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January 17th 2015 print

Daryl McCann

John Lennon and the Nowhere Man

Prophecy was not one of the then-Beatle's gifts, but he might well have been thinking of Russell Brand when he sang of "making all his nowhere plans for nobody". Two pop-culture icons -- one who found his feet, after a fashion, versus another lost in the incoherence of an egomaniacal self-esteem

lennonbrandRussell Brand has chosen the red pill. Few, though, have imbibed more blue pills than Russell – celebrity sex, celebrity drugs, celebrity performances, celebrity morals, celebrity worship, celebrity hubris, celebrity wealth and celebrity marriage to Katy Perry. But the blissful ignorance of illusion is now behind him. The red pill has “awoken” him, and in his post-delirium state Brand is Neo, modern-day messiah on a mission to rescue humanity from the Matrix (or Late Capitalism).

The last celebrity with such an overweening messianic complex was John Lennon (1940-80). According to Pete Shotton and Nicholas Schaffner’s bio In My Life (1983), in the early hours of Saturday, May 18, 1968, a cross-legged, elegantly wasted Lennon experienced an epiphany. “I think I’m Jesus Christ. I’m…back again,” announced Lennon, waving both arms in the air and making slow, swirling actions with his outspread hands. Pete Shotton, boyhood friend and constant companion in the brief interlude between the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Yoko Ono, had just shared a piece of LSD and smoked some joints with the famous Beatle, but his rejoinder was pithy enough: “Don’t you think being John Lennon is enough?”

The parallels between John Lennon and Russell Brand, separated by almost forty years, are astonishing. Talent and wit, not to mention troubled childhoods, transformed both of them into celebrity seers. Despite undreamt of wealth and adoration, each came to positively despise the bourgeois mores of their times. In the estimation of Roger Sandall’s The Culture Cult (2001), it is anti-bourgeois bohemianism rather Marxist anti-bourgeois class war that characterises the rebellious sensibilities of our age. Certainly the bohemian prejudices that permeate Russell Brand’s Revolution (2014) are to found everywhere in John Lennon’s songs, interviews and daily life – pacificism, internationalism, conspiracism, avant-gardism, exoticism, vegetarianism, Eastern mysticism, a preference for perennialism over monotheism and, well, long hair.

Lennon and Brand were both big time drug users. Brand had a full-blown heroin habit. Lennon downed Preludin in Hamburg, smoked marijuana non-stop after meeting Dylan in 1965, ingested LSD like candy during the Psychedelic Era and became “junk sick” with Yoko Ono. Although Lennon wrote the Plastic Ono Band’s harrowing “Cold Turkey” in 1969, he never swore off drugs. There was the 1971-72 heroin relapse, the alcohol/cocaine-fuelled 1973-4 Long Weekend and the hashish-enhanced 1975-80 hiatus. Russell Brand, in contrast, went cold turkey in 2003 (for heroin and alcohol) and has, admirably, been drug-free ever since.

The other difference between Lennon and Brand on the matter of drug addiction is cause. Both men came to see drug dependents as victims and yet there is a disparity in their respective rationalisations. When John blamed ‘The Man’ for shattering his psychic equilibrium, he meant his absent father, Alfred “Freddie” Lennon (1912-76). Brand’s dad, Ron, was also an absentee father but for Russell ‘The Man’ is not a person but a complete socio-economic system. Let us call it capitalism. Since Lennon did not blame society – or “the system” – for his childhood distress and subsequent reliance on drugs, ultimately a socialist revolution was superfluous to his needs. John and Yoko’s 1979 “Love letter to the people” says as much: “If you think of us next time, remember, our silence is a silence of love and not of indifference”. For Russell Brand, only when the phoenix of utopian communism rises from the ashes of Late Capitalism, when the workers take control of the means and production and free housing becomes available to all, will nobody need to be a junkie again. Brand’s Revolution begins with this improbable premise and works back from there.

A tension exists between anti-bourgeois bohemianism and utopian communism. Lennon’s acoustic version of his “Revolution” song on The Beatles’ White Album (1968) captures his confusion perfectly: “But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know you can count me out/in.” That “out/in” dichotomy challenged Lennon throughout the remainder of his politically active days, concluding with the commercial failure of the agitprop Some Time in New York City album (1972). Thereafter, the contradiction of John Lennon’s radicalism resolved itself in favour of New Age bohemianism and seclusion. Robert Rosen, in Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (2002), uses Lennon’s diaries to paint the portrait of a celebrity recluse using meditation and other esoteric techniques to arouse “the seventh centre of consciousness” in order to be “free of all ignorance and delusion”. Lennon had wanted to acquire the psychic powers of Jesus and all the other great mystics, though his final spiritual journey seems to have involved smoking a boundless stash of Buddha sticks rather than encountering his inner Buddha.

Russell Brand’s Revolution ignores the incongruity between the bohemian’s peace-love-and-understanding mantra and the slaughter-fest that accompanied every incarnation of Really Existing Communism in the twentieth century. Hindu wisdom about individual spiritual illumination is commandeered by Brand for his vision of apocalyptic millennialism. In the coming golden age of one thousand years of heaven on earth “the people” will automatically achieve a state of transcendental enlightenment – except, of course, the enemies of the people, or “former people” as the Bolsheviks termed them. Brand dismisses the 100 million plus “former people” murdered in twentieth-century Utopias with a wave: “A lot of other political struggles and social uprisings labelled ‘revolutions’ are in my mind unworthy of the term…”

A messianic complex haunted John Lennon until six months before a deranged gunman murdered him. On December 8, 1980, when Lennon was cut down outside the Dakota building, the wannabe Jesus could be described as a working musician, doting father and devoted husband whose eleven-year-old marriage was now back on track, also a history buff with a growing fascination for his long-abandoned home town of Liverpool. This unrivalled iconoclast and populariser of Baby Boomer fashions had developed a nostalgic affection for the past, epitomised by going to work (the recording studio) wearing the black tie with maroon and gold stripes of his alma mater, Quarry Bank School. Sadly, our would-be messiah was down from the cross and reacquainting himself with normal-day reality – or “bourgeois reality” as Russell Brand might label it – only to be crucified for not measuring up to his assassin’s expectations about how a messiah should live.

John Lennon’s journey from celebrity performer to delusional celebrity seer back to conventional celebrity performer was torturous and complex. Russell Brand’s re-engagement with reality will be that much harder because his messianic aspirations and concomitant paranoia are overtly political. Every elected politician, popular media outlet, democratic institution and private company forms an integral part of what he calls, in Revolution, the “golden matrix”. No surprise, then, that Brand remains “open minded” about American government complicity in the murder of 3,000 civilians on 9/11. Or that he compares the US government to Islamic terrorists. Or that he thinks a presenter on Fox News has the “same energy” as the killers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. Our comedian-campaigner’s interminable cynicism is matched only by his astounding naïveté.

As T.S. Eliot might say: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au