13 October 2012

We elevate people to the status of heroes in order to let ourselves off the hook

Let me get one thing straight: I love the Beatles. I haven't named any kids after them but I still really love them. They were the first group that I was ever properly aware of. In my early teens I would sometimes stay in and listen to the radio all day in the hope that I would catch a song by them that I'd never heard before and be able to tape it on my radio-cassette player. When I bought a new turntable last week, I took along my copy of Abbey Road to do a listening test. It was essential to me that that record would sound good on whatever I bought. But the whole point of the Beatles is that they were ordinary. Four working-class boys from Liverpool who showed that not only could they create art that stood comparison with that produced by "the establishment" – they could create art that pissed all over it. From the ranks of the supposedly uncouth, unwashed barbarians came the greatest creative force of the 20th century. It wasn't meant to be that way. It wasn't officially sanctioned. But it happened – and that gave countless others from similar backgrounds the nerve to try it themselves. Their effect on music and society at large is incalculable. I am so the target-audience for this book that it hurts – but something feels wrong.
Britpop (I can scarcely believe that I typed that word of my own free will) perhaps comes in useful for once at this point. People of my generation felt this obscure pang – this feeling that we'd somehow missed out on something amazing. So we tried to make it happen again – but exactly the same. You cannot do a karaoke version of a social revolution (good fun trying though). What changed in the interim? Why was Br**pop doomed to failure? Too many factors to go into here, but one was: too much information. Too much reverence. Wearing the same clothes and taking the same drugs will not make us into Beatles. It will make us fat and ill. And books like this (along with many others, I admit) are what make that mistake possible. The Beatles didn't know they were the Beatles. The Beatles didn't have a plan or a blueprint to follow. They followed their impulses and vague hunches and somehow left a legacy of 213 songs with scarcely a dud among them. That's all the information you need, really. But now that relatively modest body of work has been overshadowed by all the "previously unseen" and "the making-of" nonsense that becomes necessary if you want to flog people the same thing year after year.
We elevate people to the status of heroes in order to let ourselves off the hook: "I'm just a mere mortal – I could never even dream of doing something like that." Lennon himself always seemed at pains to deflate any such high opinions of himself: what he would make of this book, I can only guess. The letters show an ordinary human being doing ordinary things: writing lists, sending postcards, enquiring after relatives. Why is that interesting? Because that person has now achieved demigod status. Is that a good thing? I dunno – good singer, though. Pretty good songwriter too, as it goes …
- Jarvis Cocker reviews Hunter Davies' The John Lennon Letters, Guardian, 10 October 2012
(Neil McCormick's review of the book in the Guardian Bookshop link above concludes: 'What do we really learn about Lennon from nearly 400 pages of annotated private correspondence? Well, he couldn’t spell. He liked to doodle. And he had way too much spare time on his hands.')
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