Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Living Without the Beatles

1. I.P.M.C.

Not one but two of George Harrison's friends got more applause than the best-selling ex-Beatle at the Bangla-Desh concert at Madison Square Garden. Dylan did, of course--New York is his turf--but unless I am deceiving myself, so did Ringo. Admittedly, self-deception is a real possibility. I clapped and shouted enough to provide Ringo's margin of victory all by myself, and that epiphany exhausted, sat and gazed upon my hero through opera glasses. I was only twenty rows back, among the industry freebies, but I craved detail, and wouldn't you know? George kept getting in the way. His white suit had obscured Ringo's grand ole black-on-black for most of "It Don't Come Easy" as well, but both times Ringo seemed aware that he was being upstaged. He looked calm and even complacent, brimming with quiet happiness, as if after eight years he still couldn't quite believe his own good fortune--a seat right up on stage, the best industry freebie of all. That's why we love him, after all, and why unlike the others he remains immune to the vagaries of our affection. Ringo is our representative on the Beatles.

Think about it. Ringo joined the group in the summer of 1962, replacing the corny good looks of Pete Best with a homely corrective to all that genius. The Beatles were on the brink of their fame. They had just signed with George Martin and EMI and dominated the thriving Liverpool pop scene. In less than a year they would become a national craze, with international Beatlemania already imminent. What a time that must have been for Ringo, a continual up among three intimidating near-strangers. In retrospect it must seem the high point of his life, but if he's passed his peak, he's not complaining. Ringo may not be able to describe the dark chamber of his future, but he knows it's his, and that suffices. He is a family man now, unalienated from his lifework and identity. Four or five years ago, when John was talking about expanding into films and George was learning sitar and transcendental meditation and Paul was turning in on himself in a London town house, Ringo also had plans of his own--he wanted to start a Beatle museum. And now that the breakup is real, he has written a song, his fourth, called "Early 1970," the B side of the best single any ex-Beatle has released. Perhaps you saw the lyrics in Howard Smith's column. After devoting a stanza each to Paul ("When he comes to town, I wonder if he'll play with me"), John ("When he comes to town, I know he's gonna play with me"), and George ("He's always in town, playing for you with me"), he goes on to himself: "I play guitar, A D E/ I don't play bass cos that's too hard for me/ I play the piano if it's in C/ And when I go to town I want to see all three." He really is the ultimate Beatle fan.

Conversely, George is the ultimate ex-Beatle, exploiting his Beatleness to assert his own identity. The old mediator and business head has turned into a superduperstar, and even as he talks of getting the group together again, he relishes his ascendancy as an individual. It may be that John first wanted to break up the group and was persuaded to stay by the insidious Paul, as John claims, or that Paul was shut out by the others until he had to leave, as Paul claims, but it is silent George who has adapted best to being out on his own. The catch is, he isn't out on his own, for unlike the other three, George feels totally at home in the new condominium that dominates rock--I.P.M.C., the International Pop Music Community. George fits in because he knows how--he always played lead guitar and second fiddle--but even more because the prevailing trend suits his predilections. John is a media artist, Paul a composer, and Ringo just a Beatle, but George, ahh, George is a musician, he likes to play his ax, he likes to jam.

The ascendancy of I.P.M.C. represents a fundamental changeover, from Pop to Music. Five years ago, rock was created by integral groups, each of which directed its own organic identity at the audience. It's true that that identity was often filtered and distorted by friends and outsiders, and that group members did create individually and interact with each other. But the group was still an aesthetic unit that communicated vertically, toward us, and thus related primarily to us. From the Beatles' earliest success, when their lively-but-harmless moptopness was manipulated by Brian Epstein, through all the spontaneous changes of their collective genius, what went on among them came right down to us as a self-contained but multifaceted and evolving whole. In contrast, the aesthetic unit of I.P.M.C. is the individual musician, who communicated horizontally in continuing semispontaneous improvisation with his coequals. We in the audience are only incidental beneficiaries of his flirtations and affairs, at least until we stop buying. George is an I.P.M.C. man as regards both the public and his fellow superstars. In Let It Be, remember, it was George who rejected touring because he thought the Beatles, like Stravinsky, were responsible only to the art of music. Later, when Paul broke up Stravinsky, George reportedly made the perfect joke: "Well, I guess we need a new bassist."

Although I.P.M.C. is vast enough to defy efficient generalization and is the locus of some of my favorite rock--Delaney & Bonnie, Layla, Mad Dogs & Englishmen--I strongly suspect the new mainstream of draining back toward an individualism that rock and roll once seemed to challenge. That's a big argument, however. For now, allow me to note that there really is something about music-for-its-own-sake (read: I.P.M.C.) that transcends life's harsher details, and that this is not true of music-as-popular-communication (read: group-rock). George's religiosity is tellingly appropriate. Don Heckman referred to George as "the most introspective of the Beatles," but that's just I.P.M.C. claptrap. Playing headsie with the Universal Mind is not introspection; more often, it constitutes an evasion of hard inquiry by heirs of privilege with access to easier rewards, like riding the hounds or playing the guitar. The Bangla-Desh benefit started a lot of money on its way to people who plainly need and deserve it and established an awesome moral precedent, yet I find it hard to take seriously as politics because George has specifically disclaimed political motivation. "The political side is not my concern," he told the trades. "Any war is wrong." George's know-nothingism is admirably candid, but it is also embarrassing and infuriating. Listen to the music. He can't feel the pain, has never known such distress, doesn't understand, but it sure looks like a mess quote unquote, free the people of Bangla-Desh. The flip of the "Bangla-Desh" single, "Deep Blue," an unoverdubbed quickie that I consider George's most affecting piece since "Here Comes the Sun," amplifies his almost comic intellectual gaucherie. Written for his ailing mother, but by implication applicable to all suffering, including Bangla-Desh, it ends up another piece of lordy-lordy-lordy, with all that suffering reduced to so much Eternal Recurrence. It makes sense. The man who seeks after transcendence wants to avoid the ugly, immanent contingencies that taking sides involves. But maybe avoiding the contingencies is even uglier.

Despite the puffs of I.P.M.C. stalwarts like the New York Post's Al Aronowitz and Rolling Stone's nameless hydra, the Bangla-Desh concert was far from an unqualified aesthetic success. Because rock and roll is happy blues, there is something intrinsically awkward about the idea of a rock benefit, unless the cause is revolution for the hell of it. The only way Leon Russell performing "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Young Blood" (brilliantly, too) can be said to relate to a few million starving dark-skinned people on the other side of the planet is by fiat, yet there he was; it's hard to blame the confused minority who clapped in time to "Bangla-Desh" as a film of the mutilation came on during intermission. With his never-failing critical acuteness, Dylan defeated this quandry by reverting to folk music, but Harrison's disinclination for hard inquiry told. The plethora of musicians may have been necessary--how else render George's I.P.M.C./wall-of-sound synthesis on stage?--but was still an excess wretchedly inappropriate in context. In fact, the whole production was anachronistically showbiz.

Of course, the same overblown fatuity characterizes All Things Must Pass, which sounds more like Muzak to my ears than Ram does. I'm not even sure that the prodigious flatness of Harrison's new music--probably attributable to monomaniac Phil Spector, whose production work continues to sound best on a car radio as it approaches cosmic vagueness--can be adapted to the dynamic depth of live performance at all. Maybe George don't need no wah-wahs, but he is a man of the recording studio more than ever--after all, how else can he make his voice do that? I.P.M.C. encourages a profitable mystique of concert jamming, but for every Mad Dogs & Englishmen, puts on half-a-dozen shoddy shows. Derek and the Dominoes are terrific when an extra guitarist hypes them up, uninspired otherwise. Leon Russell pumps away stage right like a coiffed locomotive, flanked by two women singers selected primarily for the mobility of their tits who function as a kind of tender, fueling Leon with attention, while the rest of the band cabooses desperately behind. And despite Al Aronowitz's smug exultations about the "respectful and appreciative" crowd that responded to the "exercise in charisma" by performers who would never "invite a crowd to bedlam and hysteria"--as do group-rock holdouts such as Sly and the Stones and Grand Funk, all of whom excite Aronowitz's disapproval--the music at Madison Square Garden, excepting Dylan and a few wonderful moments here and there, was competent at best. Since I.P.M.C. is thought of as an antidote to pop image and hype, it would seem strange that the ultimate I.P.M.C. concert should succeed as an event, which it certainly did, but not as music. The fact is, however, that concerts in Madison Square Garden are rarely more than events up in the cheap seats, and I've heard nothing from my sources in the cheap seats to indicate that this one was an exception. Here is fan Karin Klein: "The songs were very cut and dried, without particular flair or warmth. The basic result seemed to be a put-down of the audience's mood, and the impression that George and Friends would like to do their piece and go."

They did their piece, and they went.

2. Like a Horse and Carriage

In early 1970 Tom Paxton released a single called "Crazy John." Paxton is one of those ex-purist folk singers whose major talent is persistence: When Dylan went electric, Paxton commented, "Where it's at is a synonym for rich," but a few years later he was riding the heretic's tail at the Isle of Wight. "Crazy John" was evidence of Paxton's new vocation, offering that wonderful nut, the John Lennon of bed-ins and peace billboards, some sage folk advice: "They never can hear you, John/ So how can you teach them?/ They never come near you, John/ So how can you reach them?" It's appropriate for a folk singer to offer such a sterling example of that contemporary usage, the paranoid "they," because the very idea of the folk connotes an integral audience, us, separated by time and/or values from the shapeless mass, them. Paxton thinks John is crazy because he does not recognize this dichotomy, and in an ass-backward way he is right, for if John were capable of such easy formulas, he might be almost as boring as Paxton himself. But John is a media artist, and like any media artist he continually confronts a maddening question: Where is my audience? More than any other pop star (except perhaps Dylan) he enjoys a creative relationship with his own celebrity, plying it not merely out of ambition or self-protection but because the process piques him aesthetically. John Lennon in public is like a filmmaker at the Movieola or Yoko Ono at a happening in 1963.

New York artists used to look at the six o'clock news or, perhaps, some wonderful new rock and roll group from England and think, "Huh, what a weird thing to reach so many people at once." They perceived mass-cult outreach as a basically formal quality, irrespective of content, and experimented with it by devising art events that if they were very clever, might make Howard Smith's Voice column, once Howard Smith had devised a column to deal with such phenomena. In this context the Lennon/Ono marriage was the most successful multimedia move of the decade. Yet the taint of the avant-garde has stayed with Yoko, for after all, the cover of Rolling Stones or Crawdaddy just ain't the cover of Life, and if Ono/Lennon appear on Cavett, you can expect McCartney/McCartney to show up on Carson any time now. Ex-groupie or no, Linda Eastman McCartney has class, and banker's daughter or no, Yoko Ono doesn't. John married genius, and Paul married power, and in the world of public media it's hard to be sure which is more important.

None of this is to imply that Paul, or John, married for convenience. Like all artists, great popular artists believe their own myths, and for popular songwriters of the pre-Beatle era--which is exactly how Lennon and McCartney began--there was only one of these: romantic love. Repeat: They were popular songwriters. Even though the staple of rock and roll in the fifties was teen schmaltz of wondrous innocence and vapidity, and even though the popularization of black music meant romanticizing the hard-assed realism of rhythm-and-blues, the sheer physicality of rock and roll, its sexual underpinnings, always implied a negation of such escapist rhapsodies. But the Beatles, unlike blues-influenced fellow geniuses Jagger and Dylan, never showed much interest in this negation. Instead of projecting sexuality, they evoked it and made fun of it simultaneously, just one more example of the insistent popness that always tempted the cynical to suspect they were the finks. After turning out enchanting variations on the permissible themes of union and parting for three or four years, their version of the myth gradually became more acerbic ("Girl," "If I Needed Someone," etc.), but their formal commitment to pop remained unchanged--those later songs are reminiscent of the down Smokey Robinson, especially on the all-important pop surface.

It was only during their mature period--including Sgt. Pepper, their best album, and The Beatles, their most consistent and probably their worst--that they abandoned the subject altogether. Great popular artists believe their own myths, but like all artists, they do so from a distance. As his relationship with Jane Asher became more problematic, Paul's romantic experiments became more outré. He never quite gave up on romance, but it is significant that "Hey Jude," one of his truest and most forthright love songs, was omitted from The Beatles, whereas "I Will," a piece of fluff that seemed designed to fit unobtrusively into that pastiche of musical exercises, was included. When Paul took up with Linda, however, he also took up the love theme with fresh enthusiasm. Typically, John's withdrawal and return were more extreme. He discovered Yoko well before the white album, but not until "I Want You," on Abbey Road, did he signal his renewed embrace of the myth. For both moderate Paul and manic John, romance was a lot of what getting back was about. After desperate years, each decided love is all you need, because each found his one-and-only, doo-wah doo-wah.

But the revitalization of the myth of romantic love almost inevitably contributed to the disintegration of another myth, the myth of the Beatles. It is significant that it was the group's songwriters and resident movers who swung so precipitously from one myth to the other. In Hunter Davies's official biography Cynthia Lennon chides her husband for preferring the group to his family. "They seem to need you less than you need them," the quote goes, and John admits it: "I did try to go my own way after we stopped touring, but it didn't work. I didn't meet anyone else I liked." At that time, according to John, Paul had just about taken over leadership of the group. Engaged to Jane Asher, Paul regretted that he was still so much a bachelor, but he wasn't--he was married to the Beatles: "We're really the same person. We're just four parts of the one." At that time Pattie Harrison was thought of as the independent Beatle wife because she still did some modeling. Now Ringo describes her as "a long-legged lady in the garden pickin' daisies for his suit," and the marriage seems ornamental, the sort of show-business union that might just end sometime. The impression may not be factual, of course, but there's no doubting the accuracy of Davies's description of Ringo as something of an Andy Capp, albeit solider and more devoted--Ringo is a common man in ways that don't inspire our ready identification as well as in ways that do. In any case, we realize in the context of more recent history that George and Ringo did not separate themselves from the group by marrying, although each gained a margin of autonomy. That margin proved necessary, because when John and Paul married, they married hard, replacing the Four Mates with "Man We Was Lonely" and "Love is you/ You and me." It was as if their ambivalent relationship to the sexuality of rock and roll finally caught up with them. Men in groups gave way to couples.

John started it, of course. His mates mated with suitably mod types--an actress, a model, a hairdresser. Yoko, whatever else you might think of her, was a rather unbirdlike original, from her mature body to her obsessive creativity. She was strong--too strong. It is possible, I suppose, that the other Beatles bore her some faint racial or (more likely) artistic prejudice, but her deepest offense was to their male chauvinism. She aroused John's male chauvinism, too, but because he was in love with her he responded differently: He actually thought she could become the fifth Beatle. And when he found he couldn't work her into the Beatles, he began to rework the other available myth instead. Like all artists, great popular artists not only believe their own myths but carry them to new extremes: The dream is over; long live the dream. The myth of romantic love is usually a trap for women, but a sufficiently potent woman can transform it (it has been transformed before, after all) by compounding it with that vague notion of the perfect equality of all free spirits that can also be descried lurking around our culture. Actually, the combination isn't so much a compound as a colloid, mixing disparate elements in suspension. Nobody just screams away his entire oedipal heritage, and even as John acts out the fierce symbiosis of his marriage, he remains a jealous guy who interrupts his wife on Howard Smith's radio show.

Paul, the born romantic, came more readily to the new romanticism, but naturally in a much more sentimental way. John has dedicated an album to Yoko, but it is hard to imagine him doing something so cutesy as concealing a Y.I.L.Y. on some secret border. Paul and Linda are also much more moderate--in fact, it might be argued that they cop out on the new dream altogether. Linda is a creative partner but in a traditionally subordinate way, not just in the view of her husband's fans but in the view of her husband. Her work is the mod art-craft, photography, and she has looked to rock as an energy source for years; in contrast, Yoko is a conceptual artist who was completely outside the music when John came to her. John now calls himself John Ono Lennon, but it's Paul and Linda McCartney, or even (on their first coauthored song, "Another Day") Mr. and Mrs. Paul McCartney.

In its radical or liberal version, however, romantic marriage has destroyed the group. The Beatles were an aesthetic unit, but what did they transmit in common? Exuberance, yes. Cheek, although George's head change changed that somewhat. Youth, and then youthfulness; rock and roll, and then rock. But above all, what the unit transmitted was unity, the possibility that four very different individuals could constitute a harmonious and functioning whole. That image was very important to the way we thought in the sixties, and Yoko and Linda have made it impossible, not only by inspiring a countermyth but also by intensifying their husbands' divergences. John and Paul complemented each other: Paul was conservative, John mercurial; Paul was fascinated with the silly history of pop music, John with its grand future; Paul was more comfortable with money, John with fame. But their women augmented rather than complemented. In class terms Paul married up to Linda and her show-business wealth, whereas Yoko married down to John, who seems unlikely to abandon his scrappy lower-middle-class heritage no matter how many possessions he accrues. But psychologically, the spirit of the husband, focused by the wife, dominates each marriage.

These personal changes are reflected in their musical work, except perhaps for McCartney, which despite its melodic interludes I find difficult to take seriously as anything more than a million-selling wedding announcement. In a way, though, McCartney can be said to have provided impetus for John's Plastic Ono Band, from egocentric title to spare production. It's as if John is saying, "This is what personal minimal music ought to sound like." Plastic Ono Band is conceptual in the Yoko Ono rather than the Sgt. Pepper sense. It is one of the few albums I admire that does not permit casual enjoyment. You have to listen to it. Those who can do that--and there are many not in the category--customarily praise its lyrics, whereupon those who can't, conclude that John has not only gone off the deep end but also dragged his friends with him. It is distressing that anyone can take a collection of psychotherapeutic truisms as revelation, although "I Found Out" and "Well Well Well" are more than that on even the most obvious level. It is even more distressing, however, that others consider John a simpleton (or perhaps a wonderful nut) who doesn't know what he's doing. Anyone who loves Rosie & the Originals the way John does understands the value of dumbness. Of course the lyrics are crude clichés. That's just the point, because they are also true, and John wants to make very clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else.

I am not encouraged by John's admission that he now writes melodies for lyrics rather than the opposite, because I believe music will get you through times of no lyrics better than lyrics will get you through times of no music. I also believe, however, that music overwhelms lyrics on Plastic Ono Band. Carman Moore, who is a composer as well as a critic, thinks John has emerged as the most musical Beatle in terms of chords, melodic lines, and other such arcana, which only shows what I've said all along--that you can perceive that stuff without analyzing it. For me, the musicality of Plastic Ono Band can be summed up in one word: strength. At first, of course, what came through was crudity. The music sounded stark and even perfunctory compared to the free harmonies and double guitars of the Beatles' rock and roll. But the music of the album inheres not in its instrumentation but in the way John's greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically. Like so much great rock and roll, it depends on studio gimmickry, with the greatest of the gimmickers, Phil Spector, providing the expertise while stripped of his power to grind sixteen tracks down to mush. John's voice unadorned appears only twice: on "Working Class Hero" and after the nonbelieving malediction of "God," when John says, "I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ And that's reality." Elsewhere it is echoed, filtered, and double-tracked, with two voices sometimes emanating in a synthesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. In addition, the guitar and even the drumming is distorted.

This trickery slips by because Plastic Ono Band just isn't a tricky album. It does sound strong, even primal; there really is something quintessentially raw about it. Yet it isn't. John is such a media artist that even when he is fervidly shedding personas and eschewing metaphor, he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. Separating himself from the homemade pretensions of, say, McCartney, he does not bullshit himself or his audience about where he is in the world--namely, on some private pinnacle of superstardom. As always, he wants to reach us with a message that is also a medium and really equals himself. Like any great artist, the great popular artist feels compelled to embody his myth in a form that offers its own pleasure. Plastic Ono Band had to be a one-shot, and in retrospect, Imagine follows it as inevitably as New Morning followed Self-Portrait. Its myth is twofold: Yoko plus the movement. The word "imagine" is a Yokoism crucial as well to Marcusian theory, which regards the ineluctable utopianism of the artistic imagination as essential to social transformation--we cannot change unless we can envision change. If "Working Class Hero" is John's movement credo and "Power to the People" his movement marching song, then the title cut of the new album is his movement hymn.

Chances are the movement is just another of John's phases, though he has always shown that mix of genius, indignation, and pugnacity that characterizes the movement media heavy. In any case, it is certainly an invigorating development for those of us who have been straining to link rock and politics. Yet the movement's ability to get across to masses of people has proved so sporadic that a part of me suspects John's new stance portends his downfall. The thing is, Imagine doesn't quite make it. At its best it is richer and more exciting than Plastic Ono Band because its potential appeal is much broader. "Gimme Some Truth" is the union of Lennon unmasked with the Lennon of Blunderland wordplay, the kind of venom Dylan never quite managed to spew. "It's So Hard" is the perfect blend of big blues and metapolitical despair. "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die" is a proper Spectoral extravaganza. "Oh Yoko!" is pure spontaneous joy and captures more of the spirit of fun than all of Ram. And other songs succeed, too. But the combination of nasty lyric and good-timey ricky-tick on "Crippled Inside" has been exploited by every ex-purist folk singer since Phil Ochs, and "How?" is so psychotherapeutically lugubrious that it might not even have worked on Plastic Ono Band. Nor are these mistakes simply bad tries. They are symptomatic of Lennon's limitations as an individual artist, limitations that, contrary to suggestion, are not musical. John's music suits his vision perfectly. It's his vision that is lacking.

As indicated, I think Ram is a bad record, a classic form/content mismatch. If music is just gentle, fey, and occasionally funky, then why labor over it so assiduously? If you wanna have fun, then have it; don't just succumb to conspicuous consumption. I am infuriated by the McCartneys' modern young-marrieds image--just normal folks who happen to have a wee recording setup on their Scottish estate. Since Paul's political perspective seems limited to Zero Population Growth, the production lavished on this album amounts to an ecological obscenity. Yet Ram is far from Muzak and offers amenities that John could use. Paul's voice conveys a warmth and sophistication that might make John's manic-depressive extremism more palatable at those times when we just feel like lying around and listening to the stereo. Also, Paul uses Linda well. John seems unable to understand that although Yoko is a good artist, all that distinguishes her from a number of her fellows is access to media. This is indeed an important, and legitimate, distinction, but it ought to demonstrate once and for all that the function of avant-garde art is to inspire other artists, not the public. Yoko has entered John's music successfully twice (on "Cold Turkey" and on "Do the Oz," by the Elastic Oz Band), and although her own records are interesting, they will never reach a large public unless she makes the move. But Linda's participation on Paul's records works in a good way, another example of the trend to allow women as well as men to sing in their everyday voices. It is not his commitment to yesterday or another day but to everyday that might eventually render Paul's music pleasant again. Let's hope so.

What John needs most, you see, is just that acceptance of the everyday that in Paul-without-John appears to us as repellent complacency. He needs further rapprochement with the reality experienced by his audience. He needs continual reminder of his pop heritage, to balance his oedipal heritage and his lower-middle-class heritage. That balance is what the Beatles always reflected back to us, because we're all like that and tend to forget it. It is missing from the New York artistic/political avant-garde, which is why that avant-garde never lives up to its genius. John really does need it. But it's obvious that John doesn't want to get it from Paul ever again. "How Do You Sleep?" is the kind of public act committed by a lover who wants to make sure he will never return in momentary weakness to the one who has rejected him so cruelly, the best proof yet of how deep the Beatles' unity once was. Perhaps he'll find it in himself or in George, who is capable of songs of rare beauty, or elsewhere, but although I'll always love him, I wouldn't be surprised if it were lost to him forever. It is strange to foresee the artistic death of an artist who is still so vital, but I often do.

What the breakup of the Beatles represents on the largest symbolic scale is a central problem of our time--the inability of couples to coexist within cooperative groups. Perhaps they'll all survive to lead happy, truly productive lives, or perhaps like so many of us, they will be trapped by this dilemma. John will be a tragedy, George and Paul something not so affecting. But for Ringo it will be worst of all, and since Ringo is all of us, we'd better figure out what there is for us now that we can't be Beatle fans any longer. Find our own love, maybe--and form our own group.

Village Voice, Sept. 1971
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

The Rolling Stones Consumer Guide (31)