There’s a 1972 National Lampoon album called Radio Dinner that includes spoofs of pop and rock music idols of the time, characterizing them with savage, no-holds-barred irreverence. Bob Dylan, in a commercial for a K-Tel protest song collection, hawks Those Fabulous Sixties: As the musical intro of a Dylanesque song fades (“The spangled dwarf in his bow-tie …”), the nasally voice of a parallel generation starts his pitch, “Hi, I’m Bob ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ Dylan …”
A hit song of cosmically hippie-dippy heaviosity, “Desiderata,” is turned into “Deteriorata”: “You are a fluke of the universe/ you have no right to be here/ and whether you know it or not/ the universe is laughing behind your back.”
But the most brutally hilarious bit is a merciless parody of John Lennon at his most megalomaniacal, primal-scream extreme. Set to the caterwaul-stylings of Yoko Ono’s less than dulcet-toned dissonance, the track features actual quotes or paraphrases from some of Lennon‘s interviews around that time–“I’m as sensitive as shit … Yoko’s a supreme intellectual …I’m a fuckin’ genius!” The prima-donna tantrum escalates feverishly at the end when the ranting, spot-on Lennon impersonator practically screams in anguished protests that, despite what “Green Onion” indicated, “I was the Walrus, Paul wasn’t the Walrus–I was just saying that to be nice, but I was the actual Walrus!!!”
Not entirely a loving homage, and the takeoff came only two years after the Beatles had broken up. I had been a fervid Beatles fan since 1964 when I was ten, the deal clinched at the crammed-full Corbin Theater showing of A Hard Day‘s Night when I was slapped upside the senses by the wallop-packed first chord that chimed in the title song and opening credits. I took the breakup, therefore, as hard as any other devotee. The dream is over, pal, move along, nothing to see here.
But even though it may be hard to tell from the comments I’ve made thus far, John was my favorite Beatle, especially for his rough-edged adventurousness and mercurial personality and wit (I think McCartney’s innate gift for crafting infectious and affecting melodies gives him an edge musically, if not lyrically). John was warts-and-all human and more engaging for that quality, for his impulsiveness and inconsistencies, the cynicism-masked compassion.
So it was sad to see, after his first two stellar solo albums, Lennon’s recording career hit a rough patch in the aftermath of the mediocre Sometime in New York City (“It ain’t fair/ John Sinclair…”). Sadder, too, to see his personal life take a tumble with a trial separation from Yoko and subsequent drink-besotted lost weekend after lost weekend with Harry Nilsson, during which John became something other than a former Beatle or a musical artist “in his own write.” He was now relegated to being, after one particularly raucous night, “some asshole with a Kotex on his head.”
When the opportunity came to reconcile with Yoko, John took to it with an all-or-nothing vengeance as he commenced with his five-year domestic-dad duties and a hiatus from public life, safely ensconced in the Dakota “watching shadows on the wall” if he so desired. And he made his exit with dignity and class–no formal or hyperbolic announcements, no interminable farewell tours. Just slipped away quietly during a time when five years between records seemed like an unbearable forever.
There seemed to be a little bit of an out-of-sight out-of-mind quality to the lowered profile for many people, me included, as we were all busy making other plans and buying Paul, George, and Ringo albums. If we thought of John it was not so much in terms of the next presumably spotty solo album to come, but more related to when and if all four of the Beatles would reunite. After all, there was some truth to the familiar contention that, even though John and Paul essentially wrote individually, there was a needed checks-and-balances within the Beatles as a group, a system to the synergy. Glass-half-full Paul: “It’s getting better all the time.” Imagine-no-glass John: “It can’t get much worse.”
But maybe, after all, it was getting better for John, and he was willingly going with the flow, or at least stopped trying to always go against the grain. It seemed that way as 1980 came around and suddenly we had a catchy new Lennon single, “Starting Over” and an accessible, if safe LP, Double Fantasy. It was certainly better for fans who finally had John back with, refreshingly again, no “big comeback” fanfare. Here he was, sobered up, level-headed and happy. And for those who expected more from his first album in too long a time, he made sure we knew that Double Fantasy served a transitioning purpose–to greet us and assure us that he was glad to be back, and by the way, “weren’t the seventies a drag?”–before he moved on with an all-out rocker the next time around.
I was one of those who felt buoyed without latching on too tightly to the heightened expectation. Of course I bought the album, enjoying it well enough–good old inconsistent John, pulling through again–but taking it in the spirit in which it was meant. In tacit acknowledgement of a simple request, we welcomed John back in his new unassuming guise and in the low-key manner he asked of us; we were secure in the knowledge that he was back for good and in it for the long haul.
Indeed, it was just like starting over, slowly but surely. For now, we thought, we’ll bask in the moment and not bother about the momentum–never dreaming then or imagining even twenty-five years on, that the impetus could be instantly quelled, a great spirit stilled, a spirit more in keeping with a pointed, irreverent National Lampoon-style humor over some of the more hagiographic bowing and scraping that goes on.
As for his fans on December 8, 1980, life got worse long before it would improve. Though we knew things would be getting better again, if not all the time as the song promised, we couldn’t help but feel that–in place of the assurance we took comfort in–a certain emptiness and ache was here for good and in it for the long haul, instead.