The Well-Tempered Songbook: #49 – Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John Lennon
I didn’t like his pasty skin or his circular wire glasses. His long, unkempt hair formed two crescents down both sides of his face, and I didn’t know why anyone would wear their hair to make it look ugly.
The White Album came with a set of large format photographs slipped into the record sleeve, one for each Beatle. The pictures felt like they didn’t belong there. What were four large photographs doing inside a record album, especially an album that was so unimpressive visually in every other respect? I had culturally absorbed that the musicians were important. Even my father who had no interest in popular music had gone out and bought Sergeant Pepper’s on reel-to-reel when it was released.
They were The Beatles – an odd name for a band, actually, with something the tiniest bit irritating in the spelling. But those were the days of Beatlemania and I was hopeful of liking them and joining in. I do remember liking, but only sort of, the cartoon for the Yellow Submarine, perhaps because it was a cartoon and I was a child. But they kept their distance in their way, all four of them. They were pleasant, but they were strangers, both in their movies and in song. Aloof. Laughing to keep you out. I was missing something the others heard.
So I would sit with the large photos – whose formal headshot importance I appreciated – and I would study them. They didn’t seem happy to be photographed the way famous people usually were. One of them looked doe-eyed and vacant. He hadn’t shaven for the picture and his beard stubble stood out. Another had an oversized shirt collar that mocked regular clothing in a way that felt disrespectful. As a young child I wouldn’t have dreamed of ordering people by who I liked the most to least, but if I had, then I suppose the “Quiet One” would have been up at the top of my list by virtue of seeming the most respectful and conventionally handsome. Then Ringo. Then doe-eyed Paul.
The last one, the “Smart One,” I just didn’t like.
I didn’t like his pasty skin or his circular wire glasses. His long, unkempt hair formed two crescents down both sides of his face, and I didn’t know why anyone would wear their hair to make it look ugly. He seemed like he could be mean. You wouldn’t want him for a teacher or to be the father of a school friend. He was someone that would scold you, and yet I knew that for many people he was the favorite.
I would come to admire and eventually love the music of the Beatles. In case you think I don’t appreciate their enormous gift, I will acknowledge that their collaborative output is as astonishing to me in its way as is the genius of Mozart. They are one of the cultural miracles of the 20th century. Inspiration has rarely been so generous, and more rarely still in popular music. So, yes, I have come to love their music deeply. You could say I “get it” now, belatedly.
But I will never love them.
George will make this list as a songwriter with another artist performing his song. Paul, for whom I have the deepest musical admiration of the four, makes the list only once, but even then not for a song generally considered among his finest. But dour John makes it twice.
John, who I didn’t like and never trusted, not when he sang from his bed with fans flashing peacenik signs, not years later when he had his naked thigh curled around his expressionless wife. He makes it once right here at the start of this musical journey and then again at the very end, so deep into the plucked rose petal heart of my musical life that there’s nothing left to peel back but the vague red promise of flower.
I didn’t know as a child that there was a war protest hidden in Happy Xmas (War Is Over), but I did notice – and feel – that there was something in Lennon’s song about Christmas that no other Christmas song dared to call out: the deep nostalgia of the season, the growing melancholic sense I had – even with only nine or ten Christmases behind me – that there are things that are getting away. They are getting away from everyone. They’re slipping. They’re beautiful or almost beautiful, but they’re slipping. Last year is over. This year will be over. Every year brings us full circle to the same incomplete and nostalgic longing.So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.
This is Christmas song imagined as lament. The wavering Theremin of Yoko’s reedy voice works in this recording as do the recurring clang of the glockenspiel and the too-steady dirge of jingle bells. But it’s the “another year over” and the “what have you done” that prick up the ears. There’s something critical in the mix, from Lennon’s spelling of Xmas to the background chorus of children ascending their endless staircase of war is overs. Their voices are sugary and beautiful – children’s voices always are – but they drag themselves around the steps like they are ascending an Escher turret. It is a nostalgic perpetual motion machine this song, that only changing our hearts might still.And so happy Christmas for black and for white For the yellow and red ones let’s stop all the fights.
Because the war is not over – it’s only over if you want it. And nobody wants it. That’s the point. And a thousand Xmases from now we still won’t. You can hear they won’t in the singing. They didn’t last year either. Lennon in his subversive, melancholy way, holds it up to you. I suppose he can’t smile at you in the headshot and then tell you what you need to hear.