Sunday, November 15, 2009
Jealous Guy, John Lennon (1971)
Although I grew up with John as a nearly constant presence in my life after the age of 10, I can't pretend to understand what made the man tick. If ever there was someone who lived out his contradictions, laid bare his emotional struggles, and acknowledged how painful life could be, he was that someone.
Famed for his hard-bitten irreverence, inability to suffer fools gladly and determination to buck unreasonable authority at all costs, he also had a tender and vulnerable side that was sometimes uncomfortable to watch play out in public. The Leibovitz program examined his willingness, for example, to expose himself in the shoot for what became the defining cover photo of Rolling Stone's January 22, 1981 issue, the one where he clings, stark naked, to Yoko Ono - his muse, his mother, his healer, his all-of-the-things-she-was-to-him.
It was an image that baffled and disturbed many, I think, myself among them. That it was taken just hours before he was shot to death made it all the more jarring. I'm sitting here now looking at my tattered and yellowing copy, and I'm still baffled. And yet ...
The first time I heard Jealous Guy I broke down crying. I went looking for it tonight because I think it best exemplifies John's genius as an artist. He took whatever he wanted to communicate, and boiled it down to its essence. That meant a lot of his stuff was simple.
He commented on this in a 1970 interview he did with Jann Wenner - " ... a reviewer wrote of 'She's So Heavy': "He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it's so simple and boring." But when it gets down to it, when you're drowning, you don't say, "I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me," you just scream. And in 'She's So Heavy', I just sang I want you, I want you so bad, she's so heavy, I want you, like that. I started simplifying my lyrics then, on the double album."
Whether it was Jealous Guy, Imagine, Instant Karma or any one of the scores and scores of Beatles songs that will forever tap into our inner joy, capture the essence of the human condition, or nail exactly what it felt like to be left, hurt, insecure or jealous, John Lennon made an indelible mark. He long ago acknowledged - in that same Wenner interview - that he believed he was a genius, and he probably was.
In my youth, killing larger-than-life people seemed to be the way things were. The day John was the one killed, I heard the news on the radio. I was alone in my apartment and had to lie down on my bed, it just knocked the stuffing right out of me. It's hard to believe that in a few short weeks, he will have been gone 29 years.