Behind the Song: John Lennon, “Mother”

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From Al Jolson’s black-faced tearjerker “Mammy” to the Rolling Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows” (which portrayed a struggling unwed mother confronted by the looming ghost of her own mother), songs about moms have often spelled trouble.

Nothing was more outrageous than The Doors’ oedipal opus, “The End,” in which an unhinged Jim Morrison screamed, “Father, I want to kill you, Mother… I want to…” Hoping to dodge an inevitable storm of controversy Elektra Records understandably substituted Jim’s “f-ck you” for an indecipherable feral groan from Morrison that teemed with self-loathing.

Lennon later confessed to having overwhelming oedipal desires towards his mother, Julia, after he accidentally brushed his hand against her breast as the two enjoyed an afternoon nap together.

Even naming one’s band The Mothers was fraught with issues, as the mad maestro Frank Zappa discovered. Irked by the implications of the group’s questionable moniker, Verve Records demanded the Mothers change their name, which led to Frank’s playful bastardization of Plato’s quote, “Necessity is the mother of invention” and called his band The Mothers of Invention. Thus, any questionable notions their original name might have conjured were instantly quashed.

After all this was a gang of scraggly long-haired men, who were dubbed “The Ugliest Band in Rock” and appeared in drag on the jacket of their third album We’re Only In It for the Money, a vicious/hilarious parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which nearly cost Verve a lawsuit. Pressured by record company execs, the band eventually acquiesced and reversed the album’s cover photo with the bright yellow gatefold image of Frank in a dress, and pigtails, along with the rest of the Mothers looking like a motley crew of bearded spinster aunts.

John Lennon, “Mother”

It’s interesting to note that after John and Yoko performed at the Fillmore East with Zappa and his crew on June 6, 1971, their impromptu jam would be credited to “The Plastic Ono Mothers” on side four of Lennon/Ono’s Some Time in New York City. While many of The Beatles’ early songs were fabricated dramas reflecting the problems faced by young lovers, the lyrics to “Mother” sprang directly from Lennon’s childhood experience, memories he’d struggled to repress and forget, but was now determined to confront in hopes of finally freeing himsel from the trauma that still lingered.

Influenced by Bob Dylan, who’d bared his soul with bitter break-up songs like “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” and Roy Orbison, who fearlessly wore his emotions on his sleeve in tunes like “Crying,” John first revealed his inner self in the “confessional” lyrics to “Help,” which no one took seriously at first due to its catchy upbeat tempo. Besides, why would anyone think the leader of the world’s most popular band could be “really down” and “so insecure?” Surely, it was just more role-playing, like so many of John’s earlier songs.

“Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

But with their following album, Rubber Soul, released in December 1965, it was clear The Beatles were beginning to grow up – fast! As Dylan keenly observed, the Mop-Tops were “no longer cute anymore.” Rubber Soul featured Lennon’s melancholy masterpiece “In My Life,” taking us on a guided tour of his lost youth in Liverpool. Along with the surprisingly dark and tormented “Girl,” John now wrote and sang songs, throwing open the book of his life for his fans to freely interpret. The lyric to Lennon’s “Nowhere Man” portrayed a self-absorbed lay-about who couldn’t care less that the world’s passing him by. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” John asked knowingly while we wondered if he was talking about himself.

Lennon’s introspection and honesty had reached an unprecedented peak with the elegiac portrait of his mother in the gently finger-picked “Julia” on the White Album. With just an acoustic guitar and his lilting voice, John fearlessly laid his feelings bare for all the world to hear. Plastic Ono Band’s opening track “Mother” was Lennon’s ultimate attempt to free himself from the psychic umbilical cord which still bound him to the specter of his negligent mummy.

The song began with four lumbering chimes of a church bell, that could be taken to symbolize the final laying to rest of The Beatles – with each toll representing a member of the group. Or perhaps John employed the doleful carillons to announce the death of the 1960’s dream of peace and love, which he, the self-described “dream-weaver” once helped spearhead, but now unceremoniously proclaimed “over,” in the shocking lyrics to his song “God.”

Chosen as the single to Lennon’s 1970 musical milestone, Plastic Ono Band, “Mother” was issued by Apple Records on December 28, 1970 and peaked at a disappointing Number 43 on the Billboard charts.

“I was a bit surprised by the reaction to ‘Mother,’” Lennon complained to author Robert Hilburn. “Can’t they see how nice it is?”

John’s fans were not only unnerved by the song’s stark lyrics but by the series of feral screams and shrieks on the song’s coda. Lennon’s savage howls on “Mother,” “I Found Out” and “Well, Well, Well” were always recorded at the end of the day’s sessions, as they shredded his vocal cords.

As engineer John Leckie told Uncut magazine in August 2010: “The screams were double-tracked [as] John didn’t like the raw sound of his own voice. He always wanted lots of stuff on it.” Leckie felt Phil Spector’s greatest contribution to Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band “was to be generous with reverb and echo.”

Finding little support in Britain, the single version of the album’s opening song was only released in America (there was no UK issue!) in a monoaural pressing and edited to down to 3:55 from its original length of 5:29. Gone were the ominous tolling bells which set the tone for the rest of the album and the radio-friendly version of “Mother” quickly faded out after the last verse.

The B-Side, Yoko’s explosive “Why” didn’t do much to help John’s anemic sales. Nine years after the release of Plastic Ono Band, Roger Waters’ “Mother” (from Pink Floyd’s The Wall) addressed many of the same issues as Lennon’s song by the same name, while taking an unflinching look at his life and delving into matters of morality, security and trust.

As country singer Harlan Howard once famously said, a great song (no matter what style it is) only needs “three chords and the truth.” Dynamics play an intrinsic role in both Lennon’s and Water’s “Mother.” While John punctuated his song’s steady hypnotic rhythm with primal screams of anguish, Pink Floyd relied on David Gilmour’s soaring blues guitar riffs to up the emotional intensity of Waters’ dark tale. The song’s chorus resembles a modern version of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, as its protagonist (whose father was killed during the war) earnestly searches for guidance, while his mum assures him that she will make his deepest fears “come true.”

“In the end, either you cheer people up with your songs, or help them exorcise some problems they have,” singer/songwriter Steve Earle once said. Lennon apparently did more than his share of each.

Covering Lennon’s highly personal songs from Plastic Ono Band was a losing proposition for most artists. Delivering such powerful lyrics demanded the artist enter a deeply emotional state in order to present John’s hard truths with the same level of conviction with which he wrote them. These songs are in a world of their own when compared to the early pop confections for which Lennon and McCartney were famous.

Even John had difficulty sounding convincing when he performed the material live two years later, on August 30, 1972, at Madison Square Garden. “This song is another song from one of those albums I made since I left the Rolling Stones,” Lennon quipped, attempting to lighten the mood for a moment before adding, “a lot of people thought [“Mother”] was just about my parents, but it was about 99% of the parents, alive or half dead.”

In the year following Plastic Ono Band’s release, Barbra Streisand (of all people!) recorded “Mother” (along with Lennon’s gossamer-like “Love”) on her album Barbra Joan Streisand. While the notion of Babs wailing Lennon’s lament to his dead mother seemed nothing short of bizarre, the diva did a most admirable job with John’s song. Kicking off with long sustained churchy organ chords, and supported by droning cellos, an unrestrained Streisand sang the wallpaper off the wall. Thankfully she didn’t try to out-scream John on the song’s coda. Instead Streisand’s voice soared, sounding like she meant every word of this bitter farewell.

“Mother” as performed by Barbra Streisand

Maynard Ferguson gave Lennon’s tortuous dirge plenty of sizzling hot trumpet on his puzzling 1972 version of “Mother,” from the album M.F. Horn Two. John would have had difficulty recognizing his own tune as Ferguson’s rococo arrangement packed none of the emotional power of the original. “Mother” certainly seems like a peculiar choice to jazz up. Perhaps Ferguson chose it for its repetitive vamp (over which John screamed “Mother don’t go!”) as the foundation for Stan Robinson’s burly tenor sax solo. But this (and many jazz) interpretations of Lennon and other Beatle songs in the past most likely spurred John to disparage jazz as, “the worst kind of music… ever created or imagined.”

Country rocker Shelby Lynne sang Lennon’s heartbreaker as a cathartic way of dealing with the trauma suffered as a teen when her father shot her mother in an alcoholic haze, then killed himself. Bringing a bit of blue-eyed soul to the song while adding a few warmer chords to John’s skeletal melody, Shelby’s version morphed into a light grunge anthem. An echoey vocal mix adds a somewhat cerebral quality to the song. Perhaps the most effective aspect of her arrangement is the cliffhanging ending which evokes the feeling that comes with being abandoned suddenly.

Years later, in July 2011, Lou Reed performed a plodding, punishing rendition of “Mother” while on tour in the UK and Europe. It seems like an odd choice for Reed as the song’s legato notes are clearly out of his vocal range. Instead he awkwardly recites the lyric, punctuated by occasional groans. As one YouTube detractor groused, Reed sounds “like he just got out of a mental institution.” There’s perhaps more truth to that quip than the commentator realized as Reed had been subjected to electroshock treatment in his youth. “Mother” spoke to Lou because, as he told author/journalist Bruce Pollock, because it “had realism.”

Reed claimed when he first heard it, he didn’t “even know it was him. I just said, ‘Who the fuck is that? I don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.”

From the opposite end of the spectrum came David Bowie’s soulful rendition of “Mother,” produced by Tony Visconti. Originally intended for a Lennon tribute album, Bowie’s version was recorded in August 1988 in Nassau, with Visconti on bass and ace session drummer Andy Newmark. Remaining true to John’s original, David’s husky vocals brings an added theatricality to the song, taking it to new sonic heights with the help of David Bowie’s guitarist, Reeve Gabrels’ slashing shards of sound. While the track remains unreleased, and labelled “rare,” it has received around 500,000 plays on YouTube.

John Kruth’s forthcoming book: `HOLD ON WORLD: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band – 50 Years On’ is due from Backbeat Books this fall. You can preorder it at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hold-World-Lasting-Impact-Plastic/dp/1493052357

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