John Lennon’s first solo album remains one of the most remarkable musical statements ever released by a major artist. With confrontation of various demons, a demolition of The Beatles’ legend, and at times a painfully honest account of a troubled man struggling to deal with a reality he couldn’t change, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band saw Lennon stripping away layers of defence and artifice, leaving his most raw, direct and heartfelt collection of songs.
During The Beatles’ break-up Lennon and Yoko Ono had immersed themselves, at various times, in peace campaigns, heroin addiction, a work schedule filled with publicity stunts, and occasional musical excursions. However, as 1969 gave way to the new decade, they retreated from public view at Tittenhurst Park, their 72-acre estate in Ascot, Berkshire, where they became increasingly isolated.
The extent of their fame made normal public excursions troublesome, and the press commonly portrayed them as freaks. The pair had kicked heroin, but were both using methadone as a substitute. Ono had suffered two miscarriages in the previous two years, and had another in 1970, and was locked in a custody battle for her daughter with her previous husband, Tony Cox.
Lennon, meanwhile, was attempting to deal with the pressures surrounding The Beatles’ break-up. Although he was the primary instigator, the disintegrating relationships between the four men, not to mention the ongoing legal and business wranglings with Apple and Allen Klein, took their toll. He had tried seeking solace in drugs, but found their effects to be little more than an ephemeral escape.
Enter Dr Arthur Janov. The American psychotherapist had sent Lennon an unsolicited copy of his book The Primal Scream, subtitled Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis, based on the premise that people’s neuroses were caused by repressed pain connected to childhood experiences.
Lennon was fascinated by the book, and is said to have read it in a single sitting. Ono summoned Janov to Tittenhurst Park from Los Angeles, in an attempt to help Lennon confront his unresolved formative traumas: losing contact with his mother Julia after being sent to live with his aunt Mimi; Julia’s death in July 1958, when Lennon was 17 years old; and the sporadic, infrequent contact with his father during his childhood.
Janov conducted a number of Primal Therapy sessions at Lennon’s half-built recording studio at Tittenhurst Park, but the chaotic state of the house prevented them from making progress. The sessions moved to London, where Janov made Lennon and Ono stay in separate hotels, but eventually Janov invited them to follow him to Los Angeles.
They do this thing where they mess around with you until you reach a point where you hit this scream thing. You go with it – they encourage you to go with it – and you kind of make a physical, mental, cosmic breakthrough with the scream itself. I can compare it to acid inasmuch as you take the trip, and what you do with it afterwards when the drug’s worn off is what you do with it afterwards when the drug’s worn off. But there’s no taking away from the initial scream. That’s what you go for.
Lennon and Ono spent four months with Janov in America. They underwent two therapy sessions each week, either in groups or individually, several of which were filmed for research purposes.
Even under a daddy I’m not going to be filmed, especially rolling around the floor screaming. So then he started to berate us: ‘Some people are so big they won’t be filmed.’ He said he just happened to be filming that session. ‘Who are you kidding, Mr Janov?’ He just happened to be filming the session with John and Yoko in it.
Lennon told Janov he had grown up unhappy and isolated in the knowledge that his parents hadn’t wanted him. He cried frequently, but, according to Janov, never screamed the words “Mama don’t go, daddy come home”. The Beatles were seldom mentioned, although Brian Epstein was discussed by the two men.
I don’t think anything else would work on me so well. But then of course I’m not through with it. It’s a process that’s going on – we primal almost daily. And the only difference – I don’t really want to get this big primal thing going because it gets so embarrassing. And in a nutshell, primal therapy allowed us to feel feelings continually, and those feelings usually make you cry. That’s all. Before I wasn’t feeling things – I was having blocks to the feelings, and the feelings come through, you cry. It’s as simple as that really.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
Throughout his adult life Lennon was susceptible to the promises of various idols or lifestyles that were claimed to be panaceas, whether they be LSD, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, politics or macrobiotics. Like Dr Arthur Janov, none sustained his interest for much more than a year, and disillusionment frequently set in once Lennon found they couldn’t provide what he was searching for. Although Janov wanted Lennon to return to Los Angeles to complete his therapy, he never did.
At first I was bitter about Maharishi being human and bitter about Janov being human. Well, I’m not bitter anymore. They’re human and I’m only thinking what a dummy I was, you know. Although I meditate and I cry.