Walls and Bridges shows John Lennon to be as mercurial as ever. I anticipated an unbearable suffering occasioned by the collapse of one of this century’s most public love affairs — after all, Yoko Ono was presented as the membrane between agony and peace for Lennon, between illusion and reality. Yet the relative clear-headedness of this album suggests that she may have been only the most recent in a series of causes from which Lennon is extricating himself with customary agility. He seemed more pugnacious, more doctrinaire, more vulnerable when Yoko was supposedly supplying him with bliss than he is today.
For the first time since the formation of the Beatles, Lennon is on his own and, remarkably, he seems to find that tolerable, though half the numbers on Walls and Bridges record his pangs of loss. “Going Down on Love” is characterized by a confusion of emotions, honestly rendered, rather than Lennon’s notoriously wide oscillations between paranoid megalomania and Edenic composure. A mixture of penitence, anger, perseverance, feelings of justice, feelings of injustice, the song discards the programmatic righteousness of earlier Lennon efforts — to its own musical detriment.
“What You Got,” part Sly, part Isley Brothers, harnesses Lennon’s rambunctious sense of rhythm to soul phrases chosen for their relevance to him and Yoko. Here, pure physical exertion is intended as an outlet. Nonetheless, on this cut and others, Jim Keltner’s drums lack the requisite punch.
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The dreary “Bless You” attempts an accommodation, but mainly succeeds in oozing false humility. In imagery reminiscent of “Julia,” Lennon betrays his continued possessiveness. His advice to Yoko’s current lover, that he be “warm and kind hearted” but that he should remember that his and Yoko’s love is undying, strikes me as intentionally emasculating. The purported magnanimity of the Reverend Fred Ghurkin (the self-mocking pseudonym John assigns himself in the credits) is the obverse of wounded male vanity. Only “Scared” throbs with the primal fear and sense of confinement of his earlier solo LPs.
“Whatever Gets You thru the Night” is really side one’s gateway to the palmier regions of side two. John is so happy to have won the right to blind pleasure that the misery which is its pretext almost gets forgotten. It’s the ice cream that follows a tonsillectomy. Elton John’s vocal harmony and keyboards are very assertive but Bobby Keys’s off-key blowing weakens Elton’s efforts.
The first two songs on side two, “#9 Dream” and “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)” prove that Lennon is resilient and can still love. They make his claims of suffering in some sense pro forma, and they make Walls and Bridges diverse and spirited. Untouched by the recriminations and breast beating of side one, these songs display the musical as well as lyrical evidence of John’s new lease on life. Whereas the soft edges to Lennon’s band elsewhere rob his music of its necessary incisiveness, on “#9 Dream” they contribute to a perfect meringue of sound. “Surprise Surprise,” whose pungent harmonies and fadeout recall “Drive My Car,” pulses with equally strong vital signs.
Superficially, the viciousness of “Steel and Glass” contradicts these high spirits. With a melody, arrangement and psychological motive virtually identical to the earlier “How Do You Sleep?” it falls into what could be called John’s sacrificial mode. I find it boring and needless, but its unalloyed hatred is peculiarly compatible with the optimism of the previous two selections. At least the sides are clearly drawn.
On the cover of the lyric sheet Lennon is wearing a big smile. Adorning the inside of the sheet are various drawings he made at age 11. The back cover has a genealogy of the name Lennon — the first time he has acknowledged his patrimony. The closing song on Walls and Bridges is Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya,” “starring Julian Lennon on drums and Dad on piano and vocals,” Julian being the son who remained in England while the Lennons crisscrossed this country in search of Yoko’s daughter Kyoko. By slowing it down and over enunciating, Lennon makes “Ya Ya” into a children’s song. Coming at the end of the record it seems a companion piece to the infantile, macabre “My Mummy’s Dead” on Plastic Ono Band.
On “Scared” John asserts that love and peace were only an ill-fitting mask for his old stand-bys, hatred and jealousy. On “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” he sings with a typically Lennonesque compression of language (a highlight of the album) and his voice is superbly malleable and ferocious. He comments on the necrophilia of hero worship, the dilemma of the aging rock star and the bankruptcy of rock mythology: “All I can tell you is it’s all showbiz.” Even love can be a symptom of narcissism, a media creation which its “possessor” can feel only when it’s made public.
The insights are reformulations of the lessons of Plastic Ono Band, with this difference: On POB the tearing away of veils only revealed another face to Lennon’s utopianism. Then (keeping in mind his crucial inconsistency in idealizing his relationship with Yoko) illusionlessness seemed the ultimate liberation. Today Lennon knows that neither dreams nor their puncturing is the answer. There is no neat answer. When one accepts one’s childhood, one’s parenthood and the impermanence of what lies between, one can begin to slog along. When John slogs, he makes progress.