Monday, November 22, 2010

LeBron James and the Plastic Riley Band

In December 1970, songwriter, guitarist, painter, author and aspirant fisherman John Lennon sat down with Rolling Stone mogul Jann Wenner for an interview. With the entire world listening during the past decade, he'd gone from writing about holding hands to screaming about kicking heroin. The Beatles had disbanded just better than a year earlier. Lennon was 30 years old. And Famous. Really, really damn famous. Bigger than Jesus, in fact.

In the aftermath of the Beatles break-up, each of the Fab Four was publicly coming to grips with their accomplishments and the damage that accompanied them. Ringo even put out a country record. Not coincidentally, Lennon released his solo debut, Plastic Ono Band, the same month as the sit-down with Wenner, agreeing to the interview in order to help promote the album. Then undergoing something called "primal scream" therapy, which had been helping him release pent up emotion and deal with the apparently overwhelming paranoia that had built as a result of the scrutiny he'd been under (as well as the copious drug use), Lennon was unflinchingly honest at this point in his life. Gone was the cheeky wordplay and the surrealistic imagery of his youth, replaced with unadorned, and sometimes downright nasty, truth on record and in person. The transcript of the interview was later published under the title Lennon Remembers.

Sonically, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is at turns spare and rootsy. There are blues, folk and rock sounds. Lyrically there is anger and vulnerability, introspection and aggression. In "God," Lennon tears down civic and religious idols from Jesus to JFK. To the chagrin of twenty-something acolytes, he declares, "I don't believe in Beatles." In the early-Dylanesque "Working Class Hero", he refers to his middle class listeners as "fucking peasants," a turn of phrase that had the album's second single banned in various locales.

Aspects of the record are so caustic and elemental that a case could be made (and probably has by those better equipped to write about music) that this is even proto-punk. The vocal-chord shredding wail in the middle of "Well, Well, Well" sounds a lot like Kurt Cobain's cry of "go away" at the end of the "Scentless Apprentice" on In Utero, an album that I think has a few tunes that would fit right onto Plastic Ono Band. In particular, Lennon's "Look at Me" seems a precursor to Nirvana's elegiac "All Apologies."

"Look at Me" features John singing accompanied by his picking at an acoustic guitar while the lyrics detail his complex relationship with his audience, whom he addresses as "my love." Lennon dutifully admits that he feels compelled to comply with the world's demands on him and his art, even asking his listener/lover, "What am I supposed to do?" Rather than lash out (as he does several times in Lennon Remembers and on the record), here Lennon concedes the symbiosis between the famous and the fan. He admits that part of him hopes to please them. That he loves them and needs them.

Upon its release, the record was a critical success and Rolling Stone ranked it No. 22 on its Top 500 Albums of All Time in 2003. Last Sunday morning, I was alone in the car listening to the record for the first time in a few years, and "Look at Me" reminded me of another commercial meditation on fame that I saw for the first time just a few weeks ago.



LeBron James' "Rise" spot for Nike was created by Wieden & Kennedy of Portland. Directed by Stacy Wall, the spot tackles head-on the fallout of James' decision to take his talents to South Beach. The director was previously behind the NBA puppet commercials as well as several other notable spots. Just as LeBron repeatedly asks "What should I do?" in that recent advertorial, Lennon alternately asks "Who am I supposed to be?" and "What am I supposed to do?" in "Look at Me."

By asking such questions, both men are admitting that the opinion of those strangers matters, regardless of how much it may rankle them. The only thing outstripping the creeping disdain for the audience is the continued need for the attention and the platform. Their nearly unprecedented worldwide fame* is both addictive and alienating.

In answering Wenner's first question of the aforementioned interview - "Would you take it all back?" - Lennon says:
And these fucking bastards there just sucking us to death, that's about all we can do, is do it like circus animals. I resent being an artist, in that respect, I resent performing for fucking idiots who don't know anything. They can't feel; I'm the one that's feeling, because I'm the one expressing. They live vicariously through me and other artists, and we are the ones ... even with the boxers, when Oscar [Bonneventura] comes in the ring, they're booing the shit out of him. He only hit Clay once and they're all cheering him. That's what I resent, you know. I'd sooner be in the audience, really, but I'm not capable of of it."
After watching James's most recent commercial and noting his increasingly defensive and combative statements since signing with the Miami Heat over the summer, I can't help but think that he'd have a knowing nod for Lennon's feelings about fame and the fickle nature of the crowd.

Like Lennon after the break-up of the Beatles, LeBron is now attempting to get out in front of the stories being told about him. He's trying to write his own narrative rather than let jersey burnings commence in Cleveland unabated. LeBron's defiant shots at his critics, such as Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, echo Lennon's own verbal barbs for former bandmate Paul McCartney and even his younger self. In each case, the anger and resentment comes off as petty. But both Lennon and LeBron are humanized by their melancholy and their pathos. Both Lennon, directly through his lyrics, and LeBron, at the behest of ad mavens and marketing wizards, admitted that they need us not only to look at them, but to support them. And perhaps even guide them. In both cases, fans have mixed reactions to seeing the flaws of their heroes.

I can't help but wonder if Wall and the fine folks at W&K created this commercial with "Look at Me" in mind, or if there are just so few ways to described the rarefied place that LBJ and Lennon have held in popular culture that they pair of searching creations just seem intrinsically linked.

"Look at Me," by John Lennon

OK? (yes sir)
Look at me,
Who am I supposed to be?
Who am I supposed to be?
Look at me,
What am I supposed to be?
What am I supposed to be?
Look at me,
Oh my love, oh my love.
Here I am,
What am I supposed to do?
What am I supposed to do?
Here I am,
What can I do for you?
What can I do for you?
Here I am,
Oh my love, oh my love.
Look at me, oh please look at me, my love,
Here I am - Oh my love.
Who am I?
Nobody knows but me,
Nobody knows but me,
Who am I?
Nobody else can see,
Just you and me,
Who are we?
Oh my love, oh my love.
Oh my love...





*Random Music Footnote (at the end of a random music post on a sports blog): John Lennon received a song-writing credit on David Bowie's "Fame" after singing the word FAME over the Carlos Alomar's guitar riff during a one-day studio session in New York with Bowie in 1975. Bowie was inspired by the theme and the chords and dashed off the rest of the lyrics. On the finished single, Lennon contributes backing vocals.

Monday Mudita