John or Paul

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Michael Gerber

Publisher at The American Bystander
is Blogmom of Hey Dullblog. His novels and parodies have sold 1.25 million copies in 25 languages. He lives in Santa Monica, CA, and runs The American Bystander all-star print humor magazine.
Michael Gerber
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Reader Nicole wrote in yesterday:

“Sometimes I think I will scream the next time I hear or see Lennon VERSUS McCartney. However, this video has gained a little traction in the past day and it really interests me.

Lennon storms it, but it’s the way people answer and their reasons (sometimes given, sometimes not) which are the interesting bit, to be honest. Note the apologetic way some people answer McCartney, for example. Highly recommend it, not for stirring up contention between fans of either of them but because who answers, what their answer is, and why they answer the way they do is often fascinating. I’d LOVE to be able to graph and analyze these results a little more – the demographics, when they answered, male/female, musicians vs actors, etc.”

The video is 34 minutes and change, so get comfortable before clicking it. It’s addictive, you’ll be watching for a while.

Amanda Palmer says, “Lennon” — and I must admit I thought, “Of course.”
Bo Diddley was great: “Neither one of ’em…I don’t understand what they’re doing. Never have.”
And seeing Eva Green reminded me that I really want to have some in-depth conversations with her. Everybody’s got to have life goals, eh readers?

Who Am I?

When you ask an artist this question in a publicity setting, a little calculation starts to whir: “What do I want the audience to think? That I’m motivated by my heart, higher aspirations, etc (in which case I’ll say ‘Lennon’) or ambition and wanting to be liked (‘McCartney’)?” Lennon “storms it” — nice phrase, Nicole — because all of these people have already been successful in a popular medium. At this point, you have money, fame, power, acclaim; what you don’t have, perhaps, is cred as an artist. So ‘Lennon’ is the stance most will take. I’ve been asked these kinds of questions in this kind of setting, and until the person is culturally unassailable, you’re going to get filtered answers. It’s the difference between how the Beatles acted towards the press in November 1963, as opposed to November 1967.

An Admission

I used to be a John guy. I loved his mind, and connected with him as a funny person and a writer. (A rocker who namechecks James Thurber? That’s my guy!) I never fell into the trap of thinking he was a particularly pleasant man — I’d grown up around too many addicts to live that Beatlefantasy — but has there ever been any mega-celebrity who was better at The Private Moment of Common Decency?

When Lennon was killed, people appeared from everywhere with stories of what a nice, normal guy he’d been; the pharmacist around the corner still has his picture in the window. He was a charming, charming man, and rich and famous and a genius, too. And there was an element of self-flagellation in this angle of worship, too: it was (so the story went) Lennon’s very refusal to be a bigshot that got him killed. So like a lot of people, I appreciated McCartney, but loved John.

Over the years, however, things began to change. As the person receded and the icon was created, I got turned off. I remember seeing “Imagine” in the theaters and thinking, “I just don’t like this guy.” That’s perhaps why I cut The Lives of John Lennon so much more slack than many Beatlefans — Goldman’s ghoul wasn’t real, but a necessary countermyth to the simplified, sanitized, commodified Lennon that began to emerge in the late 80s. Goldman aside, St. Lennon is a poseur and a bore, filled with weird resentments and narcissism, a ‘man of peace’ with a super-short fuse. He’s a concept, a teen-dream, and most of all a brand. Really connecting with St. Lennon is akin to “Liking” Doctors Without Borders on Facebook.

John Lennon the man was always smart and funny as hell; unpredictable, challenging, eccentric, oddly sweet and sweetly odd, very British but in love with Postwar America. St. Lennon the icon was (and is) weirdly simple, a preachy capitalist, a citizen of the world as long as every country has gated mansions in it. You can see a lot of John Lennon in Elvis Costello; you can see a lot of St. Lennon in Bono.

John or Paul? Or St. John?

As mercurial John Lennon was replaced in our culture by the lifestyle choice St. Lennon, I started to realize that maybe a lot of what rock deems uncool about Paul McCartney are actually things for every artist to aspire to: keeping at it, meticulous craft, desire to reach beyond the hip crowd, persevering in the face of criticism, having a stable marriage, raising kids. And I started listening more closely to Paul’s solo stuff, and finding plenty of good work in there.

In the eternal John versus Paul debate, I will eternally say “both,” for reasons discussed ad nauseam. John Lennon the person probably still beats out Paul McCartney the person, out of some small deference to the 12-year-old I once was. But unless the celebs in this video are really dedicated Beatlefans, they’re answering a false question. “Which Beatle is your favorite, the cool one or the not cool one?” And that false dichotomy, which was started in 1968 by Lennon himself, for his own reasons, is bullshit. That Yoko continues to reinforce it is a pity, but anybody who believes that John Lennon was St. Lennon is either silly or trying to sell you something. What this video shows is that celebrity has never been more about the triumph of branding over craft… the triumph of St. Lennon, over both John and Paul.

But we’ll leave the last word to Elle Fanning, actor from Maleficent: “Both of them! You have to have both of them to make up the Beatles!”

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3 Comments

  1. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    “Both” is the only fully reasonable answer, although it’s inevitable that everyone will have a Beatle whose work and personality he/she connects more easily and fully with. (I bet there are folks who would answer the “Lennon or McCartney?” question “Harrison.”)
    I’m always going to be more partial to McCartney (duh, given what I’ve written on HD). That’s for a number of reasons, one being that I think his music contains more genuine fellow-feeling for people than Lennon’s. That’s increasingly important to me as the years pass.
    Michael, I agree that asking celebrities “Lennon or McCartney?” is asking “Do you want to be an icon who is revered as a martyr, or a guy who’s spent decades making and playing music a lot of people enjoy?”
    Sign me up for the minority report.

  2. Avatar linda a. wrote:

    Nancy I agree that the only conceivable answer is ‘both’. Since I became a Beatles fan and first read the Davies book at the age of 10, I could never consider one without the other. To me they are almost one person split down the middle. Given that mindset whenever I see anything about Lennon or McCartney, or even more preposterous, Lennon vs.McCartney it’s like being asked which one of my hands I like better, or imagining my two hands at odds with each other. It’s almost unimaginable to me to think of them as separate at least while they were Beatles. I will admit that I see different strengths in each of them, and possibly different weaknesses, but those simply make them both more interesting.

  3. Avatar Paul Saxton wrote:

    My head goes for both. Of course.

    But my heart goes for John – and that’s mainly for his singing. For that spine-tingling voice that Paul, for all his vocal brilliance, couldn’t quite match.

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