Sep 212010

“Saint John Lennon,” by Raphael Labro (courtesy of

Here’s a helpful new addition to the RTH Glossary, originally courtesy of Townsman pudman13, if short-term memory serves.

Based on the critical Teflon of its namesake, John, the Lennon Pass describes the point when an artist is granted a critical “lifetime pass” for accumulated subpar works based on the emotional/spiritual/humanitarian connection rock fans have with said artist’s landmark works and cultural influence. The Lennon Pass may be thought of as a form of rock ‘n roll sainthood.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an artist getting the Lennon Pass. Even music fans who do not particularly care for said artist may admit that the pass is merited. The Clash – and Joe Strummer in particular – are a band frequently cited for getting the Lennon Pass. If she hadn’t done so with the surprising success of Easter, High Punk Priestess Patti Smith solidified her Lennon Pass when she returned from her 40 days and nights in Michigan, having established a family with Fred “Sonic” Smith only to lose him to cancer shortly thereafter.

Perceived martyrdom or any form of death, however, is not a requirement for the Lennon Pass – and I don’t mean to make light of these losses. Despite being a curmudgeonly, overweight artist who’s put out little of real interest in more than 30 years, Van Morrison holds the Pass. Bruce Springsteen is another frequently cited recipient; however, some non-believers go out of their way to question His worthiness. Heck, some rock nerds even go out of their way to tear down the works of Lennon himself.

In extreme circumstances the Pass, once granted, can be revoked. Lou Reed is an example of this, having finally had his Lennon Pass revoked after a career-full of failed attempts at spiting the Lennon Pass Committe when he started parading around with that new tai chi addiction.

Simply being an acknowledged Great Artist and/or wildly popular does not ensure the granting of the Pass. The Rolling Stones, for instance, lost all hope of receiving the pass once Mick Jagger crossed all lines of good taste by appearing on stage in football pants and Capezio slippers and then participating in the so-called “Rock Crime of the Century,” Ja-Bo. Despite their best efforts in the studio and across Third World nations, U2 have been unable to acquire the Lennon Pass.


  25 Responses to “The Lennon Pass”

  1. sammymaudlin

    I’ve pondered a post akin to this for quite some time. I was going to center it around Elton John. Elton’s early works were so great that I feel he has achieved the Lennon Pass despite his repeated attempts and banal Disney soundtracks. As awful as that stuff is, I find it easy to ignore, unlike capezios and and tai chi. And maybe that’s the difference between keeping your pass.

    Iggy’s also got the pass for as bad as some shit he’s put out he’s never gone out his way to offend. Though he came close with the duet with the B52s chick.

  2. pudman13

    I actually prefer Elton John’s Disney soundtracks to some of his mid-period hits (i.e. “Guess Why They Call It the Blues” or some of his dance-oriented 80s songs.)

    I think Richard Thompson gets a pass.

    How about Brian Eno? I have a sense that a lot of his music from the last 30 years has been routinely ignored, but I don’t see people going out of their way to dismiss it.

  3. Did the Clash last long enough to be considered for a Lennon Pass? Elton John is a much better example because his first five or six years were so good, I can excuse the past 35.

    I think Stevie Wonder is the undeserved recipient of a Lennon Pass.

    I also wonder why I can’t bring myself to build a case for Rod Stewart getting one because I love his old stuff so much. Maybe it’s because his musical fall from grace seems less hapless and more by design. It’s the opposite of why people give Stevie a pass. I suspect that the perceived intent of the artist plays a big part in the decision-making process of those doling out the passes.

  4. I would give one to John Fogerty. He had to endure a decade in the wilderness where he couldn’t even play his own songs due to contractual issues. I that time he has never managed to lessen the classic stuff he’s done with CCR.

    Much as I love the Faces material, Rod has been a walking Rock Crime for almost 30 yrs now.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think the parameters regarding the granting of the Pass need to be explained more clearly. It is stated that Springsteen may be less than perfect yet he gets the pass? But Lou Reed has his revoked? I think once the Pass is granted, it’s granted, sort of like a President of the US is always referred to President, even if he has acted like an ass/baffoon/other assorted wildlife during/post presidency. If the Lennon Pass is to be entered into the RTH glossary, the RTH librarians request clearer guidelines of membership rules.

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    And just saying, that painting is almost enough to revoke John Lennon’s pass.

  7. 2000 Man

    While Mick Jagger and possibly The Stones don’t get that pass (although c’mon – Exile on Main St. should be a super secret Golden Lennon Pass), Keith Richards more than deserves his Lennon Pass.

    I mean, he invented Rock n Roll and shit, so he probably handed out the first pass.

  8. machinery

    d. Boon gets a pass from me. Yes, the premature death thing probably has a lot to do with it, I admit.

  9. machinery

    Also, how about Neil Young? His early stuff is so good, his later bad stuff has yet to dim my overall view of his legacy.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Catching up after hours away from the computer… I’m glad you’re digging in on this concept. A few responses to what I’m seeing:

    When did Elton John get a pass? Have I been the only person thinking he’s been a complete joke since Rock of the Westies? I mean, in recent years, I have fallen for his humility and openness about his multitude of personal issues, but Elton never sniffed the Pass! You guys are getting way too soft.

    The Clash released about 47 album sides in their brief career. Including the solo works of Strummer and Jones, there’s plenty of bad stuff that is easily overlooked as a result of all they gave rock ‘n roll.

    Eno is probably a good example of a recipient, but only among a very small circle of rock nerds. Maybe he’s got a Lennon Day Pass. Most people don’t even know that he exists, do they?

    Richard Thompson stole a Pass. He keeps it under that beret.

    Fogerty doesn’t need a pass. Yeah, he makes mediocre versions of his old music these days, but he never accumulated a wealth of bad material that is overlooked or easily forgiven by critics and fans. To be granted the Lennon Pass you need a pile of shit worth passing over.

    ladymiss wrote:

    I think the parameters regarding the granting of the Pass need to be explained more clearly…

    Don’t worry, I think I covered everything that needed to be covered. The details will become evident over time. The Pass is not something we deem on an artists. I know we’ve become accustomed to shaping critical thinking in rock ‘n rll, but not in this case. The Pass just happens as an accumulation of sincere, collective personal experience and rock critic bullshit. I bet shawnkilroy has already got his head around how this works.

    The Pass is rarely revoked, but Lou Reed’s tai chi addiction has opened him to criticism he hasn’t seen in years. You wait until he pulls his next “As His Music Was Meant to Sound…” routine. He’ll have lost his Pass as the Street Poet Laureate of Rock. It’s OK, Lou’s bounced back from worse.

    Keef is short a Pass along with his bandmates. Sorry, 2K. I know he tried to establish solo Pass credentials, but the way he spelled X-Pensive Winos did him in!

    Neil Young nearly has a Pass, but any time he shows signs or repeating his self-indulgent Geffen era (which he worked to his advantage but which no one wants to relive) or turning out some new Right Wing anthem the Pass gets stuck in processing.

    d. Boon definitely got the pass. To this day rock nerds write his first name as simply d., retaining the lower-case d even when it begins a sentence. That’s the kind of respect that the Pass brings!

  11. ladymisskirroyale

    if d. Boon is in, I would suggest that Grant McLennan is Pass-worthy.

  12. Mr. Moderator

    Does McLennan have a heap of crappy recordings that can be easily overlooked? I only like one Go-Betweens album a lot, but I’ve never come across one that stinks.

  13. mikeydread

    Um, yes, he does. His solo work hit the reef quicker than you can say “Brisvegas”. Everything after Watershed, to say nothing of some of the nonsense he got up to with Church alumni Steve Kilbey, varied from patchy to scratchy.

    The Go-Betweens reunion did a great deal to repair his reputation. And make us forgot that while he could hit an emotional nerve like few Australian songwriters, he could be pretty ordinary when the mood took him.

  14. Aren’t there really two kinds of passes? I think of a Lennon Pass as one acknowledging that the work is crap but granting absolution based on past achievements. The other kind of pass doesn’t acknowledge that the work is crap but continues to give four stars long past when the work is worth it. Or worse yet: “even average [Richard Thompson] is better than most anyone’s best.”

  15. Mr. Moderator

    Good distinction, Al! It’s “absolution”-oriented pass that you describe that I’m trying to describe here. We acknowledge that Lennon released a ton of crap or that large swaths of the vinyl used to produce Sandinista remain nearly virgin, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect the artist’s legacy.

    The other pass you describe might be called the Jann Wenner Pass?

  16. bostonhistorian

    I disagree with the whole idea that the Clash need a Lennon pass. Strummer may need to be absolved for “Cut the Crap” and the Latino Rockabilly War, but the Mescaleros stuff is never less than interesting and more often than not quite good.

    I’m also puzzled why d. boon would need a pass. Bob Mould needs a pass. Henry Rollins needs a pass. Pretty much anyone on SST who released an album post-1986 would need a pass. But d. boon?

  17. 2000 Man

    I think to get a Lennon Pass you should at least be a household name. d. Boon? C’mon. More people know who Davey Johnstone is.

  18. Mr. Moderator

    bostonhistorian, the Pass is not issued based on need. It can be applied for, but if granted it just shows up in the mail one day, whether applied for or not.

    Good points about the Lennon Pass being reserved for household names. I’m willing to be wrong about d. Boon having been issued a pass. From my perspective, I was thinking about the fact that it’s really impossible to criticize The Minutemen even if, like me, you don’t need more than a half dozen of their songs. Maybe there should be a d. Boon Pass for less-known artists.

  19. What about Bowie? I think he gets a pass, but he was half of JaBo. Maybe it’s because Bowie himself has stated that he writes off that era, but perhaps it’s not fair to let him disown it. Certainly that era of his career continues to pay for a lavish lifestyle. Still, I can’t help but think that Bowie gets the pass and Jagger doesn’t. But I’m not sure if I can justify it. Possibly because despite his business savvy, he balanced chasing hits with more non-commercial exploration. I haven’t heard any of his recent albums but am under the general impression that he is at least not smearing his reputation with those albums (not like the new Santana thing). Maybe the obscurity of those albums leads me ignorantly to believe Bowie gets the pass.

    I think Nilsson gets a pass. His association with Lennon and the Beatles, along with his earlier albums which are so good. You might argue that he’s not a household name, but everybody knows a few of his tunes.

  20. Mr. Moderator

    Bowie has worked hard to get a pass, but think of all the things he’ll never live down beside JaBo: The Glass Spider Tour and his subsequent second or third “retirement” of his back catalog, Tin Machine, Labyrinth, the Bowie credit card/membership club/stock options business… I think he’s like the Stones: no one denies his greatness despite all the dreck, but the dreck is forever held against him.

  21. bostonhistorian

    If the Stones were a baseball player, they’d be Brady Anderson. A couple of brilliant albums, but then a reversion to their norm.

  22. I’ve been thinking long and hard about this one. The only name I can come up with would be Brian Wilson. One could argue that his recent releases are shells of his former self, but because he gave us Pet Sounds and (finally) SMiLE, then we overlook the fluff on his recent releases. He’s a genius and all.

    I’ll admit that I love anything the man does. I think Lucky Old Sun was as strong as anything after Love You (which I also happen to love), but I can see how everything The Beach Boys/Brian has been involved with gets a pass based on reputation. His newest releases almost always get a pass based on nothing other than it’s Brian and the fact that it’s even being released.

    I look forward and enjoy Brian’s stuff, but I know I drink the Kool Aid.


  23. jeangray

    Jus’ can’t wrap my head around the fact that some folks around here would want to give Sir Elton the pass.

    Have you no shame????????

  24. machinery

    I agree about Sir Elton. Tiny Dancer revokes any pass.

  25. misterioso

    I think a distinction needs to be made between being issued a pass (of those discussed, I think only Lennon and Brian Wilson really fit) and not having one’s subsequent awful output irremediably befoul one’s earlier work (cf. Elton John, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, REM, and many more).

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