4 Mar


At the beginning of 1971 people still reeled from the Beatles break-up, latest in a line of bad news that included the deaths of Dr. M-L King and Robert Kennedy, the election of Richard Nixon, the fragmentation into ineffectiveness of the peace movement and the crushing of the Prague Spring. John Lennon sat down for an interview for Rolling Stone magazine to clear the air, set down his side of the story. He was asked if he thought he was a genius.

Lennon’s reply, “Yes, if there is such a thing as one, I am one.” Orson Welles recalled somewhere that the word was the first whispered into his cradle. His mother was such that she intended to use the Chicago money to home grow an artistic genius. And she did. But did it do him any favours dealing with a Hollywood studio under the assumption that they would recognize whatever he did as pure gold and leave it untouched? His biography says otherwise.

At the time he was interviewed John Lennon was on the verge of releasing the Mother album, his best work by his own reckoning. Many others agree. I see it more as an apex that began during The White Album with tracks like “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and continued thru “Come Together” running out slowly after “Working Class Hero”. In ’71 he was top of his form. Genius is pain too, he says. Is he complaining?

He tells us he realized that he was a genius when he was twelve and the attendant obligatory artist bio of a child painting and writing poetry is evoked. What fly-by-night bit of human tinsel these days warbling away over some electronically concocted reassembly of Motown and Disco doesn’t regularly drag out the anecdotes of childhood creativity?

But Lennon has a claim. He’s distinctive. A bit of fuss frothed up in the western press about two weeks ago over a book by a Sino-American Harvard academic about the way she raised her daughters. The rules are unbelievably narrow by our standards. They were compelled to play the piano or the violin and only the piano or violin. Well, everyone said, this goes to show you why so Chinese kids top the SATs every year. It also goes to show why there’s an absence of Chinese genius. Such upbringing produces high standards and almost certainly eliminates any tendency to wilful originality.

Lennon wasn’t compelled to study Elvis, the guitar and the rest. He couldn’t possibly have studied them in the sense that you could study Bach. Where was the scholarship? Rather, he was free to follow his obsession; the English tradition of privacy and its attendant expectations of the pursuit of a hobby pertain. Naturally this interest was forged in the fire of discipline, playing ten-hour gigs in a bar-room full of violent crooks will do that for you. A certain standard of excellence must be reached but excellence by itself is not enough to earn one the mark of genius. Genius, in the artistic sense of the term denotes not excellence in skill but a something unique and hard to quanity. The closest to a word we have for it is ‘sublime’.

Lester Bangs wrote Lennon’s post-Beatles career off. It was, he argued, moving into the middle-of-the-road sentimental easy-listening territory embraced sincerely by Paul McCartney in the same period, becoming, as Bangs puts it, “spiritually piddling hackwork.” The Mother album, he writes, “for all its embarrassing infantilism and freelance spite, had a certain gauche and wretched majesty”. But Lennon’s more recent album, Walls and Bridges, Bangs puts down as “a schlocky parody of the tortured artist writhing in a sterile sanitarium of his own design.” Lennon may have agreed. He was about to enter five years of retirement. Was Lennon a genius? Perhaps not individually. Did the Beatles then collectively possess genius?

Socio-historically the Beatles were conduits for a certain force for change during the 60s. They were not instigators of that change. They did the soundtrack. Lennon, whose political activity was by far more significant than the other band members, was watched by the FBI and harassed by the US government over residency. In the end, however, his most significant political act was the song “Revolution” which belies a conservative caution more than anything else. The High Priest of Romantic Personality announced essentially the classic cop-out of everyone who decided to be apolitical ever since: I believe in a personal revolution. Sure his Bed-In with Yoko Ono caused a media wave, precipiated interviews and some mild hostility but did it stop one bomb landing on Cambodian peasants?

That said, claims to artistic genius do not rest on the influence of one’s work on historical events. If they did there would be no artistic geniuses. The Beatles lack of concrete effect doesn’t disprove their genius, but their place within the cultural context might explain why people might think they possessed the quality.

Elsewhere in the interview Lennon claims to’ve taken acid a thousand times from 1964 on. It’s a wonder he was still coherent. By 1971, he’d had his ups and downs in those years but fromThe White Album on he was flaring. Making love with his ego. The mystique of John Lennon is inextricably wrapped up in the work he did between The White Album and Imagine. The lead up to this period and the fall from grace afterwards are now a wearily familiar arc in the careers of musicians. Had it, lost it. He lost it. If he dropped acid that many times it’s a wonder he didn’t lose it completely.

By 1975, Bangs was arguing that “the death of the Beatles as a symbol or signification of anything can only be good”. Their music had faded, worse, it’d become irritating! Rubber Soul was playing while he wrote, but he took it off and the guy with him agreed. They were over the Beatles. The mood of their era had passed replaced by something grittier and so more real. It’s over, people felt, and sadly it never mattered that much anyway. It was all about context, it could’ve been anyone. Considering English-speaking youth’s general outlook in 1966 in comparison with that of the stagnant and decadent ‘me’ decade; considering the embarrassing drunk that Lennon was at the time turning into, considering stories of recording chaos complete with Phil Spector’s bulletholes, considering this cultural hero’s… decay – Bang’s attitude is easy to understand.

But time has proved him wrong. Their music has lasted, it appears to be enjoying a sub-vogue about now. It would, it’s good; after punk, after hip-hop and techno had s’posedly put rock to death. After those old discs have aged almost a half-century, the Lennon-McCartney tune still has clout. It’s come back. Genius? What is an artistic genius? Someone whose work bends the culture like a black hole bends the space-time continuum? Someone who, like Picasso, does something so simple and easy and right and yet no-one had ever done it quite like that before? What was it about Lennon’s peculiar lilt with a 12 bar rhythm-and-blues song that had thousands of girls scream their hearts out, drenching their seats in the ecstatic release of so much pent-up kundalini?

Picasso said it, every child is an artist. But most of them grow out of it. Genius; what a damage that word does to the living. Genius? The word shouldn’t be used really ’til someone’s been dead a while. Lennon’s been dead 3o years. Genius? Maybe it’s too soon to tell.



One Response to “GENIUS?”

  1. Steve Edney March 7, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    Just thought I would let you know.

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