Friday, December 16, 2011

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”

In December 1969, a series of billboards went up in a dozen cities around the world, each with a message in the country’s native language. They read: “WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.”

In his famous extended Rolling Stone interview the following December, John Lennon was asked about the response to this peace campaign.

We got a big response. The people that got in touch with us understood what a grand event it was apart from the message itself. We got just thank yous from lots of youths around the world – for all the things we were doing – that inspired them to do something. We had a lot of response from other than pop fans, which was interesting, from all walks of life and age. If I walk down the street now I’m more liable to get talked to about peace than anything I’ve done. The first thing that happened in New York was just walking down the street and a woman just came to me and said, “Good luck with the peace thing.” That’s what goes on mainly – it’s not about “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And that was interesting – it bridged a lot of gaps.

In December of 1971, John Lennon took this message and turned it into its most durable legacy: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Lennon and Ono came to New York to record the song the previous October, enlisting the help of legendary producer Phil Spector, who contributed his signature echo, and the children of the Harlem Community Choir, who brought the famous “War is over” refrain to life. Although the song was initially not much of a hit – it failed to chart in the US and wasn’t released in the UK until the following November – it grew to become a modern Christmas classic.

Much has been written about “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” its impact, its influence, and its message, but one thing has always struck me about it that I’ve never read anywhere else: Its melody sounds to me like it was lifted from Johnny Ace’s 1954 posthumous R&B hit, “Pledging My Love.”

Although now largely forgotten, Johnny Ace was an influential rhythm and blues singer and songwriter from the early 1950s. When he is mentioned today, it’s usually in reference to his death – he shot himself in the head at the age of twenty-five while backstage at a show in Huston, Texas, on Christmas. The legend had always been that Ace died while playing Russian roulette, but firsthand sources have since contradicted this claim. Always known to fool around with guns, Ace was showing off with one as a girl in his lap, jokingly pointing the gun over here, over there, at the girl, at himself. When people told him to stop he said there was nothing to worry about – the gun was empty, he could prove it by pointing it at his own head and pulling the trigger. He was wrong.

The outpouring of grief that followed was unprecedented for a rhythm and blues singer and became the archetypal rock and roll death, complete with a massive funeral and numerous tribute records. “Pledging My Love” had been released a few weeks before his death but didn’t make an impact until after he died. The song went to number one on the R&B charts in early 1955, stayed there for ten weeks, and even crossed over to the Top 20 pop charts – one of the first rhythm and blues records to do so.

The song became a rock and roll standard, covered by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, and most eerily, as the B-side of Elvis Presley’s final single, “Way Down,” which was released before Elvis’s death but didn’t become a big hit until after he died. Sometimes “Pledging My Love” would be altered slightly, and sometimes its title would be amended or substituted with the song’s irresistible opening phrase, “Forever My Darling,” but even as the song faded into the rock and roll ether, the legend lived on.

The most familiar tribute to most modern listeners is Paul Simon’s “The Late, Great Johnny Ace,” the closing song on his 1983 album Hearts and Bones. In it, Simon uses Johnny Ace’s death to frame a song about the death of John Lennon. He sings about the night he learned John Lennon died, from a stranger on the street; the singer and the stranger go inside a bar and stay until it closes. “And every song we played,” the singer concludes, “was for the late, great Johnny Ace.”

Now, I have never been able to find a concrete connection between John Lennon and Johnny Ace outside of this Paul Simon song that neither lived to hear. But I have to believe that John Lennon knew who Ace was and was familiar with the song “Pledging My Love,” given his vast knowledge about early rock and roll and rhythm and blues from the mid-’50s. Pieces of early rock songs appear like phantoms in a number of his songs – the “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man” line in “Run for Your Life,” taken from Elvis’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” (one of the rock and roll songs Lennon performed live on the day he met Paul McCartney); the “Here come old flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” line in “Come Together,” adapted from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” (Berry was able to successfully sue for copyright infringement) – they are the vocabulary from which he wrote his own music.

I believe that “Pledging My Love,” which was a much bigger hit than either “Baby, Let’s Play House” or “You Can’t Catch Me,” had lodged itself into the recesses of Lennon’s memory such that when he needed a melody for a phrase that he had been using for the past few years, this one presented itself subconsciously. What makes it so unique is that while Lennon would often cop lyrics from old rock songs, it’s rare to have him swipe a melody. Was Johnny Ace’s power such that it went beyond the conscious place of lyrics and into the more ethereal realm of melody? Is it possible that, in sitting down to write a melody for his Christmas song, John Lennon subconsciously connected Johnny Ace’s accidental shotgun suicide on Christmas to the melody of his signature hit that followed? Is this all mere coincidence? Or is it another chapter in the long afterlife of the late, great Johnny Ace?

So here we are at the other end of history – at the other end of the gun that shot Johnny Ace on Christmas 1954; at the other end of the gun that shot John Lennon seventeen days before Christmas 1980, which in turn caused a reissued “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” to peak at number two on the UK charts; even at the other end of the gun that “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” producer Phil Spector, who was born a day after Christmas 1940, used to shoot and kill actress Lana Clarkson – and, at long last, at the other end of all of the guns fired by and at American soldiers in the Iraq War.

President Obama stood onstage at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and welcomed home the troops in a grand gesture signaling the end of the Iraq War. It was a simple image that grew more complicated the more one thought about it. Everyone knows that the Iraq War was the signature issue that got Obama elected to the US Senate, which in turn propelled his presidential election, but now he stands on the other side as the President of the United States coming into an election season. He was praising a war he had previously opposed, finding pride and joy in a circumstance that he had previously found futile. Perhaps this was what any president would do in his position – find a pragmatic ending to an unpopular war. Thousands have been shot and killed and it is part of his job to ensure “that these dead shall not have died in vain,” as Abraham Lincoln once said, two years before he was shot.

But as I read the newspaper article about Obama’s speech a few days ago, and considered how his words were a strange tangle of words and performance, spoken and unspoken, symbolic and real, five words came to the forefront of my mind and provided the perfect caption to the article’s link as I posted it on my Facebook page.

They read: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”

These words made me wonder what John Lennon would have thought about all of this had he not been shot. Maybe he too would think of his “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” song title, and allow the song to seep deeper into his conscious than he usually reserved for a song he had written and recorded so many years before. It would play in his mind as he contemplated war and peace, the living and the dead, the pen and the sword, the ballot and the bullet.

And then it would hit him, like a bullet, hiding in plain sight as it remained unrealized for decades: “Hey, did I get that tune from that old rhythm and blues song that began, ‘Forever my darling’…?”

And that wouldn’t just be interesting – it would bridge a lot of gaps.

1 comment:

  1. I always wondered if this had some influence on the "If you want it' notion of "War Is Over" or if perhaps they arose from the same piece of "street theater" that Ochs refers to: