Tag Archives: music

How to Solve a Problem Like John Lennon

‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.


John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed.  A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion.  Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian.  On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition.  Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career.  I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.

‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.

There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled.  This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists.  The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided john-lennon-487033_960_720another category.  There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).

‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.

Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction.  He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released.  He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain.  While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’.  Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help!  A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album.  As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.

‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.

He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian.  He admitted that he was a bully.  He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence.  Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being.  Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still.  In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement.  Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant.  Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.

‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.

There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair.  It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another.  For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption.  That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour.  No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation.  Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.

‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?

JohnLennon1963A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views.  First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said.  If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance.  Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change.  There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better.  In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons.  I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful.  Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present.  He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.

‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.

imagine-1913561_960_720While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not.  Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind.  The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too).  Of course, such figures need not be well known.  We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance.  If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves.  This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice.  I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.

‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?

Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)

All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).

Pictures (In Order of Appearance)

Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Music and awe – food for integration.

I have been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book “The Master and his Emissary” and thought I might share some personal reflections. There is a segment in the book about the right hemisphere, emotion and music, which drew my interest due to its relevance to my own life. This post is also inspired by the recent posts by Norma and Barry, on art and poetry.

For as long as I can remember I have been strongly affected by music, especially the music made by human voices. Hearing certain people sing touches my soul like almost nothing else can do. I am moved, often to tears, sometimes to the point of sobbing – which can be, socially, quite uncomfortable. I have puzzled over this strong response at times, somewhat conscious of being seen by others as an “over-emotional” or “suggestible” person. With time however I have (nearly) stopped being embarrassed by it, and instead I’ve come to appreciate how now and then I get to have these microscopic emotional journeys, right were I sit. And now I have learned something of why, and how, this happens.

As McGilchrist explains in the book, when it comes to processing music, the right hemisphere of the brain deals with harmony, melody, tone, intonation, timbre and pitch-processing. It also has a special relationship to “sad” feelings as well as feelings of connectedness.

Of course, the left hemisphere, too, plays a role in music appreciation and processing (especially, it turns out, for professional musicians who, plausibly, have a more analytical and automated relationship to music they “know”). Certain aspects of rhythm, for example, are often processed in the left hemisphere and due to its affinity for language music with lyrics will involve the left hemisphere. Nevertheless, the way music can evoke emotions in us is a testament to the involvement of the right hemisphere.

Timbre, harmony and rhythm, along with a melancholy theme, seem to be my  required ingredients for this musical “flying ointment”. At the end of this post, I will link to a few of my favourite musical intoxicants, songs that pull all the right strings of the right hemisphere for me.

McGilcrist writes:

“It has been said that music, like poetry, is intrinsically sad and a survey of music from many parts of the world would bear that out – not, of course, that there is no joyful music, but that even such music often appears to be joy torn from the teeth of sadness, a sort of holiday of the minor key. It is what we would expect in view of the emotional timbre of the right hemisphere; and there is a stronger affinity between the right hemisphere and the minor key, as well as between the left hemisphere and the major key. The pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias wrote that ‘awe [phrike] and tearful pity and mournful desire enter those who listen to poetry’, and at this time poetry and song were one. The relationship between music and emotion is fascinating, and to some degree baffling. Suzanne Langer said that music not only has the power to recall emotions we are familiar with, but to evoke ‘emotions and moods we have not felt, passions we did not know before.”

This ability is a great gift to us. It seems to me that we ought to take every opportunity to broaden our horizons in this way, and that doing so can help further integration. The fact that sadness and feelings of darkness and despair are primarily the territory of the right hemisphere is also meaningful, especially keeping in mind that the left hemisphere is associated with longing for non-ambiguity, certainty and dogmatic belief. McGilchrist  explains that there is a connection between realism and depression. Perhaps cultivating feelings of awe and longing can help to connect us to the world beyond the illusory certainty and self-sufficiency of the left hemisphere, and keep us humble and curious.

Awe is an emotion I feel is very important to the Middle Way. There are some interesting connections between wonder and curiosity, spirituality and skepticism, and I’d like to expand on this further in a later post. In the meantime, here are some songs that inspire awe in me. For me, they all have that peculiar melancholic joy that the right hemisphere enjoys wallowing in.

I think it would be lovely to see suggestions in the comments of music that moves, or inspires awe in you.

Dead Can Dance – “Yulunga” I find this quite awe-inspiring, and the video provides some  dreamy images to stimulate you and imbue with your own associations and meaning. It is also interesting because although it has lyrics, the left hemisphere would have little to work with here as they are entirely an idioglossia (a made up language). Unfortunately the video ends a little bit abruptly, but the journey there is worth it!

Esbjörn Svensson Trio – “From Gagarin’s Point of View” An instrumental song; light and melodic, slightly melancholy and smooth.

Tool – “Right in Two” This is a song that uses complex rhythms and melodies and has beautiful vocals and also some great lyrics to ponder. It inspires a dark sense of wonder in me. A bit of a warning: it does get quite heavy and loud at the halfway mark.

Imogen Heap – “Just for Now” A wondrously creative performance by quirky songwriter Imogen Heap.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

The pages on this website have been gradually developing, to give a coherent account of the Middle Way in theory. However, theory is never enough. I’d like the posts on this site to often have a more practical or inspirational flavour. Here’s an example to start off with. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra seems to me a strikingly inspiring example of the Middle Way in action. Here’s a video introducing it.

Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said have created something that integrates across entrenched boundaries and contributes to the breaking down of fixed metaphysical models that create conflict. They have done this, not through creating an idealised peace when the conditions for peace do not yet fully exist, but by creating some of the conditions for peace in shared meaning. If we recognise meaning as embodied rather than represented, music can be understood as highly meaningful to us because of its relationship to our basic physical processes – our pulse, heartbeat, physical movements and vocal processes. This sense of meaning forms a basis for metaphorical extension into the more abstracted meanings of language. A shared meaning based on music at least creates the conditions in which young people on different sides of the divide begin to talk to each other, and to recognise the meaningfulness of each others’ perspectives.

Robert Ellis