I was asked a couple of years ago to write an article about artists who connected with the idea from Jung that we move from a first half to a second half of life. In the first half we strive for achievement and success and our identity is found there. One day, we discover that this is fraudulent. It is then that we move to the 2nd half of life where we need something more significant. The idea has been popularised through the mid-life crisis and I met it through the writings of Richard Rohr.
I lost interest in the project (ironically) but I thought I might post what I had here since I haven’t contributed anything for a little while. Can’t keep being a lurker.
Lennon Remembered: The search for the Second Half of Life
It is 1980 and I am in Year 9. I am sitting outside the old State Library in Brisbane waiting for a bus. In my hands is a small book called ‘Lennon Remembers.’ I have looked at the book for many days on the bookshelf in Myers and have wondered about buying it. Buying a book for myself seems like a step towards independence, towards announcing who I think am. I like The Beatles, love the Beatles. Their music is the most real thing I know. I listen to their music constantly, memorizing the lyrics. I am an unmusical person; I cannot sing in tune. I can play no instrument. I take cassettes of their albums to school thinking that in my pocket I have something of tremendous value. In my pocket are some of the greatest songs ever written. It seems a wonder to me that the men who were in The Beatles wrote songs and now I have them.
I have purchased the book that afternoon after school and I walk down to North Quay to catch my bus home. The queue is long and for once I am relieved that I will have a few more minutes to lose myself completely in the conversation between Jann Wenner and John Lennon. I love the form of the interview because of its convincing illusion that this is how he actually spoke. I can hear Lennon’s cadence; I can see his mouth move. I can see Yoko Ono next to him. I am annoyed slightly when she speaks in the interview. I think that she has no right to speak and that she should just stay out of it.
The interview had taken place in 1970. It seems an age away; a completely different world. I am happily lost in that world. I look up from my book for a moment to see my bus pulling away from the stop. I don’t attempt to catch it; I just return to lines on the page. “I don’t believe in myth any more” and I don’t know what he means.
The book I was reading back in 1980 was purchased a few months before Lennon was murdered. The Beatles were the beginning of my fascination with popular music and with artists. For most of my life, I have been fascinated with the people who make music. It seems a magical thing to me; to be able to sing perfectly in tune and to make people cry because of the beauty that can come from our own bodies. Singing has always seemed better than playing an instrument because of the idea that singing comes directly from us. St Francis once said that ‘when you sing, you pray twice.’
Like most very famous people, John Lennon came to hate celebrity and the falseness that ensued from it. He was horrified at the way that the front row of the audience contained young people with Down’s Syndrome or had suffered from other debilitating conditions. He, along with the other members of the band, was asked to meet these people and he felt that he was being mistaken for a mystic healer when he was just a writer and performer of songs. In the various footage from the time, there are many images of Lennon mocking these people; like everybody, he was frightened by any difference that he did not understand. Lennon hated being confused for a prophet and came to feel trapped in the performance that was The Beatles. Like many others he found escape through Eros love and when that didn’t quite free him sufficiently (which Eros love never can do) he turned to heroin. He withdrew from public life and from performing. It was an attempt to rid himself of the preoccupation of the false self. Again, like others, it seemed he found a measure of peace in fatherhood because fatherhood drew love and compassion from him. However, this was for only a short period before he was murdered by a deranged fan. The various stories surrounding the murder related that the murderer, Mark Chapman, was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye which is one of the most famous stories about attempting to understand the self and failing in the attempt.
For the next few years after his murder, there were annual reflections on his life and the terrible nature of his death. There was speculation about what kind of music he might have produced and how it might have influenced others. Given the nature of popular music, though, it seems unlikely that he would have captured the attention of the world in quite the same way. The most significant loss is that his tussle with the false self was ended with his physical death. The reality of aging and the various traumas that come our way are the very realities that enable us to see our false self. Like all of us, Lennon sifted through various options of his self, and for a time believed he would be happier away from music. But music was his vocation and so he returned to it.
It is difficult to write about music because of its non-linguistic dimension. In the case of popular music, writers are often forced to focus on broad descriptions such as ‘soulful’ or ‘energetic’. Hence, when getting to the big artists, there is a tendency to write about lyrics and this approach overlooks a key aspect of song which is that often the music (the rhythmic pulse, the chordal sequence and melody ) actually produce the lyric, perhaps not in its entirety, but often it will force a word choice. The need to rhyme is the most obvious example of this problem but the demands of meter are nearly as restrictive.
Hence there is a fundamental problem in trying to determine a coherent point of view in the works of popular songwriters or in the songs of independent (indie) writers and performers. The goal is to write a good song and a good song is one that is primarily about melody and rhythm. It seems that there is a folly, then, in pursuing the idea that it is possible to speak and write with confidence about an individual’s world view from the lyrics of the produced songs, especially if those songs emerge in collaboration as the vast majority of popular music does.
The concerns can be qualified though in some cases if one looks outside the produced work towards the whole life of the performer. This whole life is not simply biographical; rather it is inclusive of both the produced work, the life that is lived as well as the published reflections on the life by the artist/performer/person. These distinctions are useful because it points towards the necessary grappling that all of us do to make sense of our lives; the glimpses we have of our true self; the growing tiredness with our false self and the recognition of the shallow limitations of the first half of our life. So, what becomes fascinatingly evident through the lives and ‘produced work’ of the performers is a movement, a shift, as they begin to recognize the necessary limits of a life defined by the applause of others. They all find, that eventually the applause must stop, they grow a little older and then, if fortunate, a lot older. Some see this as a curse that limits them, reduces them from their own status as ‘gods’ while others come to see it correctly as the necessary fall, the gift that sets them free from myth.
It is 1981 and the world of popular music is still celebrating and grieving the life and death of John Lennon. I am standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house listening to the radio; I have the cassette player jammed on record to keep the hours of reflections and commentary which fascinate me as much as the music the stations play. Amongst the many voices lamenting the loss of Lennon well as the concomitant reality that the Beatles will now never reform comes a dissident voice: “It’s not like it’s a tragedy; it was just a pop band, a little rock band. Nothing important.”
My father looks up for a moment from his paper and coffee and asks me who it was that made the remark. “John Lennon,” I reply.
Arguing about the importance of The Beatles was something that Lennon was forced to do in most of his post-Beatle interviews. Lennon continued to assert his right to make music apart from his bandmates in The Beatles. He was, periodically, curious enough about the possibility of reforming that Pete Doggit claims that prior to his death Lennon had signed an affidavit claiming that he was about to collaborate with the other three men “for the first time in eleven years.”
The argument about significance and importance worked on two levels for Lennon. On one level, it was that rock’n’roll music was not important in itself. This was often disputed on the basis of the healing and binding power of that music and the way that songs function as touchstones of our lives. The second aspect was that many people made music: that there was always plenty of music.
Lennon’s decision to return to music after an absence from recording and producing albums (and possibly writing) is fascinating. It points to the reality that the first half of life activity is necessary to get to the second. In order to begin to sift and sort your life into shape, to begin what Rohr calls ‘the work’ of moving into the second half of life, beyond false self, the first half must have occurred in a relatively clear and smooth way.
Lennon’s first half of life was stable and fraught. Lennon’s father was mostly absent for his life (a reality repeated for both of his own sons) and this absence was undoubtedly wounding. The second wound was the loss of his mother in a road accident. Now with the absence of both biological parents, Lennon flailed around. His life was now grounded in uncertainty about his place and the most crucial question of unconditional love was not answered. In the various biographies of Lennon, there is dispute over the reality of his childhood. The initial view was that Lennon experienced a loss so grievous that he never really recovered psychologically, coming to refer to Yoko Ono as ‘mother’. An alternative view is that once he was taken in by his mother’s sister Mimi Smith whose love for him has never been disputed, Lennon experienced a fairly stable middle class environment.
Whatever the biographical details are, the psychological experience for Lennon was articulated by him as loss and abandonment. There are few references to his childhood and family in the early part of his success with The Beatles; largely due to the constraints of the pop music form prior to 1965. However, even in 1964 The Beatles opened their Beatles for Sale album with Lennon singing ‘I’m a loser… and I’ve lost someone who’s near to me.” Once he moves past the initial success of the band, his artistic habit is to turn again and again to the need to fill the hole he experienced upon loss of his parents. In 1965, at the young age of 24, he begins to look back at his childhood, initially romanticizing it (In My Life ), but then by 1968 he sings directly to his mother in ‘Julia’. Upon release of his solo in 1970, the material is almost entirely about his identity and existence in ‘Mother’, ‘Isolation’, ‘Working Class Hero’ and ‘God’. He spends the next few years moving between this issue of loss and his political concerns which are focused on vaguely left wing concerns of the anti-war movement which was the large focus of the counter-cultural movement at that time.
John Lennon saw the Beatles as ‘myth’ by which he meant the gap between perception and his experience of its actuality. The Beatles were not, in his view, lovable clean boys who bound a generation of young people together, but as ruthless and frightened young men who had experienced a great deal of personal loss in their pursuit of fame. He did not doubt that they were talented but by the very young age he saw their work as ‘craft’ not ‘art’ and he had come to se himself as a factory worker. Hence, by the age of 35, Lennon had experienced a broken family through divorce and death, worked very hard to achieve public success and recognition on a groundbreaking scale, living through his own failed marriage, struggled to be a father to his first son, broke his creative collaboration with the other men in the band, attempted a solo career while also struggling with a heroin addiction, briefly left his second marriage and then had a second child in 1975. His decision to stop producing albums for five years seems then not so much an active decision on his part but an inevitable result that would be diagnosed today as ‘burn out.’ Little wonder also, that Lennon was so angered by Neil Young’s lyric that it is ‘better to burn out than it is to fade away.’
Lennon’s surrogate mother was Mimi Smith. She told Lennon that ‘the guitar’s alright, John, but you’ll never make a living from it.” Of course, it is impossible to know if she did say precisely this but Lennon used it as part of his story. The remark is used by biographers as irony; an example of misjudgment, a representation of the obstacles that artists must overcome. Lennon did not always see it that way; out of his gratitude and love for Mimi Smith he remarked that she was right: that his gifts as a guitar player would not lead to success.
In another, crucial way, Smith was entirely right: Lennon could and would not make a ‘life’ from the guitar. Nobody can do that. Plenty have tried.
In the summer of 1980, the cricket is a constant companion. The images of the players are virtually imprinted on our TV screen. It is a one day international between New Zealand and India and the 3.00pm news bulletin is an interruption to that although the match did not involve Australia. I sit in my beanbag and somehow – I don’t think I imagine this – I anticipate the words from the mouth of the news reader slightly before he says them: ‘former Beatle John Lennon has been shot and killed outside of his apartment in New York.’ I ring my closest friend at school to let him know the news. He is not a fan of The Beatles but recognizes the significance of it. Years later, he tells me that he recalls me being distraught about it which is not my memory. I am not in grief and when I see the people gathering in tears around Lennon’s apartment and laying flowers I feel nothing. I would not have joined them – I would not have bothered.
Perhaps John Lennon committed himself to the second half of life in the five years he absented himself from recording and producing music. When asked what he was doing with himself. He claimed that he replied that he was ‘looking after the baby and baking bread.’ He remarked in the interview that announced his return to public life that after fulfilling his household duties he would wonder if her ‘would receive a gold record.’ It seems clear that in this period Lennon was coming to terms with the five what Richard Rohr calls the five aspects of initiation for men: 1) Life is hard 2) You are not that important. 3) Your life is not about you. 4) You are not in control. 5) You are going to die.”
In the context of Lennon’s life, the fifth seems brutal and bitter. His death was described as tragic and George Harrison’s remark was intuitively insightful: “it is an outrage that that people can take other people’s lives when they obviously haven’t got their own lives in order.” Of course, it is also obvious to observe that murder emerges from disorder.
Undoubtedly, Lennon had only just begun to do the work of the second half of life. He got to the business of doing that work because of the high speed nature of his first half. He was on a quest for self-understanding and in a wrestle with self and others. Most humans never are able to entirely surrender the need for recognition. In that telling last interview, Lennon moves between generosity and bitterness. He rebukes Yoko Ono for holding onto negative thought: ‘Yoko, do you still have to carry that cross – that was years ago?!”; he expresses dismay that George Harrison has made no mention of him in Harrison’s recently published autobiography ‘I Me Mine.”
Watching Lennon move into later, middle age and deeply into old age would have been fascinating. He would have wrestled with his desire for recognition and the roar of appreciation alongside his knowledge that it is a ‘humiliation to be a Beatle.’ Despite his retirement from music for a time, in returning to music, Lennon found that family life was not quite enough; that he needed to produce in order to exist. Perhaps that is the most bitter twist in his story.