There’s a Beatles song on the White Album, “Cry Baby Cry,” that is a strange, almost dream-like portrait of someone’s long-ago childhood. The setting is the English countryside, a well-healed English family. Each verse is a little vignette of life, a shard of a memory that is neither good or bad —
— followed by a chorus:
I’m not going to embarrass myself by analyzing the lyrics to a song Lennon said he threw together with inspiration from an advertisement and a nursery rhyme. He actually slagged it off once as “rubbish” in a Playboy interview, but I don’t buy that. Lennon was always saying stuff like that. Whatever state of mind he was in when he wrote “Cry Baby Cry,” it was John Lennon’s mind, and there was lots going on in there.
The song makes me feel something that I can’t put my finger on. The chorus casts a cloud on those pleasant-seeming verses, and the music brings something else to the party, too. Minor chords, a descending bass that lands unexpectedly on a bluesy chord and just sits there a moment. The chord feels just a little edgy the first time it comes up, and with every verse, that feeling intensifies. By the time we get to the last chorus, where the children put in an actual appearance, we’re definitely not in A.A. Milne’s England. Something happened back then. Or failed to happen. Wherever the feeling of malaise comes from, it’s deepened by a little snippet of Paul McCartney singing the lines “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back?” over and over as the song fades out, like a dream dissipating.
That was Lennon in his Beatles days. Two years later, the band was over, and John came out with his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. There was nothing oblique or hidden about the song on it called “Mother,” another backward looking view at childhood through the prism of adult eyes. It’s starkly different from the earlier song, with a chorus about a crying baby. (Why is she crying, when she’s “old enough to know better…"?)
“Mother” is a naked expression of loss and pain of abandonment:
The baby crying is, literally, Lennon himself. And after those three verses, the song moves on to a new section, consisting of two lines that he sings over and over:
Lennon’s voice grows more raw and tortured with every repetition, until in the end, it’s a child’s wail of naked pain. The song is openly autobiographical, a harrowing journey into the heart of Lennon’s trauma.(From the age of six, Lennon was raised by his aunt, because his mother felt she was incapable of doing the job herself. She died when he was seventeen, right after one of her frequent visits with him. His father was missing, almost entirely, from his life.)
The song emerged from Lennon’s exploration of primal scream therapy, a practice based on the idea that for some people, re-experiencing childhood pain on a visceral level allows them to process it in ways talk therapy cannot access. It is, I think, part of a larger journey Lennon made, toward healing and self-love.
I was twelve when that album came out. I loved it — “Mother,” “Working Class Hero” and “God,” especially— but I missed a lot, too. Just now I went to copy the lyrics to “Mother” from the album’s booklet, because I wanted to get the punctuation and line breaks exactly the way Lennon wrote them. The next song on the album is called “Hold On,” and I read over its lyrics just now. One verse to himself, written in this moment of his life filled with intense self-exploration, a kind of “You got this!” message to the soul. Then a second verse to his love, Yoko:
And then a message to both of them, encouraging, a candle in the dark:
And then Lennon turned his gift outward, a generous message of hope that took me by surprise when I read it today.
John Lennon’s gifts just keep on giving. And giving. And giving.
That’s real love.
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