There’s nothing I can write about Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Day, that hasn’t already been written. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I majored in history and all, but there simply isn’t, and I simply won’t. If you don’t yet know the story of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, there are plenty of books and web pages that can clue you in. As my dad always used to fondly tell me whenever I asked him a question, “You look it up.” I must have taken his advice to heart because I now do exactly that for a living.
The song “Remember,” by John Lennon, however, is a different story altogether. It isn’t well known in his canon, so unless you’re a diehard fan or you’ve bothered to dig deeper than, say, “Imagine,” or “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” you probably aren’t familiar with it. In fact, the album it appeared on, Plastic Ono Band, didn’t produce any singles or “hits.” This is a foreign concept today, but way back in prehistoric times, when ashtrays, shag carpets, and vinyl records still roamed the earth, artists actually produced albums that were worth listening to in their entirety. True, any of the songs on these albums could likely stand on their own, but listening to the album as a whole would give you a better grasp of the artist’s vision and a more fulfilling experience. Usually the songs were of a piece and meant to be heard together. And there was even an intermission conveniently worked in as you flipped from side A to side B that allowed you a chance to pee.
Plastic Ono Band was Lennon’s first solo album after the breakup of the Beatles, and was recorded while he was under the spell of Dr. Arthur Janov’s infamous Primal Therapy. If you aren’t familiar, Primal Therapy, in a nutshell (pun intended), posits that early life traumas resulting in lifelong repressed anger and frustration can only be resolved in adulthood through spontaneous screams, violence, and acts of hysteria…guided, of course, in the safety of a “professional,” clinical setting. John read Janov’s book, The Primal Scream, was impressed, and soon after submitted himself and his wife Yoko Ono to several weeks of Primal Therapy. Before they knew it they were writhing, wailing, and rolling around on the floor of Janov’s Los Angeles-based clinic, working their way through any number of lingering childhood issues. Whether this had any long-term therapeutic effect, however, is anybody’s guess. As with John’s previous experience seeking salvation from his inner demons, traveling two years prior to India in search of wisdom at the feet of the Maharishi, this episode ended badly. Janov, against John and Yoko’s wishes, attempted to film one of their sessions, and the two famous patients immediately cut their sessions short before completing the program. Still, even with their therapy aborted early, the aftershocks of it continued to shake John’s world. And nothing exemplifies this better than the songs he wrote for Plastic Ono Band, which screamed of Janov’s influence.
While any number of John Lennon’s songs can be considered confessionals, the entire Plastic Ono Band album is singular in its raging emphasis. Adjectives to describe it could include raw, honest, angry, introspective, dark, despairing, iconoclastic, and even nihilistic. It’s a stark record with very little instrumentation, and this adds to its harrowing nature. It had a punk rock heart years before punk as we know it exploded onto the scene. The songs also emanate with a bruised inner fragility that belie their tough exteriors. The opening song, “Mother,” is as good an example as any of this album’s raw emotionality. It examines John’s childhood abandonment by both his mother and his father with such brutal honesty, and in such pleading, agonizing tones, that it’s almost too traumatic for the listener to hear, let alone bear. It begins with the ominous tolling of a bell, and from its opening moments John is already near breakdown as he sings, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you…” From there it’s all downhill, and by the time we reach the end John is like a madman, frantically begging and screaming. We can almost envision him in a fetal position, desperate and wounded, as over and over again he wails, “Mama don’t go! Daddy come home!’ It’s like accidentally barging in on someone during the most personal, vulnerable, soul-baring moment you could possibly imagine. And the remaining ten songs on the album, each in their own way, follow down a similar path.
“Remember” is the first song on side B. I first heard Plastic Ono Band when I was still an impressionable teen, and this particular song certainly made an impression on me. It is a song of remembrance and regret. It travels back to a time when John was very small, and the big people in his life always let him down. “The man” left him empty handed, and his Ma and Pa were just “playing a part.” The chorus is a comforting-yet-unconvincing self-consolation, where he reassures himself not to worry about the way things have gone or the things he may have done. The song stretches out over the course of nearly five minutes, and rests uneasily on an old-timey, off-balanced piano melody that keeps looping and looping back upon itself. The trap is set, but is only sprung in the final seconds of the song. The loops start building to crescendo and John, in a voice of heightened anxiety, chants, “Remember, remember…” The tension builds, winds to the breaking point, and finally explodes – literally – as John implores us to “remember, THE FIFTH OF NOVEMBER!”
As a kid, this violent and abrupt ending to a song frightened the heck out of me. By today’s jaded standards this is probably mild, but in 1970, when it was initially released, I imagine it shocked even more. Of course, at the time, I had absolutely no knowledge that John, via an old English folk verse, had so brilliantly tied Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to his own remembrance of a broken childhood. My mind ran wild speculating as to what it meant, and imagining how much more chilling and prophetic it would have been had he shouted “THE EIGHTH OF DECEMBER.” But no, I take that back. Nothing could improve this gem. If you’ve never heard it before, I can’t think of a better introduction to John Lennon’s music or to John Lennon as a person, with all his flaws and fragilities on display, than this song and the album it’s included on.