Friday, May 10, 2019

Tomorrow Never Knows: On Seeing Sean Lennon

Side two to the Beatles’ Revolver was my soundtrack to the spring of 1982. Those 16 minutes were my wake-up mix. “Good Day Sunshine” literally got me out of bed, out the door, and off to school. It was all warmer weather and the throes of adolescent romance. Everything felt intensely alive, as I rocked around the house, getting ready for my last days of junior high school.

My parents did not own a lot of albums, but some were on shortlist to get repeated plays, especially everything we had by the Beatles. I was actually a little crushed to learn recently that Hey Jude/Beatles Again is considered a compilation and not a canonical studio album.

Reflecting even more now, add a little shocking context of the stretching speeding strangeness of time. In 1982, I was chronologically closer to when the Beatles released Revolver than we are in time-proximity today to the initial releases by bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I don’t know about my other Gen X rock fan peers, but that messes with me. We are old. Time doesn’t wait around for nobody!

The integral importance of my early-teenage Beatles-obsession taps the larger mystery of teenage musical tastes as a phenomenon. Mark Joseph Stern in a 2014 Slate piece shows, “And researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. Musical nostalgia, in other words, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command. And no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be, our brains may stay jammed on those songs we obsessed over during the high drama of adolescence.”

Don’t underestimate the power of parents, peers, and siblings in constructing the adolescent sonic reality. When my students complete their annotated-mixtape assignments in freshman writing, they often talk about the importance that their parents, and even grandparents, played in shaping tastes. 

I credit my love for the Beatles, especially John Lennon, and for Bob Dylan, to my parents. Before that critical spring of 1982, we mourned as a household the day John Lennon died, and my father ran out to buy a copy of Double Fantasy, which we listened to together as a family.

The handful of records I had collected on my own in the later 70s were of the funk-soul-disco variety, thanks to the 45s collected by my friends and thanks to me being one of the few white kids at a predominately black elementary school. My older brother of course had a Columbia House subscription for a short spell, but he was laying the classic rock groundwork, that would serve as a brief transition for me, from the black music I loved in elementary school to the “alternative” we would later discover when I was in high school and he in college. Now back to the Beatles.  

These Beatle songs, as we know, are pop perfection, but they are also defining documents of a generation, sonic epistles of popular subversion. Revolver straddles that cusp between early Beatles boy band cotton candy and later Beatles psychedelic silliness and existential profundity. My identification with John Lennon begins at this time and develops intensely when I discover his post-Beatles protest catalog.

When others blamed John’s spouse for breaking-up the band, I didn’t buy into the anti-Yoko messaging, could even see myself adorned in white clothes and joining there be-in, love-in, bed-in peace chants and radical defiance. For a brief period after high-school, I purchased Lennonesque wire spectacles and grew my hair to look as much like him as I could. I was into the Beatles even before U2 and R.E.M., before the Grateful Dead and later My Morning Jacket.
Somewhere during my first years of Beatles obsession, I figured out that I shared a birthday with John Lennon. 
October 9th. Then I figured out that his only son with Yoko, the object of affection for a few songs on Double Fantasy, yes, I discovered that Sean was also born on October 9th. To not make a big deal about this, this would not fit my teenage sense of self and sense of calling to connect with a counterculture hippy lineage, to even participate in my own passionate pacifist prophetic fashion.

Several days ago, I traveled to Western North Carolina to catch a show by the Claypool Lennon Delirium (CLD), the collaboration project for Sean Lennon and Les Claypool. Sean has a freak flag as furry and fierce as father’s, a mind-melting mindset as mysterious as mother’s. Claypool comes from a 90s funk rock puckish place called Primus, and the combined output is proggy parts from various possible mythic lineages, that somehow, I feel, must connect with my own.

Blown away by how much good psychedelic music there is, I have lately tended toward the expansive deserts and dusty exiles, the mellow canyons and cool mountains of current jangling visionary bands on the American underground.

There’s something interstellar weird and machine dark and less organic in the alien upload of CLD, and I cannot help but attribute it to Claypool’s bass guitar that gives me a kind of nocturnal basement bungee brain when a sun-soaked mellow mind might be more preferable. I was not the least surprised to learn that Geddy Lee of Rush recently joined them onstage. Even by judging the age and gender of the fans, I imagined that many make regular retreats to subterranean man-caves of multiform nerdy convergences.

CLD for me was guzzling monster energy drinks while in a virtual reality headspace, when my psychedelic reality tends more to backwoods hiking fun and tangles of fecundity.  It’s like there’s an AI living in your self-made dreamworld, but you cannot say, “Alexa, please mellow the vibe, just a little please.” All this is to say, that while I utterly respect the throbbing tunnels of prankster rock that CLD take us through, thery’re less appealing to my middle-aged needs for psychedelia to provide a pastoral walking practice for my ears.

Yet there is a track at the far-back of Revolver, the transition and prequel to Sgt. Peppers. It’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” This song was not as impactful to my 8th grade morning routine as “Good Day Sunshine.” Maybe I didn’t get it then. 

But like “Within You Without You” to come a year later, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a portal and doorway, a window inside the mind and to the outer rim of the cosmos. Its eastern-tinges herald the Beatles interest in gurus and meditation, but it also questions our assumptions and boundaries about the nature of reality.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” is a simple and complex message, a beautiful and strange song, a slice of popular counterculture scripture. For Sean Lennon to include it every night, late in the CLD set, this is what made the pilgrimage to see CLD a personal spiritual priority. We knew it was coming in the set. 

We were tired from a long week and a long drive, but we waited. When the song finally landed, it exploded like candy and confetti in the pinata of my heart. It took me to every temple and to every ashram in the church of rock and roll mind medicine.

Conveyed convincingly and crushingly through Sean, this sent this fan hollering holy howls! I danced and dug into my lineage with Sean and John. It was like the murdered Beatle was resurrected with us then, because of course he was. John left this song to Sean and so much more, and Sean holds John’s torch hot and high with this song, even if other places in the set, that I was in the same room with John and Yoko’s “beautiful boy” made less of a lasting impact.

For me, spring and summer are always the best season for inner exploration, and this song will join me on the journey. It’s always a good time to get beyond time, beyond the small self, beyond the beyond, to simply, “Turn off your mind relax and float down stream.” 

(Photo by Nick Ciofalo)

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