The Chronicle Review

Lennon's 'Lucy,' Under the Microscope

Bettmann, Corbis

John Lennon in London, 1967
August 12, 2013

Everyone knows what "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is about. It's about LSD. No—it's about a picture John Lennon's 3-year-old son, Julian, gave him. Uh-uh. It's about John's mother, Julia, who was struck and killed by a car when Lennon was a teenager and whom he had long sought in his emotional cosmos. Nope. It's a premonition of Yoko Ono as a transcendent love.

There seems some real truth to all those explanations of the psychedelic Sgt. Pepper's hit, yet none on their own satisfactorily pinpoint the song's origins. In Lucy in the Mind of Lennon (Oxford University Press, July), Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College, tries to weave the strands into an "integrative explanation" of how Lennon composed the song over the winter of 1966-67.

Kasser uses linguistic, story, and association analyses of the lyrics; a musical comparison of "Lucy" to Lennon's other songs; and a biographical history contextualizing Julian's picture as an "activating event" for his father. Then Kasser pulls back and eyes "Lucy" as a turning point toward more explicitly emotional and specific songwriting in later phases of Lennon's career.

Kasser, 47, has written mostly about the psychology of materialism and consumer culture. But he'd been mulling the "Lucy" project for some two decades. An amateur pianist, he had long relished the Beatles' music, an estimation enhanced by his reading of Walter Everett's two-volume The Beatles as Musicians. But as he plowed through books including Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon, and especially Philip Norman's John Lennon: The Life, Kasser, like many fans who mature into ambivalent appreciation for their idols as vulnerable and fallible people, found himself becoming more critical of but also empathetic toward Lennon.

At a secluded desk, looking up at a 1968 White Album-era photo of Lennon with eyes closed, Kasser says he "felt really sad about John's life. ... As a son and a father, I know just how crucial it is to have that stable sense that I am loved." Lennon didn't have that, and that hurt him sometimes in his roles as father and husband. But those flaws, those candid struggles, Kasser says, are among the "reasons that Lennon is so popular and why his songs speak to people."

While the Lennon biographies and musical analyses helped inform his study, Kasser says, it was Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology, by Alan C. Elms, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, that had the most impact on his approach, particularly Elms's emphasis on a "laserlike focus" on one "moment in time." Elms's writing helped Kasser understand how investigating a subject's personality traits can vitalize discussion of general psychological laws.

"Lucy" isn't one of Kasser's favorite Beatles songs. But, he says, he intuited that it was a psychologically pivotal one for Lennon. And that conviction grew the more he read and thought about it.

In examining a life, even a moment in a life, a purely empirical approach, "one theory tested in one way," can't do justice. But while he enjoys reading biographies, Kasser fears that there the pendulum often swings too far the other way, with speculations about a subject's motives suspiciously unempirical, even untethered from any contextualizing theory.

A lot of biographical writing, he says, "does feel very subjective to me. As a psychologist and scientist, I think, 'OK, but where did that come from? Where is the evidence base that I value?'"

"I hope my book isn't reductionistic," he says. But he thinks it's important, in trying to establish a field of "scientific biography," to "pull the observer out of" the biographical subject to the extent possible. To grapple with a key point in Lennon's life—"the effects of LSD, how music is processed in the brain, how memory of language is stored, grief, attachment theory"—you need to bring multiple tools to the project, he says.

One such tool is a computer program developed by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. LIWC scans texts for words in about 70 categories of grammar, cognition, emotion, and concept (time, space, etc.). Its indicators on "Lucy" differ both from the songs Lennon had written shortly before "Lucy" and from other pop songs of the period. Some of the lyrics' linguistic features regarding perceptions of space, time, certainty, and feelings of connectedness and bliss parallel those of someone on LSD.

As a son and a father; I know just how crucial it is to have that stable sense that I am loved.

But a straightforward acid song might be expected to express more feelings of closeness through first person "I" and "me"; to use present verb tenses; to indicate discrepancy through "would" or "should"; to minimize articles like "a" and "the"; to use small, straightforward words (as opposed to ones like "Plasticine"); and to express emotion. The distancing language of "Lucy" runs contrary to those expectations, Kasser shows. The writer of the trippy "Tomorrow Never Knows" was fully capable of a simple musical drug adventure, but in "Lucy," Lennon gave us something different.

Kasser next "scripts" the story of the song using a technique developed by the psychologists Silvan Tomkins, Irving Alexander, and Amy Demorest, and compares his script summary of the "Lucy" story with those of two of Lennon's earliest songs, "Hello Little Girl" and "I Call Your Name." Lennon's seeking and separation from an amazing female figure is common to all three.

A biographical word-association chapter notes the appropriation, in "Lucy," of "boat," "marmalade," "rocking horse," "looking glass," and "train," images in the Lewis Carroll books that Lennon had loved as a child and had been rereading. Quantitative charting of the lyrics, in comparison with Lennon's word use but also with common associations among college students, suggests that when he wrote "Lucy," separation, love, sadness, death, and the need to hide his feelings were prominent among his thoughts.

Kasser's musical analysis takes into account time signatures and changes, key and key changes, melodic themes, and chord progressions. He finds striking musical similarities to "Help!" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," which Lennon once called "the only true songs I ever wrote" and which strongly conveyed, in their lyrics, feelings of depression, isolation, and separation.

At 5 years old, Lennon had to choose which parent he would live with, and ambivalently picked his mother, Julia. But soon he was in the care of his "stern and structured Aunt Mimi and his passive but affable Uncle George," as Kasser puts it.

Lennon had grown into a sometimes acerbic and petty-criminal teen, discovering sex and rock music roughly simultaneously, when he started spending more time again with Julia. His first band, the Quarrymen, rehearsed in her home, and she was at its first concert, in 1956.

It was a couple of years later, on July 15, 1958, when John, at that point an irascible art student, was waiting at Julia's for her to come home from her tea with Mimi. But she never did. Pushing through a hedge into Menlove Avenue, she was hit by a car driven by an off-duty policeman with a learner's permit. After an initial cry in a girlfriend's arms, Lennon responded to his mom's death by hiding his sadness, picking fights, and amplifying a pattern of anxious and ambivalent attachments and substance abuse.

By the mid-60s, he'd upped the ante from cigarettes, alcohol, pot, uppers, and downers to acid trips, sometimes several a week. While tripping he might read Timothy Leary's The Psychedelic Experience, which was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and intended to foster psychological and spiritual maturation.

Some once-adoring fans had turned on him. Filipinos angry that the Beatles had declined an invitation to the presidential palace had, at the Manila airport, shoved, punched, kicked, and thrown bricks at the band and its entourage. In the Bible Belt, crowds burned Beatles albums and memorabilia after Lennon told a magazine that the group was "more popular than Jesus now. ... I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity." The group's music was banned in the Netherlands, South Africa, and Spain, and the pope scolded Lennon in the Vatican paper. Worried about a forthcoming world tour, Lennon apologized and tried to explain.

A psychic warned the Surrey, England-based Lennon that he'd be shot while touring the United States, and threats by the Klan, a bomb scare, and firecrackers hurled onto the stage could only have elevated his fears. An August 1966 appearance in San Francisco would be the Beatles' last live concert, "the end of a half-dozen years of nearly constant performing and touring," Kasser recounts, relieving Lennon on one level but, on another, leaving a void in his life.

That's the Lennon whose son handed him "a picture of a girl named Lucy who was up in a diamond-filled sky." It was "rendered primarily in tans, with splashes of crimson and a bit of pale green." Something about it made the songwriter think of Carroll's Alice in her "Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky."

Here Kasser places the psychological and biographical dots in proximity, and then at least tentatively connects them.

A son, Julian, from an unplanned pregnancy leading to a hasty, secret marriage eerily similar to that of John's parents. A son with whom Lennon had "brief interactions punctuated by extended absences," echoing John's relationship with his own father. A son whose full name, John Charles Julian Lennon, honored the boy's father, his mother's father, Charles, and his father's mom, Julia. A picture evocative of a nursery rhyme, "like a diamond in the sky," reminding John of a poem by Carroll, "whose writings began engrossing Lennon soon after he moved in with his Aunt Mimi while a young boy." A picture from a boy just a bit younger than John was when he was separated from his parents.

"While it is admittedly speculative to suggest that thoughts and feelings about his own boyhood might have been activated in Lennon's mind during this interaction with Julian," Kasser writes with typical clinical detachment, "there are numerous pieces of evidence that suggest this may have been the case."

Take a man with a troubled history and perception of relationships, with a tough guy's habit of suppressing his emotions. Change his professional routine. Threaten him with injury and death. Give him powerful hallucinogens. Then have his son, a mirror but alien self, present him with a picture whose title brings to mind beloved childhood poems and songs. A picture of a mysterious, powerful, unobtainable woman far above him.

Alexander C. Kafka is deputy managing editor of  The Chronicle Review.