Tag Archives: Imagine

With a Song in My Heart: V is for…

“Valotte” – Julian Lennon, 1984.

Without exception, the first reaction anyone has when hearing Julian Lennon sing is “wow, he really sounds like his dad.”  Released a mere four years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, “Valotte” would not sound out of place on Lennon the elder’s final album Double Fantasy.  The entertainment press of the day, as skilled as their contemporary counterparts in crafting stories from smoke and nonsense, immediately started running rumors that the three surviving Beatles were planning to reunite and begin recording again with Julian standing in for his father.  Paul McCartney shrugged them off of course, pointedly asking why Julian would ever want that.  Every son stands in the shadow of his father, and Julian (and Sean) Lennon are within the umbra of one of the most famous and beloved musicians who ever lived.  Julian writes in the introduction to his mother Cynthia’s book John that strangers approach him constantly and tell him that they loved his dad.  To him, though, John Lennon wasn’t the larger-than-life rock god who gave the world the Beatles and Imagine, he was a flawed, often absent and cruel parent, and the relationship was complicated until the moment John died and remains so long afterwards.

As I expect Julian does from time to time, I envy those friends of mine who can still ring their dad up and kvetch about the Jays and the Argos and how the kid is getting along in school.  For all but eleven of my years I’ve tried to manage a relationship with someone who is not here.  The lack of resolution, of closure, can at times feel like a wound that begins to bleed again just when you think it’s finally scabbed over.  From the moment you enter the world, you have this aspirational model waiting to show you how it should be done.  (For some, you have a cautionary tale waiting instead.)  Legacies are a difficult birthright, a yardstick by which every single thing you do will be measured, evaluated, and just as often, judged.  When the legacy is invisible, the task is even more difficult.  You’ll never be able to ask him if he’s proud, or, conversely, on a bad day, you’ll never be able to shove it in his face and say, look what I did without your help.

In his youth my father was a high school football hero fighting off women with a stick.  I was a quiet geek whose tongue would knot itself in the presence of a breath of perfume.  In career he was a civil law barrister and solicitor with his own practice.  I am… well, incredibly not.  There was a moment, maybe a couple of years in high school, where I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I figured out what courses I should be taking to ready myself for the inevitable university degree and law school, and yet, it isn’t as if in my spare time I was watching L.A. Law or Law & Order obsessively, or hanging out at the local courthouse watching proceedings, or tracking down my late father’s attorney friends and asking them if I could fetch coffee and read amicus briefs in their offices over the summer.  I was watching movies, writing Star Trek fan fiction, drawing James Bond comic books, playing drums in my hometown’s world-renowned marching band and trying and failing to work up the courage to step up to the plate with girls that I liked.  It was fairly obvious by my graduating year that law was not where my passion lay, despite the caveats of my grandmother (the other one) that a law degree was the golden ticket.  She’s not entirely wrong, and there are moments when I think I should have just gone ahead with it.  Hindsight and all that.  And since any success I would have would be compared to my father’s anyway, maybe it should have been an apples to apples comparison.

When the sons of John Lennon decided to go into music, they were walking into it fully understanding of the comparisons that would be made, and that the success of their father was an impossible benchmark.  At the risk of sounding a bit trite, they had to be doing it for love, and because they were driven by a desire to express their own creativity and personality, not to merely offer a pale imitation of what had gone before.  Even with your father present and guiding you, a son always has to forge his own path.  On occasion that path can venture through dark territory, and perhaps it will never lead to a place as prosperous as that achieved by your dad, but it will, at the end, be your own.  In the music video for the other single release from that 1984 album, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” Julian performs with his band while a silhouetted figure, strongly implied to be John, dances in a brightly lit doorway attempting to distract him.  Eventually Julian stops looking and continues to go his own way instead.  Rightly or wrongly, it’s his choice, as it is for the rest of us.

Had I tried to be more like my father, it’s arguable I might have had a more financially rewarding career, more options now for experiencing more of the world and giving those closest to me more options with theirs as well.  Would that translate to a better life?  The people I know who are wealthy certainly don’t seem like pillars of joy.  Maybe we’d be happiest of all sitting on a pebble by a river playing guitar.  When we truly commit to our life and become willing to accept the consequences of our choices whatever they may be, the shadow of the father fades away.  I think about this in the context of being a father myself and knowing that at the very least, my son will have a better life than his birth dad’s, and every opportunity to exceed my achievements as well.  But none of that matters so long as at the end of it all, he can look back and say that he was happy.  I guess that’s the irony that becomes apparent only when you get to the other side of the divide between having a parent and being one.  You expend so much energy in thinking you’ll never live up to your father’s impossible standard only to find that he never wanted you to in the first place.  He always wanted you to be your own man, and to pass the same lesson on to your own son.  That’s how you make him proud, even if he’s not here to see it.

With a Song in My Heart: I is for…

“Imagine” – John Lennon, 1971.

I doubt there is a soul reading this entry who’s followed my work and finds this choice surprising.  You could even argue that it’s the safe choice, the obvious choice.  Lennon again.  A few more fawning paragraphs about his immortal brilliance, as if I haven’t said enough about him already.  I do find myself growing a bit self-conscious whenever I drop in a Lennon reference, no matter how oblique, but the fact of the matter is that he and his music linger each day at the edge of perception, seeping into actions, words and deeds like an ethos that informs every moral choice.  I can’t point to a single event in my life that “Imagine” evokes because it’s always been there, like a continuous score for a movie whose running time is 38 years and counting.  Like the lyric says, I’m not the only one who thinks so.  President Jimmy Carter once said that in the many countries he’s visited, he has heard it being used equally with national anthems – imagine there’s no countries indeed.  (Given that a majority of the world’s national anthems are about war, it seems only right to have a dovish counterargument.)  So I suspect there’s meager appetite for a critical dissection of the chord structure, the history of the composition and the words; more scholarly scribes have covered this territory with far more accomplished diction.  We’ll go another way.

Isn’t it a bit ironic, the question might be asked, for a person who has lost so many of the important people in his life – some at a very early age, no less – to embrace a song whose first line is “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”?  The simple answer is yeah, people are walking contradictions.  The deeper answer goes more to the essence of faith and belief and whether or not one’s ability to grieve demands a contrived Judeo-Christian image of departed relatives lounging on clouds and strumming harps.  Baptized Anglican, my gradual disillusionment with religion was like the disintegration of a finely woven tapestry, its threads pulled away one at a time by doubt and dissatisfaction with pat answers to lingering spiritual questions.  I didn’t care for bromides like “your dad’s in a better place now.”  No he bloody well isn’t, the better place is here with his wife and his children.  When my frail grandmother died almost a decade later, the weak sauce offered at the funeral was “your grandmother has been made young and strong in the embrace of the Lord.”  Like a salesman telling his mark exactly what they wanted to hear, to close the deal.  And I wasn’t in the mood to buy.  With age I understand now why those lines are delivered in those moments, but back then they did nothing but stoke anger and resentment at the whole enterprise.  I rejected attempts at comfort or counselling because I quite honestly thought the whole world was full of shit.  It was quite easy to imagine there was no heaven.  I didn’t even have to try.  Lennon got it, though.  He dared us to imagine living for today because there weren’t nothin’ waiting round the next bend.

When Pat Tillman died, a bunch of famous politicians showed up at his funeral and spouted the usual script about Tillman being taken to the Lord’s side.  Tillman’s brother took the dais and called them out on it, asking them to keep their religion to themselves and reminding them that Pat had been an atheist and that as far as Pat’s beliefs were concerned, “he’s f—in’ dead.”  There is this tendency for human beings to handle loss by pretending that it isn’t really a loss after all.  That the deceased have merely changed lodging arrangements.  They’re just living one universe over, but there’s no reliable wi-fi between there and here.  We don’t really seem capable of being able to process the concept that something can be present in one minute and utterly vanished from existence in the next.  Instead we imagine an otherworldy waystation, and that some day we’ll catch up to those who’ve gone ahead.  The better we behave while we’re here, the better our chances of a good seat in the great beyond.

John Lennon says no, this is all there is.  While one might initially be inclined to think of that in a negative connotation, I choose to see it as quite hopeful.  Here, in this life, we have everything we’ll need.  Because it contains everything that ever was and ever will be.  The cosmos is the greatest recycler – new worlds are born from the deaths of the old.  Every atom in your body and in the chair you’re sitting in and the air you’re breathing and even the words you’re reading right now came from a supernovaed star and will still be here long after they have ceased to exist in their present state.  People die and are transformed.  Physicality becomes memory, and the impact of action becomes imprinted in history.  The music remains embedded in the record even after the needle has been removed.  Footprints on the soft, malleable continuum of time are immune to the wash of the tide.

So can you imagine there’s no heaven and still consider yourself a spiritual person?  Maybe that’s one contradiction too many for some, but it’s what I’ve considered myself to be.  There is a magnificence to the universe that moves me.  Throughout the chaos, patterns emerge, and their perfection is, for lack of a less obvious term, musical.  My mind grows restless at the idea of settling on an answer provided for me by thousands of years of dogma; I would rather search out my own, and spend life imagining possibilities and connecting with those who fancy the notion of life as this ongoing quest, with all the supplies we require laid out before us in a limitless bounty.  Living for today, and in peace.

I hope someday you’ll join me.

Son of a preacher man

apostle

I’m fighting through a fog today; one of those insidious, creeping mists that slithers through your ears into your brain and blurs the connections between the synapses with shrouded fingers.  Maybe it’s choosing to give the nervous system a day off from the habitual double espresso poured into a concoction of milk and caramel.  Maybe it’s the gray sky choking out all the blue, and the persistent drizzle draping the morning in damp.  Whatever the reason, my gaze turns inward and I find myself unsatisfied with what I’m looking at.  I’m feeling like one of those old-timey salesmen drifting from town to town in a creaky covered wagon pushing miracle cures.  Like a prettily painted canvas being eaten by moths on the other side.  It’s the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two out, and I don’t have a bat.  Yet that doesn’t stop me from telling you how everything should be, how you should do this and that and why these things should be more like these other things, and if we would all only do more of this the world would be so much better.  The saying goes, a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; I’m claiming in my arrogance that I know the value of everything, and I’m damn well gonna tell you about it.

I’m a preacher reading from a Bible of empty verse.  And this morning we’ve hit a point of critical mass where the contradictions are crushing me, smelling like that unfortunately familiar odor of hypocrisy.  Who the hell do I think I am, and where do I get off?  I have no business telling you how to write a novel, I’ve never published one.  I have no business telling you how to make a movie, I’ve never directed one.  I have no business telling you how to run a country, I’ve never stood for office.  Robert McKee, the well-known screenwriting teacher who has never had a screenplay produced, is fond of remarking that the world is full of people who teach things they themselves cannot do, but I find it difficult to stand comfortably in those ranks.  I’m much more inclined towards the ones who merely prove they can do the work without crowing about it or trying to pass the divine secret onto a host of others.  People who lead by example and not by lecture.  Because when you stand up to the microphone and start your diatribe, there is every possibility that someone in the audience is going to yell back, “Fraud!” – and be bang on.

There are as many opinions as there are stars in the universe, and the democratization of media through blogs and the Internet has ensured that every single one will have its day, regardless of weight, validity or even coherence.  The op-ed, once the realm of what might loosely be termed “learned elders,” is now ubiquitous and available to all comers.  The result?  A veritable cacophony of voices in self-constructed pulpits telling you how things should be, how you’re living your life wrong, that if only these ten specific events would occur then all would be milk and honey, and you’re all idiots for not doing exactly what I say you should have started doing fifteen years ago.  It is not even to suggest that such opinions are always offered from a place of malice or spite – in fact, a great majority are genuine and selfless offers of help.  But there is a line when we cross over from teacher to preacher.  It’s porous, foggy, and easy to miss, and I’m worried that too much of my work falls on the wrong side of the DMZ.  And that my pulpit is a balsa wood facade, and it’s crumbling under the weight of empty words.

In the 1970’s, after the split-up of the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song called “How Do You Sleep?”, which was a thinly-veiled attack on Paul McCartney, featuring such accusatory lyrics as “the only thing you done was ‘Yesterday'” and “those freaks was right when they said you was dead.”  At the time it was thought to be in response to some like-minded sentiments found in Paul’s solo work directed at his former bandmate.  Yet in years following, Lennon had a change of heart as to who his song was really about.  He offered:

It’s not about Paul, it’s about me. I’m really attacking myself. But I regret the association, well, what’s to regret? He lived through it. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about these things and not what the writer or commentator thinks about it. Him and me are okay.

I found the first part of the mea culpa intriguing, particularly as dovetailed with one’s perception of John as a contradictory man full of anger who preached peace.  Beatle-weary wags might suggest that it was a half-hearted chickening out in the face of bad press, that if you watch the profanity-laced performance of the song in the movie Imagine you can see for yourself how pissed at Paul John really was.  As I’ve often been reminded, however, the criticisms that sting the most are those we know are about genuine failings within ourselves.  Perhaps John took Paul’s songs personally because he knew on some level that Paul was correct.  And that the wrath flung back towards the man he once stood beside on stage and in the studio was indeed meant to be directed inward.  “You must have learned something in all those years.”

When we’re preaching, ultimately it’s for a congregation of one.  The only person we’re trying to convince, cajole, persuade, motivate, shake out of their complacency or even knock off their immaculate marble Doric-columned pedestal is ourselves.  Even the most rage-filled screed against the unfair world is us picking away at our own flaws, burning off the fat, tearing away veneers of falsehood to get at the kernels of truth hiding in the innermost layers of our soul.  So we can be okay with occasionally having no real ground to stand on; we don’t have to feel like complete phonies.  Posting about how a story should or shouldn’t be written is my own inner Robert McKee giving myself a stern lecture, because I’m the person who needs to work harder at his craft.  Musing about how the world should operate is a challenge to myself to do something about it instead of just voting and complaining.  If someone else happens to agree, wonderful – but I’m the one who is meant to benefit, if, naturally, I choose to get off my duff and take my own advice.  I can be okay with sermonizing from time to time because I can shoulder the responsibility of calling myself out if I think I’m full of it.  That doesn’t make me a hypocrite, or a fraud – just a soldier in the cause of trying to figure out the big mystery with the limited tools at my disposal.  As expected, mistakes are inevitable and necessary, but hell, man, every stumble is still forward motion.  The exercise is a lifelong endeavor that ends only when the lungs breathe their last.

So shine on, crazy preacher man.  Those freaks was right about you.

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.