Everyone eventually winds up writing about themselves — the problem is finding the best way to go about it. To write about oneself literally, in the first person, presumes a more interesting personal life and philosophy than most rock lyricists possess. John Lennon was good for one great album based on musical direct address, Plastic Ono Band. Ten years from now he may have accumulated enough personal data on which to base another as provocative. In the meantime, he has cut himself off from all the other ways in which lyrics can be used — most importantly, to create imaginative worlds in which characters, ideas, fantasies and illusions are invented and appreciated apart from our interest in the artist’s private life, per se.
The best rock lyricists have always used words in just those ways. They have been defining and redefining myths and icons, symbols that can stand for both their private feelings and those that transcend their personal point of view and speak to the audience’s collective consciousness. Among the more obvious recent examples, culled from American artists: Dylan’s interpretations of John Wesley Hardin and Billy the Kid; the Eagles’ underrated parable of a rock band as an aging group of obsolete outlaws, Desperado, and Steve Miller’s attempts to unify new and old myths through the creation of personas like the Gangster of Love and the Space Cowboy.
The Band, the most self-conscious American band, have transformed everything they’ve touched into a permanent image of the past as it was supposed to have been, which is as good a definition of mythologizing as rock requires. On one album they appear as survivors of a forgotten era and culture (The Band) and on another define their and our rock & roll past (Moondog Matinee).
Moondog Matinee freezes in time our image of a scuffling North American bar band in the early Sixties. The Who, England’s most self-conscious band, have released Quadrophenia, which in turn freezes in time our image of the mid-Sixties Mod sensibility. Their album will become a definitive reference point for interpreting the recent rock experience as we necessarily come to rely more on interpretations of the past than on our ever-changing memories of it. Quadrophenia is both autobiography and mythology, the one dimension continually enhancing the impact of the other.
The Beatles assumed a sustained fictitious identity only once, on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By making themselves over as the disciples of Billy Shears, just another vaudeville revue, they could perform material that might have been rejected coming from the Beatles qua Beatles — songs like “When I’m 64,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the title cut.
Of the four former Beatles, John Lennon and George Harrison have gone on to write exclusively in the first person, their lyrics, both good and bad, never more or less than simple statements of their ideas and feelings. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney have moved in the other direction, expressing themselves no less personally but through more inventive means. Starr has released an album whose subject is the myth of his own stardom, an extension of one of Sgt. Pepper‘s themes. (Producer Richard Perry has also been preoccupied with notions of stardom dating back to his Fats Is Back, an album with a theme and album cover that, like Ringo’s, centers around stars.)