John Lennon led a life constantly in flux. An unsettling childhood leading to a meteoric rise with a rock band that was constantly evolving. Even his famous indolence (see “I’m Only Sleeping”) was marked by drift, confusion, and doubt (see “Nowhere Man”). Just listening to the music of the Beatles, especially with John’s songs, there’s a continuous feeling of pulling up stakes and moving on.
It wasn’t until he finally left the centrifugal tensions and internal politics of the Beatles that anything like a singular, personal vision took hold and crystallized into a large-scale, unified John Lennon work. In his new book Hold On World, John Kruth explores the making and meaning of Plastic Ono Band, the title of both John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s first solo albums, released on the same December day in 1970 under almost identical album covers, and recorded with the same small band of musicians. It would be a lie to isolate the John album from the Yoko one of the same title and Kruth’s new book bears the hallmark of the Plastic Ono Band project itself, an honest telling of events in an attempt to reveal the authentic, emotional core within. With all of the myth-making and sensationalism surrounding the notorious couple and the Beatles, it was no small task for Lennon to locate, simplify, and deliver the powerful catharsis of Plastic Ono Band, and Kruth matches that achievement in this fully realized window into the lives of John and Yoko surrounding the making of these two extraordinary albums.
John Kruth is himself a poet and a musical seeker, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with many albums to his name. He is also well-known as a writer of six books about music including an acclaimed biography of jazz great Rahsaan Roland Kirk under his belt as well as many volumes of poetry and short fiction. I got a chance to sit down with Kruth and ask him about writing Hold On World, which was released just weeks ago.
Was it hard to keep your distance when writing about John Lennon, or did you find that you couldn’t help but identify with him? Is maintaining objectivity ever a problem when writing a biography, or can that personal affinity with your subject actually be helpful?
Since I was a kid I have related to John Lennon. But over the years I’ve been able to be more objective about him as a person, and his music. Besides, I wouldn’t be doing anybody a favor by being a fanboy when writing about this album/stage of his life. After the insanity of Beatlemania, John had gotten to the point where he just wanted honesty from himself, Yoko, his friends, and the world. In the past, I’ve written articles and biographies of people I wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of. There was an entire period of Roy Orbison’s career I personally found difficult to listen to, but it was part of the whole picture, so I took it as a challenge to write about [Rhapsody in Black – The Life & Music of Roy Orbison (published 2013 – BackBeat/Hal Leonard Books)]. An objective view is not very difficult for me. And I think it makes for better books!
How does being a musician and songwriter yourself inform your biographical writings? How do you manage the musical language in your books so that they are relatable to your entire audience of both musicians and non-musicians?
Having been a musician most of my life is a great benefit to writing about music. I mean, imagine writing about car racing without knowing how to drive? You can only describe and project so much of what you think the experience is. I’ve played dingy, smoky clubs and Carnegie Hall and everything in between… so that helps. Although I’m a big fan of Ian MacDonald’s bible on the Beatles Revolution in the Head, sometimes I wish the guy had just plugged in an electric guitar or beat a drumkit to get the feeling of what it is to play the music! You gotta write from the head as much as the heart, or the fingertips, for that matter. As far as your question about music language – my job is to communicate with the reader, as well as stretching their head a bit – which I tend to do with descriptive language or unexpected metaphors more than any technical jargon which I tend to keep at a minimum or leave to others.
What’s the approach for building on the research of other biographers? Do you seek confirmation before using it? There are lots of apocryphal stories out there about musicians, their lives, and how they created their works.
I’ve certainly been accused of telling apocryphal stories. The most hilarious accusation of all came from British author Micheal Gray, who in his encyclopedia of Bob Dylan, goes out of his way to attack me, saying I made up this story about Eric von Schmidt. I’ve stretched some stories here and there, but the funny thing was I knew Eric, and that was a true story. It’s about telling a good story, teaching some important history, and writing, not typing as Jack Kerouac reminded us. As far as other biographers, I tend to read as much as I can handle on the subject, everything I can find, and interview people who want to “play.” If they’re no fun or not into it, fine… The publishers generally want only 75,000 – 80,000 words approximately. So you can’t get every detail in – besides it’s about reading, does the piece flow?
After a long, satisfying introductory build to Plastic Ono Band, you title each subsequent chapter with the song titles from the album, profiling the song, and using each one as a biographical portal to John’s life. It’s a beautiful technique and it lends the book a unique, non-linear structure. Do you intentionally try to find a unique narrative structure for each of your books about music?
Well, we are under the illusion that life is linear. William Blake, Kurt Vonnegut and Ishmael Reed, as writers, broke me of seeing the world that way. Some people have a hard time with that perspective. But as George Harrison learned from the Gita: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” as Lord Krishna taught. Jazz trumpeter Don Cherry referred to time and our compulsion to make order from it as the Eternal Now. For me it’s like, “How would you like your sandwich?” Although I must say that each book does kind of dictate its own flow, structure and language. You wouldn’t paint Thelonious Monk with the same colors you’d use for Johnny Cash, would you?
You set up Yoko’s life in the art world very well in your book. For those of us who are missing it, is there something we should know or listen for to help us see the greatness in Yoko’s music or at least, her approach?
Thanks! I love Yoko. She taught John a lot and he fell in love with her unique Zen-Dada perspective. She could sing in a gentle whisper or shred your head. Her avant-garde work never loses its power to shock, repel, and make you think outside the box. Her opening track “Why?” on her own Plastic Ono Band album is absolutely galvanizing!
I totally agree. It’s stunning, the whole band’s performance.
It holds up and is more relevant today than a lot of other music from that time. Plastic Ono Band is arguably my favorite power trio. They are so raw and in the moment, particularly on Yoko’s album. I think her music and energetic approach inspires musicians to give it their all. Some of John’s greatest, most innovative guitar playing appears on Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band album. Ringo really cuts loose as well and Klaus is simply a great in-the-pocket, no-note-wasted bassist.
How do you respond to the accounts that Phil Spector was essentially absent during the making of John’s Plastic Ono Band and that Yoko ended up the de facto producer in the booth with the engineers? That would explain the extreme minimalism we hear in the album, wouldn’t it? It sure doesn’t sound like a Phil Spector production to me (unlike the Imagine album and the singles from this period).
Well, John probably felt he needed a producer. Phil was already there working on Let It Be and George’s All Things Must Pass. He did a great job on “Instant Karma” and Lennon probably realized, as he went, he didn’t really need that much input from Spector. After John’s Plastic Ono Band didn’t sell, as it was just too much for most Beatle fans, he put some “chocolate” on Imagine, and building deliciously sweet layer cakes was Spector’s specialty.
I’ve always found John’s first solo album to be spellbinding and extraordinary in its rawness and honesty. Can you think of anything similar by another artist anywhere in the rock canon, or outside of it?
Sure, Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ and later Blood on the Tracks, Lou Reed’s New York, perhaps Springsteen’s Nebraska, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Joni’s Blue, …. not just because they are stripped down affairs musically, but their emotional rawness is fully on display. I’d even go as far to say that Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, despite the lush arrangements from Nelson Riddle, might fit in that category. You’ll never get closer to Sinatra’s heart and soul than on that album!
Well John, thanks for all the insight and congratulations on an extraordinarily fulfilling book that deserves to be widely read and included in the canon of 20th Century cultural literature. How can our readers stay up to date with your music and writings?
Since a German dating service took over johnkruth.com, you can always find me and keep up with my shenanigans on Facebook (at least for the time being) all of my books are available online at goodreads.com or Amazombie, if you don’t mind paying for that junior astronaut’s summer vacation in space.
Link to purchase World Hold On can be found here.