Recently, Chris Brown came out with his fifth album. I haven’t listened to any of it, and I probably won’t ever get around to hearing it unless someone’s car radio is blaring it while I walk down Broad Street. Along with a drudge of middling radio singles, a new Chris Brown album means that people will inevitably bring up the moment that he is arguably most famous for.
You know what it is, I know what it is, there’s no need to explain it deeply. Although that event took place three years ago, it will inevitably come up in conversation every single time that Brown is mentioned for the rest of his tenure as a singer, dancer or whatever.
It’s still a fascinating case of what should have been the complete obliteration of a career that somehow morphed into something that sold more records. Although I personally don’t care one iota about the man, I know that there are still millions that swear by him. That’s got to be an accomplishment, right? After all, he’s not the first pop artist to be brazenly guilty of domestic violence and have a large fan base, right? Right.
When our heroes die young or in a tragic way, history tends to scrub their personal records clean so that younger generations can drink up and idolize their visionaries without having to go much beyond the surface. Music is the easiest medium to accomplish this with. That’s exactly how I started devouring the music of John Lennon.
Like 97 percent of the world’s population, I was introduced to Beatles songs at an early age and devoured their catalog quickly. I moved on to post-Beatles solo albums and quickly confided to myself that Lennon was not only my favorite, but also the best of the Beatles.
Then came bootlegs and biographies and documentaries and every single interview I could find. One of the most interesting interviews I found was a book collection of the 1980 interviews Lennon and Yoko Ono did with Playboy right before he was murdered. In it, he gives a short run down of nearly every song he had written up to that point, with a clear focus on Beatles songs. When the interviewer arrived at “Getting Better,” John had this to say:
“It is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically… any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace.”
Wait, what now?
Why had no one mentioned that to me previously? If someone had told me all that while I was on my first listen of “Imagine,” would I have been able to appreciate it the same way?
It shook me up when I was younger. Lennon is just one of a myriad of artists throughout time that may have made classic music, but also found the time to do some pretty unfortunate things.
The large percentage of people would say that, like with Chris Brown, they could forget about past improprieties and move on. And what is the real difference in these cases? One is a revered cultural icon, the other a good dancer? Brown’s episode was markedly more public, It didn’t help that the person he assailed also happened to be a famous pop singer and said-singer’s graphic bruises were released to a public who always seem to have their pitchforks at the ready. But since the world learned of Lennon’s past improprieties as an admission of a sordid past, his problems were quietly swept under the musical history rug. And also “Imagine.”
To most people, this doesn’t matter. Shut up and play the song, keep your personal life to yourself. We thrust these people up on pillars and get surprised when the view is less than we expected. What’s the line that musicians can’t cross before they’re not allowed back around the proverbial watering hole? I could fill a whole column with some of the stuff that GG Allin did before he died and that dude still has a pretty sizeable fan base. The front man of Lamb of God will soon be standing trial in Prague for attempted manslaughter. It’s all relative.
It’s incredibly interesting to see how the barometer swings on issues like these. On one end, there are people who will forever vote for Brown as MVP in the category of “Douche That I Hate Forever,” and on the other end, there are people who would gladly choose “Hey Shut Up I Like This Song Get Over It.” To which distinction he rightfully deserves is something for meaningless Billboard Charts to decide.
Lennon, meanwhile, recently was honored with a children’s choir singing (what else?) “Imagine” at the Olympics’ closing ceremony that ended with the children forming an overhead portrait of his face, so history’s been pretty good to him. Time heals all wounds as long as the time is the length of a catchy song.
Five School Songs:
“Rock And Roll High School” — The Ramones
“School Days” — Chuck Berry
“School Spirit” — Kanye West
“The Headmaster’s Ritual” — The Smiths
“(What A) Wonderful World” — Sam Cooke
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.