Friday, April 25, 2008

What John Said

No, I believe time wounds all heels. -- John Lennon

Serious John Lennon revival going on in my office, brain and heart these days, so I was fantastically interested to note that in one of his last interviews, with Robert Palmer in the New York Times (November 9, 1980), John was pondering the interaction of parenting and art:

"Is it possible to have a life centered around a family and a child and still be an artist?'' asked John Lennon. For Mr. Lennon, widely regarded as the most thoughtful and outspoken of the four Beatles during their heyday in the 60's, the question is far from rhetorical. Together with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their 5-year-old son, Sean, the 40-year-old Mr. Lennon has been engrossed in a settled family life since dropping out of the music business five years ago. Now, with Miss Ono, he is reentering the pop mainstream with a new album, ''Double Fantasy,'' which will be in the stores this week.

In a series of candid conversations that took place in a recording studio during the making of the album, and at the Lennons' New York apartment after its completion, both artists talked at length about the demands of making music versus the demands of a family. ''In a way,'' Mr. Lennon said, ''we're involved in a kind of experiment. Could the family be the inspiration for art, instead of drinking or drugs or whatever? I'm interested in finding that out.''

At the door of the family's apartment in the Dakota, Mr. Lennon greeted me, smiling broadly, one hand on his heart, the other arm outstretched, like a 30's crooner. ''Pardon me,'' he sang, ''if I'm sentimental ...'' The Warner Brothers-distributed Geffen label had just released a single, ''Starting Over,'' backed with Miss Ono's ''Kiss Kiss Kiss,'' from the album. I'd written the preceding week that while Mr. Lennon's pop craftsmanship was intact, the song's lyrics seemed a bit obvious and sentimental. Since then I'd heard the complete album and been struck by the contrast between Mr. Lennon's generally adoring and plain-spoken songs (though his crunching, bluesy ''I'm Losing You'' is considerably more potent) and the mystery and bitterness in several of Miss Ono's pieces. The latter sound remarkably like the music of certain new wave rockers, many of whom (the B-52's, for instance, and surely Lene Lovich) were inspired by her experimental vocal techniques of the late 60's and early 70's.

We sat down at a plain wooden table in the middle of a spacious kitchen that had a stereo, a large video screen, and a couch and lounging area at one end. There were Italian cookies and pastries on the table, and Mr. Lennon brewed a pot of coffee. ''I've heard 'Starting Over' hundreds of times now,'' Miss Ono said, ''but I still get choked up and cry sometimes when I hear it, because ... well, in the 60's, we went through this thing with everybody feeling that we were going to be free. And it turned into a big orgy; in the end, the women realized that all the sexual liberation was really just for men. And now here's a guy, John, saying to a woman, let's start over again, let's try. These are times when women are still bitter about these things, and I think men have to make that first move.'' ''The 60's,'' Mr. Lennon said with a smile, sitting down with the coffee. ''When I met Yoko, we were two poets in velvet cloaks - almost literally - both full of positive ideas for the world, but for ourselves those ideas didn't count. We were both self-destructive; I'd come up thinking of myself not so much as a musician, you know, but as a writer, and big examples in England were Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan. I'd just naively accepted the idea that an artist had to self-destruct in order to create. And we both came out of that through the gift of having the baby.

''By 1975 I wasn't really enjoying what I was doing anyway. I was a machine that was supposed to produce so much creative something and give it out periodically for approval or to justify my existence on earth. But I don't think I would have been able to just withdraw from the whole music business if it hadn't been for Sean. I gave him five years, taking care of him while Yoko ran our business affairs, but it's going on, and I feel it should go on. When I look at the relative importance of what life is about, I can't quite convince myself that making a record or having a career is more important or even as important as my child, or any child.''

If you are as interested as I am in hearing John's take on the world, I invite you to listen to him (and others like him - I mean, did you ever really realize that Elton John was John Lennon's musical heir?) on, the webradio site of the Music Genome Project, where you can create your own custom "radio station" based on music you like. My station is at

*["The music genome project is a colossal effort to classify songs by using over 400 'genetic markers' that, applied to a song and taken together, help to create a kind of taxonomy of music. The genetic markers include everything from basic attributes such as whether a song is acoustic or electronic, to subtle qualities of the lead singer’s voice and all aspects of the arrangement -- right down to whether or not hand claps are in the mix. Dissonant harmonies, guitar effects, specific use of drums and cymbals, syncopation, orchestral music, and even subtle influences become part of the song’s DNA map.

The music genome project is the brainchild of 1988 Stanford graduate, Tim Westergren. The actual work of analyzing songs is carried out by a dedicated team of highly qualified technicians and musicians who reportedly spend 30-minutes analyzing every song that becomes part of the music genome project library. Virtually all music genres are included in the project.

You might be wondering what purpose such an interesting project could serve. The answer is to provide music-loving Web surfers with the ability to create free, personalized online radio stations that only play music the listener likes—even when it's music the listener has never heard before.

One need only visit the music genome project website,, and enter the name of a favorite song or artist in a search box. Server-side software uses the artist or song to find genetically similar material in the database, and the resultant playlist begins streaming for the listener. Song title and artist is displayed along a cover shot of the relevant single or compact disc. Player controls allow the listener to repeat a song or skip forward to the next tune in the playlist. If the playlist doesn’t quite meet your needs, you can tweak it by changing the parameters." -- from the Music Genome Project website]


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