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Some Thoughts On John Lennon’s “Walls And Bridges”

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Celebrity deaths is the equivalent of rubber necking at a car crash: it is all titillation horror, with the usual achy breaky loss plus emotional distance: it might matter but not quite, it echoes closer deaths without having anything similar to the impact. The great thing about celebrity death is it gives us a steadying harbinger of losses yet to come.

With exceptions.

Davy Jones death was sad, you’d hope he might have scraped together a coupla more decades, he was 67, young enough for it to be an early passing,still not, say, 27. And while the man was still performing live on stage, he was not a recording star any longer. A pity, but that’s life.

John Lennon’s murder (assassination) at the age of 40 while he was walking home from the recording studio brought the end to so many things, not least Lennon, the greatest Beatle, the greatest rock singer, the greatest hippie, avant-garde househusband. Simply, the greatest. There is no celebrity death that has ever effected me this way. Everything about it is completely tragic, it devastates me still in a manner not a million miles away from my dad’s death when I was fifteen years old.

So I write about Lennon maybe more than I should, I still listen to him from time to time for sure, and I think about his death when I think about pop music and when I think about the 20th Century. So when somebody mentioned Walls And Bridges in a common conversation, I figured I’d go back and really listen. Of all Lennon’s solo albums, and with the exception of the three experimental albums, Walls And Bridges was the least. Or at least that’s the story. Here is how it goes:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – Kills off the Beatles – A+

Imagine – Pan-utopian plus kills off McCartney – A+

Double Fantasy – This is how he made it through the 1970s -how did you? – A

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions -A miscarriage as art exhibit  – A

Walls and Bridges – Lennon as careerist – A-

Shaved Fish – The four song run of singles that opens side one are worth the price of admission on their own  – A-

Menlove Avenue – After the fall but if Lennon had lived it might have sounded like this – B+

Rock And Roll – The roots of rock, just because  – B+

Mind Games – A less successful Imagine – B+

Some Time in New York City – Agitprop, and the second album is a stinker – B

Live In Toronto – The first side is killer rocking Lennon, the second side caterwauling Yoko – C

Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins – Nice penis – D+

Wedding Album – Nice cake – D+

I included Menlove Avenue because Rob O’Connor thinks it should be included, and who am I to argue? I included the Greatest Hits and the live album for some sense of completion: sort of, this is it.

So I put Lennon’s lost weekend album way way way up there and that’s because it is what you imagine just another Lennon album would sound like (how just another Lennon album is it? Jim Keltner plays drums). The songs don’t quite interlock, but still they connect to the myth and then back away from it, it is Lennon as careerist and perhaps this is the one album you can really compare to mid-period McCartney. Say McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace and, yes I know I’m biased, but Lennon’s genius shines through: it is important stuff despite its intentions in ways Macca isn’t.

“Whatever Gets You Through The Night” is a utopian ode to hedonism, he basically gives us carte blanche to get fucked up with Harry Nilsson.But it is more than that, a disco prison bar rattler, so catchy it went straight to number, with a terrific sax solo by one Bobby Keys, Elton John slamhammer keyboards, Lennon in perfect control of his voice, and a point to make: “whatever gets you through your life is alright” might not be “think you’re a superstar, well alright you are” but it is as close as damn it to a sharing of life with everyone. They don’t make hits like that in 2015 -actually who but Lennon mixed the universal with the personal like that?

The other biggie is the waking dream “#9 Dream” -it is just like that, a pedal guitar bringing you into a world of drowsiness and hope, where you can control on the strange sides. Lennon said “That’s what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I’m not putting it down, it’s just what it is, but I just sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I’d had.” But it seems also, just walking on the street, it is the normality of life which is very real but also unreal for Lennon. A terrific song.

Those are the hits, but what do we make of “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)”, a better song about the ravages of fame than anything on John Lennon/Plastic Band? It get through to the essence of rock and roll with one of his great self portraits, the anguish of “Well I get up in the morning and I’m looking in the mirror to see, ooo wee,” must be what that disconnect and connect fof immense fame must feel like it. The feel is very much like his first solo album, it is a self portrait but one with terror built into its make up. It is also terrifying in its foresight, “it’s all showbiz” and  “everybody loves you when you’re six foot underground” sounds cynical but if anything they are nowhere close to being cynical enough. Lennon COULD NOT BE cynical enough about fame and the music business, there aren’t enough words so his whistling at the fade at the end will have to suffice. However, that isn’t the end of the album, a cover of Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” with his son Julian on drums, finds a glimmer of hope.

The three songs are the essence of Wall And Bridges, but, with the exception of disco instrumental “Beef Jerky”, nothing is remotely filler. “Going Down On Love” is an extended cunninlingus joke as love song, for mistress May Pang, I heard, “Old Dirt Road” a different type of Utopia, “What You Got” a true funky workout for Yoko, “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Youth” lives on a tasty lick and a strong vocal, “Scared” -with a wolf howling to open, is the remnants of primal scream,  and “Steel And Glass” a haunted take down (for Allen Klein, though Lennon said it is about a number of people).

 

The theme: it is a return album, the cover art, the original, with its childhood painting and child game flip the parts, suggests the same return. it is haunted by loneliness, by the distance between Lennon and the world without Yoko by his side. It is a sad album gussied up as a pop move. That’s it and at 46 minutes it lasts well into the future -a long album by anybody’s measure. Considered part of his L.A. lost weekend, actually, it was recorded at the Record Plant in New York as Lennon straightened himself and began to get himself ready for his return to Yopko. His vocal, Lennon piped his vocals himself with old fashioned mics , are always moving, Lennon sounds lost inside “#9 Dream”, “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)” and “Bless You”. He is so deep in his oneness he makes just another album so much more.

But that’s why he was the greatest…

 

 

 

 

1 Comments

  1. Dale M. Haskell on July 31, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for this. I’ve always been partial to this album almost above other Lennon albums. Only the over production kept everyone from hearing the power of the songs. If you really want full immersion,try Original Master Series 5 CD 1 DVD bootleg WALLS AND BRIDGES SESSIONS!

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