This date in 1980 we lost John Lennon, killed by some asshole with a gun.
Lennon wrote some great songs when with The Beatles, and I could’ve chosen one of those—I’ve already done two of my faves, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Norwegian Wood” but there are lots more. Moving to his solo work, his first album, Plastic Ono Band (1970) is a must and I’ll allow that his final album, Double Fantasy (1980) is too. In between, Lennon can be something of a wanker. Talented and sometimes with the courage of his convictions, but oft a wanker nonetheless. Still, there is probably at least one double album’s worth of worthwhile Lennon tracks between those two releases and today we look at one of them.
Walls and Bridges I generally look at as Lennon’s second best solo album, liking its relaxed jauntiness better than Imagine (1971). And when Lennon was gunned down and we were reeling with the news—the recent “comeback” had us thinking about him again, more warmly, after years of silence—I had two Lennon LPs to listen to. Plastic Ono Band and Walls and Bridges. I played them while drawing a pastel picture of Lennon, based on the photo I’ve placed at the top of this post. That sunny smile—rarely captured—was worth contemplating.
And so is this song because Lennon, adapting the old blues line “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” makes a statement about how the formerly great get treated when they are perceived as no longer great. This isn’t about being “down and out” in the sense of having nothing and nowhere to go. It’s down and out in the sense of falling off the radar, yesterday’s news, has-been, old hat. And even the best of that generation that began their recording careers in the Sixties had faced that chill by the mid-Seventies. “Everybody’s hustling for a buck and a dime” Lennon says, then gives us the old saying “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine” to indicate how self-serving praise is in show-biz, then alters it to “I’ll scratch your back and you knife mine.” Lennon, who sunk a few knives of his own (he made barbed remarks about most of his contemporaries at one time or another), has something of a persecution complex, we might say, but listening to the song after he was killed, the figure doesn’t seem overstated.
Indeed, the song—which looks at how hard it is to maintain true love in the slipping away of all things that time affronts us with—can seem rather plaintive, with Lennon’s speaker searching his image in the mirror and lying in bed unable to get to sleep. Asked about love—here, the lines seem to address Yoko more than a generalized “you”—he replies “what it is, what it is” and “what you say, what you say,” as if there’s no way to say anything meaningful about what the heart decides. “All I can tell you is, it’s all show-biz” (even private life between a couple) and, the line I like best, “every time I put my finger on it, it slips away.” That statement seems in keeping with Lennon’s general attitude during his hiatus from recording. The effort to make something is too elusive.
The song uses horns tellingly, letting them come in with the “show-biz” and “slips away” lines to create a cartoonish effect. The joke is on the person trying to make something out of these slippery moments, the person who wants something authentic in the midst of all this phoniness. Finally, Lennon, who didn’t live to become “old and grey,” reflects that aging is the surest way to lose affection. Set against this, his “Everybody’s hollerin’ ‘bout their own birthday” riffs on aging as, if not rued, then celebrated as a date that makes someone special. Then comes the corker: “Everybody loves you when you’re six foot in the ground.”
Listening to this song that night and hearing Lennon go whistling through the track’s close after delivering his jaded pronouncement on how death tends to conquer persons’ aversion, making heroes and martyrs out of those we reviled in life, I couldn’t help thinking how the same would happen to Lennon. He had been something of a thorn in the side of show-biz, refusing to be a good will ambassador for ongoing Beatlemania or making career moves that would make him a player. He was a celebrity gadfly, mostly, and the one liable to smear “bullshit” over efforts to lionize him and his peers. Whatever they had all achieved at one time, none were living up to it.
His comment on all that though seemed to be contained in the line “nobody needs you when you’re on cloud nine.” That’s where he would end up spending a lot of his time, detached from the world-at-large, as claimed in “Watching the Wheels” (1980), and he’s looking toward that here. But, from the point of view of the night of his death, he was on “cloud nine” in another way, lifted right off the planet. That whistling seemed to me an authentic moment of transcendence, as if, from beyond the grave, Lennon were saying “it’s all show-biz,” and “it slips away,” and that’s as it should be.
I felt a surge of admiration at that moment for someone who—mortal like all of us—had managed to get down on tape his indifference to this little pageant that concerns us all so much, while we’re here, and won’t mean shit the second we’re gone. You might say that those who congregated to mourn Lennon on that night were hollerin’ about him and not about themselves, but I’ve long been one who believes funerals and commemorative gatherings are for those who are alive and not for the person who has died. They do these things to ease their own grief. Meanwhile, the late, great Johnny Ace goes whistling down the years. Here and gone, at once.