I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off.
I reply, "The Beatles did."
Lennon / Johnson
John Lennon appeared in Riley Johnson's living room one afternoon in late spring while Riley was reading an article in Utne Reader about slowing down one's life. Riley looked up because he felt a slight breeze as if a page had brushed his cheek. And standing there, as solid as Pluto's scepter, was the dead Beatle with the shoulder length hair and granny glasses. The man who had said, "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream." The man who had said, "Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna, man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe."
Riley Johnson screamed like a girl.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," John Lennon said, putting his hands over his ears.
Hearing that renowned Liverpudlian accent Riley screamed again.
"Fucking hell, man, stop that screeching," Lennon said.
Riley backed up, lifting his legs off the floor, squatting in his chair as if John Lennon were a ghoul come to absquatulate with his soul. Even though he was dressed in his famous white suit. Even though he famously said, "Give peace a chance."
Still it didn't make sense that a dead man, Beatle or not, was standing in Riley Johnson's living room. It didn't make the kind of sense Riley was used to.
When he had gathered enough attention together to speak, Riley licked his lips and said, "What - what are you doing here?'
John Lennon looked around to make sure he knew where here was. He seemed especially taken with the bookshelves on every wall, crammed full, willy-nilly, with the works of the great, the near-great and the mediocre.
"I've been sent here," he said, finally.
"By whom?" Riley asked, of course.
"Well, I'm not at liberty to say, man. A higher power, yes?"
"G-god?' Riley asked, his head full of Hollywood images of Heaven.
"God is a concept " John Lennon began.
Riley held up a hand. He was trying to wrestle back some control of the situation. But what was the situation? What precedent was there for having a dead Beatle in your living room?
"I know," he said.
"Right-o," Lennon answered, as chipper as a 1964 version of himself.
"Why are you dressed in white, in, um, your, what? Imagine-era look?" Riley said, warming to colloquy.
"It's your favorite period, isn't it?"
Riley didn't want to admit that he was so easy, that he could be read like a chart on a hospital bed.
"I guess so," he said. "You and Yoko and the white piano and the bed-in and all that. Yeah, I guess so."
"All right then."
"So, what do we do now? Are you here for my soul?"
"Bloody hell, brother. What do I know about souls?"
"You don't talk like an angel?"
John Lennon squinted, his handsome face hawk-like in contemplation.
"I'm no angel," he said.
Riley was trying to think if he had prayed or sought intercession recently, if he had wished for anything he didn't have. Was the angelical Beatle a messenger from God? Even if he protested loudly that he was not?
"Hell, man, you remind me of George. Always with the spiritual."
"Right. He's fine, by the way. I know you were saddened by his passing."
"I was," Riley said, a bit too enthusiastically.
"George always wanted the Big Answer. And now he has it."
"Right, I'm not at liberty, etc."
A quiet descended on the two men. Riley relaxed in his Lazy-boy. His slippered feet re-met the hardwood floor. Lennon moved to the couch, sat down, crossed his legs and lit up a fag. Riley started to say he didn't allow smoking in his house but, naturally, he was honored to have a Beatle with him and kept his peace.
Peace, that's what he's about, Riley thought. He's here because there is no peace in me, right enough. Have I wished recently for peace in myself? He honestly couldn't remember.
"Are you going to visit Yoko while you're here?" Riley asked, trying to appear breezy, chummy.
"Yoko and I don't need these kinds of visits, friend," John Lennon said, with just a slight edge to his voice. Riley remembered Lennon's laser wit and was a bit cowed.
"Of course, of course," he muttered.
"Ok, we can get to work," Lennon said, suddenly, standing up and dropping his cigarette butt to the floor and grinding it out. Riley shuddered for his beloved hardwood floor.
"What work?" he managed.
"Our work," Lennon said.
Lennon circumnavigated the room, hands behind his back.
"You got a lot of books," he said, over his shoulder.
"Yes," Riley said.
"You read all these?"
"That's what everyone asks," Riley said, smiling.
Lennon paused, fixed Riley over his granny glasses. He returned his gaze to the shelves.
"Naked Lunch," John Lennon said.
"Yes, well "
"Cut and paste, indeed. An excuse not to organize your thoughts, eh?"
"You're a lit-crit," Riley fairly crowed, as if he'd jumped his empyrean visitor.
"You get a lot more time to read in He - " Lennon lurched.
"Ah, there is a Heaven!" Riley's voice was rising.
John Lennon grinned that famous mischievous grin, the one he used before the Queen, and the cops.
"Or hell," he said.
Riley Johnson's face dropped. He wasn't about to spar verbally with the notoriously caustic ex-Beatle. He wanted John Lennon to like him.
"So, the work?" Riley asked, trying to appear both chirpy and ready for anything.
"Right," John Lennon said, pulling his attention away from the wall of books. "Irving Welsh," he muttered.
"Pardon me?" Riley asked.
"Nothing, nothing, mate. Here's the deal. You need an outlet."
"I'm not following," Riley said, his mouth a moue.
"Recently, you said aloud to one of your cronies - an S. Deusner, I believe - that if you had a "thing" you would be a better person. It was taken to mean that you wished for some sort of artistic outlet. Right or wrong?'
Riley was astonished, of course. Who knew that your every conversation, your every whim, dream, statement, volitive phrase was noticed, recorded, and, what was perhaps most astonishing of all, acted upon?
"S-so, what are you here to do?'
"Christ, mate, I'm here to help you develop your artistic side. I thought that would be obvious."
"Why you? I mean, I'm so honored, and "
"You asked for me."
"I asked for you."
"By my pure admiration for your many talents."
"Now you're getting it. Just so."
"And you're going to help me, what?, write a song?"
"If you'd like to start there."
Riley Johnson and John Lennon sat down together at Riley's kitchen table. Riley didn't have a desk or workspace because he'd never needed one. Riley Johnson worked for FedBank as a compliance analyst. He didn't have a thing he did, an outlet. But, now, the handsome, though expired Beatle, leaned his head in close to Riley's the way he must have done with the still very much alive Paul McCartney, back in the day. Riley had butterflies in his stomach.
"I'd suggest that I write some lyrics first and maybe you can help with the musical part but "
"What?" John Lennon said, close enough to Riley that he could smell spearmint on his breath.
"Well, you're such a great lyricist."
"This isn't about me."
"Oh. Right. Ok."
Riley began to write a line or two. He was inexperienced and had no idea where he was going, but he had listened to a lot of music, so, well, he had some inkling how songs were, what? Structured?
This is what he started with:
I'm a little charged particle
Riding on a wave
I'm a little left of center
Heading for the grave
I'm the least likely person
Ever to love you
I'm ahead of most predictions
But I'm a little blue
"Good," John Lennon said, after these two verses. He had added the "little left of center" line, but otherwise, Riley was rolling.
"It's a bit like George, isn't it," John Lennon said. Was this praise? Riley thought. He was confused - he couldn't remember whether Lennon and Harrison got along. But, things were bubbling in Riley's head: surely it was the proximity of a Beatle.
I'm the one you forgot quickly
Forgot first, completely too
I will live a life delinquent
I will torment you
If some day you hear my name said
On the radio TV
Remember that I prayed for us once
And prayed you would stop me.
Riley sat back. He was flummoxed how this had come about. He was no writer - what bit of legerdemain had precipitated this act of creation?
John Lennon was quiet, his studious face studying.
"Hm. This is actually quite good." he said, finally.
"Really?" Riley Johnson said. He felt like a schoolboy - but, really, who wouldn't in the presence of a Beatle, exanimate or not?
"It has a sort of sinister undertone, eh? We need a middle-8," Lennon said.
Riley Johnson kept mum. He had no idea what a middle-8 was. It sounded like something for your car.
"You know, when I wrote "Cold Turkey," I thought it was a song about pain. Well, fucking hell, it is, it is. But, pain like in a scream that lets the pressure off, you know? Like bleeding someone. I don't know. You get that here, don't you?"
John Lennon wanted to discuss writing with him. Riley Johnson was grinning like a dope. He just sat there grinning like a dope, while the smoke from a Beatle's cig circled the room like a halo and the day outside turned nickel-coloured and the singing of the birds sounded "tit, tit, tit," and the mailbox was stuffed with magic potions and everywhere, from every corner, neighbors de-housed and smiled to each other, even as they gathered the news today, oh boy. Riley Johnson saw it all and saw that it was good. But, nothing was as good, no, nothing in the known universe was as good as the song he and John Lennon were writing at his very own kitchen table. The world, for now, was Riley's and Riley was the world's.
Jai Guru Deva om.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Corey Mesler. All rights reserved.