Saturday, October 9, 2010

Shining On: Celebrating John Lennon's 70th Birthday

It was the most perfectly hallucinogenic day of my life. I had been more stoned on previous occasions – it was the 1960s, after all – thanks to a variety of experiments with consciousness. In early April of 1969, however, magic mushrooms and a certain song transformed my world while tripping in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “And we all shine on/ like the moon and the stars and the sun...,” John Lennon was singing in the headphones covering my ears. I had ingested two little brown, wrinkled pieces of fungus that rendered the music extraordinary. The lyrics were speaking to me; I suspected they might contain the most important message of the 20th century: “Instant karma’s gonna get you/ Gonna knock you off your feet/ Better recognize your brother/ In everyone you meet...” Although I easily could have continued listening to Lennon again and again, my three similarly wasted friends persuaded me to accompany them on a walk. Outside, everything looked even more beautiful than could reasonably be expected. I smiled at every stranger we passed and they all appeared to smile back.

Near Central Square, we came upon a crowd beneath the beams of two gigantic klieg lights illuminating the clear night skies. A young woman holding a clipboard rushed up to us. “You look like four elegant people,” she said, prompting me to glance down at my torn blue jeans. “How would you like to ride in a Bentley in the parade?” The four elegant people in mushroom nirvana wondered, “What parade?” She explained that this was the gala opening of the Orson Welles Cinema, gesturing at a squalid structure behind her. “Would you like to be in the procession down to Harvard Square?” After hearing no dissent, Clipboard Girl took us to a parking lot in back of the new art-house theater where several floats had gathered. We were ushered into a luxurious black Bentley with its owner, an equally inelegant-looking fellow. When the parade got underway, we were directly behind a Zoomobile from the Boston Children’s Zoo. The rear of this vehicle held a cage with two speakers on the roof and the driver kept roaring into his microphone -- a ruse so spectators would think it was a dangerous beast, instead of an adorable baby llama. Behind the Bentley, a rock band pounded out up-tempo tunes aboard a flat bed truck. Behind the musicians were dozens of young cineastes on foot, some hoisting huge, black-and-white posters of a somber-faced Orson Welles. Neighborhood people watched from their windows. A group of hippies, surely also stoned, improvised a snake dance that wove through the parade. It was very festive. Very instant karma.

When we returned to the theater for a reception in the lobby, the baby llama was there, boldly lapping up Champagne from the plastic wine goblets held by unsuspecting guests and occasionally trying to eat the goblets, as well. Then, the entire crowd filed into a screening room to watch a Welles drama, The Immortal Story, and a Luis Bunuel picture, Simon of the Desert. My blissful hallucinatory state was derailed by the latter film’s surrealism. When Satan, disguised as a bearded woman, goes to a nightclub with the eponymous character, a rock band performs an instrumental number titled “Radioactive Flesh.” In a cruel irony, this would be a grotesque means of shining on. Instant karma became tinged with instant paranoia. As we headed home, our euphoria was replaced by a rather pensive mood. The mushroom glow might be fading, I remember thinking, but surely we’ll remain like the moon and the stars and the sun. I suspected John would understand.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

I first heard "Instant Karma" blasting out of our hi-fi on CKFH, the Toronto radio station that played so-called “Oldies.” Tuning in during the “All shine on” chorus, it was later that I learned later that the song was called "Instant Karma." At twelve years old, I didn’t know the meaning of the word, karma. (However I learned it by the time I went to university.) But the song still remains one of my personal favourites for many reasons; Lennon’s rusty, yet inspired vocal, not to mention, the message of the song which grew out of the idealism of the 1960s. The words are also straight-ahead: a first verse that warns of what will happen if we don’t “turn on,” followed by Lennon’s clever shot at his critics: “Who in the hell do you think you are?” The third verse then asks the listener to “recognize your brother” followed by the questions, “Why in the world are we here/Surely not to live in pain and fear/Why on earth are you there/When you’re everywhere/Come and get your share” The chorus chimes its way through the Phil Spector “wall of sound” with an inspiring refrain, “Well we all shine on/Like the moon and the stars and sun…” And then it fades into the cosmos.

Legend has it that Lennon booked a studio at Abbey Road and invited a few musicians including George Harrison to play. He wrote the song in the morning, rehearsed it after lunch and then recorded it before dinner. It was released as a single on Apple records 10 days after it was produced on January 27, 1970. "Instant Karma" was Lennon’s third “anthem-like” song about world peace and political action. The first was “Give Peace A Chance” followed by “Power To The People.” But “Instant Karma!,” written quickly one cold day in January, was a much better effort. Its rhyming couplets offered a simple, memorable message that still resonates 40 years later. Shine on John Lennon!

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

Perhaps more than his songs, I've always been intrigued by the sound of John Lennon's voice. I can't think of any singer who had such an ineradicable way of intertwining pleasure and pain. When he sang "Eight Days a Week," you could feel the ache in his voice as much as you could experience that soaring, shining quality that helped you transcend the pain. It didn't matter whether he was cutting loose with Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," expressing vulnerability in the ballad "If I Fell," or conveying the surreal sensation of pure memory in "Strawberry Fields Forever," you couldn't resist giving yourself over to the timbre of his voice. In his best songs, he made the song's sentiments seem real and true; not only his, but ours to share.

Even in weaker material, as on his 1973 Mind Games album, his voice lifted many of the tracks beyond the shabby writing. "Out the Blue," one of his many songs for Yoko Ono, may be yet another track that expresses his gratitude for having her in his life, but it also reveals more of his desperation than many of the others. (They were breaking up as it was being recorded.) The naked longing snaking through lines like, "All my life has been a long, slow knife/I was born just to get to you/Anyway, I survived/Long enough to make you my wife," are charged with the electricity of a man who knows he can only reach out when he reveals the full depth of his need. The song's power isn't simply in its words, but in the power of how those words are delivered.

Listening to the newly released stripped-down version of his and Yoko's 1980 album Double Fantasy, where she eliminated all the echo from his voice, the purity of its sound is startling to encounter. Lennon seems to be whispering in our ear with the heartfelt need of having you share in what he has to say. All that reverb earlier had masked the doubt and uncertainty of a man who had been away too long. Now we can hear in his voice an artist who is not sure what he has to say to an audience who has been waiting so long to hear him again.

It was his voice that also hooked me a few nights after his murder during a memorial tribute at Toronto City Hall. Lennon's death had already created some uncanny parallels. The Beatles had arrived in New York in 1964 to rekindle the utopian spirit of a nation grieving the assassination of their idealistic President. Now, in 1980, in New York City, the assassination of one of The Beatles sent sixties' idealists into total despair. At our candlelight vigil, people sang songs and listened to Beatles stories recounted by local DJ John Donabie and British pop and blues singer Long John Baldry. We shivered in the December cold and shared our grief.

While most of the evening is a blur now, I can still clearly remember when the shock of the event turned to acknowledging the sorrow. As the public address system began to play Lennon's "A Day in the Life," the crowd began to sing along. But it wasn't the words of the song, so choice for the occasion, that put me in touch with the genuine sense of loss that I felt. For me, it was the moment toward the end, after Paul McCartney describes himself falling into a dream, when Lennon returns with his familiar wailing voice. Once again, that instrument of great anguish and great joy pierced the night air. As I tried to hum along, the joy I felt hearing that part of the song - always my favourite section - gave way to tears.

I found myself weeping not just for Lennon, but for all the friendships I'd formed because of the Fab Four's music. Pleasure and pain, the essence of John Lennon's voice, was something I heard in this powerful song about a man standing alone in the society he felt estranged from. No doubt, as people celebrate Lennon's life today, the sense of loss will run as deep as the joy expressed in his music. It's perhaps just as John Lennon had always intended it.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.    

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