by Michaella Kinloch, Urban Bioethics Master’s Candidate, 2022
At the start of 1970 I was 18 years old, though much less mature than I might have been, certainly less so than most were at that age, and unusually dour, serious, and socially rather badly adjusted. In a term of those times, I was a bringdown. And I was what might be called now a nerd: my head always in books, always thinking, thinking, thinking, about everything, worthy and correct or not. In those days, in that place, we were called “browners.” I think the scatological origin of the term is obvious, and it says what you need to know about how we were expected to be seen by our contemporaries. Oddly though, it did not bother me. Perhaps I was starting to turn myself away from trying to meet other people’s expectations of me. It certainly did nothing to change my behaviour.
I was also completely fascinated by the Beatles, and all things Beatle-y then, and still now. At least in that I was not so unusual, but my approach to them, oh so very serious, was probably out of the ordinary, though certainly not unique. It may, however, have been just what the Beatles themselves hoped for, people listening to their new work as serious, deserving of thought, and so I was vulnerable to any message I might glean, or interpret from their work. I had come to them late, having dismissed their early work as not worth serious consideration. But as they progressed, from “Help!” — the first of their albums I listened to intensely — I was desperately trying to discern meanings that were most likely not there and could only be inferred at great risk to sense.
By 1970 I could not hear the work of any of the four as anything less than essential elements in my personal growth and understanding of the world. John Lennon was then starting to move away from The Beatles, to begin his all-too-short career as a solo-artist, and one of his first single releases, on 45-rpm vinyl, was “Instant Karma,” in February of that year. It was not the massive hit that any of the Beatles releases had been, but it did sell and was heard on radio a lot, more so in my home of Canada than anywhere else, oddly. I don’t remember my hearing it for the first time, but I knew immediately I had to have it.
Lennon certainly knew how to create a record that grabbed you from the start and compelled you to hear it again and again. Somehow it felt like I had always known this song, that it was, had to be, part of my world. I would learn later, to some surprise, that the song’s chords were nothing more, or less, than a slight variation of the “oldies progression” (I-vi-IV-V or sometimes I-vi-IV-V7, for those of you musically inclined,) ubiquitous in pop music from the 1940s and into the 2010s. Those chords, heard in literally thousands of songs, have the ability to work magic on many of us. Does their power derive from familiarity, or is their familiarity the result of song-writers being completely aware of their power? Certainly John Lennon would have known just how strongly they could grab our souls. In other hands a song with such a common sound could have been bland, ordinary, a mere pop confection.
Ah, but the lyric, the performance, and the production of “Instant Karma” were like nothing I, and perhaps anyone, had heard before in pop music, and, perhaps, anywhere else. Lennon does not so much sing as howl with life or death urgency; the drums, recorded at high volume as a lead instrument, hammered the ears, sometimes faster than the song allowed, in time-compressed off-tempo breaks; the vocal chorus and other instruments sounded like chants and storm winds from another world. I felt assaulted by the sound, yet also, somehow, lifted by its immense energy. What was this impressionable 18 year old hearing?
The lyrics were, as we used to say, heavy:
Instant Karma’s gonna get you, gonna knock you right on your head
Better get yourself together, pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.
John Lennon was speaking directly to me. I know you are hurting in this world. It’s bad, and maybe only to get worse, or maybe not. No, I can’t say I quite understood what this ‘instant karma’ might be. ‘Karma’ I knew, or thought I knew, to be, in some vague sense, a retribution for what one might have done is this world, for good or bad, though I never bought into any mystic aspects of it. Still, there was the idea of being responsible for one’s actions and their consequences. There was an overall sense of what life as an adult needed to be, and a sense that death was the ultimate consequence, almost a punishment, for living.
I was hearing too, if only briefly, what I needed to do to live properly:
Better get yourself together, join the human race
Better recognize your brothers, everyone you meet
Why on earth are you there? When you’re everywhere, gonna get your share.
and most importantly:
What on earth are you trying to do?
It’s up to you, yeah you.
It was roughly formed, it was not any sort of complex explication of what I now might see as principles of solidarity and social justice, and at times it was hard to grasp what was meant, but it hit me, and hard. Whatever message I heard, correctly or not, became more complicated, and, I think, all the more powerful, because of what I misheard. Printed on the green Apple label were the words “PLAY LOUD.” This I tried to do. Oh yes, it made a difference. Somehow the recording’s power was amplified, made all the more essential to my tenuous grasp on the world. I tried to play it loud, though it was merely the best my poor record player, with poor tracking, likely a very worn needle, from the increasingly worn grooves of the 45, and certainly those detachable, tiny, weak speakers, could manage. Through the chaotic fury I heard Lennon howl these words:
“Why on earth are we here?
You’re old enough to live in pain and fear.”
Those words, set in that sonic barrage, heard with such power behind them, stayed with me for many, many years. More than anything else, this was the message of the song; it seemed to make sense to me. Life will be pain and fear. And, for all those years, it was. I do not blame Lennon for that. I was obviously primed for it, and so I barely heard, grasped the positive parts of his message in the song. He was simply telling me what is.
That December would come Lennon’s solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” a record drenched in pain and fear, possibly the most anguished work ever commercially released by a major “pop” artist. I remember leaving my parents the afternoon of December 25 to stay instead in my off-campus co-operative student residence, alone. There I listened repeatedly to the album., and I became more and more introspective, more and more gloomy. It amplified and solidified what “Instant Karma” had first put musically in place in my being. Life would be pain and fear. Though it was unsaid by Lennon, I drew the conclusion that death might be release from those. The artist can only produce the art with whatever intention they might have. Those who observe the art create within themselves its meaning for themselves, rightly or wrongly.
Death is heard much in Lennon’s work. He could not have imagined the specifics of his terrible murder — an event that I still have trouble believing in my soul really did happen — but death was clearly much on his mind. It was, however, “Instant Karma” that spoke to me, from which I took so much about my view of death. It will happen, and maybe it is not so bad, for maybe it will release you from the pain and fear of life.
The mishearing? About 30 years later I first properly heard “Instant Karma” from a good recording, on a decent quality system, through fine headphones. What I had heard was not what Lennon sang. He had said:
Why on earth are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear.
I think I had heard, first in 1970, and many times since then, and repeated in my mind so many more times, what I wanted to hear. The seed of depression had been planted, somehow, and a masterful piece of music, misheard, along with much much else in life, helped water it to its full, horrid growth.
By the time my hearing of Lennon’s words was corrected I had changed, grown, advanced, in many ways, but the gloomy vision of life, and the almost attractive solution of death I had inferred, were not easily or quickly abandoned. Knowing then what I should have heard so long before was at least some small part of changing that vision.