SIXTY-NINE years ago today, one of the greatest artists of the rock era, and my first cultural hero, was born in a hospital on liverpool's oxford street.
especially with the madness over the beatles mono and stereo reissues still fresh, john lennon does not need my defense or explication here. i'll just say that i lost most of my elementary school years blasting my parents' beatles records, and all but levitated when i discovered the scarred depths of "plastic ono band," the one solo beatle LP that stands up with the group's work. (here is my old colleague bob hilburn on lennon.)
instead of diving into the man's amazing achievement and apparently contradictions -- his mix of generosity and bitterness, idealism and disillusionment -- i want to focus on just one song, and an overlooked one at that.
"it's only love" is a kind of orphan in the beatles' catalog. it was released on the american, but not the british, "rubber soul" -- in the UK it appeared on "help." over the last decade or so we've seen through the collaborative fiction implied by the "lennon-mccartney" songwriting credit: this is really john's number. he wrote it in a rush, and lated called it "a lousy song." paul knocked it as a "filler" song for its weak lyric.
let's listen to the song though: my favorite version is the incomplete third take on the "anthology 2" set. first of all, it's one of john's best-ever vocal performances: all the bite, the translation of the pain of the blues, is here, and he digs into the ambiguity of the lyrics -- this woman that he wants to love, but cant. or cant love, but does. (we've all been there.)
john's refrain of "but it's so hard, loving you" is as good a document of the group moving from its moptop phase into its darker, more complex middle period, which i think happens between "help" and "rubber soul," as i can think of.
musically, this has the byrdsy, folkrock sound the beatles were beginning to explore, and an unusual chord progression yoked to an unforgettable melody.
is the kind of tune which, if released today, would absolutely captivate people for its songcraft, but the beatles output in the '60s was so incredible it was seen as failed or forgettable.
(let me admit here that the song was recorded 15 june 1965 -- a few weeks from the day my parents were married. a shrink could probably unravel my almost unanimous fondness for the culture of 1965 and '66, but that's another story.)
but it's not just me who thinks this is a great song. bryan ferry recorded it, to good effect, in the '70s.
either way, let's raise a pint to one of the greatest musicians in history today, and wish we'd had more of him.