Life’s Soundtrack: John Lennon, “Woman”

For the other half of the sky…

This song was once an affront to me. I was in my teens then —world-weary pose, sick of what little It All I’d seen — and nothing disgusted me more than lovey-dovey pitter-pat platitudes from the man responsible for the far more provocative “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” which culminated in the razor-throated yelp-wallop “We make her paint her face and dance” — a real wowser to the adolescent mind already prone to “blown.” To hear the same voice a decade later cooing to his wubbie was like watching a jaguar yank its teeth to happily subsist on lollipops. A militant chest-thumper, I, obsessively preoccupied with such trivial crimes as selling out and sentimentality. Those were John Lennon’s weaknesses, not mine. I was a stone real motherfucker, kicking that hard-core shit.

Sadly, I knew of Lennon only in retrospect. I was eight years old when he died, and back then I had no idea who he was or what he’d meant. In fact, I’m trying to remember what I thought, exactly, if indeed I felt anything. The Beatles existed for me as ghostly voices and tattered LPs. That they were, in fact, four separate people with separate personalities, names, and lives had never occurred to me. But I knew Lennon must have been important by the insistence of his presence in the days following his murder, and on all days thereafter. He stared from every newsstand, sang from every speaker.

I vaguely recall my parents’ reaction. It was nothing like the funereal embrace depicted in Mr. Holland’s Opus. There was no wailing of “Our generation’s voice has been silenced,” no lost cries of “What will we do?” The furthest my dad went was dropping a needle on what I’d later recognize as the first Plastic Ono Band album and lying between a pair of speakers, eyes closed, mind elsewhere. I do remember the somber gatherings on television, the wavering harmonies of a mass engaged in “Imagine.” It was impressive that one man could inspire so many.

I finally discovered John Lennon in my teens, and I’ve been rediscovering him ever since. Back then I was trying to find my own voice, and borrowing Lennon’s persona seemed like a helluva plan. I, too, threw two sticks at the world. Why couldn’t there be peace? Was universal love not possible? Why was everything structured around stupidity and social poison? I growled j’accuses through reams of bad poetry, found me a swell pair of granny glasses — with clear glass, as my vision was just fine — and even picked up a set with peace-symbol holograms implanted in the lens. So attired, I became a right solid insufferable turd, though my taste in music was all right. “Instant Karma!.” “Power to the People.” “Give Peace a Chance.” “Imagine.” “Cold Turkey.” “Mind Games.” Lennon’s Shaved Fish compilation was my Bible. When I first heard him sniff, “I don’t believe in Beatles,” I found that a far more powerful kiss-off than “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” That John Lennon, man. He was something else.

I’d definitely been aware of the Double Fantasy album in its time. It was, after all, the one he’d released before he was killed. The disc dotted windows all over town. Its sleeve shot of the Lennon/Ono lip-lock devoured magazines. Everyone in my parents’ circle owned a copy; that Christmas 1980, we visited a couple they knew, and there was Double Fantasy, prominent on a shelf.

All the disappointment that greeted its release — more was expected from Lennon’s first recording in five years — had long since evaporated. It became his final testament, a vital window into his midlife head space. As a kid, I found his perspective repulsive. He wasn’t fighting the good fight at the end; instead he was saying, “I found mine, you find yours; maybe I’ll see ya ’round.” What the fuck? (What I didn’t realize until years later was that this was a less exasperated version of the message he’d sent on “God.”)

The whole thing was a damn embarrassment. “Beautiful Boy,” “darling Sean,” Jesus Christ. “(Just Like) Starting Over”? Yes, please, and stop when you get to 1974. “Watching the Wheels” was OK. But “Woman” was the limpest, gushiest, fruitiest, most godawful melodo-swill to ever crawl nutless and simpering onto magnetic tape. The real tragedy, I’d decided, was that Lennon died with his heart in hand, that he’d never return to proper anti-universe screeds again. Such a shame.

Kids, huh?

Love, age, and perspective have a way of softening even your most bull-headed stance. Age, especially, if you’re blessed with the honor. I returned to “Woman” in my early 20s, right after falling in, well, “adult” love, I guess you could say. When she moved away, that was the song that buoyed my spirits, stated everything so simply and perfectly. I’d assemble mixtapes like a long-distance kiss, speaking to her through song, and I’d end them all with “Woman,” but with what I thought (incorrectly) was a clever sonic swerve: I’d clip the song just before “I love you” and send it skidding into the vacant grooves of an anonymous record. Even at full pine I couldn’t hack the bald-faced reality of my devotion. “Doo doo doo doo dooooooo” was acceptable; “I love you,” too scary. By the time I’d summoned the cajones to speak the words myself, it was too late. Turned out “I love you” was bolder than “Woman is the nigger of the world.” It’s a naked admission of all that you feel.

I listen to the whole record now, Yoko tunes and all (admit it: “Hard Times Are Over” is great, though, tragically, untrue), with no more hang-ups, no desperate stumbles to cowl myself in cool. That John Lennon was a brave man to the end, admitting to the universe that he was happy. What I’d once heard as generational defeatism was, perhaps, in fact, just honest. On “Woman,” man, he sings like he means every word. And it’s hard to be hokey when you speak from the heart.

I love you. Now and forever.


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