Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Symbolic Comrades

"Death of a Beatle," phooey--he'd been the most outspoken ex-Beatle for 10 stubborn, right-headed years. "End of the '60s," asinine--if the decade wasn't finished on 31 December 1969, then it bit the dust a few weeks earlier at Altamont, or a few years later with McGovern. Yet there is a sense in which John Lennon's death does bring back our collective past, because it's the first genuine pop event to hit America in a very long time. In England they've had the Sex Pistols, but Stateside it's back to Dylan's 1974 tour, or maybe Rolling Thunder in 1975. The nearest we've come since then to rock and roll news that inspired the mass imagination, that momentarily melded a disparate, casual-to-fanatic audience into something like a community, was (don't hold your breath) Saturday Night Fever.

What's frightening, of course, is that this pop event was an assassination, one that may feel of a piece with Kennedy and King but has more in common structurally with Valerie Solanas's attempt on Andy Warhol (crucial difference: Solanas was a rival not a fan) and more in common historically with such recent headlines as the murders of Allard Lowenstein and who knows how many black schoolchildren in Atlanta. But for me, what's just as scary is that the community catalyzed by Lennon's loss is obviously so momentary, partial, and (to use my fave '70s cliché) fragmented. The polarities aren't always mutually exclusive--contradictory feelings are the essence of our era--and don't divide into neat sets of parallels, but they indicate real divisions nonetheless. Here are those who've always regarded John as a symbolic comrade, there those who've always regarded him as an actual leader. Here are those who've aged with him, there those so young they revere him as the spirit of an Edenic prehistory. Here are those secretly relieved to put the quietus on the '60s, there those who hope somehow to revive them. Here are those who moon about all-you-need-is-love and give-peace-a-chance, there those who (like Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone) are reminded once again that "love doesn't stop bullets." Here are those who lament the Beatles as avatars of their faded youth, there those whose hearts go out to the wife and son that John the ex-Beatle left behind.

We feel these divisions musically, too. We hear more late Beatles than early Beatles, more "Imagine" than "Instant Karma," and we know that Double Fantasy--which still trailed Bruce Springsteen on Cash Box's airplay chart the week Lennon's death catapulted both album and single to number one in sales--will never saturate the radio (and the air itself) like Sgt. Pepper. Richard Goldstein's notorious Sunday Times pan of Sgt. Pepper had no constituency, although many critics (not me) agree with it now. But the regretful reviews of Double Fantasy that appeared in the Boston Phoenix (Kit Rachlis) and were withdrawn in the wake of the tragedy from the Times (Stephen Holden), Rolling Stone (Tom Carson), and the Voice (Geoffrey Stokes) spoke for John's more demanding fans. Saleswise, the comeback was a major success--sure to do even better than the most famous (as opposed to popular) ex-Beatle might expect. It produced a hit single, which was no foregone conclusion. But many found it fatuous, and I'm sure some young punks go along with Soho News club columnist Ira Kaplan, who opined that Lennon's death meant less to "rock 'n' roll, present and future," than the heroin ODs of Raybeat George Scott and Germ Darby Crash, who was so cool he died on purpose.

That would be a rank stupidity even if the album were a lot worse than its critics believe. I think it's a lot better, and I was beginning to think so before 8 December. The simplistic words and less than adventurous music were off-putting at first. But John sounded wonderful, and the times (or I) had caught up with Yoko's singing, so I kept playing the thing, a good sign with a record that resists final judgment. About meaning, of course, there could be no hesitation--this was John and Yoko's love album. The title made me think of Marco Vassi's great porn novel, Mind Blower, which is dedicated to the proposition that no matter how good the sex gets your minds will always be in different places. John and Yoko were denying this--gratuitously, perhaps, but I identified with the urge.

Not everyone does, or did--many of John's symbolic comrades find the couple's mutual self-involvement unrealistic and embarrassing. In the 25 November Boston Phoenix, Kit Rachlis confessed himself "annoyed" by the artists' assumption "that lots of people care deeply about John Lennon and Yoko Ono." Sounded reasonable at the time, but since then the argument has become null, at least for a few years. Double Fantasy itself is now a pop event; its slightest moments have gained pathos, impact, and significance. The most devastating transformation occurs in "Beautiful Boy," John's lovely lullaby for his son Sean, which seems destined to become one of the kid's most vivid connections to his dead father: "Have no fear/The monster's gone/He's on the run and your daddy's here." But Yoko's "Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him," the least distinguished piece of music on the album, runs a close second: "Every man has a woman who loves him/In rain or shine or life or death," she tells us. And later on reverses genders in the same couplet.

Oh Yoko. In a surprisingly astute summary of "Yoko and John" for Rolling Stone, Susan Brownmiller suggests that "coming to terms with Yoko Ono, even in this hour of her personal loss, may be forever beyond the emotional capacity of some of John's most loyal, bereft fans." This is probably true, though I do wonder how many of his fans will come to terms with John himself--he remains a thorny case. Anyway, no matter how much mass self-pity was mixed in with the first outburst of grief--and mourners do always feel a little sorry for themselves--Yoko is now a cynosure, a focus of public empathy. So much so, in fact, that the relationship which was (to quote Brownmiller, who undervalues Yoko's career and is right on nevertheless) Yoko's "major conceptual piece of art" is in danger of being sentimentalized into an ideal marriage for the Age of Survival, played to the distant strains of "We Can Work It Out" and the looped theme of "Yellow Submarine." It was for suggesting such a script that Double Fantasy offended some people.

A very sharp critique of the marriage and the album was written for the Voice. Geoffrey Stokes's pan was palpably reluctant--he loved John, respected Yoko, and wanted to like their record. But to him the evidence seemed incontrovertible, and it was summed up by the title we chose: "The Infantilization of John Lennon." Stokes was so broken up by the assassination that for awhile he didn't even want me to quote him, but Annie Liebovitz's Rolling Stone cover photo--naked John clings fetally to clothed, impassive-looking Yoko--changed his mind. For Stokes, Double Fantasy is a concept album on a "basically misogynist" theme: "vampire-woman-sucks-life-out-of-man-who-enjoys-every-minute-of-his-destruction." From the nursery-rhyme reversal of "Cleanup Time"--the queen counts the money while the king makes bread and honey--to the passive-active combo of (John's) "I'm Losing You" and (Yoko's) "I'm Moving On" to the abject abstraction of "Woman" to the father-and-son equation of "Beautiful Boy" to the acute separation anxiety of "Dear Yoko" to "Hard Times Are Over," a finale in which Yoko becomes "a multi-tracked choir, engulfing all that goes before her," the album celebrates a love "so all-fired powerful it exists without (present) pain, without conflict." Even worse, it celebrates a love that doesn't involve, or permit, "a functioning, adult John Lennon."

Many post-moderns reject the whole notion of passionate monogamy--it's said to be reactionary, or dishonest, or corny (never, hmmm, threatening). But Stokes, I happen to know, is passionately monogamous himself--what bothers him about John-and-Yoko is their, or its, absoluteness. The marriage seems as self-contained as a tautology, and as useless; it trivializes a great artist and deifies a dubious one. I use the present tense to refer to the relationship as art, as music and pop event, and in fact I think there's more tension, eccentricity, and humor in this art than might first appear. Nevertheless, Stokes is right in many ways. As a victim of separation anxiety myself, I regard the modern practice in which husbands and wives sleep apart, for sexual or professional (i.e. travel) reasons, as one of the barbarisms of our age, but if I felt myself "wilt just like a faded flower" after an hour alone, I'd tell it to my shrink, not my muse. When John croons about "the little child inside the man," he's articulating a bedrock assumption of the marriage, and while I'd call his matrifying mythicization of Yoko "basically sexist" rather than "basically misogynist," I'm no less suspicious of what it suggests--the Earth Mother twaddle that has deradicalized so much left-wing feminism.

But all this is to fall into the old trap of expecting leadership of symbolic comrades--specifically, of expecting ideology from a rock star, or for that matter an avant-garde adept. Unlike most rock stars, Lennon actually consorted with ideologues for awhile, and some movement retirees seem unaware that he ever went away, but in fact he was never a very impressive politico, given as he was to grandiose bouts of philosophical idealism and a baldness of rhetoric that was more effective when his mood was confessional rather than propagandistic. Politically, his indelible value was the way the abrasive anger that always lay just beneath his surface was transmuted into joy and hope. And this transmutation only occurred when first his group, then his wife shielded him from the aloneness he dreaded before anything else in life.

Make no mistake--this does appear to have been a rather neurotic marriage. But why do we always assume that neurosis must be defeated, transcended, escaped? John Lennon learned not merely to make do with his compulsions but to make something fairly miraculous out of them. The marriage itself, first of all--neurotic, but also, as we used to say, liberated, with male and female roles confounded, not just reversed. Very few matriarchs get to run a $150 million counting house unless it is bequeathed to them, and stay-at-home fathers who can afford live-in help rarely attend to parenting with John's care and intense devotion. But anyone who believes Yoko "dominated" her husband should located David Sheff's superb Playboy interview, in which Lennon both credits Yoko with saving his life and finds it difficult to let her get a paragraph in edgewise. And anyone who wants to dismiss Yoko--with her astrology, her peace-is-here-if-you-want-it--as a paramystical crackpot should find me somebody else who can manage fortune like she was playing chess, learn to sing rock and roll, and make a genius happy all at the same time. This marriage was a saga of authotherapy with few parallels in our obsessively psychodramatic culture. It was also a great romance.

And then there's the minor miracle of the music. With its rich, precise song, its command of readymades from New Orleans R&B to James Brown funk, and from magical mystery dynamics to detonating synthesizers, Double Fantasy is one of the two albums released in 1980 (Poly Styrene's dreamlike Translucence is the other) to put the anonymous usages of studio rock to striking artistic purpose. The music sounds somehow economical even when 24 (or is it 40?) tracks are humming; it doesn't just frame or set the voices, it projects them. And what voices. When he last essayed this sort of thing on Walls and Bridges, during his separation from Yoko, John sounded confused, and unconvinced. Here he sounds sweet, tough, pained, reflective, calm, and above all soulful. When Yoko last tried to go pop on Approximately Infinite Universe (though compare "Why?" on her experimental Plastic Ono Band to Material or Blood Ulmer and renew your faith in prophetic avant-gardism), she sounded like a bad Buffy Saint-Marie imitator. Now her speed and sexuality, her forced rhythms and peristaltic gutturals, add a new-wavish edge to John's confident professionalism. The elementary device of alternating cuts between the two spouses (no duets) makes their union come alive more than any of the often one-dimensional lyrics. But I ought to admit that for the most part I like the lyrics, especially John's. I liked the lyrics on his Plastic Ono Band, too, not so much for what they said or how they said it but for what they said about how they said it--that John's commitment to the outspoken and straightforward knew no bounds. Nine years later, though he's more mature, more amiable, happier, that commitment is unchanged. I use the present tense, of course, to refer to art. I hope there's at least a little more.

A great album? No, but memorable and gratifying in its slight, self-limiting way--connubial rock and roll is hard to find. I wouldn't think of patterning my own marriage on anyone else's, but like any good art Double Fantasy transcends specifics, even its status as a pop event. It helps me remember what I cherish. And it helps me cherish the two people who made it as well.

Village Voice, Jan. 20, 1981

Postscript Notes:

This piece was also reprinted in The Lennon Companion, edited by Elizabeth Thompson and David Gutman (1987).