When I started writing Gold Soundz essays, the method for choosing the song to write about was to randomly pick one from a playlist of songs that give me goosebumps. Although John Lennon’s ‘Love’ is on that list, it was not chosen by Tidal shuffle. ‘Love’ selected itself by being in my ears, head and heart for the entire last ten days, so that I can’t let go of it. “Love is real / Real is love” is a May mantra.
It’s hard to be sure why a song implants itself like this, particularly one you’ve heard hundreds of times, and writing can help figure that out. Then maybe you can stop listening obsessionally and move on to the next song. Still, right now I want to keep listening to ‘Love’. Every so often you go through a phase with a song when others seem unnecessary: this song does everything that songs are supposed to so it’s the only one I need.
Which begs the question: what are songs supposed to do? Can one song do it all?
I mean: songs do all kinds of things. They keep us company. They make strangers into friends. They educate and exhilarate. They speed up then slow down your pulse rate. They provide an auditory environment that improves focus and aids writing (thank you Stars of the Lid). They soundtrack a mosh or a Macarena.
But I’m thinking here about songs that operate on a particular level, that are existential as well as exciting. Not to be too hierarchical but I bow most deeply to songs that tackle core questions we are trying to answer ourselves and can’t. Songs that help us make sense of life when it seems strange and nonsensical. Songs that find peace for us when we can’t find it. One song can do all that for a while and usually this is through our dialogue with the song rather than its monologue. The listener is a co-writer. I listened to ‘Blue And Grey Shirt’ by American Music Club on repeat in late 1992, early 1993, because when Mark Eitzel sang “I sat up all morning / And I waited for you” I knew exactly what he was saying and no-one else said it like him. I needed to listen to his generous song of loneliness to process that awful emotion. The song, which was of love as well as loneliness, was of immense practical emotional help. I haven’t needed it since, but it still means so much and I’ve needed many other songs along the road. John Cusack in High Fidelity asks: Which came first, the music or the misery? It is so obvious that it was the misery. Music is not toxic. It is nothing but healing.
Part of why ‘Love’ is loveable is because of its context. It comes on halfway through John’s 1970 Plastic Ono Band, his first solo album, also known as the Primal Scream album, which has John’s enduring emotional injury arising in childhood as the subject of most of its songs. ‘Love’ comes on and soothes for a while although ‘God’ arrives soon after (“God is a concept / By which we measure our pain”).
The album starts with ‘Mother’, in which John addresses his mum, Julia, and his dad, Alfred. Alfred, who had left John and Julia when John was three, was alive in 1970. Julia had died in 1958 when John was 17. She had not taken care of him for more than a few weeks since he was five. The lyric of ‘Mother’ begins: “Mother / You had me / But I never had you / I wanted you / But you didn’t want me”. John’s mother was the subject of ‘Julia’ on The White Album too but that was a shimmering declaration of filial love (“So I sing the song of love / Julia”) rather than a song about being abandoned (“Mama don’t go / Daddy come home”).
The album ends with ‘My Mummy’s Dead’, a song in which John still sounds grievously wounded, although differently. He sings the brutal lyrics in a nursery rhyme melody as if the only way he can sing them is pretend they are fantasy: “I can’t explain / So much pain / I could never show it / My mummy’s dead”.
So in the midst of all this skin-peeling pain comes the grounding, gratitude and grace of ‘Love’.
‘Love’ is not healing in some straightforward way. It has its own ambiguity: “Love is needing / needing love” is sung by someone who spent childhood years without enough love and who had, when leaving his first wife Cynthia, left his first-born son bereft of paternal love as he was left himself.
Still I think ‘Love’ can be said to be mostly healing because it says: even when you went through all the abandonment John went through since age three, you can fully experience love (“Love is you / You and me / Love is knowing / We can be”). Then, pained though ‘God’ is, John ends that song declaring that he no longer believes in anyone but “Yoko and me / And that’s reality”, and ‘God’ becomes an epiphany in that moment. Even for a Beatle—a person at the highest peak of human achievement—there is no moment more exquisite than the moment union with your soul mate begins. When your perspective on life changes because you experience life through her eyes, not just your own, and your life is so much richer than it was ten minutes ago.
Hence, those of us who are not Beatles can experience the pinnacle of happiness, which for John was not his career peak (‘A Day In The Life’ in 1967) but was meeting Yoko in the Indica Gallery in 1966. Like my Mam and Dad meeting in the TV Club in 1966. Like, for me, the July 2001 Monday when I walked into the Pearse St Drug Treatment Centre having just started training there, when I found Sharon working as a nurse and when she smiled at me and the rest of the room blurred and faded from sound and view. Or the moment a few weeks later, about 48 hours into our offically going out, that we each realised we wanted to have a baby, each said so, and neither of us panicked and ran away. Or early 2002, when Sharon and I returned from Paris and I was expecting the pining melancholy I’d always experienced on a return from holiday but I realised: wait it doesn’t matter at all where I am any more—not if she’s there. I don’t have a 1967 Sergeant Pepper moment to compare these to but they were more ‘Oh My Love’ moments anyway: “Oh my lover for the first time in my life / My eyes are wide open / Oh my lover for the first time in my life / My eyes can see”.
What ‘Love’ reminds me is that a song meets you emotionally where you are and a fine song may do this once while some songs meet you many times when you are in different places throughout your life.
I am connecting with ‘Love’ in May 2023 in a way that I could not have done at Christmas 1990, when I first heard the Plastic Ono Band album. Back then my notions of love were mostly as you would expect from a socially struggling adolescent listening to The Smiths. The song detailing my “love” life at the time was ‘How Soon Is Now’. The scene from the club where you’d like to go, “So you go and you stand on your own / And you leave on your own / And you go home / And you cry and you want to die”, felt true and not melodramatic. Just as Morrissey’s praise of death by double-decker bus in ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ felt like a perfect, pure way of sharing a fate with the one you loved while now it seems tragically life-negating. The Morrissey lyric argues against sharing everyday life with a person you love, because they may find it difficult to love you back, because the lightning bolt of early love can’t last and because the daily is dull. Every day is like Sunday, Morrissey would later add. Well, not if you love they’re not.
What other songs say is that young love matures, expands, and improves, like the love in Teenage Fanclub’s ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’: “I don’t want control of you / It doesn’t matter to me / Don’t want this love to stay the same / But grow with every year / And every day I look in a different face / The feelings getting stronger with every embrace”. In 1984’s ‘Grow Old With Me’, a song that’s so beautiful but hard to listen to as John Lennon never got to enact it, John sang“Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be / When our time has come / We will be as one / God bless our love”, an attitude to sticking with, or merging with, your true love that I share now so much more than that of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’. “Love is living / living love”, sings John Lennon in ‘Love’, and in 1990 I didn’t understand him. I didn’t listen. Now it’s the truest couplet.
In fairness to Morrissey, ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ and even ‘How Soon Is Now’ feel lyrically alien in 2023 not because of anything he said forty years ago but because at this time soundtracks to loneliness, Smiths songs that gently squeeze your solitary shoulder, are surplus to requirements. I have stupendously lucked out with an utter lack of loneliness in the last twenty-two years since I met my one true love and I can’t remember what loneliness even feels like. (16-year-old me would be: Wow.)
Like other John Lennon songs, ‘Love’ is one I find more poignant than I might otherwise because he didn’t have long enough and things ended so quickly. It focuses my mind on music’s attempts to find meaning in life including making peace with the difficult fact that life often ends too early. Even in normal length lives, loss does loom. I think I am attached to this song now because it is such a simple gentle statement of what is most important in the life you share with your loved ones. When you recognise that life is not infinite, you find yourself feeling like you were twelve years old two days ago and you find yourself also asking: what is the best way of using the time that is left?
The answer is in this song and it is stated clearly without drama: it’s to give and receive love. To do so casually day to day, hour to hour. Don’t put off the precise expression of love and make sure that all those you love and value know it. Earlier I wrote that ‘Love’ does exactly what songs are supposed to and for ‘Love’ to provide elegant guidance on how to experience love and maximise its joyful expression seems to be as useful as a song can be. Life doesn’t go on forever and if you were to be in your final hours knowing that everyone you loved will always know that you loved them—as my mum knew last June, to pick a not entirely random example—then that exit is as good as it can be.
In ‘Love’, John equates loving and receiving love with other acts. Love is touch, touch is love. Love is reaching, reaching love. Love is asking to be loved. I think of his line “Love is touch, touch is love” now, and I gratefully recall some of the many hugs I’ve been glad to have. I think of our youngest child, who, watching Teen Titans or Totoro on the couch or reading The Beano, whether heading off to sleep or just after waking, likes having his head on your chest and his hand on your belly. I don’t know if I’ve paid more attention to this because of an increasing awareness of the hasty passage of precious time, but I do know that there’s no experience more precious than this, and that an everyday event can be the most magical one.
It was wonderful that John Lennon, who was given so little love as a boy, could develop his ability to love others heading into his thirties. As the years pass, the most important thing about love is how it continues. Its recipients benefit from it not just when it’s given but throughout their lives. Others benefit too. Think of the grandchildren whose Granny and Granda taught Daddy how to love. Love goes on.
I sometimes think about John’s ‘Love’, the acts and states of being that John equated with love, and the song’s haiku brevity, and I wonder—did he leave anything out?
Well. Love is comfort, comfort love. Love is courage, courage love. Love is caring, caring love. But love is not completely straightforward. Love is concern. Love is grief. Love is trepidation. Love is longing.
To say that these are positives and negatives is to realise that loving someone is not only elevating your life to heights it cannot otherwise attain but also that loving someone is setting you and that person up for mighty loss. At some point sadness like no other will ensue. One could say that the worst thing about a person dying is not what they themselves lose but the pain their passing causes to those who loved and love them.
In John’s ‘Love’ I hear him sing “Love is you / You and me / Love is knowing / We can be”. I hear the present tense in this but in a song like ‘Love’ I also hear an eternal tense. Though we won’t both be around forever, our love lives on and our relationship remains. Love you gave is love you can still give even after death and it stays imprinted in the person you gave it to. I feel that in what my Mum gave, which I still carry in my bones.
That’s why giving love right now is the best use of what time you have. Love causes grief but also strengthens those you love so they can be as strong and happy as possible and that’s what I have to believe matters most. John from early on and right through The Beatles felt not good enough until Yoko arrived. When we are loved enough, for long enough, love can ease the feeling of failure that is so familiar, that constant worry that we can never be a good enough person. Love can ease this agitation. Love is real, real is love, sang John, and he covered almost all bases in this perfect song. He could have added one thing: love is peace, peace is love.