“There are two kinds of people” arguments usually strike me as cheeky and stale. But there is one incontestable version of the formulation: there are two types of people in the world—those who prefer Paul McCartney and those who prefer John Lennon. Let me tell you a little story. An investor recently sunk $5,000 so that my wife could cover a Beatles’ song, which a director had requested for a movie. It was all for naught, as the Beatles’ management soon informed the filmmaker of the licensing fee: $350,000. Two relevant pieces of context: (1) the standard fee is around 5k. (2) The Beatles were, uh, once revolutionary. It’s a bit hard to remember that second point if you see Paul McCartney perform in the 21st century. He charges in the hundreds for his tickets, effectively turning his concerts into privileged-class affairs. He wears the same goofy grin and vacant stare whether he is singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Day in the Life”. He has nothing to say on stage.
Perhaps you are cynical and think that any rock star would charge as much as they could get for their music, effectively pricing out of the game independent or underground filmmakers who want to use a historically significant and revolutionary song such as “Revolution #9.” I myself find it hard to believe that John or Yoko would sell “Power to the People” or “Woman is the Nigger of the World” for a large sum of money. I’m inclined to believe they’d even give it away to the right artist. A friend told me the other day: “It’s 2011—Lennon would be no different today. He just died before he had a chance to sell out like the rest of his generation.”
Don’t believe it. That’s the kind of story we tell ourselves when we feel guilty that we or our heroes would never spend thousands just to buy billboards around the city that say “War is Over”. It is our self-help solution to the collective trauma of having failed the promise of the 1960s and 1970s. As Leonard Cohen said in a poem: “I punished her by saying some of us still take acid”. Tom Morello of Rage Against of the Machine is still writing revolutionary music and playing it for free at anti-prison rallies. Noam Chomsky only got more radical after the 70s. Lennon left the Beatles and started thinking about what always tends to be elided in American consciousness—class. He started working with socialists, ditched the Beatles songs in concert and stuck to his new more revolutionary work. Read one of his later interviews at Counterpunch.
Yoko Ono is still creating powerful feminist art and fighting the good fight. McCartney, on the other hand, is dating a good little capitalist, vice-president of a massive transportation conglomerate. He has become the “Nowhere Man,” running his once revolutionary band like a corporation. The music industry, of course, is in ruins, and hasn’t produced anyone remotely resembling a Lennon/Ono in years. All we can do is support the few who haven’t given in. The next time you’re thinking about shelling out $250 to see McCartney meticulously avoid the subversive promise of rock n’roll, go instead to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and add something to Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree installation. Here’s one: I wish she had all the rights to the Beatles’ music.