Monday, November 14, 2011

all things must pass: maturity in post-beatles solo work (part 1)

Jurgen Vollmer, one of the Germans whom John, George, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best befriended in Hamburg during their stints playing nightclubs in 1960-62, once said that, due to his quiet demeanor, it was often easy to dismiss George Harrison. However, once you got to know him, it was quickly apparent that he possessed a certain maturity that the others lacked. Jurgen said that George looked you straight in the eye when speaking to you, and seemed genuinely interested in what you had to say.

What does examining John's and George's solo material through the lens of maturity tell us about them as artists?

I'm going to argue that George's solo material articulates its messages with more maturity and perspective than John's. However, in the interest of space, I'm only going to address John's output in this post. I'll save George's output for the next one.

Let me briefly address Paul's work, though, just to justify why I'm not including it in the overall analysis. I'd rather not compare Paul's work to George's and John's simply because I think the vast majority of Paul's work seeks a fundamentally different musical goal. Explaining that difference probably merits its own post, but for now I'll say that Paul's songs, with a few exceptions, simply aren't personal enough to evaluate according to the same criteria as George's or John's. The most explicitly personal McCartney song I can think of is "Here Today," his tribute to John. That's certainly a beautiful song, but one song isn't enough to go on. Much of the rest of his output involves stories or simple love songs. A lot of it is absolutely wonderful, but it's not particularly personal, at least not explicitly so.

Therefore, I think it's more appropriate to compare George's and John's catalogs. Both of them tended to write explicitly personal songs that arose from almost existential struggles. I'd characterize their songs almost as confessionals. However, there's a key difference in style between the two writers that, I think, suggests more maturity and nuance in George's work.

That difference comes down to the degree of subtlety. Take "Julia," for example. Anyone with any knowledge of John's past knows immediately that the song is about his mother, Julia. The lyrics are gorgeous and the song is haunting, but listening to it almost makes me uncomfortable because it's so explicitly about his struggles connecting with his dead mother.

For an even more uncomfortable experience, try "My Mummy's Dead." The track consists of John and an acoustic guitar, mixed so roughly that is sounds like a home demo. The lyrics are "my mummy's dead/I can't get it through my head/though it's been so many years/my mummy's dead/I can't explain/so much pain/I could never show it/my mummy's dead." As a listener, I almost feel as though I'm sitting in, uninvited, on John's therapy session with his psychologist.

Now why do I feel like this hyper-explicit, confessional music indicates some level of immaturity? It comes down to the function of an artist's output. An artist, I think, releases music because he/she wants to share something with his/her audience. Part of the reason that art is shared with the audience is, I think, to provide the audience with some product to which they can relate. However, by writing songs that are so explicitly personal, John sometimes made it difficult for his audience--at least in my case--to relate to his music. Even if I had a deceased parent, could I really relate to "Julia" or "My Mummy's Dead," when they don't seem to have been written at all for me? I think the expectation that we should purchase and enjoy songs clearly (I think) not written for us indicates some level of immaturity--or at least entitlement--on the part of the artist.

Now, none of this is to say that I don't enjoy John's solo material. I think much of it is absolutely gorgeous. However, I think the hyper-explicitly personal songs indicate some level of immaturity that George's music simply doesn't. I'll explain why I think George's solo material is more mature in the next post.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Very interesting point of view. I look forward to your next post!!

  2. Thank you, Roger! I'll try to have it up in the next couple of days.

  3. This is a difficult,one for me,because as you know,John is my favourite,John had various writing styles,from,very open song's to very encrypted song's,John always believed the song's meant whatever you wanted them to mean.
    Take the guy at the door in the "gimme some truth" documentary,he asked about "Carry that weight" John said "How can i be singing about you"? I think people relate to, and interpret song's in their own way.
    John moved on very quickly from the "boys loves girl" song's,Some of his song's took guts and courage to write and sing,I think he touched the hearts and minds of the listener,i know it takes an incredible amount of maturity to write such open honest lyrics as John did.It is impossible to write a song to touch everyone,but John came close.All the writer can relate to is their own experiences,So my argument has to be,how can a song not be personal to the writer ? John more than any other reached out to the people and spoke to us,through his song's his magical word play and simple melodies.So,therefore i belive John's song's to be extremely mature.As my father says "comparisons are odious"

  4. I guess I have to disagree with you on the "immaturity" level. The thing that impresses me the most about John is that he writes from his gut. Some of the best poetry in the world is personal. I'd much prefer to hear someone singing about themselves than some objective third party. To me, it's the understanding of the artist and who he is that makes it more meaningful to me. And, if you can identify with him at all, it makes it that much better for you. While having not read your analysis of why you feel George is more "mature", I'll throw out the argument that he sends out music that doesn't have the immediate "identification" pattern that John's does, as so much of his music deals with spiritual matters and has the ability to turn people off because of that. Writing about the same subject over and over again doesn't really allow for any new insights. That being said, I DO love George's music as well. I don't see either John's or George's music as being "immature." Just different.

  5. I see where you're coming from, Stephanie and Jon. Stephanie, I'd argue that George's music did progress in its message throughout his career, and I think spiritual matters and very explicitly personal songs can equally turn people off. Ultimately, I think it's a matter of taste. Personally, I get a sense of entitlement from some of John's work, and perhaps a bit of pushing the envelope simply to push it (I certainly feel that way about the cover of the Two Virgins album). Because of that, I find some of his work somewhat immature.

    But, as always, I think a lot of this is about personal taste.

  6. Yes indeed Chelsea,beauty is in the eye of the beholder (as they say) ya pays ya money and ya takes ya choice.Very good and thought provoking debate Chelsea.What i do know is they are both WELL GEAR lol and the world is a better place with John and George's music in it.

  7. That's true, Jon! I wanted this blog to be a place for people to engage with their music and legacy in an analytical way, so I'm glad it's turned into that, if even just for a few people! :)

  8. Your chief criterion for quantifying maturity is groundless. The premise that an artist’s output has any function whatsoever is debatable. Lennon’s connection with his audience may have helped him sell records but I sincerely doubt it propelled him. The greatest dynamic of the Beatles was watching them mature in the sixties. Having achieved the pinnacle of commercial success early on John’s “maturity” was evident in increasingly challenging works (think “I Am the Walrus”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Unfinished Music 1 & 2” and, of course, “Revolution 9”). Deeply personal songs like “Julia” were no less compelling in their rawness. Whether or not an audience could personally relate was not the point. Does one have to be scarred by wartime atrocities to appreciate Picasso’s Guernica?

    While evidently less personal, McCartney’s maturation was no less remarkable. I am astounded recalling how in the wake of the Sgt Pepper album he recorded the melodic numbers that appear on what we now call the Magical Mystery Tour LP. A few years earlier the group would have been embarrassed by such “soft” tunes as “Your Mother Should Know” or “Hello Goodbye” but a mature McCartney was no longer deterred by such superficiality.

    It is interesting that you use the word “entitlement”. I don’t think it’s an appropriate term. We may never know what motivated “Two Virgins” or “Sometime in New York City”, be it shock value or personal expression, but I don’t think John & Yoko really expected those records to be successful.