Modern Relics. That Album
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan is an extraordinary example of the kind of concentration of loot that the immense wealth of a truly horrible human being can accumulate.
But everyone should go. It’s a remarkable place.
It doesn’t have the spear that pierced Christ’s side, or a fragment of the True Cross, or the Ark of the Covenant but it does have the car that Kennedy was killed in. The roof of the vehicle has been replaced (talk about shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted), and apparently Lyndon Johnson, who could not have been a superstitious man, continued to use it. They also have the chair that Abraham Lincoln was shot in. Interestingly it’s a rocking chair. I’ve never sat in a theatre and watched a play in a rocking chair. But Our American Cousin was a cheesy Anglo-American romcom and perhaps a rocking chair was sort of appropriate.
Among the temporary exhibits on show yesterday there was a Beatles experience type thing – a “Magical Mystery Tour”. Snooty Conrad woke up and said – “Your Dad grew up in Liverpool – you’re going to go to a Beatles exhibit on the outskirts of Detroit?” But then, as I always should, I told Snooty Conrad to shut up and that the kids needed to be educated in the ways of the Fabs. So we bought tickets and went in.
And it was well done. There were many auditory resources – many ways you could hear classic songs broken down. And there was a whole room where that fifty year old song “Tomorrow Never Knows” played continuously while lava lamp effects played all around you. The boy was vaguely shaken by the strangeness and the texture of the song. His unease pleased me.
We were nearly on the way out. They were showing drumsticks that Ringo had used in the 1990s etc. etc. before I caught sight of the one authentically creepy twentieth century relic and called the kids back to properly gawp at it. They had the album. They had the actual copy of Double Fantasy that Mark Chapman had asked John Lennon to sign on December the 8th, 1980 – a request that Lennon cheerfully complied with.
And as the two boys stood in awkward reverence, wondering how long they had to submit to this sombre moment, the whole experience of December 9th 1980 came back to me. The teachers at school fighting back tears. A strangely shaken world, a seismic disturbance that I didn’t really understand. And staring, yesterday, at this album, the whole stupid wastefulness of the event flooded back. I realised how angry I was about it and had always been. Nothing good came of Lennon’s sudden and completely unnecessary transition from complicated artist to plaster saint. Lennon martyred has been so much less interesting than the deeply flawed and unpredictable living Lennon would have been. And the price that Paul MacCartney has had to pay for Chapman’s egomaniacal lunacy has been immense – deprived of the possibility of an ongoing friendship and having to defend his own achievements at the risk of looking like he was fighting a dead man.
If Lennon had never encountered the guy who he signed this album for, he would have said and done a deal of stupid things in the 80s and 90s. He would have made some terrible music. And in between those things he would have had said some wise and hilarious things and made some beautiful songs.
So this album is a sort of anti-relic in some ways. While religious relics speak of apotheosis, of translation to a version of immortality, this album sleeve feels like the most secular of relics – something which speaks to me passionately about the value of staying alive and the horrible casualness with which precious life is taken.