceive it that way, and who had higher expectations of us and our role in the world.

          My point is, those higher expectations are the norm, especially among people who have an understanding of geopolitics. Our role as guarantor of collective security is unparalleled for a number of reasons, not least being the fact that we maintain the capability.

  7. bud

    We had all the justification in the world to go in there, based on our experience trying to contain Saddam over the previous 12 years,

    Do you really want to go there? Why don’t we discuss something uncontroversial instead, like abortion.

  8. Richard

    Ummm – that’s NOT John Lennon singing.

    That is George Harrison doing the harmony, as he always did live every single time.

    On the record it is a double tracked recording of Paul doing the harmony with his own voice, and it pops out just fine.

    I am thinking this post must be putting us on…? Testing Beatle fans? Because even the casual Beatles fan knows that is Harrison on the harmony – and to make this a specific Lennon tribute gives me a chuckle.

    So now you know.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, you know, you caught me out.

      I went back and listened to the BBC version, meaning to hear it as CLEARLY being John, and… while it’s hard to tell for sure given the quality of the recording, it sound more like George.

      But when I first heard it in the background at that record store all those years ago (get it?), it sounded exactly like John to me. With headphones, it doesn’t so much.

      But I can’t be positive.

      When I hear “Don’t Bother Me” or “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You,” or “Roll Over, Beethoven,” there’s no doubt that its George. He had the most gutteral-sounding voice, and the thickest Scouse accent. It’s harder for me to be sure when it’s him and Paul singing together.

      And on the origincal studio recording, the backup vocal on that verse is hardly noticeable. It pops out a bit more prominently on the BBC version. I just thought, that first time I heard it, that it was John…


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