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The cult therapy that inspired John Lennon’s greatest album

More so than any other band in history, the legacy of The Beatles is one that proves to be truly transcendent in society. The melodies and the words that the four humble lads from Liverpool crafted are inexorably interwoven into our yesterdays, todays and likely our tomorrows too. Rather than being some sort of inescapable Groundhog Day dystopia, this influence connects generations, extolls beauty and keeps the prelapsarian dream of the 1960s alive in some small but inviolable sense.

There is a vision of John Lennon within this legacy as a circular spectacled fellow with his deep scouse drawl and wavering wit, and it is a surface image that can often mask the true complexity of the character who sported the affectations. Take, for instance, the comments that Yoko Ono made to Philip Norman regarding his complicated relationship with his mother Julia, who placed him in the care of her sister when he was just a boy. “He told me that when he was in his teens,” Ono recalled, “he sometimes used to be in Julia’s room with her when she had a rest in the afternoon. And he’d always regretted he’d never been able to have sex with her.” 

Naturally, this Freudian oddity is indicative of a psychologically unusual disposition. However, it is worth noting that it was an oddity derived from a rather unusual childhood. When his mother handed him over to her sister, Lennon suffered from abandonment issues and when Julia was killed by a drunk driving policeman when he was only 17, he was never able to fully reconcile his relationship with her. In a matter of years, reconciliation of most things would be put on the back burner as he was thrust into the blinding spotlight of fame in such a way that nobody else in human history ever had been to that point. 

Thus, when The Beatles ended, there was finally a moment of pause in the speeding diegesis of his life. It was at this time that a revolutionary psychologist, Arthur Janov, began drumming up promotion for his soon-to-be-published self-help book The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy, The Cure for Neurosis by distributing copies to notable celebrities of the day. He literally could not have picked a better time to reach out to John Lennon. The star had always sought a sense of belonging and often this entailed the idea of cults.

Today, some of Janov’s comments prove alarming. He once proclaimed that his primal therapy was “the most important discovery of the 20th century,” in comparison to conventional studies at the time which he deemed “the greatest hoax”. Continuing: “In the future, there will be no need for a field called psychology. … [W]e would need only 20 per cent of the present medical profession since 80 per cent of all ailments would be cured by primal therapy.” However, in 1970, these new-age thoughts proved alluring to Lennon as he searched for his next chapter. 

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Thus, Lennon agreed to partake in a four-week treatment programme in England ran by Janov. As Yoko Ono described the therapy in an interview with Uncut: “It’s just a matter of breaking the wall that’s there in yourself and come out and let it all hang out to the point that you start crying. He was going back to the days of when he wanted to scream, ‘Mother.’ He was able to go back to that childhood, that memory.” Lennon would add: “In the therapy, you really feel every painful moment of your life — it’s excruciating, you are forced to realize that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky.”

Screaming and crying en masse was encouraged as a way to lift the malaise of a stiff-upper-lipped surface. This way of thinking brought about an almost caustic introspection on his solo masterpiece John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. This is typified on the song ‘Mother’ more so than any other track in his back catalogue. The cathartic release of addressing a long-repressed emotion is palpable in the track. As he told Rolling Stone in an interview upon its release: “I’ve always liked simple rock. I was influenced by acid and got psychedelic, like the whole generation, but really, I like rock and roll and I express myself best in rock.” 

Adding: “I had a few ideas to do this with ‘Mother’ and that with ‘Mother’ but when you just hear, the piano does it all for you, your mind can do the rest. I think the backings on mine are as complicated as the backings on any record you’ve ever heard if you’ve got an ear. Anybody knows that. Any musician will tell you, just play a note on a piano, it’s got harmonics in it. It got to that. What the hell, I didn’t need anything else.” Thus, simplicity and sincerity became the lifeblood of the album.

And it adds credence to Lennon’s declaration that any “musician would tell you that” when you consider that famed Beatles-hater, Lou Reed, proclaimed that the song is one of the greatest ever written. “[Lennon] wrote one song that I admire tremendously,” Reed said. “I think it was one of the greatest songs I ever heard, called ‘Mother’. Now, with that, and he was capable of great pop stuff, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the question you asked me was ‘on another level’.” And while he continues to state that, in his view, Lennon and The Beatles usually missed that gilded next step, he was happy to place ‘Mother’ on the pantheon.

In a later interview with Bruce Pollock, Reed remarked: “That was a song that had realism. When I first heard it, I 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.” Whether this bare-bones expose of vulnerability as strength was derived from the therapy itself or it was merely something that coincided with a particular moment in Lennon’s life is open to interpretation, but the results are clear on the masterful Plastic Ono Band record.  

Throughout the album, Lennon seems to lift a veil on his own creativity and crafts songs that find comfort in tragedy. In short, the album soars on a mantra that he skirted around in his career, but never nailed as finely as he did on this album—that bliss didn’t have to be ignorant.