Whatever else it may be, Plastic Ono Band is an inquiry into the stark realities facing an individual living in modern society. That the one making the inquiry happens to be one of its biggest icons and that he is intent on coming to terms with particularly brutal issues from his own past, gives it a perspective which for most of us is only available by an act of imagination. That Lennon is facing a conflict within himself—that between the dreamer who envisions a peacefully existing brotherhood of man and the sharp observer whom cannot help but acknowledge the vast spectrum of human experience and the divisions it draws between individuals—is painfully obvious throughout. While it may initially appear to be a despairing work, Plastic Ono Band is actually a testament to endurance through change. All of the bullshit that has muddied up the lenses of perception, and consequently gotten in the way of progress toward a more equitable state of being, is being cleared away. All of the easy fixes, the religion, the drugs, the hero-worship, and personal trauma, are being cast aside so that the world can be seen freshly once more, so that Lennon’s dreams for the world and for himself in the world can once again become focused.
It is certainly not a grandly-conceived album, but more of an accidental sum that rises out of the intense contemplation of particular thoughts, issues and feelings. With the exception of “Look at Me,” an outtake leftover from the White Album sessions, the songs were written and recorded as demos during John and Yoko’s time at the Primal Institute run by Arthur Janov. John had come in contact with Janov through his book, The Primal Scream, which had been sent to him at the author’s request. The main idea of the therapy is that revisiting critical issues `triggers’ primal screams which, according to Janov, can excise the root causes of the patient’s neurosis. “Mother,” on the heels of funereal bells, begins the album on a representative note, Lennon’s voice plaintively relating the disappointment of wanting his parents more than they wanted him, before rising to near-primal levels, gutturally intoning “Mommy don’t go/Daddy come home.” The songs separate into two categories—purges of past emotional wreckage and reassurances that despite its difficulties, life is worth living—and their most poignant moments arise when they tread the subtle territory, not where the two are divided, but where they meet.
Lennon’s self-described `revolutionary anthem,’ Working Class Hero, a ballad reminiscent of early Dylan, is a good example. It may seem an odd turn for Lennon to attack the working class, but in fact the song is one of the more acute that he ever penned. It works in the delicate area obscured by long accepted cultural divides. Punctuated by the inflammatory lines, “You think you’re so clever and classless and free/but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see,” “Working Class Hero” is an attack on the airs of righteousness put on by the working class. Lennon is being brutally honest with himself and in doing so shattering many of his own idealized images of humanity. These `peasants’ are drugged up with religion, sex, and TV, turning to the same things which restrain them for consolation, making petty distinctions, attacking those among themselves who dare to dream of a more lustrous existence, those who do risk the comfort of the known and actually take steps to change their situations. The fear of the unknown is as great of a restraint as any imposed by an outside force.
Lennon treads deeper in “Isolation,” extracting causes for the dead end he has described in “Working Class Hero.” The song itself is full of nervous energy, the claustrophobic piano changes that add to the distress of the lyrics. We may retreat into ourselves, away from society as a whole, toward the isolated lives that we know so well, but we are only humans, “victims of the insane.” To deal with society at a level below the surface, beyond obvious distinctions is a lifetime occupation, without any easy gratification. To accept that your emotions and desires are being played on daily by `the insane,’ and to live accordingly is no simple turn. In fact it something that none of us can accomplish without fail. If we stare at the sun too long we go blind, so to speak. To live in uncertainty, in life’s gray areas is something of a superhuman act. It is unnatural. One of the most endearing things about Plastic Ono Band, is that no easy answers are put forward. It is both an end and a beginning unto itself. It contains both what is and what can be imagined, but there is no absolute reconciliation of the two.
The angst and unnerving distortion of “Well Well Well” is followed by the soft, questioning “Look at Me,” which leads to “God.” “God” is a song which expresses not a release from the pain of the album, but the consciousness that the past must be put aside to make room for the future. All those things which have been nourishing, upon which Lennon has thrived—eastern spirituality, rock and roll as oasis embodied by Elvis, rock and roll as an instrument of social change, seen through one Robert Zimmerman, and, most importantly, The Beatles—have become obstructions.
Susan Sontag, in a conversation with Victor Bockris and Richard Hell, recorded and transcribed by Bockris, said “My impulse is if I like Godard that much and I think he’s that interesting then I want to write an essay on him which is what I did. I want to keep on making space for other things. I think that’s important.” To me, stated as such or not, that is what The Plastic Ono Band is: an exorcism of a past, ideas, and fascinations which have become burdensome. And in the end some kind of peace is arrived at. Just as the cliches of Love, while banal if taken on their own, are given some poignancy by being brought together, the despair and hope echoed throughout the album come together to form something real, not quite tangible, but undeniably affecting. Kierkegaard writes that, “Health is in general to be able to resolve contradictions.” Contradictions are only resolved when one is able to see from opposing points of view and continue to allow both to exist. The Plastic Ono Band is one of the few albums I know of that so thoroughly accomplishes this.