100 Greatest Artists

38

John Lennon

Illustration by Marco Ventura

I loved the Beatles' music growing up, but I didn't become aware of John Lennon's solo music until I was making my first album, Let Love Rule. There was this guy who was going to manage me; when he heard the raw tapes of my early songs, like "Be," he said, "Have you ever heard John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band? Because your stuff sounds like him."

So I bought Plastic Ono Band, and I listened to it over and over for months. It's a monumental work of genius. I was blown away by how minimal it was, and how expressive it was. Lennon had just finished doing primal-scream therapy, and he was just unloading all this stuff, about his mother leaving him, about the Beatles and about who he was.

A lot of people identify themselves by their success instead of who they are as people. Lennon showed us who he was as a person. He had just come from being in the biggest group on the planet; most people in his position would say, "How do I keep this up? I don't want to come down off this pedestal." He didn't care; he got butt-naked on the cover of Two Virgins, with his dick hanging out.

On Plastic Ono Band, he stripped it down musically: He went into a studio with just a guitar, a bass, a piano and drums, and he made a raw record. The attitude and emotion of that album are harder than any punk rock I've ever heard. And the honesty of that music is why I became an enormous fan of his solo work, maybe even more than what he did with the Beatles. It inspired me and made me want to go deeper with my own songwriting.

As a guitarist, Lennon had a great feel — something that can outshine a guy with a million chops. He's not a virtuoso, he's not Jimi Hendrix, but if you listen to those early Beatles records, there are some serious guitar intricacies going on between him and George Harrison. One of my favorite Lennon solo tracks is "How Do You Sleep?" — the guitar is incredibly funky. Not many people remember that Lennon co-wrote "Fame" with David Bowie; he had a really cool funky side. If he were around today, I think he would have gotten interested in hip-hop. He'd have wanted to blend the different things going on in our culture.

Lennon was more than just a musician; he was more like a prophet. He stated his political point of view and spoke out against war, even when that meant he was being followed and hassled by the U.S. government. "Imagine" is one of the greatest songs ever written. It's like a church hymn, and it states his beliefs quite clearly. And more than anything, Lennon was an icon for peace. That's hard to find these days.

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