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 woman dominating rock ‘n roll? 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.
No one does an obit like you Sheila. Thank you so much for this.
This was a big one. :(.
Sheila- thank you for this. you bring such deep love to your appreciation of artists. It’s a gift to read.
You’ve probably seen this, but a great Tina Turner moment is this duet with Ann-Margret. They are both such forces of nature as performers, and they seem to take such joy in the others’ energy- they could launch a rocket:
Kristen – that duet with ann-margret is AMAZING. I feel like not too many people could keep up with Tina. She could! Tina did so many great duets – I love some of her collaborations with Cher – but that one is something special!!
100%! The Cher duets I’ve seen are gorgeous too, But the one with Ann- Margret is like….transcendent?
It truly is. They are feeding off each others energy – pushing each other further … it’s like they become one being without sacrificing individuality at ALL.
When you think about what happened to Ronnie Spector and what happened to her career after she left Phil, the enormity of what Tina was able to accomplish becomes even more clear. I’ve always thought the terrifying control (copyrighting her name, jesus christ) Ike exerted over her had as much to do with their careers as it did his own failures as a human being; he didn’t want her walking out that door and taking her extraordinary voice and stage presence with her, he had all these career problems before she she showed up and it was Tina who was the draw, who was on the cover of Rolling Stone, who people wanted to watch. Ike was a talented musician but Tina was the show. But that’s exactly what she did, and I’m so glad the latter half of her life was spent making the kind of music she wanted to and in the company of a man who really loved her and wasn’t threatened by her power. I can’t stop watching that “Come Together” clip.
// Ike exerted over her had as much to do with their careers as it did his own failures as a human being //
He was an innovator in his way – but he was not going to be what he wanted to be- ever. at least not on his own. Tina brought the fame, Tina was the draw. You can’t count him out obviously – the “vibe” created among Tina, Ike, and the Ikettes – which you can see in that Come Together clip was crazy – and imo came out of the twisted dynamic in that group of people. It’s all there, in the stage performances. But it couldn’t be sustained because Ike was such a self-destructive maniac, you know? He nEEDED her and HATED that he needed her – a toxic witches brew.
Tina was the star and – he couldn’t get by without her. He was nothing without her. (I mean, not really – but at least in his mind. If SHE left, he’d be just another guy with a little band touring the country doing club dates).
You’re right. The fact that Tina finally had had enough – and walked out – with nothing but her name – is impressive enough. But to then watch the miracle of what happened in the next decade!! Because it didn’t happen right away. It’s just extraordinary. She was so so TOUGH. and yet somehow her horrifying life hadn’t made her HARD. being tough isn’t being hard.
so when fame came, she was ready to accept it. and there was so much backstory in her fame – which I remember being aware of at the time – that this was a triumph of such magnitude it made her fame different than other peoples’ fame. You could feel how RIGHT it was. and how on HER terms it was. So thrilling!!
I too am so happy she found home and peace and love, and was able to just CHILL in her later years. Nobody deserved it more!
She sang as if her life depended on it. That’s something she has in common with Nina Simone—and Billie Holiday.
And,, I have mentioned on my blog, her sexuality was an assertion rather than a titillation. No matter what Ike or anything else did to her, they weren’t going to take away her life-force.
Nobody gets to do what she does merely by trying to be hip or “ironic” . (Actually, if you’re trying to be ironic, it’s a sign that you don’t know the meaning of the word.) That’s why she created what she did in middle age and beyond.
Tina is one of those rare artists whom I didn’t realize I needed until I found her. And, after hearing her, I had no need for Mariah Carey.