Listen to this track from the literate Beatle, the Walrus himself John Lennon, who yesterday would have been 71 years old (Happy Birthday, John!). It’s his 1969 solo single ‘Cold Turkey’ , a true to life account of his own brief romance with heroin. And seeing as this is Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, the ‘turkey’ reference goes out to all of you! The song appeared in LP form on the 1975 compilation album Shaved Fish.
The song, harrowing to be sure, was banned by the BBC for its drug references, although the drug in question is never named. This of course came as a great surprise to Lennon, who considered this song as something of an anti-drug anthem, with “thirty-six hours rolling in pain”, among other lines in the song hardly standing as endorsements of drug use.
Lennon originally intended that it be released as a Beatles single, only to be voted down by McCartney. So, the song was put out under Plastic Ono Band, with this single as the second of his songs released under that name after “Give Peace A Chance”. It would be the first song not to include McCartney’s name in the song credit, which may have been a telling sign as to where Lennon’s head was at at the time. And where was that, exactly?
By 1969, I think there were a few things that were pressing for John Lennon. First, his personal relationships with the other Beatles were beginning to weaken, and his ties to the band were beginning to unravel. Second, he had a new wife. He and Yoko married in Spain, March of that year. Third, “Revolution” aside, his sociopolitical impulses, and his drive to talk about his own personal dark side were largely being repressed while he remained inside the Beatles organization as far as singles were concerned.
All of this culminated in an approach to songwriting that drove him to forge a solo career, and make his work stark, spare, and with a glaring light cast on the world from his own point of view. “Cold Turkey” is one of the more severe examples of this approach.
Not able to get the Beatles to play on it as a group, Lennon got Eric Clapton to play lead guitar, artist (and Revolver cover designer) Klaus Voormann on bass, and stalwart Ringo Starr on drums. Yet, despite the slickness of the talent, the production really wears the song down to the bone, with Lennon’s rhythm guitar pretty much cut out to leave an uncomfortable white space in the mix instead. At the forefront of course is Lennon’s wounded vocal, the sound of a man who really is in the throes of heroin withdrawal.
This being Lennon, you know that if his yowls and screams at the end is just acting, then it’s method acting. It is widely reported that he, and Yoko, did indeed flirt with heroin at the time. So, technically this is a drug song. But, no one here is being turned on.
Lennon would take this song on the road without the other Beatles that year, with a scattered performance with Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock n Roll Revival Festival. Alan White, soon to be drummer with Yes, would take Ringo’s place on the drums. Lennon would reference this song in his letter to the Queen when he returned his MBE in November 1969, citing Britain’s role in Biafra, American involvement in Vietnam (which Britain supported), and “Cold Turkey slipping down the charts” as his reasons for politely bowing out of his standing as a Member of the British Empire.
And even if the song would be rejected as a Beatles single, Ringo Starr and George Harrison would play on it in studio and live versions respectively. In fact, Harrison’s involvement in a December 1969 live version of “Cold Turkey” as eventually heard on Sometime in New York City, would represent the last time Lennon would play with any of the other Beatles on stage.
Beatle John was growing up, and growing out of the box that the Beatles popularity had put him in. Yet, his influence as a solo artist had begun, with his formerly repressed sociopolitical instincts as an artist with the Beatles being the key engine to his work on his own. And of course, the personal would always be a go-to source as well, with “Cold Turkey” stripping back the layers, leaving him bare to the world even more so than an infamous album cover that had done that literally. But, that was the complexity of John Lennon as a person; someone who was very guarded in many ways, yet hungry to reveal himself too.
Happy Birthday, John!
And Happy Thanksgiving, eh!