Essay – Dr. E.P.Nicolas
ABOUT THE TWEET
I’m not going to lie to you: I never cared for the glorified Tweet that was “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” It was Dave’s idea that I write about it.
Reluctantly I revisited this distastefully self-regarding diary-entry of a studio quickie, a tedious travelogue of the famous first-person narrator’s real-life efforts to marry his current ladyfriend and then to pretend to find himself accidentally at the center of the resulting media event — and to be suffering—suffering!– in anticipation of being ‘crucified’ by all that publicity.
(So concerned with the threat of crucifixion was Lennon that he rushed Paul forthwith into the studio, Ringo and George being for the moment unavailable, to immortalize recent events in a 3-chord ditty apparently based on the riff from The Coasters’ “Poison Ivy.” And released it as a single.)
I endured once more the repetition of its insufficiently ironic chorus, which gives a shout-out to fellow-celebrity “Christ” not once but twice in the space of four lines.
Why does it merit discussion at all?
Because of the precedent it sets: the lyric sounds like a trivial blog entry—an over-sharing Tweet whose only claim to interestingness lies in the fame of its author.
The first ‘did-you-mean-to-press-“reply all”?’ in history.
Montaigne, grand patriarch of the essay form, tried to be interesting; posterity does not preserve his account of his honeymoon.
And Van Gogh, in his often soaringly illuminating letters to his brother, included a lot of prosaic detail (‘running low on titanium white again’), but he wasn’t writing that stuff to us.
Lennon himself–and this of course is why the “Ballad” is so disheartening–had already set the bar of pop-lyric interestingness quite high in scads of earlier songs that were framed as first-person accounts, but which quickly rise to the level of the well-worth-saying.
For instance, “Girl” (1966) which, beginning with “Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay” rapidly becomes trenchant and universal.
“The smart one” seemed able to do that sort of thing as readily as rolling out of bed. More readily, in fact, in Lennon’s case, as he was well known to roll only with great difficulty out of bed.
Why then was he, a plainly extraordinary artist, choosing to subject the world to this ballad? A ‘ballad’ in the early sense of the word: straight, allegedly factual narration of events. Most famous surviving ballads are accounts of dramatic, usually lethal, events in the lives of aristocrats, sung for the entertainment of commoners. And so “The B of J & Y” is firmly in that tradition, except that nothing dramatic happens.
What had happened to John’s imagination, and to his wickedly canny sense of what was and was not interesting?
Well, some figures in history appear to be born bellwethers. Who, at the time of John and Yoko’s media-event nuptials, could have predicted that the society of the future might come to suffer from mass confusion about the distinction between individual private lives and the realm of culture, news and art?
By the time of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969), Lennon appears to have come to believe that it mattered to the world what he had had for lunch. And from the point of view of the gutter press, it did.
The lyric faithfully reports this: “the men from the press,” earning their bread by pretending to be fascinated by the quotidiana of Beatledom so as to feed the new mass audience for celebrity gossip, dance a lopsided decathlon pas-de-deux with the coy, shrewd, and protesting-too-much rock star, who has become a master of getting himself photographed and scribbled about while complaining about it.
This is now an essential trait of the modern celebrity.
Lennon’s actual celebrity made his every movement seem newsworthy, and today, vicarious and imaginary celebrity can make what YOU do seem worth telling the planet about.
You don’t have to be a professional historian to know that hindsight is 20/20. With the help of hindsight’s enhancing optical power I am routinely able to understand events–say,
a) an oil spill.
b) a church scandal.
c) The falling-out between Roger and Dave.
as having been, in effect, inevitable given preceding circumstances and conditions —
a) lax regulation, Dick Cheney, a petroleum-based society.
b) a history of papal secrecy, the doctrine of celibacy for clergy, the inherent mendacity of large religious institutions.
c) the combustible nature of affinities of genius.
Yet of course this is a notorious fallacy: in every case things could have turned out otherwise.
Still, some instances make you wonder.
The Beatles have often had ascribed to them various special anointings from Destiny. But of course this again is retroactive, ‘20/20,’ faux wisdom. More ridiculous claims have been made for the Beatles than for the waters of Lourdes. But while a McCartney would in any age have been a reliable font of innovation, synthesis and delightfulness, Lennon is hard to resist as a figure of Fortune’s favorite for his historical moment.
His “Beatles are more popular than Jesus” remark, to which the Christ business in “Ballad” elliptically refers, reported right round a quaintly scandalized world, seemed to have raced right out front of the Sixties’ parade of cascading secularism and irreverence; similarly, the progression of his drug use seems now a microcosm of the adventurous-to-decadent trajectory of the whole Western history of “partying” from the Sixties to the Eighties.
Not for nothing did the original fame monster David Bowie exploit the totemic power of the sound of Lennon’s voice in his hit song “Fame.”
Pop music, like fascism (only nicer), couldn’t have existed without technologies of mass communication, and it was through this newly near-global matrix of media that the Beatles’ charming artistry propelled pop music from pastime to Culture. Unfortunately this left John, still after all a young man, with the mistaken impression that since he could say it and the world would listen, it followed that it was worth saying.
And so let it be a caution to all of us postmodern-day microcelebrities, each of us blasting and Tweeting and blogging away at the helms of our own little PR juggernaut machines, that the experience of actual celebrity ultimately persuaded Lennon – you can see it in his increasingly solipsistic work from “The Ballad of John and Yoko” onward –that innovation and imagination just weren’t as important as what he called (in “God,” from ‘Plastic Ono Band’) “reality,” as in:
“I don’t believe in Beatles / I just believe in me / Yoko and me / and that’s reality.”
I don’t care who you are, that sort of reality just isn’t as interesting as art.
Now will you all please go write a nice poem?
ABOUT THE ARTIST
In 1983 there was a talent contest at the Chuck E. Cheese in Mattydale, NY.
Their stunning live show at the time consisted of 1TRED on the drums and TRED2 on the Farfisa.
Despite their stellar performance of "Billie Jean", they were robbed of first place by a 7 year-old MJ impersonator.
And so would begin a disastrous career in music for the young TRED boys.
Sure, they played to packed rooms in New York City in 1984. But those rooms were rather small.
In 1985 they won a spot on the Live Aid stage when they beat The Hooters tour manager in a vodka and Clamato fueled late night game of snooker.
As you are well aware, TRED never ended up playing Live Aid and neither did Rod Stewart.
This major career setback created a gaping hole in TRED’s relationship with themselves, their music, and their shared love for the word "portmanteau".
1989’s "The Chickpea" would become the last time the boys would ever work together.
In 2007 1TRED (aka Juan TRED) started work on what would become 2009’s Crappy Hits of the 80’s: vol II.
He released the music under the TRED moniker just piss off his former collaborator.
15 years on, TRED still does not understand how rain on one’s wedding day is ironic.
Find TRED past, present and future on the internet.