Saturday, December 8, 2012

All Those Years Ago: Remembering John Lennon & Johnny Ace

Had John Lennon been killed in a car accident, suffered a heart attack, died of cancer, or simply passed away from old age, it would have been tragic, but somehow comprehensible. But when Mark David Chapman shot him dead in front of his home thirty-two years ago today, the cruel irony of events rippled back to our first discovery of The Beatles and why they mattered for so many of us. After all, Chapman wasn't just an aimless loner like Lee Harvey Oswald; like us, he was a fan of the group. His intent to commit murder grew out of an initial love he had for The Beatles. It was not simply a hatred borne out of social alienation. His act therefore touched disturbingly on what it truly means when our pop obsessions come to define our most private reality.

While fans tried to cope and wrestle with the loss of John Lennon, the surviving Beatles had an even more difficult time doing so. When it came to addressing the tragedy through their music, those problems often became self-evident. George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" was the first attempt to comment on the murder and what it meant to someone who, indeed, shared all those years ago. Recorded in May 1981, for his Sometime in England album, the song's first problem was this inappropriately jaunty melody that you could have easily mistaken for "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The lyrics weren't much better. In the final verse, Harrison goes from chastising those who don't believe in God to condemning people who thought Lennon was "weird." It's as if he were saying that if only people believed in God then maybe Lennon would still be alive today ("They've forgotten all about God/He's the only reason we exist/ Yet you were the one that they said was so weird/All those years ago").

In April 1982, Paul McCartney responded more forthrightly with his tender and plaintive ballad "Here Today." Included on his Tug of War album, which was produced by George Martin, "Here Today" is an elegant tribute that resists any temptation to be maudlin. But McCartney's graceful arrangement also has a way of providing self-protection from the troubled emotions that Lennon's death stirs in him. He reportedly wrote the song at a time when he was considering what The Beatles' breakup did to their relationship. Although what it did was turn them into enemies, he knew they weren't really enemies. The polar dynamic of the two men had always created tension, which in The Beatles they both used  to provide the emotional pull of their best songs. But apart from the group, that tension was only exacerbated. "The dissolution of The Beatles reveals that their compromises had always been psychological first, and musical second, and that without each other they both drift naturally to their own emotional-musical extreme," wrote critic Jon Landau shortly after the breakup of the band. In "Here Today," McCartney tries nobly to reach out to Lennon from that emotional-musical extreme, but his self-consciousness only reinforces the distance between them. If we were to interpret, say, "The Long and Winding Road" as a song about his feelings for Lennon, it would be more affecting than "Here Today." Within the open wistfulness of "The Long and Winding Road," there is a naked acceptance that their dream is over because McCartney is experiencing its demise as he performs it. (You can hear that feeling of resignation in the concluding tired "yeah, yeah, yeah's" that dramatically contrast with their once triumphant "yeah, yeah, yeah's" in "She Loves You.")

The best song about the death of John Lennon actually didn't come from any Beatle. It came instead from a fellow New Yorker: Paul Simon. On his criminally underrated (even by the artist) album Hearts and Bones, Simon concluded the record with a song called "The Late Great Johnny Ace" that did more to capture the irresolvable underpinnings of Lennon's murder than the previous tracks. Perhaps because Simon was also one part of a musical partnership that was fraught with unresolved bickering, he understood the nuances at work within this tragic event. Hearts and Bones was originally supposed to be a reunion record for Simon and Garfunkel, to follow up their hugely successful concert together in Central Park in 1981. But, as usual, creative tensions erupted between them while they were in the studio. Garfunkel wasn't comfortable with the intimate nature of the Simon's songs (Simon was divorcing Carrie Fisher at the time), and Simon wasn't happy with Garfunkel's vocals. When they abandoned the project, Simon erased his partner's voice from the completed tracks and started reworking the songs for a solo album.

"The Late Great Johnny Ace" begins by recounting the story of R&B legend Johnny Ace. Ace was born John Marshall Alexander Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, and was the son of a preacher. He became Johnny Ace when he signed to Duke Records in 1952. "My Song" was his first big R&B hit (covered by Aretha Franklin in 1968), but in 1954, he came upon a haunting blues ballad that would come to define his life and overshadow his death. Like most R&B love songs, "Pledging My Love" was a plea, a promise of pure devotion, that always and forever, the singer will be true to his lover. Ace's performance isn't just heartfelt; its certainty leaves no room for doubt. "Pledging My Love" is as intimate as a love letter, yet its promise weighs as heavy as the world itself. One night, the world caved in. Shortly after releasing the song, Ace was on a huge tour with Big Mama Thornton ("Hound Dog"). During a break between sets at a concert in Houston, Texas, on Christmas Eve, Ace took some PCP (angel dust) and started playing around backstage with a loaded pistol. When a woman named Olivia Gibbs positioned herself upon his lap, he suddenly put the gun to Gibbs' head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. But after the quick moment it took to register the shock, Ace then put the gun to his own head and it fired, killing him instantly. Within weeks, in the early days of 1956, "Pledging My Love" went to #1 – quite literally –with a bullet. His funeral on January 2 1955, in Memphis, was attended by close to 5,000 people.

Paul Simon begins his own song with a hesitant melody in which he reminisces back to when he first heard the announcement on the radio that Johnny Ace was dead. Although he feels grief, he acknowledges that he wasn't such a fan of the artist. Nevertheless, he sends away for a photograph of the late R&B star which is signed to him by the label: "From the late, great Johnny Ace." Simon then jumps ahead in time to 1964 to when he lived in London and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were ruling the airwaves. He has also discovered the love of a woman and a whole new sound in music. But just as he begins to bask in the joy of remembering the innocent thrill of that time, he leaps forward in the song to that cold December evening when a stranger in the street tells him that John Lennon has died. The slow, halting melody that opened the song now returns as Simon and the stranger head to the bar. They decide to close the place by playing songs dedicated to the late, great Johnny Ace. Philip Glass adds a mournful string coda to complete the song and seal the memories contained on it.

Simon first performed “The Late Great Johnny Ace” during that reunion concert with Art Garfunkel in Central Park. Near the conclusion of the song, though, a fan rushed to the stage and threatened Simon away from the microphone. As Simon jumped back in fear, security led the assailant away. Before he departed, though, he yelled to Simon, “I gotta talk to you, I gotta talk to you.” It was an eerie reminder of what Lennon had faced a year earlier. A year later on Late Night with David Letterman, Simon discussed the incident with Letterman. When he was asked to perform the tune, Simon borrowed an acoustic guitar and played it from his seat. But before he could finish it, Letterman cut to a commercial. Simon never played it again until 2000 as part of his You’re the One tour. But this time, he began by performing “Pledging My Love” before leading into “The Late Great Johnny Ace.” With time having passed since Johnny Ace’s death, as well as Lennon’s murder, audiences respectfully sat and listened.

John Lennon had never discussed the music of Johnny Ace, or any familiarity with "Pledging My Love," but it's clear why Paul Simon considered it. Besides the obvious play on the name Johnny (which connects both men), "Pledging My Love" contains the same seeds of promise that many fans first heard in Beatles songs like "There's a Place" and "Please Please Me." Simon may admit in his tune that he wasn't a Johnny Ace fan, but it was still the first record he ever bought, representing the beginning of his love affair with music. And you can hear him respond alluringly to the song's covenant with the listener just as many of us eagerly responded to the early Beatles work. But Johnny Ace's suicide, a self-murder, turned "Pledging My Love" into a ghostly warning, an eerily haunting soul ballad that laid bare the guarantees of the fragile pleasures it offered the listener. Love and death are intertwined as equal partners in the song's very promise. The voice of Johnny Ace on "Pledging My Love" might have been snuffed out with a self-inflicted bullet, but the song projected that voice into the future of pop music where a decade later it would create a counter-culture dream. Only this dream was born out of the love affair we had with The Beatles, and with John Lennon. But that dream, too, would be snuffed out as well with yet another bullet, only this time from an assassin's gun. "The Late Great Johnny Ace" puts a chill in the air even as it accounts for the hopeful stake we place in our favourite music. Paul Simon essentially makes us aware of how the artist's mortality lingers as a cold reminder – especially when their great art makes us feel like we could live forever.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is finishing production on a radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney to be broadcast on December 30th. 

No comments:

Post a Comment