On this day when the world remembers John Lennon, I have something altogether gruffer and angrier than “Imagine” playing in my head.
It’s Lennon’s voice, except it isn’t. It’s highly aggrieved and extremely profane. And it’s yelling “GENIUS IS PAIN!” over and over again.
(The pop geeks in the readership, who know the backstory I’m about to tell, are welcome to skip the next section. Everyone else might need the context.)
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The breakup of the Beatles in early 1970 found John Lennon dealing with a deep well of anger and frustration at the parents who had abandoned him; the teachers who had written him off; the fans who kowtowed to him and treated him as a generational spokesman; and even to fellow musicians who had inflicted all manner of perceived slights.
Essentially, Lennon was so psychologically nauseous that he stuck his finger down his throat in public and tried to bring everything up, in hopes it would make him feel better.
He took part in primal scream therapy sessions and cut a raw, confessional album whose musical approach owed quite a bit to primal screaming.
And he sat down with Rolling Stone magazine for a rambling, profane series of interviews in which he proclaimed his own misunderstood genius, defended his wife’s equally misunderstood genius, and rubbished virtually everyone else he’d ever come into contact with for failing or shortchanging him in one way or another.
Lennon’s catharsis drew a lot of attention — including that of National Lampoon magazine. Still in its early days, NatLamp had already established that counterculture icons like the Beatles and Stones would be subject to the same razor-sharp irreverence shown to the likes of Richard Nixon.
According to the ‘Net, it was Michael O’Donoghue, later of Saturday Night Live fame, who came up with the idea of cherry-picking Lennon’s most outrageous statements from the Rolling Stone interviews and turning them into a song parody in Lennon’s own musical style.
And it was fellow NatLamp staffer Tony Hendra — later to portray Spinal Tap’s long-suffering manager, Ian Faith — who performed the Lennon impersonation for the song, which was formally called “Magical Misery Tour” and released on the 1972 “National Lampoon Radio Dinner” LP.
It is scathing, profane, pitiless, and pitch-perfect.
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“Magical Misery Tour” is satire so dead-on that, for me, it has overtaken the voice of the real person it parodies.
In my mind, the song has taken a place in Lennon’s own canon alongside “Imagine,” “Help!” and the rest, its prickly outbursts as real as if Lennon had sung them himself.
And when I think of Lennon, on days like today, I am just as likely to think of “shit from those fookin’ sons of bitches” as I am to think of “Imagine no possessions” or “My independence seems to vanish in the haze.”
Of course, to a great extent, “Magical Misery Tour” is the voice of the person it parodies. With one or two exceptions, every line in the song is taken from the Rolling Stone interviews. On a certain level, NatLamp did not spoof Lennon; they merely condensed him.
And Hendra’s angry bark delivers the lines with believable zest, especially when he gets to spit out one of those delightful mock-Liverpudlian “fook”‘s (five in the first 30 seconds.)
Are they kicking a tortured soul while he’s down? Absolutely.
Did the tortured soul invite that kind of treatment — first by hanging his dirty laundry out in public, and second, by being a wildly self-aggrandizing jerk about it? Yeah, I can buy that.
And are they portraying the tortured soul in a way that is not totally consistent with his actual behaviors and attitudes?
Not for a moment, I don’t think.
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Most pop fans have spent at least a few minutes wondering what John Lennon would have done with the rest of his life.
I relish the thought that Lennon might have sat down with, say, Musician magazine sometime around 1988 and admitted: “That National Lampoon piece? I fookin’ hated it then, but I find it kinda funny now. I had it coming, didn’t I?”
We’ll never know whether he would have come around to that perspective.
But — just like “Imagine” and “Help!” and “Come Together” and all the rest — we’ll always have the record to listen to.
“I was the Walrus! Paul wasn’t the Walrus! I was just saying that to be nice, but I was actually the Walrus!”