Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Greatest

The John Lennon Museum
Saitama, Japan 

As an artist and rebel John Lennon has exerted a huge influence on my life. So there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to visit the museum devoted to his life and work which is rather curiously located in Saitama near Tokyo.

The exhibition’s introductory film offers a rather perfunctory overview of Lennon’s life and work which is aimed at the casual observer rather than the devotee. It's followed by displays which divide Lennon’s life into anodyne though not unworkable categories such as “Childhood Memories," "Love and Peace" and "Household Husband".

Dyed in the wool Lennon fans will learn little that's new about their hero from this predictable assortment of costumes, films, song lyrics and other memorabilia. But it's cool just to see this stuff and realize how legends are not only born but magnified.

The displays do provide some fascinating glimpses into the star's early life through school reports  and exercise books,  including the original ‘Daily Howl’ comic he drew as a schoolboy containing a priceless weather report: "Tomorrow will be Muggy, followed by Tuggy, Wuggy and Thuggy." It provides early evidence not only of Lennon's acute visual sense but also his affinity for the distinctly anarchic style of post-war British humor which became a defining feature of The Beatles' collective persona.

I was delighted to have the chance to see Lennon’s first guitar, a battered Gallotone Champion acoustic, doubtless one of those, in Paul McCartney’s words, “guaranteed not to crack.”

Rickenbacker guitars were a key ingredient of The Beatles’ early sound and Lennon’s first  'Rick' - surprisingly small in scale - is also on display. I became quite giddy when I started to imagine how many pop classics must have been forged on this instrument.

Other highlights include the ancient two-track desk used for The Beatles' final mixes at Abbey Road Studios, and all-too-brief video interviews with Arthur "Primal Scream" Janov and Lennon-Ono insider Elliot Mintz. And who knew Brian Epstein once presented Lennon with a motorcycle?  I didn't.

Though I'm very much a Yoko Ono fan, her presence determines the overall tone here, for instance in the pointless mock-up of the Indica Yes installation which marked the beginning of Lennon's infatuation with his Japanese earth mother.

Having said that, her influence on Lennon has if anything been understated, for instance in the minimalist style of the "War is Over' campaign, the white pianos and clothing which briefly became the couple's trade mark, Lennon's feminist awakening and the conceptual underpinnings of Imagine.

The John Lennon Museum’s ten-year lease expires on September 30th 2010. The collection could easily be expanded - since it's far from exhaustive - and should be moved to a more sensible location such as New York or even better Liverpool, the place where the legend of Britain’s greatest rocker began.