Overcoming Plastic Ono Band

For Morgan Enos (Other Houses), the 1970 album is "less a listening experience than a fact."

I think we can understand almost anything about the human experience through the lens of the Beatles, especially their personalities. At some point, we’ve all been refractory John, pragmatic Paul, enigmatic George, or amenable Ringo. For me, when it comes to the Big Questions, John and George fight for the controls. Some days, George takes the wheel: “There’s a grand, invisible context to the world! We’re here for a reason!” he crows. Then John wrestles it back and shoots him an icy glare: “Wrong, mate. We create our destinies.” In moments when John wins, I usually put on 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band — which I did a few hours before my wedding.

The day I married my wife, Brenna, in 2018, was the most significant of my life. Still, the months leading up to it were maximum-stressful. My dad’s death the previous year had catalyzed a chain of events that roll on today. Things are great with my family today, but back then, it was chaos. Usually, I can take a traumatic event and consider it like George, weaving it into an eternal timeline. But that day, his absence depressingly seemed to carry zero cosmic weight. Party favors and portable bathrooms took precedence. While alone upstairs in my in-laws’ centuries-old colonial house in Mystic, Connecticut, I decided to listen to John screaming for his absent parents. First, the decay of church bells. Then a cry for his mother, Julia, who had died in 1958 when he was only 17.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Plastic Ono Band; it doesn’t matter. That kind of statistic feels incalculable, irrelevant, like trying to recall how many times I’ve seen a stop sign. For me, it’s less a listening experience than a fact, like my blood type or my age. It’s the point where Lennon sloughed off all the Beatles trappings — the symphony orchestras, the Lewis Carroll gobbledygook, the backward-guitars — and laid on us the real McCoy, the genuine article. What he revealed came from not a coiffed rock & roller or a psychedelic sojourner, but the terrified little boy beneath both exoskeletons. Fifty years later, the truth Lennon told us on Plastic Ono Band still has the power to leave a lifelong imprint.

If one pictures Lennon’s body of work as a human body, Plastic Ono Band is like a broken bone whose trauma radiates to the others. Early Beatles songs like “Help!” and “I’m a Loser,” one a call for rescue and another a self-laceration, foreshadow its cry of agony; his final album, Double Fantasy, represents his deliverance. “I think a reason to love him was how fragile he was,” XTC’s Andy Partridge told me earlier this year for a Discogs article on Lennon. “You thought Ah, he’s this big, mean, nasty rocker in his leather jacket and his winklepicker shoes, cussing at and frightening everybody, but it was like he was play-acting. He was this little delicate child play-acting at being a tough man, and that made him more attractive.”

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band arrived to rub salt into the wound of the Beatles’ recent breakup. “The dream is over,” he sang at the end of “God,” not comprehending that his band would still dominate Spotify 50 years later. But when I listen to the album today, I don’t think of disappointed teenagers in the Woodstock era; I think of my father and my paternal aunt, Holly. Around the time of the album’s release, their mother had descended into schizophrenia and their father dipped out to start a new life with another woman. Holly could speak to this better than I could. Let me text her and read you the reply, with her permission:

Plastic Ono Band mirrored our angst and gave us an outlet, or at least made us feel that we weren’t alone. Someone understood and related. But going forward, because it was such a mirror, or perhaps a window, to our emotions, it fluctuates from being comforting to bringing up those emotions and having them sit there and feel so present and raw. I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not to still listen to it, but it’s almost like an addiction. I can’t put it away.”

My dad and aunt struggled with these traumas into adulthood. But the John Lennon reverence around my house — along with constant sardonic humor that could read as Lennonesque — made Plastic Ono Band almost a family religion, one that ran concurrently with the actual faith my parents subscribed to. Sometimes I think of it as a curse or a hereditary disease. After my dad died, I felt myself disappearing into his personality: being finicky and micromanaging, and turning everything into a joke, no matter how inappropriate. Not to mention feeling cynical and disparaging about the human race, which I don’t like to be. In 2020, “the freaks on the phone” from “I Found Out” are inescapable and legion. Next time a grifter — either on the left or right — attempts to separate you from your money, that song will do in a pinch. Lennon was magnificent at calling out BS when he saw it.

So that’s where I was at in my J. Crew suit, brooding to Plastic Ono Band in the guest bedroom. Until Brenna came upstairs, ordered me to turn off that depressing shit immediately, and put on something silly and full of love: the Waterboys’ “If the Answer is Yeah,” from their overlooked 2017 album Out of All This Blue. We had sung and danced to that song while I grieved for my dad — but also, as we got engaged and moved into the first apartment of our own, and continued life in the wake of familial destruction. Something ineffable happened at that moment; it lifted the spell.

Not that I won’t always adore Plastic Ono Band. But my relationship with it is different these days — More “Love” than “Isolation,” if you will. The other day, Brenna and I drove around singing along to “God” with alternate lyrics, reimagining the tune as a vehement renouncement of various condiments. “I don’t believe in yogurt!” we proclaimed. “I don’t believe in Sabra!”

Anyway, after Brenna and I parted ways, tied the knot, and strolled into the reception, I stepped up to the bandstand to sing a song I’d planned with the wedding band: “Hey Jude.” (Until then, they’d mostly played Lumineers covers, specifically against our wishes.) They launched into the tune about 50 beats-per-minute too fast and in a weird key. But I sang it. I leaned into it. I even did the “Cary Grant on heat” scream. Did I nail it? Who knows! But it felt transformative to do it. “That’s for Scott ‘Ono’ Enos,” I told the crowd — a mishmash of Brooklyn indie rockers and the straightlaced Jehovah’s Witnesses I grew up with — echoing my dad’s chosen middle name back in 1970. “My best friend.”

And it wasn’t until earlier today — more than two years later — that Brenna reminded me that Paul wrote “Hey Jude” for John’s son, Julian, after his parents’ divorce left him marooned. That sounds like the opposite of Plastic Ono Band to me — seeking healing rather than wallowing. We can get things done like they’ve never been done. And as we enter the home-stretch of a global spasm, in which billions of people are afraid to be alone and afraid of the sun, we can hold on.

Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in BillboardHuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.