Why John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ Had the Power to Change a Life: A Fan Recalls Its Radical Impact

A boxed set for John Lennon's landmark 1970 solo debut, "Plastic Ono Band," is out this weekend. Variety’s executive VP of content writes about why the album immediately transformed him.

john lennon box boxed set appreciation
Courtesy Universal Music

By the end of 1970, the war in Vietnam had again claimed thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Vietnamese lives, and if you were a 19-year-old guy in either place, you were probably wondering how to make sure you’d still be around to see the end of 1971.  

I know I was. 

That summer, the Temptations conjured a great little “psychedelic soul” record that summarized the mood for young people like me pretty well: 

“Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration
Aggravation, humiliation, obligation to our nation 

Ball of confusion
Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today” 

The summer of love in 1967 had quickly soured into a summer of mayhem in 1968, with assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, ping ping, one after another, in a few weeks. By 1969, we had the Summer of Manson, a year that wrapped with the Winter of Altamont quickly undoing the groovy vibes of Woodstock. 

Man, was I ready when John Lennon stepped up to the microphone and sang “The dream is over.”  

It was December 1970, and “John Lennon/The Plastic Ono Band,” Lennon’s first solo album after a decade of pop music culture dominated by the Beatles, was a major cultural event, but not a major hit record. 

The album never cracked the Top Five on the record charts, and the album’s first single, “Mother,” never made it into the Top Ten. 

The first night I listened to the record, with some pals and probably some pot, I seemed to be the only one in the room that heard something special. 

“That is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album anyone has ever made,” I solemnly proclaimed. 

“Oh, come on” was the amused, bemused, stoned, unimpressed, semi-irritated response of the others gathered around the old Magnavox. 

Which made me irritated enough to storm out of the listening party and out into crisply chilly Fontana, California’s steel town night. 

By the time I gathered my wits about me, I was standing on an overpass on the 10 Freeway, one thumb out and the other one, speaking metaphysically not anatomically, up my nether regions. 

It was a long night and a long day and then some and by the time I landed I was about 800 miles from Fontana, south of the Oregon border, perhaps, as Paul Simon sang a couple of years earlier, “gone to look for America.” 

Or my other thumb. 

But I digress. 

So, what was it that John Lennon did, said, thought, sang and/or banged on about on “Plastic” that stimulated my wanderlust and ignited the combustible engine of my young brain? 

First of all, Lennon stripped rock ‘n’ roll music down to its essentials — bass, drums, guitars — and then he stripped his message down to simple declarative statements that turned “I want to hold your hand” into, essentially, “I want you to get off your ass and deal with your reality and do something about it, you silly git.” 

“Working Class Hero” took Bob Dylan’s folk music and super-charged it with a kind of urgency and frank big brother advice. “First you must learn how to smile when you kill if you want to be like the folks on the hill.” 

Does that accurately describe and/or predict the showbiz world of Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein or what? 

“I heard something about my ma and my pa, they didn’t want me so they made me a star.” I’ve been quoting that line for decades to explain Kurt Cobain, Prince, Tom Petty, Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse and every entertainer whose talent, fame, beauty, wealth and acclaim were no match for holes inside their souls. 

“God is a concept by which we measure our pain” helps explain what happens to talented people whose pain is immeasurable. 

A few weeks after the album’s release, Lennon expounded in Rolling Stone on his recent experiences with unorthodox therapist Arthur Janov and his “Primal Therapy.” Lennon’s challenge to Beatles fans to drop the fairy tales and pick up the weapons of their own skills and talents sounded a clarion call that I heard. I wonder how many others thought, “Damn, John Lennon just said to stop fooling around and get serious about making art and making a difference. I better get to work.” 

They say when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. John Lennon got me ready. A few months later, in the summer of 1971, a teacher named Monte Hellman arrived in a ’55 Chevy inside a movie called “Two Lane Blacktop.”  

Fifty years later, this week I’ve been eulogizing the loss of Hellman, who opened the doors for me to be a part of making films about pirates, immortal princes, chickenfighters and crazy filmmakers, traveling the world, engaging with the greatest film artists on the planet, writing and editing at Variety in Hollywood, writing and making songs in Nashville, instead of living inside a dream of the 1960s that Lennon made sure I knew was “over.” 

He got me ready to listen that other guru, Dylan, who years later pointed out, “You got some big dreams baby but in order to dream you gotta still be asleep.” 

If you’re 19, I hope there’s someone inside this pop culture universe who slaps you across the face and sends you hitchhiking a thousand miles to find that special gift inside yourself so you can hear the ticking clock Tennessee Williams spoke about when he said: 

Time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”  

Can you hear it? Once Upon Time in pop music, John Lennon made sure I did and it had a backbeat, I couldn’t lose it.