John Lennon Confronts Lifelong Insecurities
Associating with a major political figure, as he did with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in December 1969, could only do good for John Lennon's cause. Yet he hadn't exactly endeared himself to the authorities in Britain a month earlier, when he put into action a plan that had been brewing in his head for quite some time: He returned his MBE medal to the Queen! Never at ease with the honor, he had been searching for reasons to return the award ever since receiving it, and on November 25, 1969 he came up with three:
"Your Majesty," read the letter that had been typed on Bag Productions note paper, "I am returning this M.B.E. in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag."
The reference to his record was John's way of injecting some humor into the situation, but of course not everyone chose to see it this way. Writer Anthony Fawcett, in his book, John Lennon One Day at a Time, recounted what happened next: "I don't think the Queen will be embarrassed," said John. "The Queen is above embarrassment," came the formal reply from Buckingham Palace.
More trouble with an unsmiling Establishment came in January of 1970, when police raided the London Arts Gallery, where 14 of John's lithographs -- drawings depicting various aspects of his and Yoko Ono's marriage and honeymoon -- were on exhibit. Eight of these drawings were adjudged to be indecent, and were confiscated by the men from Scotland Yard, only to be cleared in a court case and returned a few months later.
Meanwhile, both John and Yoko Ono had their hair cropped, pronounced 1970 as "Year One for Peace," and released the excellent "Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)" single, which had been written, recorded, and mixed by John in just one day. "I wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we're putting it out for dinner," he told a reporter at the time.
On April Fools' Day 1970 John and Yoko issued a fictitious press statement, announcing that the pair had entered the London Clinic in order to have his 'n' hers sex-change operations! They knew that at this stage of the game some people would believe they were capable of doing anything. They enjoyed the stir that their little hoax created but privately, however, they were going through a very difficult time.
The strain of their intense activity, together with the kidnapping of Yoko's seven-year-old daughter by her ex-husband, was beginning to take its toll. On April 23 the Lennons flew to Los Angeles in order to undergo a four-month psychiatric course under Dr. Arthur Janov.
He had designed a form of treatment called Primal Therapy, in which the patient is encouraged to recall many of his or her most painful experiences, going all the way back to early childhood, and then attempt to come to terms with these by letting out a loud scream in order to relieve the tension; a "primal scream."
John began to face up to many of his lifelong insecurities: his father's desertion, his mother's death, and his image of himself. The result was that on returning to England he produced a masterwork based on these subjects; his first proper studio album as a solo artist, titled simply John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
With only guitar, bass, drums, and occasional contributions from a piano, the sound was harsh, basic rock 'n' roll, highlighted by John's brutally honest lyrics about his parents' neglect ("Mother" and "My Mummy's Dead"), the trials of growing up and facing rejection ("Working Class Hero"), the shallowness of fame ("Isolation," "God," and "I Found Out"), and his hope for the future ("Love," "Hold On," and "Look At Me"). John is talking directly to the listener, taking him or her into his confidence, and offering advice based on his own experiences. In "Working Class Hero" he sings:
And in "I Found Out" he states bitterly:
Face up to your problems, is the basic message, without resorting to drugs or man-made philosophies as a crutch. In "God," John then carries this line of reasoning a step further by running off a whole list of political, religious, and popular leaders and ideas -- including the Beatles -- in which he doesn't believe, before stating that reality for him is his future with Yoko. He also set the record straight about his former group:
Critic Greil Marcus once described John's singing of this particular passage as "possibly the finest in all of rock music"; it was certainly one of the most beautiful vocal performances that John ever recorded. The lyrics, for their part, left little to the imagination, and all in all this was pretty dramatic stuff.
Having appeared physically naked on the cover of Two Virgins, John was now presenting himself emotionally naked. In the hands of a lesser artist this could -- and, most probably, would -- have ended up being completely embarrassing, especially considering the sound of John's near-hysteria when he howled out some of the more personally painful lines, such as "Mama don't go, Daddy come home," at the end of "Mother."