John Lennon screamed and he screamed, and he learned to feel his fear and pain
“I am myself and I know why” – How John Lennon used primal therapy to create the Plastic Ono Band album
In the summer of 1970, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were renting a beautiful house in Bel-Air, an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood at the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Each morning, after a cup of tea by the pool and doing some work on one of his latest songs, Lennon would dress, drive to the West Hollywood office of psychiatrist Arthur Janov, lie down in a darkened, sound-proof room and scream at the top of his lungs.
These were the beginnings of what became the raw and revelatory John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band – his best and most-successful solo album.
Lennon discovered Janov earlier that year through his book The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy, The Cure For Neurosis. The publisher sent advance copies to several celebrities, Mick Jagger and Peter Fonda among them. After reading his, Lennon contacted Janov. He and Yoko both started working with the therapist in England shortly after, then followed him back to his native Los Angeles.
Janov described his approach this way: “Primal therapy has to do with the traumas you’ve undergone in the womb, at birth, in infancy and childhood. . .when that hurt is big enough, it’s imprinted on the system. All those pains are held in storage, causing tension, anxiety and depression.”
So, basically, it was like Freudian psychotherapy. But in Janov’s hands, the famous “talking cure” was amped up to one of screaming. The inspiration for the therapy arrived in an unexpected way. In the 1960s, Janov had a more traditional practice. During a group session in 1967, one of his patients mentioned that he’d seen an experimental theatre piece that involved an actor pacing the stage, dressed in a diaper, shouting, “Mommy!” over and over. Janov proposed that the patient – who apparently had problems experiencing emotions – try the same thing, minus the diaper.
After writhing on the floor and screaming for a few minutes, the patient said, “I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel!” Encouraged by the transformation, Janov started using the miracle technique with his other patients.
In 1970, when Lennon started therapy, he was grappling with the pain of several psychological crises. He and Yoko were trying to have a baby, but she’d miscarried twice. The Beatles were breaking up and embroiled in legal fights, of course. But more deep-seated was John’s ongoing trauma of being abandoned by both of his parents when he was five years old. Janov coached him through all of this, via the screaming. Lennon told Rolling Stone, “He showed me how to feel my own fear and pain, therefore I can handle it better than I could before, that’s all. I’m the same, only there’s a channel.”
That channel soon found its way into the Plastic Ono Band sessions at Abbey Road – most prominently, on Mother (the intensifying cries in the outro of “Mama don’t go, daddy come home!” are Primal therapy set to music), I Found Out (“I heard something ’bout my ma and my pa, they didn’t want me so they made me a star”), Isolation (“People say we got it made, don’t they know we’re so afraid”) and God (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”).
Ringo Starr, who played drums on the album, told Uncut, “It was one of the best experiences of being on a record I have ever had. Just being in the room with John, being honest, the way he was, screaming, shouting and singing. It was an incredible moment.”
Bassist Klauss Voorman said, “There was crying. There was laughing. There was happiness. There was hugging each other. And we were all part of this amazing atmosphere.”
After the release of the album, Lennon said, “I no longer have any need for drugs, the Maharishi or The Beatles. I am myself and I know why.” Whether he meant that as a tacit endorsement of Primal therapy or not, Janov immediately saw his profile rise. He appeared on TV talk shows, and attracted other celebrity clients such as James Earl Jones and Roger Williams.
But by the 80s, his technique had been debunked by most psychological organizations, and called out as “jabberwocky” by publications like Psychology Today (Janov filed a $7 million libel suit). Janov died in 2017. His New York Times obit (opens in new tab) said his “Primal therapy is a classic instance of being the right charismatic therapist at the right time – it’s the zeitgeist.”
Lennon, ever self-aware, would call Primal therapy “only another mirror.” He told Rolling Stone, “It wasn’t a miracle. It didn’t write the music, neither did Janov, or Maharishi, in the same terms. I write the music in the circumstances in which I’m in, whether it’s on acid or in the water.”