Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Gimme Some Truth – John Lennon

Gimme Some Truth

Performed and written by John Lennon. You can listen to the song here (you have to get past the opening sounds). You can buy the song on iTunes here or the album, here. You can listen to a brief, softer acoustic outtake here. You can find the lyrics here.

I took a long drive with my eldest son, Patrick, a few weeks ago and along the way, we found ourselves listening to this song and some other of what I call John Lennon’s primal scream music. The raw, angry sound caught Paddy off-guard cause he knew the Beatles music – even at age 20 with a preference for hip-hop, one can’t avoid the Beatles – but he did not know John Lennon’s solo work.

The song and others – “Working Class Hero,” “God,” “I Found Out” – certainly demand that you pay attention. Paddy laughed when I told him about Richard Nixon putting John Lennon on his Enemies List, serious stuff that seems beyond buffoonish now. Lennon crams so many words into his lines and spits them out with a venom that continues to strike a chord. While arising from a specific time and place, the conviction and sentiments remain strong enough that Vin Scelsa took to playing “Gimme Some Truth” on every show during the “Imperial Presidency” as he called George W.’s term. Folks like Travis, Sam Phillips and Pearl Jam have made more recent covers in their effort to respond to the kaleidoscope of world events.

In a funny way, the song shares some unlikely sentiments with so many Tea Baggers who vent their anger at today’s version of “uptight-short sighted- narrow minded hypocritics” and “neurotic-psychotic-pig headed politicians.” Of course, no self-respecting Tea Bagger would align him or herself with a long, haired freak like John Lennon calling Richard Nixon “tricky dick.”

Released on the Imagine album in 1971, the song had its origins back in 1969 while the Beatles recorded what became their Let it Be album. I first came across the song in the summer of 1973, summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, a time when I was ripe for change and a few musical bolts by John Lennon and Bob Dylan did the trick. Picture those reenactments of Earth’s primordial goo that lightening strikes and brings forth the first forms of life.  

In my summer of discovery, Lennon’s rant played out against the background of the end of the Viet Nam war, the beginnings of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a boom business in nuclear testing and most of all, Richard Nixon’s Watergate. Protests and riots had become commonplace, except in my household where my mother still gaped over “the way they wear their hair” and how my aunt told her it was outside trouble makers causing all the problems on the college campuses. Ours was a staunchly conservative, Catholic patriarchal home headed by a WWII vet working for a defense contractor. I loved my father, but he had no patience for dissensions or challenges to the right path. Home was not bad – it just didn’t seem to fit with the way the world appeared to me.

While my Dad conveyed no doubts about anything, I was full of doubts, this growing if inchoate sense that things were very wrong. I had just completed my first year of at an all-boy Catholic high school where I had first begin to truly read and had in introduction to the world of ideas. Don’t think of today’s all too-often reactionary Catholic high schools, but instead to a school built on intellectual and social activism. Teachers took the poems and stories we read as if they mattered and celebrated mystery and exploration, not certitude and conformity. Apart from the inevitable pettiness of high school, my first year experience sent me into the summer months with a head full of ideas and even more questions. (Dan Barry’s memoir, Pull Me Up, captures that St. Anthony’s with humor, insight and poignancy.)

The high school was fifteen miles from my home and I entered the summer feeling cut off from my public school friends and too far away from my new high school friends who were dispersed all across Long Island. Out of sorts, angry, sad, and bored, I  felt lost in the dissonance of what I saw and felt and what too many people (the church, the news, my parents, etc.) were telling me I had to believe.  The eldest of four children in a family where the only music played were Christmas songs and a few show tunes and reading, while common, was limited to mysteries and the occasional biography (Patton was a favorite), I had no guides, no paths to follow. My record collection to date consisted of Glen Campbell and Tom Jones’ albums – because I heard them on TV – a Beatles collection and a stack of 45s with songs like “Sugar, Sugar” and “Hitchin’ a Ride.” I had not read a serious novel outside of school and too often went through the motions when forced to read in school. Yet that summer, I began to notice different songs on the radio, songs like “Imagine” and one new to me, “Like a Rolling Stone.”

I rode my bicycle to the Korvettes near the Whitman Mall – they had the cheapest record prices – and wandered the aisles. To call me clueless would have been generous as I tried to figure out the right albums on which to spend my hard-earned money. I walked away with Lennon’s Imagine and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding.

I had never heard music like those songs. What jumped out from Lennon was not the dreamy “Imagine,” but the angry, “How Do You Sleep?” and “Gimme Some Truth.” Where I had no role model, where I had no way to make sense of what seemed to fall apart before my eyes, these songs helped me see. I’d hole up in my room, play this song as loud as I could (when my parents were out) and scream along. I was sick and tired of the crap the educational conveyor belt fed me, “all I want is the truth/just give me some truth.” So many years on, it’s hard to go back to a mind that couldn’t imagine getting that angry about politics, that couldn’t conceive of calling the President a liar, to say nothing of getting away with it. I knew in my bones what Lennon meant about “mother hubbard soft soap.” The guitars (George Harrison) and Lennon’s voice had me convinced and the sentiments were perfect for my 15-year-old mind.

I stayed up till the dawn playing those two records over and over, trying to make sense of what this suddenly new world. When my mother woke me around noon, I rode over to the mall to the tiny paperback bookstore to find what I could about John Lennon and Bob Dylan. I grabbed the only biography I could find – Anthony’s Scaduto’s take on Bob Dylan – and stayed up all night reading, the first time I ever read a book in one sitting. I’m sure my parents didn’t know what to make of it when I started reading the Times to find out what lies Nixon told came out that day and argued about how screwed up everything was.

I retreated to my room and listened some more. I felt connected to John Lennon, as if he understood and found the words to express what I was thinking. Lennon’s song fueled me and Dylan provided a way out. He hung with Allan Ginsberg so I rode my bike to the library to read Allen Ginsberg. Not knowing where to start, I opened the first book of his that I found and read his graphic erotic homosexual love poems (“fuck my rosy asshole”); I nearly fell down. What world was this? Who were these people? I pored over Ginsberg’s long rants in The Fall of America:

Vietnam War flesh-heap grows higher,
            blood splashing down the mountains of bodies on to Cholon’s sidewalks

I worked some odd jobs to buy Highway 61 Revisited and Plastic Ono Band. Dylan mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I read Great Gatsby and started my own notebook that would remake me. I tried to make sense of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; a short exercise, though Siddhartha perfectly matched my state. I found a book of poetry that printed “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and discovered Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind.” I soon found Kerouac and dreamed of what became a reality in the cross-country hitchhiking trips I would take a few years later.

At night, I heard the drum crack at the beginning of “Like a Rolling Stone “ hundreds of times and replayed “Desolation Row” until I could write out the lyrics and explain them, though at another level, I understood that song the first time I put on the headphones.  I took out pen and paper and write down what was going on in my head and my chest, my first failed attempts at poetry. I was too ignorant to know how badly I wrote, so I wrote some more. I tried to capture the frenzy that Lennon revealed in lines like “tight lipped condescending mommies’ little chauvinists.”

I spent the summer alone, shuttling between my room and the library, following Dylan and Lennon wherever they led. I don’t think I had more than five conversations with anyone outside my family as I curled deeper inside my head accompanied by the songs and words I’d learned that day. I grew angry; I felt lonely; I felt empowered.

On a few days, I woke early, snuck over to the train station, rode LIRR to the City and wandered around watching , standing outside bars – Kettle of Fish – and music places – Folk City – as if I might see Dylan. I spotted Dave Van Ronk walking down MacDougal and didn’t know if I should run up to him or hide. I crossed the street and stared and made it home for dinner so my I didn’t get in trouble.

A few years later, in yet another fight with my Dad, he shouted that he never should have let that dirt I called music into the house, that it had wrecked my mind. He was right, of course, not that there was anything either of us could have done. Listening to Dylan and John Lennon that summer had changed everything, I suppose it’s possible I could have picked up a Beach Boys or Pink Floyd album that day and perhaps would have wondered down a different path, but our history all feels so inevitable.

My life has been filled with music, reading and writing since that summer. I was not happy go-lucky then or now and cannot say that reading Ginsberg or listening to Dylan is good for you.  Solomon may have had it right:

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
       the more knowledge, the more grief

We can’t stand still and we can’t remain ignorant. A door opens, we have to enter, explore, and see where it leads. In the summer of 1973, John Lennon and Bob Dylan opened many doors and I was foolhardy enough to follow. The arrogance and optimism reserved for teenagers made me believe that I could demand:

all i want is the truth
just give me some truth

 _ _ _ _ _ _

Gimme Some Truth is the name of a documentary about the making of the Imagine album. You can find it on YouTube. Click here for Part One.

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3 Responses to “Gimme Some Truth – John Lennon”

  1. Very nice. I remember listening to those Lennon records in your room the first time I slept over there.

    I’m working on some stuff for you, believe it or not; just having a few kinks figuring out how everything works.


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