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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 13. Somewhere-in-July. 1971

Lennon — the dream is over

page break


the dream is over

"fortunes and careers ride on the success of the star system until the star-as-object overwhelms the artist-as-subject."

Image of John Lennon

What Lennon found out is the necessity for demystification, the possibility for breaking through myths, the inevitability of honesty. But he ends just at the point where we all have to begin: "And so, dear friends, you just have to carry on." What that means must have to do with finding a way to shatter all the gods without us and within, to transfer power from our heroes to our imagination, to free ourselves from the isolation of private existence in a mass audience.

The myth of the Beatles was a seed-dream of the '60s. From it grew the rock religion to which massed millions now adhere. In most respects it is a complete cult, with a pantheon of gods, demi-gods, angels, priests and sacrificial virgins installed to cater to the range of human passions and needs. It is also big business, of course, as every true religion must become. In time, the roster of divinities grew long, but the Beatles retained the central throne. They claimed that they had superceded the old superstar, Jesus Christ, and for their adherents they were right. Then, as gods will, they fell to jealous fighting among themselves and went their ways, their divinity still more or less intact.

In the last few months, John Lennon has taken it upon himself to do what few gods can ever do: divest himself of his divinity. "I don't believe in Beatles" is not only a facile line (in the song, "God", on his new record album); it's as if Christ on the cross could say. "I don't believe in Me." Jehovah would have had a hard time telling the Hebrews in the Wilderness:

And so dear friends
You just have to carry on
The dream is over

No more immodest metaphors or extravagant claims need be made for Lennon, his record or his lengthy interviews in Rolling Stone. When gods fall, the earth shakes. Lennon's attempt to demystify himself, the Beatles and rock cultism has a force and urgency which breaks through the layers of dream-webs which have solidified around the new culture, freak consciousness and political revolution.

Lennon's immediacy comes out of, and connects with, a general awakening in the rock/revolution audience. His voice sounds authentic now, not because it is prophetic but because it is resonant: it despises the pervasive complex of repressive roles and manipulative myths while still feeling trapped within them. Lennon today seems a lot like the Dylan of the mid-'60s; a "protest" singer (as Lennon himself remarks) against the most urgent conditions of oppression, whether simple segregation or the pain of personal alienation. But somehow, the honesty of rage and revolt in Dylan's decade was lost, and a glossy, campt rhetoric of revolution took its place. The commercial studios (Columbia Records' The Sound of the Revolutionaries, for instance) were obviously perverting. But the mechanisms which drain meaning from our minds are not all external. We do it to ourselves. The need of corporate institutions to oppress us is matched and complemented by our need to submit.

In his Rolling Stone interviews, Lennon presents a rare inside examination of the brutal demands that rock commerce makes on its stars. Those degrading relationships at the top are quickly visited below on the fans. One small but depressing example: Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, restricted the group's freedom in talks about 'controversial" subjects, such as war and revolution. Lennon says:

"I thought it was about time we fuckin' people spoke about [revolution]; the same as I thought it was about time we stopped not answering about the Vietnamese War when we were on tour with Brian Epstein and had to tell him, 'We're going to talk about the war this time and we 're not going to just waffle.' I wanted to say what I thought about revolution."

On one version of the song "Revolution", Lennon says, he wrote "count me in" on violence. He then changed it to "count me out", he continues, "because I wasn't sure." Now, there's no reason to ask Lennon to be sure about violent revolution; but in the commercial, compromising context of Beatles productions, there could be no choice except that of least controversy. All the demands on his creativity pushed in the direction of safety, rather than experimentation, less open feelings rather than more.

The indirect dynamics of degradation are even more appalling, and the implications for the creation of a myth bound mass audience are larger than in the matter of suppression of opinion. The battles around management of the Beatles' maxi-million-dollar enterprises created a kind of commercial manic hysteria that made honesty entirely unthinkable—among the parties to the madness or between performers and audience: literally nothing could be real. Concert tours were paradigms of object-ifications, with Beatles, groupies, managers, advance-men, hangers-on—and fans—seen as just so many soup cans, or dollars, or holes in Albert Hall. It's hardly surprising that the tensions between the four Beatles—and particularly between Lennon and McCartney, the most creative two—became unbearable, as their bodies, and their selves, became totally commercial objects.

The "revolutionary" mind-styles and the "radical" music and lyrics of rock and roll have been contradicted by the values of commercialism, authoritarianism, personality, culturism, sixism: all that which is attached to, and which nurtures, the rock scene. As Lennon details, fortunes and careers ride on the success of the star system until the star-as-object overwhelms the artist-as-subject. But that is not all. An audience had to be created to respond as a mass to the demands of rock commerce, to buy Sergeant Pepper, read Rolling Stone, see Help, buy Apple cloths, think Apple thoughts, dream Apple dreams. Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn't; hut the totality of demands did work to lead a willingly submissive audience into submission.

When the Beatles sang about dope, or the Stones sing about street-fighting, the mass audience is being teased about liberation, rather than supported in a struggle. The anti-liberation values of rock mythology—the commerce and the obedience—must be bought along with the music. We are whip-sawed between freedom and manipulation, honesty and duplicicy, love and death. While proclaiming the imminence of personal and public liberation, rock has been moving more determinedly towards a kind of totalitarianism. The rock stars and the pop heroes have become authority figures who can integrate the isolated lives of the young white middle-class mass: come together, under me.

Reading the Lennon interviews seems much like finding original source material for "The Mass Psychology of Fascism." Liberation myths personified in rock stars have a power to blow our minds in the way that racial myths incarnate in political personalities once did (and still do), or welfare myths in the smiles of liberal politicians can often do. Rock cultism takes real needs and basic aspirations of young white people and directs them to the bodies of star-objects. That process happens without self-consciousness and without struggle. It occurs because the audience is atomized, not because it is together. The material of the music—the words and the beat—ultimately have less direct impact on consciousness than the experience of the fan-mass.

It's hardly worth repeating that American society (and to a lesser extent other corporate states) finds mass cultism among a potentially insurgent group both necessary and valuable. The pressures on black leaders to become quasi-religious leaders are certainly apparent in every newspaper story about the black struggle. It was never clear, for instance, whether Martin Luther King was more valuable to the white ruling clas or to the black masses. Cults of personality keep the cult-worshippers atomized, isolated and pliable. There's a danger, of course, that the personalities will vie with the older rulers in power; Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King could hardly have been the best of friends; the Jefferson Airplane and Bobby Kennedy might have been.

The cultism and hero-worship rampant in youth culture and the Movement is a frightening example of the way destructive consciousness is built into the American mass—even when a part of that mass is explicitly committed to liberation. Mythic relationships trickle down from pop stardom to the lowest levels of young people's social organization, elitist leadership, macho-tripping, submissiveness and self-repression have characterized the Movement groups of the late '60s as much as the dialectical Opposite! of those qualities for which we were all supposedly working.

What's so startling, and so wrenching about the Lennon Documents—music and speech—is that they suggest a radical way out; a way to deal with dreams. Lennon's way, it seems to me, is a revival of honesty, a commitment to authenticity of feeling that overcomes the real fears of self-contradiction, failure and pain. In that sense, the value of his personal depositions in the Rolling Stone interviews is not in the promulgation of a "correct line", but in the presentation of a real personal and public struggle to be free. Of course Lennon is nothing if not a walking bundle of contradictions; his enormous ego is oppressive still, even in cool print; he reveals a very unliberated attitude toward race, class and sex ("I hope ['Working-Class Hero') is for workers and not for tarts and fags") and some liberated attitudes. His songs are less contradictory, because more carefully thought out, and there are occasional verses of such clarity and force that they transcend that aspect of banality which we all used to explain away in Lennon lyrics:

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working-class hero is something to be

There is a real problem in his attempt to incorporate the material of his recent "primal scream" psychotherapy into the music. It is immediately effective but somehow too transient a notion, and its extreme expressiveness jaws with the simplicity of statement that informs most of his songs.

But there's not much point in an analyse du texte of the album or the interviews. Their value is in the impression they create, rather than in the line they promote. Most of us who have listened to the Lennon album have also been digging George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and Dylan's New Morning, and comparisons are inevitably made, and perhaps instructive. Harrison certainly goes down smooth and easy, but I can't see that it's much more than karmic bubble-gum music, a wah-wah trip to the top of the charts. Dylan's songs are masterpieces of formalism; even where he is explicitly singing of himself there is a feeling of a third personality: Zimmerman as Dylan as song-writer. No pain, no struggle. That may be cool enough; songs are songs. But after the intensity of Lennon's psychological and political explorations, simple song-writing seems an empty pastime, a respite rather than a realization.

What Lennon found out is the necessity for demystification, the possibility for breaking through myths, the inevitability of honesty. But he ends just as the point where we all have to begin: "And so, dear friends, you just have to carry on." What that means must have to do with finding a way to shatter all the gods without us and within, to transfer power from our heroes to our imagination, to free ourselves from the isolation of private existence in a mass audience. I don't think we can do it by chanting Hare Krishna, although that's a useful exercise at times; nor by finding a little house in Utah and catching rainbow trout: that is not what it's all about. Neither of those options—perhaps valid in some times or climates—comes to grips with the reality of American state power and its capacity for catastrophe. The essential issue, in Lennon's terms, is "isolation", and how it will have to be resolved is by struggle, not private tripping.

Andrew Kopkind.