When John Lennon was 24 years old, he was in the midst of the Beatles’ meteoric rise, and he was not handling it well. He wasn’t a particularly nice person, and – of all the Beatles – his childhood was the traumatic one. Yes, yes, we all have trauma, but there’s trauma, and then there’s TRAUMA. Lennon’s reaction was to create a hard bitter shell around himself, a shell formed early. He was intimidating, often mean, and appeared to take nothing seriously. He was violent with his teenage girlfriend, later wife. He was an asshole. Finally, though, he started feeling – without really naming it – the cost of his childhood abandonment issues, and long-buried grief. I mean, he was only 24 years old, so it wasn’t buried for THAT long, but he was living “on Beatles time” not our time. Things happened fast. As the Beatles became famous, Lennon started falling apart. Everything he put off feeling started demanding to be dealt with. In later interviews he talked about how “subconsciously” he knew he needed help. The subconscious is the driving force in art. So John Lennon sat down and wrote “Help!” (The exclamation point is key. This is an urgent request.) Listen to the lyrics. This is a sad scared young man.
It’s a great song. One of their greatest. The Beatles sang it with rollicking fervor, infectious. In fact, if you didn’t actually listen to the lyrics, you might think the song was about a joyful youthful subject. But listen.
20 years later, Tina Turner, a worldwide superstar, exploded like a rocket out of her past career with her abusive husband Ike, did a version of “Help!” which obliterates any memory of the original. It’s one of those “covers” that isn’t a cover, not really. The artist NEEDS to sing the song, this song written by someone else, a troubled Liverpool young man, 20 years before, she NEEDS to sing it because she KNOWS those lyrics, she knows them in her bones, her guts, her soul. As my friend Mitchell observed: “She sings it and it’s autobiography.”
Tina Turner singing “Help!” – live – is one of her greatest live performances (and that’s saying something), not to mention one of the greatest live performances, period. In her howls and moans of anguish, in her gestures, in the sweat drenching her entire body – she FEELS the meaning of the song. She goes where the song needs to go. She takes it literally, she doesn’t hide from those lyrics, she illuminates them. It’s an astonishing performance.
This is a stadium performance. And she is having a private moment. And your hair blows back when you watch.
I’m just sad John Lennon wasn’t alive to see it. the Beatles catalog is a rich one, and the amazing covers are worthy of a book in and of themselves. This is not to dismiss their own original versions, but sometimes an artist comes along, and takes the original song to its ultimate conclusion: it takes it where it NEEDS to go. (I am thinking of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.” Goosebumps.)
I feel so LUCKY I experienced Tina Turner’s superstardom in real time as it was happening. I am beyond grateful for coming of age in a time when one of the biggest rock stars in the world, filling stadiums, playing to 50,000 people, 80,000 people, and – 180,000 people … the numbers never end … the person doing all of this was a 45-year-old woman. I fully appreciated Tina Turner while she was here and was lucky enough to have seen her in concert at the absolute white-hot APEX of her fame. But I didn’t fully appreciate, I don’t think, the rarity of what was happening, its unprecedented aspect. A 45-50-year-old Black woman dominating rock ‘n roll? Filling stadiums? Please show me another example. I’ll be waiting. I accepted it at the time because Tina was amazing. But if you think about it for more than 2 seconds, especially taking into account her “life before” alongside Ike Turner, your mind is blown all over again.
Seeing her live was something else, man. Her gestures gripped you in your soul. She was pure flame and energy and power.
Two years ago I reviewed the documentary Tina for Ebert. The final paragraph was emotional to write at the time because … you knew it would come, as it will come for all of us. We are all mortal. We all die. But you can’t really be prepared. As I say, I am very glad I got to appreciate the explosion of Tina in real time and fully experience her dominance, the magnitude of which can’t be overstated. Her rise was an EVENT.
I’m glad I didn’t wait until she passed to pay tribute. Love you Tina. The world won’t be the same without you.
I mean …
It’s just a coincidence it’s another Beatles cover. I mean … watch.