In His Own Write
"Songwriting is like being possessed," he once said. "You try to go to sleep, but the song won't let you." Of course, that possession can take many forms. Here, for John Lennon's birthday, are notes on what was going through the late Beatle's head when he composed some of his most enduring songs.
"Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" (1965)
"I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me"
The first use of sitar on a pop record and allusions to marijuana somehow stirred more discussion than Lennon's tale of marital infidelity. "I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair," he later confessed. "So it was very gobbledygook. I was sort of writing from my experiences, girls' flats, things like that."
"Ticket to Ride" (1965)
"She's got a ticket to ride / But she don't care"
Little did Beatlemaniacs know they were singing along to a song inspired by prostitution. Working girls in Germany in the early 1960s could legally ply their trade as long as they carried a doctor-issued card assuring a clean bill of health. Lennon referred to the document as "a ticket to ride" during the pre-fame Beatles' extended stay in Hamburg.
"And now my life has changed / In oh-so-many ways / My independence seems to vanish in the haze"
Hard to believe that the 25-year-old co-founder of the most popular band in music history was so miserable as the Beatles worked on their second movie. "I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help," Lennon later said. "I meant it."
"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" (1965)
"Everywhere people stare / Each and every day / I can see them laugh at me / And I hear them say / Hey, you've got to hide your love away"
This acoustic ballad from the "Help!" soundtrack was the byproduct of what Lennon dubbed "my Dylan period," when he took a workmanlike approach to introspective songwriting by setting aside a daily chunk of time at Kenwood, the home he bought in Surrey, England, in 1964. "Every day I would attempt to write a song," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971, "and [this was] one of those that you sort of sing a bit sadly to yourself. 'Here I stand, head in hand…'''
"Nowhere Man" (1965)
"He's a real nowhere man / Sitting in his nowhere land / Making all his nowhere plans for nobody"
Proof that sometimes nothing leads to something special. "I remember I was just going through this paranoia trying to write something and nothing would come out," Lennon said of the first Beatles hit that wasn't ostensibly about love. "So I just lay down and tried to not write and then this came out. The whole thing came out in one gulp."
"She Said She Said" (1966)
"She said, I know what it's like to be dead / I know what it is to be sad"
"She" is Peter Fonda (seen here in 1966's "The Wild Angels"), who accidentally shot himself in the stomach on his 11th birthday, not long after his mother's suicide. In August 1965, while tripping on LSD with the Beatles and the Byrds in a Los Angeles house, Fonda bummed out his fellow travelers by repeatedly telling them, "I know what it's like to be dead." "We didn't want to hear about that," said Lennon, who soon asked Fonda to leave. "He was so boring."
"I Am the Walrus" (1967)
"I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together"
After receiving a letter from a student whose teacher assigned the class to analyze Beatles lyrics, Lennon decided to write a song that defied analysis. He set the pace with two lines written on acid trips and tossed in funhouse references to a Lewis Carroll poem, Hare Krishna, the lyric "I'm crying" from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Ooh Baby Baby" and his own "Lucy in the sky." "I was writing obscurely, a la Dylan," Lennon later explained. "I can write that crap too."
"With a Little Help From My Friends" (1967)
"Do you need anybody? / I need somebody to love / Could it be anybody? / I want somebody to love"
Lennon bristled at the notion that the line about getting high was a drug reference. "It's really about a little help from my friends," he said. "It's a sincere message."
"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (1967)
"Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly / A girl with kaleidoscope eyes"
The trippy imagery seemed to reinforce the drug reference spelled out in the psychedelic title. But Lennon insisted the song was inspired by his son Julian's drawing of a classmate named Lucy O'Donnell. "I swear to God—or swear to Mao, or to anybody you like," he said, "I had no idea [the title] spelled L.S.D."
"Happiness Is a Warm Gun" (1968)
"When I hold you in my arms / And I feel my finger on your trigger / I know nobody can do me no harm"
Like "Norwegian Wood" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," this controversial number from "The White Album" was categorized as yet another Beatles song about drugs—this time, heroin. But Lennon claimed the title came straight from the cover of a gun magazine shown to him by producer George Martin. "I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say—a warm gun means that you just shot something," said Lennon. As far as he was concerned, he hit the bullseye. "I think it's a beautiful song," said Lennon. "One of my best."
"You say you want a revolution / Well, you know / we all want to change the world"
At the height of the Vietnam War, Lennon issued three editions of his call to arms for peace, including the acoustic "Revolution 1" and the mind-bending collage "Revolution 9," both on "The White Album." But it's the electrified rendition that surfaced as the B-side of the "Hey Jude" single that reigns supreme a half-century later. Lennon said the time had come for the Beatles "to talk about the war ... and we're not going to just waffle. I wanted to say what I thought about revolution."
"Come Together" (1969)
"Here come old flat top / He come groovin' up slowly"
In 1969, LSD guru and wannabe California governor Timothy Leary (seen here with his wife Rosemary) asked Lennon to write a campaign song entitled, "Come Together, Join the Party." "I tried and I tried, but I couldn't come up with one," Lennon recalled in a 1980 Playboy interview. "But I came up with this." The self-described lyrical "gobbledygook" wound up kicking off "Abbey Road" instead of Leary's gubernatorial run. "You couldn't have a campaign song like that, right?" said Lennon.
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (1969)
"I want you / I want you so bad / It's driving me mad"
This primal expression of Lennon's love and lust for new wife Yoko Ono was notable for its meandering melody and Lennon's simplistic, repetitive lyrics. "When you're drowning you don't say 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me'—you just scream," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. "I just sang, 'I want you, I want you so bad, she's so heavy, I want you.' Like that."
"Give Peace a Chance" (1969)
"All we are saying is give peace a chance"
Lennon's first solo single, credited to the Plastic Ono Band, was written and recorded during his honeymoon "Bed-In" with Yoko Ono in a Montreal hotel. Lennon and Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers played acoustic guitar, surrounded by dozens of journalists and celebrities, including Petula Clark, Timothy Leary and poet Allen Ginsberg. "In my secret heart I wanted to write something that would take over 'We Shall Overcome,'" he later said. "I thought, 'Why doesn't somebody write something for the people now?' That's what my job is." The handwritten lyrics to the anti-war anthem sold at auction for more than $800,000 in 2008.
"Instant Karma!" (1970)
"Instant karma's gonna get you / Gonna look you right in the face / Better get yourself together, darlin' / Join the human race"
One morning in January 1970, Lennon woke up with the start of a song in his head and sat down at the piano in his London home. Less than an hour later, he called George Harrison and producer Phil Spector (seen here) with an urgent plea to meet him at the Apple Corps studio. "Come over to Apple, quick," he said. "I've just written a monster." "Instant Karma!" was the first solo single by a Beatle to sell more than 1 million copies, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one"
The best-selling single of Lennon's solo career was inspired by several poems in wife Yoko Ono's 1964 book "Grapefruit." "Imagine the clouds dripping," she wrote in "Cloud Piece," a poem that appeared on the back cover of the "Imagine" album. Lennon soon regretted not sharing the credit. "In those days I was a bit more selfish," he admitted, "and I sort of omitted her contribution, but it was right out of 'Grapefruit.'" Last year, Lennon's longtime wish finally came true: The National Music Publishers Association announced it had decided to award Ono a songwriting credit for her late husband's signature solo song.
"How Do You Sleep?" (1971)
"The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you're gone you're just another day"
George Harrison played slide guitar on Lennon's angry swipe at Paul McCartney in the wake of the Beatles' contentious breakup. The "Imagine" album track was a retaliation for McCartney's multiple jabs at his former songwriting partner on his 1971 solo album "Ram," including lyrical digs in "Too Many People" ("You took your lucky break and broke it in two") and a back cover photo of two beetles copulating. Both men later softened the rhetoric. "It was a creative rivalry," Lennon said two days before his death in 1980. "It was not a vicious vendetta."
"Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" (1974)
"Whatever gets you through your life / It's all right, it's all right / Do it wrong or do it right / It's all right, it's all right"
Elton John played piano, sang backup and liked the end result so much that he bet Lennon it would become the first No. 1 hit of his solo career. He was right. Two weeks after topping the charts, Lennon paid off his son Sean's godfather by joining him onstage at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving night. It proved to be a momentous event: Lennon reunited backstage with his estranged wife, Yoko Ono, after what turned out to be his final concert appearance.
"(Just Like) Starting Over" (1980)
"But when I see you, darling / It's like we both are falling in love again / It'll be just like starting over"
The first single from "Double Fantasy," Lennon's comeback album with Yoko Ono, sparkled with the exhilaration of a fresh start for his marriage and career after a five-year sabbatical. That joy seems chilling in retrospect. The Tibetan wishing bell that tolls three times at the start took on the somber tone of a death knell when Lennon was shot to death six weeks after "(Just Like) Starting Over" was released. The song became a posthumous No. 1 hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks.
"Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" (1980)
"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans"
"Well, what can I say? It's self-explanatory," Lennon said of the sweet lullaby he wrote for his 5-year-old son, Sean Ono Lennon. "The music and the lyric came at the same time." The dreamy kiss goodnight—and its most poignant lyric—pierced hearts after Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment while his son slept.
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