John Lennon
Cover of John Lennon

The debate about rock lyrics and poetry has been going on for decades.  Ever since Bob Dylan hit the scene in the early ’60s and songs started to be about more than dance moves, teenage love, and holding hands.

The Beatles started to break out of that mold in late 1964 through 1966 with their principle songwriters — perhaps the greatest songwriting team ever — John Lennon and Paul McCartney branching out into new sounds and new concerns.

Lennon, who would have been 70 today, started writing more personal, introspective songs, clearly showing the influence of Bob Dylan. And McCartney wrote two of his most poetic songs in this period, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.”

While Lennon songs like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Nowhere Man,” “In My Life,” and “Norwegian Wood,” are often cited as revealing the more personal John, it is with “Help!” that I think John really puts himself on the line.

Recorded in April 1965, it was, according to some accounts, a throw-away; something John had to dash off after the film they were working on had been renamed.

But John himself revealed in 1980’s Playboy interview with David Sheff that “I was actually crying out for help.  Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n roll song.  I didn’t realize it at the time…but later, I knew I really was crying out for help.”

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down
And I do appreciate you being round.
Help me, get my feet back on the ground,
Won’t you please, please help me?

Despite its jaunty pop melody and speed, the song is really a plaintive poem that has a maturity beyond the author’s then 24 years.

“It was my fat Elvis period,” Lennon told Sheff.  He was “very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself.  And I am singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was.  Now I may be very positive… yes, yes… but I also go through deep depressions where I would like to jump out the window, you know.  It becomes easier to deal with as I get older; I don’t know whether you learn control or, when you grow up, you calm down a little.  Anyway, I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help.”

He was seemingly on top of the world, had everything he imagined he wanted from the group’s early days.  And yet, seeing himself from outside himself,  John the vulnerable man sees Beatle John and recognizes things are not all they seem.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways,
My independence seems to vanish in the haze.
But every now and then I feel so insecure,
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

Lennon told Jann Wenner in Rolling Stone in the 1970 Rolling Stone interviews, that it was among his favorites “Because I meant it — it’s real.  The lyric is as good now as it was then.  It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then.  It was just me singing “Help” and I meant it.  I don’t like the recording that much; we did it too fast trying to be commercial.”

The music is a mask of sorts, then, and perhaps John wasn’t quite that comfortable showing how insecure he was at the top of the pop world.  But isn’t that what makes songs like “Tears of a Clown,” and Lennon’s own “I’m a Loser” so great?

Songs like “Help” reveal a vulnerability we all feel, but help us get past it through the sheer joy of the music and recognition that we’re not alone.

And really, I think that’s the mark of true genius, whether as a poet, musician, or pop star.

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