I gave Glenn Gass a cruel request. I was chatting with the Provost Professor and Rudy Professor Emeritus of Music at the IU Jacobs School of Music about the school's Dec. 8 event, "Remembering John Lennon 40 Years Later," featuring a conversation with Gass and hosted by IU Auditorium, when I asked him for his favorite five songs written by John Lennon. Just five.
The renowned recently retired rock'n'roll professor said: "That's too hard -- there are too many!" Generously, though, he shared six, in chronological order.
This was John's personal favorite, because it was his first fully developed response to the revelation of Bob Dylan: that you could write about your innermost feelings in a song. "Help!" is full of anguished existential despair, but it is also a catchy AM radio hit and the title song of the Beatles' second movie. Talk about threading the needle! You could hear it many times and tap your toes before ever even noticing the lyrics. I did, but then so did Paul McCartney, so I don't feel so bad.
'In My Life' (1965)
It's a perfect song, voted "The Best Song Ever Written" by a Songwriters Association poll. Paul's harmonies are gorgeous, George's guitar tags are perfect, Ringo's sublime shifting drum patterns shape the song, and John's plaintive voice and lyrics, well … it is a true pull-over-and-weep song, a beautiful summation of life and love as a series of losses from the past that color even future hopes.
My wife, Julie, and I played this song at our wedding and for the births of our two sons, and it will be played at my funeral -- perfect for any occasion! Seriously, it is. I've made students cry at final exams with it. It's one of several head-shakingly great John (and Paul) songs on the "Rubber Soul" album.
'Tomorrow Never Knows' (1966)
Here we have John's full-on excursion into music from an altered state, mixing lyrics from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Timothy Leary's LSD user's manual. Goodbye folk rock, hello psychedelia! It's astonishing that this acid thrill ride was recorded less than two years after "A Hard Day's Night."
John heard the sound of "thousands of chanting Tibetan monks" in his head creating the atmosphere for this single-chord drone song. Unable to summon monks on short notice, producer George Martin worked on ways to invent new sounds, and Paul McCartney provided the perfect touch with five homemade tape loops that waft through the finished track.
It was the first song recorded for the "Revolver" album, and it freed the Beatles to dream up anything they liked with no thought of ever re-creating it at second base at Shea Stadium.
'Strawberry Fields Forever' (1967)
This was the first song the Beatles recorded after they quit touring. John wrote it while in isolation on a film set in Spain, away from his fellow Beatles for the first time in many years. It finds John at his most lonely and lost, looking to the past -- Strawberry Field was an orphanage near John's boyhood home -- for some meaning and relief but finding none.
He worked harder on this song than on any other, in both the writing and recording, which was spread out over many sessions, more than entire albums used to take, in the search for a suitably surreal sound, eventually created by editing together two entirely different versions with a hard edit that is almost inaudible amidst the song's Through-the-Looking-Glass soundworld.
'A Day in the Life' (1967)
This is the saddest-sounding and most epically produced song in pop history. It's the crowning coda of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, with John's terrifyingly placid voice in the mundanely horrifying verses balanced by Paul's upbeat "meanwhile, back-in-the-world" middle eight and supported by Ringo's most inspired, timpani-like "space fills" and connected by George Martin's orchestral "orgasm of sound." A true masterpiece.
'All You Need Is Love' (1967)
This was the high-water mark of the Summer of Love, and it's still meaningful. John's message to the world, literally -- it was England's contribution to a worldwide satellite broadcast with segments from several countries airing simultaneously, the first program of its type. The record was literally recorded live in front of a half-billion people. Instead of touring, the Beatles invited the world into Abbey Road Studios, creating one of the most memorable moments of an amazing decade. "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine" sealed John's place as the songwriting heir to Dylan's empowering Message songs. "All You Need is Love" was also, it turned out, a last moment of total Beatle solidarity, before the death of Brian Epstein, the arrival of Apple and Yoko Ono, and the inevitable changes of adulthood began to loosen the bonds that had been airtight for over a decade. Two years later, they were breaking up, the '60s were ending, and the world would never be the same again.
You've read about Glenn Gass' favorite John Lennon songs. Now read about Glenn Gass himself.