What is John Lennon's best song?

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Answered by: Dylan, An Expert in the Famous and Important People Category
Let’s Talk About John Lennon’s “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)"

Here’s the thing: I think it might be John Lennon's best song. I know what many of you are thinking, that Lennon’s best work must have been written with the Beatles, maybe “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “In My Life.” Or perhaps that some of his more famous post-Beatles work should take the top spot: “Imagine” is a strong contender, as is “Mother.”

Personally, I’ve always thought that much of Lennon’s work with the Beatles was too tinged with hippie nihilism or self-indulgence. There are certainly many, many incredible songs, but the picture that we get of Lennon during that period is of someone who is very frustrated with the world. He was clearly quite tired of working with Paul by the end, when he was just coming into his full powers as a songwriter. Many of the shortcomings in his work in this period were covered up by George Martin’s admittedly brilliant production. Think of the silliness and laziness of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” which is turned into a brilliantly surreal circus dirge by Martin’s choices.

In regards to his post-Beatles work, I think a lot of it was really brilliant, and it’s a tragedy that the world was deprived of a man who had so much more music to make. However, I think, like McCartney, much of Lennon’s work immediately post-Beatles is undercut by the almost audible gasp of relief that he’s no longer in the Beatles anymore. Once he’s over that, he almost immediately returns to the preachy piece mongering which was perhaps important culturally, but not musically. “Imagine” is pretty and has a nice sentiment, but that’s about it.

Thus, to find the true Lennon, we must examine his so-called “lost weekend”: the eighteen month period when he was separated from Ono and living in Los Angeles. A strong contender from this era is Lennon’s “Mother,” but I’ve always found that song to be too laced with the primal scream therapy which Lennon and Ono had been undergoing just prior. His catharsis is extremely compelling, but the Lennon singing the song is not the Lennon who he was at the time. It is the child Lennon, dealing with a child’s trauma.

I think what ultimately keeps me from loving any other song quite as much is that Lennon was an asshole. I mean this in the kindest way: he was the asshole you love. That’s what made him so charming in the early days, that he was this smug kid from Liverpool who had decided he was going to be great, and goddamn if he wasn’t great. Watch any early Beatles interview. They’re all cracking wise, making jokes, messing with the interviewer, but John’s jokes are always just a little bit meaner than the other three. He always gets an extra jab in. It was magnificent.

Later in his career with the Beatles, his meanness became less fun. It morphed into self-pity on certain songs, like “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s. He was taking a lot of acid and spending a lot of time inside his own head. He was taking himself much more seriously, dangerous for a person with asshole tendencies.

During his separation from Yoko Ono, Lennon spent a lot of time with Harry Nilsson, and it shows in “Nobody Loves You.” He adopts Nilsson’s direct emotional tone and rich production style. The song opens with a lonely guitar and Lennon’s voice soon joins, sounding like a drunk at the end of the night, abandoned by friends in an alley. As the speaker of the song works himself into a bitter catharsis, the voice is joined by orchestral strings and horns. The language is informed by his LA setting: “And still you ask me, do I love you, what it is, what it is / All I can tell you is, it’s all show biz…”

The Lennon singing this song is a deeply bitter, almost angry man, frustrated by the world and reaching the end of his rope. This is the Lennon who has reached the end of his ability to deal with people with his current attitude; he can no longer get by on charm and feels betrayed that the thing that has always worked before, suddenly doesn’t. The electric guitar solo, supplied by the incomparable Jesse Ed Davis, sounds like sobs, or wailing, or police or ambulance sirens. It’s all very melodramatic, really, and the beauty is that Lennon is unaware of this. He is unselfconsciously feeling something real in the form of a song, for maybe the first time in his life. This is not Lennon the craftsman, Lennon the performer, Lennon the child. This is John Lennon's best song, without a doubt.

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