The Time John Lennon Went Too Far

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Hey, it’s still Women’s History Month! I bet you forgot all about women, didn’t you? I know that you did.

In the spirit of our St Patrick’s post which savaged “The Luck of the Irish“, we treat today of another ill-considered song from John Lennon’s 1972 Some Time in New York City LP, the Song Whose Name May Not Be Mentioned in Polite Society. Why have I been in such a Lennon-beatin’ mood lately? I dissed him a few weeks back when George Martin died, too. Maybe it’s because I loved him so much when he was ineffably himself, and there were so many times when he was led around by the nose by whatever crackpot commanded his attention. But I’ve always criticized him on that account. The Elephant in the Room is that I am now old enough to be Beatle John’s father, and I find myself now having the clarity to see many of Lennon’s mistakes for what they were: the follies of youth. Those who die young are like Peter Pan, imprisoned forever in youth.

Now, everyone has their own personal “Time When John Lennon Went Too Far.” For some more conservative folks it might be much earlier. It might that Jesus remark in 1966, it might be “Revolution #9”, or hanging out in a bag with Yoko in a press conference in Toronto, or returning his MBE, or for even existing at all. For McCartney it seems to have been the song “Cold Turkey” (a mistake on his part, I think. Lennon’s solo single of it is amazing, truly interesting, and really pushes the expressive power of rock ‘n’ roll into some unprecedented places. It would have been a credit to The Beatles had they recorded it).

But I think we can all agree that the time Lennon went too far for EVERYBODY is when he released “Woman is the Nigger of the World” (sorry to spell the the offending word out; if I don’t it doesn’t come up in searches for the song title). I have never, in all my travels, met a single person who didn’t shake their head in wizened scorn and bewilderment when it comes to this song.

Let us not, as so many are wont to do, blame Yoko for this egregious lapse in judgment, coherence, sensitivity, and taste. I find her to be a genuinely interesting artist. Up to a certain point she was a good influence on Lennon, I think. The intersection of Japanese minimalism and rock ‘n’ roll is not only interesting and original, but it clicks. It really works. Songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Don’t Let Me Down” , much of the White Album, and Lennon’s first two solo LPs are all quite remarkable and they bear her influence.

But for someone who is so associated with leadership and domination, Lennon could be peculiarly passive and susceptible to the voices of others. It seems as though this was particularly the case in the mid to late 60s when several years of daily ingestion of hard drugs had broken down his ego and turned him into something like an existential vessel or void. When you hear many of his great songs, you often hear the voices of othersLewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Bob Dylan. But in Some Time in New York City, I think it is safe to say that voices of others (not just Yoko’s but those of the East Village radicals he was hanging out with) grew too strong. Lennon had always been at his best when he was somewhat elusive and ambiguous, hard to pin down, hard to figure out. Now he was literal, on the nose, obvious. That quality had been a virtue when he was dealing with his own emotions and his demons in the early solo work. It came across as raw, painful honesty. But when it came to social issues and politics, he was no longer saying broad, universal things (e.g., “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance”) he was saying “It ain’t fair, John Sinclair…we got to, got to, got to, got to set him free.” While his music itself was often interesting and great, the lyrics were now strident and boring and singularly unrewarding to play more than once or twice, and DEFINITELY embarrassing to sing along to.

Now his voice was not even his own. He was playing second fiddle on his own album. One of the most gifted popular wordsmiths of the late 20th century, he was ceding control of that gift, sitting back and letting other people do the literary driving. And we can’t blame anyone but Lennon for that weakness. It’s his name above the title.

The phrase “Woman is the Nigger of the World” had come from Yoko, possibly derived from Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. She had said it to Lennon in a conversation, and most of the lines in the song sound like things she had said to him as well. And well…to be charitable these “thoughts” could have done with the contribution of an editor. They are undigested; they have not been turned into lyrics. Many or most thinking people sign off on the thesis that women have been second-class citizens placed in a role of subservience for millennia in nearly every culture on earth. And most agree to one degree or another that change is in order. The objection is to HOW these thoughts are expressed. Most of the phrases in the song (including above all the title) sound like what they are: the kind of “brilliant revelations” potheads have when they are having a “heavy discussion”. Some of them are dubious. “We make her paint her face”? With apologies to Naomi Wolf, try and STOP some women (and some men) from putting on make-up. Who’s making BOY GEORGE paint his face and dance? That’s a different issue from being brutalized and kept down, I think. Ugh, and the self-important way he instructs us to “Think About It”. It’s unbearable.

Lastly, and most importantly, there’s the clumsy and callous and clueless trivialization of the N word, which to me seems like it ought to be equally offensive to both women and people of color. It’s also a singularly weird use of language, which I suspect can be partially attributed to the fact that English is not Yoko’s first language. This may have made it seem original and provocative to Lennon, but it’s really just kind of inept.  African Americans and women are two separate, traditionally subjugated groups of people. Using one as a metaphor for the other makes no sense. It’s like saying “lemons are the limes of this fruit bowl” — not that they’re equivalent but you can’t deny that in the context of this conversation they are similar. And it blows off the plight of black people even as it insults them by using a derogatory epithet to describe them. It’s, like, wrong in about 100 kinds of ways. Which is why radio stations didn’t play it…and you may have never played it or even heard of it, although it’s on most Lennon “best of” collections.

On the other hand, the sax player is great. If you’d like to play it go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtY5bv-oxLE. I’ve stopped embedding youtube clips here because they have a way of asserting themselves PAST my post links when I share them on social media.

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