Thursday, November 18, 2010

Measuring Our Pain

There was always a streak of solipsism a mile1 wide in the lyrics of John Lennon. ("I can show you that when it rains and shines/ It's just a state of mind" (Rain"); "Nothing is real" ('Strawberry Fields Forever"); the true Revolution is when "you ... free your mind instead" ("Revolution").) It should be obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with the details of John's early childhood precisely why a retreat inward to the life of the mind/imagination would hold such attraction for him: John was abandoned at an early age by his father and mother and was raised instead by his strict (but loving) Auntie Mimi; he reconnected with his mother in his teen years only to see her die tragically when he was 17; the uncle who helped raise John also died unexpectedly ... in short, John Lennon had a lot of psychological pain to retreat from.

But there is a (sometimes separate, sometimes competing) streak of engagement with the outer world in John's lyrics. This is, after all, the man who in 1968 sang "You say you want a Revolution ... don't you know that you can count me out"2 and then, less than three years later, would sing:
Say you want a revolution
We better get on right away
Well you get on your feet
And out on the street ("Power to the People")
... pretty much daring you to see any contradiction.

John wanted to re-make the world of his own mind, but he also strove to remake our shared world and, in a way, the Plastic Ono Band song "God" kinda holds the key to how he managed to rebuild his own world from the inside out.
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Teh 'Dad always used to call the philosophical method that Descartes used to get to his bedrock I think therefore I am3 belief "Universal Methodic Doubt". In "God", John employs something akin to this doubting method to get to his own bedrock belief. In the middle of the song, there is a litany of things — many of them '60s icons, totems and sacred cows — that John doesn't merely doubt the efficacy of  ... he outright rejects them:
I don't believe in magic,
I don't believe in I-ching,
I don't believe in bible,
I don't believe in tarot,
I don't believe in Hitler,
I don't believe in Jesus,
I don't believe in Kennedy,
I don't believe in Buddha
4,
I don't believe in mantra,
I don't believe in Gita,
I don't believe in yoga,
I don't believe in kings,
I don't believe in Elvis,
I don't believe in Zimmerman,
I don't believe in Beatles
The final one — Beatles — being perhaps the most devastating rejection of all.

But John never tore anything down without simultaneously building something else up. There is a caesura after John sings "I don't believe in Beatles", after which his voice, small, unaccompanied by any instrument, emerges as he affirms: "I just believe in me."

And that might be enough, his affirmation of the importance of the individual consciousness, but John continues from there: "Yoko and me. And that's reality."

In a comment I made the other day at hey dullblog, I kinda marveled at John ability to make some things that were so intensely personal and particular to him somehow still universal. I think I have mentioned in previous posts on this blog that John's "Beautiful Boy" is a song I associate with my own son, Ian, even though John wrote it about his own son, Sean, and even mentions Sean by name at the end of the song. And yet, to this day, when I hear this song, tears come to my eyes as I think of the day, 10-and-a-half years ago, when my own son arrived at Newark airport from Korea. A tear or two usually escapes my eyes when I hear the line "I can hardly wait to see you come of age" because I think of John and his then-five-year-old son Sean and I am devastated by the knowledge that this very particular loving father so unfairly did not live to see that very particular beautiful boy come of age. "Beautiful Boy" is a very personal song for me, yet somehow remains quite particular to John Lennon and his circumstances in 1980.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, I feel the same way about "God". I occasionally take stock of the things in my own life, asking myself: "Well, what and whom can I really depend on? I mean, really depend, all the time?"

I come to the same conclusion as John: There's me ... and Teh 'Bride5.

I don't think I am unique in thinking I have, at one time or another, been let down by just about everything else in my life. And during those dark hours I actually do exactly what John does in "God": I ask myself what I have left to believe in. And the answer — myself, my wife and my son — is always enough. It is the borderline-solipsistic bedrock from which I can again start building outward to the external world. As long as I have that, I tell myself, I can always rebuild, reconnect.

Because John knew, as attractive as the retreat inward could be, we need to connect — to make our shared world a better one. And although he's been dead for thirty years, he's continued to do that — make this a better world.

The least I can do is my part.

What better way to start than this?
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God is a concept,
By which we can measure,
Our pain,
I'll say it again,
God is a concept,
By which we can measure,
Our pain,
I don't believe in magic,
I don't believe in I-ching,
I don't believe in bible,
I don't believe in tarot,
I don't believe in Hitler,
I don't believe in Jesus,
I don't believe in Kennedy,
I don't believe in Buddha,
I don't believe in mantra,
I don't believe in Gita,
I don't believe in yoga,
I don't believe in kings,
I don't believe in Elvis,
I don't believe in Zimmerman,
I don't believe in Beatles,
I just believe in me,
Yoko and me,
And that's reality.
The dream is over,
What can I say?
The dream is over,
Yesterday,
I was dreamweaver,
But now I'm reborn,
I was the walrus,
But now I'm John,
And so dear friends,
You just have to carry on,
The dream is over.
______________________

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1 Or aboot 1.609 kilometres (for our Kanadian readers).

2 Yeah, but even here? There's some equivocation. Because in "Revolution #1", which appears on the White Album and was recorded before the faster, better-known 45 version "Revolution", John sang "Don't you know that you can count me out/in" because he hadn't made up his mind about his feelings toward more direct action. John wanted the slower album version to be the single, but was out-voted by the other Beatles.

3 "At the beginning of the second meditation, having reached what he considers to be the ultimate level of doubt — his argument from the existence of a deceiving god — Descartes examines his beliefs to see if any have survived the doubt. In his belief in his own existence, he finds that it is impossible to doubt that he exists. Even if there were a deceiving god (or an evil demon), one's belief in [one's] own existence would be secure, for how could one be deceived unless one existed in order to be deceived?
But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I, too, do not exist? No. If I convinced myself of something [or thought anything at all], then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who deliberately and constantly deceives me. In that case, I, too, undoubtedly exist, if he deceives me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I think that I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind."
4 John pronounces Buddha "BUDD-uh" instead of the approved American (and, therefore, objectively correct) way, "BOO-duh". I always found John's Linda Richman-esque pronunciation amusing, wondering if he might be persuaded to believe in some sort of BUDD-uh substitute ... I Can't Believe It's Not BUDD-uh! maybe.

5 And Ian, of course; John, I'm sure, would have included Sean, had Sean been alive in 1970. But that's speculation on my part. Regardless of whether John would have included Sean, I do include Ian.

4 comments:

  1. "conceived in my mind" = mindfucked?

    ReplyDelete
  2. @SteveQ - Exactly.

    Furthermore, I think it was a total ripoff you weren't named sexiest man alive. Next year, if you clear up three questions, you should be a shoe-in:

    1. Are you sexy?
    2. Are you male?
    3. Are you, in some meaningful sense, alive?

    It's hard (TWSS!1!) to know which of these three will be the most difficult to prove.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I just spent precious time trying to find a link to the local band Total Babe performing "Revolution." It's available only at the Minnesota public radio (89.3 "The Current"), apparently. Imagine the Beatles song done by teenage girls whose only passions are... typical of teenage girls.

    ReplyDelete
  4. yer makin me cry again, gq!
    love, teh bride

    ReplyDelete