Genius and Madness

From Elvis to Picasso and the thorny intersection of "madness" and creativity.

Lucy in the Mind of Lennon

Interview with author Tim Kasser

John Lennon: Charmismatic But Complex

Todd Schultz (TS): Let’s start with the obligatory question: Why John Lennon?  What makes him compelling, mysterious? 

Tim Kasser (TK): Back when I was a teen and a college student, I definitely idolized Lennon. I don’t think I was alone in that, as there was something about Lennon that was so charismatic and intriguing that a good number of people wanted to be like him and understand him. For me personally, that something was his willingness to explore and break new ground, rather than being satisfied with doing the same thing over and over. I think that people are also really drawn to his honesty, or at least his attempts to become a more honest person. The more I learned about Lennon though, the more I came to see that he also had this pretty nasty side where he could be very cutting and could just drop people (like Cynthia and Julian), as well as a really deep-seeded insecurity to him. While Lennon no doubt had his façade, I think that these different aspects of Lennon came across to the public, and so he seemed a fair bit more complex than the average pop star. My sense is that people are drawn to that kind of complexity and want to understand it.

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The Mystery of the Music

TS: Your book is focused around Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Is that Lennon's prototypical song?  Why not focus on, say, Help! or I Am the Walrus

TK: I don’t think that there is a “prototypical” Lennon song – to me, that is part of what made him such a great song-writer. There’s such enormous change from Please Please Me to Tomorrow Never Knows to Come Together to Imagine. It is hard to believe that was only a ten-year span!

You know, I’ve worked with dozens upon dozens of people’s dreams, and my experience has been that every dream I’ve ever worked with ends up telling something important about the dreamer. While some dreams are clearly less significant than other dreams, I’ve been continually impressed that someone can pick a dream to work on and within 20 minutes we’ve gotten into some very deep issues and the person is crying or angry or having some other kind of pretty powerful emotional experience.

I don’t know for sure that songs work the same way as dreams, but I’m pretty confident that if I had chosen to write about a different song, and I had been very careful in applying appropriate methods and theories, I would have learned something interesting about Lennon. I almost certainly would have learned some different things than what I learned in studying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. But I do think that what I learned by studying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds suggests that this song was not just some humdrum creative expression – it was more like one of those dreams you mull over for years.

Taking a Closer Look

TS: I hear what you are saying, but how does one know which song is the most promising to look at closely? Is it a matter of what Lennon said, or are there other indicators just as telling?

TK: This is a great question, and I think it could actually be answered empirically. What I mean is that one could do a study in which one group of psychologists identified the key characteristics of different songs that Lennon (or someone else) wrote, another group analyzed those songs using specific theories or methods, and a third group rated how much insight those analyses provided. Doing this kind of study could potentially reveal the characteristics of songs that might be clues to how laden the songs are with meaning. Such a study would be a great contribution to psychobiography, in my opinion.

Until that study is conducted and replicated, I think psychobiographers are left with three kinds of information to go on. First, I think we have to honor what the creator says, although we should not trust it fully. If someone chooses to bring me a dream to work with, I think there is some, usually unconscious, reason why she or he presented that dream to me; similarly, if an artist mentions that there is something special about a particular poem or song, that’s useful information. Second, I think we can use a kind of crowd-sourcing. When a large number of people believe there is something intriguing going on in a song, that is interesting information. Certainly a big reason why I decided to work on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is that so many people debate what the song is about. Finally, I think we can use the criteria developed by the psychobiographer Irving Alexander. He identified some “principle identifiers of salience” like “primacy” (what comes first is important), negation (frequent denials are important), incompletion (starting to say something but then stopping is important). Alexander suggested that these identifiers might be particularly relevant for psychobiographers to use in identifying meaning-laden material, and I know that I found them to be helpful in writing this book.

TS: Your book essentially begins with the biography of a song, relatively divorced from the context of Lennon’s life.  What made that approach attractive to you?

TK: For me, the primary purpose of the book was to understand why Lennon wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the way he did at the time he did. So what I felt I needed to do first was to establish what Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was as a creative expression. I needed to know how Lennon had used language in this song compared to other songs, what the basic theme was and whether it was a common or transient theme for him, and what deeper meanings the actual words and musical characteristics of the songs may have held for him. I wanted to establish a basic sense of “here is what Lennon did” before trying to explain why he might have done that thing in particular and how it might have fit into the pattern of his life.

To me, this is one of the most important ways in which psychobiography differs from the types of biography with which most readers are more familiar. My purpose was not to tell the story of a person’s life, but instead to explain, using psychological methods and theories, why a particular thing was done by a particular person at a particular time. If I had spent a lot of time in the early chapters on Lennon’s overall life, then that would have distracted from my primary purpose.

Shining Light on Lucy...

TS: You use four distinct types of psychological methods to understand Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Which of the methods surprised you the most in terms of its yield?

TK: One of the things that fascinated me the most in writing this book was how each of the methods I used shone a different light on the song, revealing new facets of it, but that at the same time the data from each method usually received some kind of confirmation from one of the other methods. So I think each of the methods brought their own strengths to the table.

That said, the method that started it all out was the scripting one that I describe in Chapter 3. Years ago, I had been writing a pretty different book about Lennon, and I was really struggling with the songs he wrote from Revolver through the White Album. All the wild word play and such made it really hard for me to make sense of what was going on for him. After banging my head against the wall for a while, I remembered the method of scripting, which psychologists use to get beyond the specific imagery in a verbal creation and get down to the basic theme it is expressing. I just happened to have Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in front of me at the time, and when I used the scripting method on the song, I felt such a sense of exhilaration, like I’d peered inside of Lennon’s mind. It was that experience that led me to drop the book I’d been writing for the book I did write.

TS: When I showed my students an early draft of your book, some of them felt that the script extraction process was a bit subjective. They had this sense that different people might extract different scripts from the same material, and they wondered about a reliability check. Explain how you dealt with that.

TK: I agree that the scripting method has a subjectivity to it, but there are ways to correct for that. After I wrote my own script for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, I contacted an expert in the method of scripting and asked him to create his own script for the song. I did not tell him anything about my book or ideas, nor did I show him my own script. Our scripts were pretty similar in some key ways, so I feel reasonably confident that my own subjectivity did not interfere too much with the conclusions I drew about the song’s theme. But I did try to be extra skeptical about any conclusions which were not replicated across the two scripts.

I think an interesting class assignment for any instructors who might use my book would be to have students read the first part of the chapter on scripts (as well as another article or two about the method) and then have the students write their own scripts for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds before they read my script and that of the expert scripter. I’m pretty confident that if the students are trained properly, most of them will come up with a script that reveals something like the basic theme that the script expert and I both extracted.

TS: We’ve talked about the method that you felt really shined a lot of light on Lennon. Which method do you feel most unsure about?

TK: The musical analysis is the method that I feel the most unsure about. That’s not because I think it wasn’t useful – it is more about my own limitations. While I’ve played piano almost all of my life and have sang for about a decade, I’m very self-taught in many respects and have never taken a music theory class. I did have some people who are far more knowledgeable about those topics help me with that chapter, and I’m really grateful for their advice (although I accept total responsibility for any mistakes). I definitely feel that using the music analysis was totally necessary, and I’m very curious to hear how music theorists are going to respond to what I did.

Decoding the Dreamstate of the Music

TS: Lennon said that many of his songs during this period were nonsense, deliberate nonsense.  Why do we not believe him?  Is a song like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds even interpretable or is it a sort of Pollock drip painting?

TK: One of my earliest interests in psychology concerned the delusions and wild speech of people diagnosed with schizophrenia. A lot of psychiatrists say that all of that is just a symptom of the disease, but I’ve long been intrigued by the ideas of people like R.D. Laing who believe that what schizophrenics are saying is actually reflective of their inner experience. I’ve found the same thing working with dreams: What looks to be nonsense at first turns out to have a sense of its own if you can let go of your typical, logical ideas about what sense-making is and instead see the dream on its own terms and in its own language.

I have yet to be convinced that randomness exists in people’s creations; instead, I find that even when people try to create something that is deliberately nonsense, there turn out to be connections that the creator is usually unaware of. One of the moments that brought that home for me really powerfully while writing this book was when I finally understood what was happening in the third verse of I Am the Walrus, where Lennon mentions “Lucy in the Sky” again. On the surface that song sure seems random, and Lennon claimed it was. But once I had a sense of what Lucy was about, I found it perfectly sensible that she was paired with “Mister policeman” and the other images that surround it in I Am the Walrus. There was definitely a sense in the nonsense.

TS: This point about randomness is so important. A lot of artists say, "This song means nothing. I just made it up out of nowhere. Don't try to interpret it because if you do you'll just look foolish." I've never bought that. Like you, I have a hard time believing that art of any kind is truly random. It has to come from somewhere! Is there a sense in which you see Lennon's randomness claims as defensive?

TK: I totally agree that creative expressions, be they songs or poems or dreams or delusions, have to come from somewhere. That somewhere is the pattern-making mind of the creator. And, by definition, something that has a pattern can not be random.

I can’t say with confidence that Lennon was being defensive when he claimed that his supposedly-random creations were indeed random. But I do know from some of the analyses I did on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds that the song has the hallmark linguistic characteristics of a person who is being defensive. In fact, the linguistic analyses I conducted on the song showed that it was one of the least emotional and most psychologically “distanced” he had written during that era. In fact, it was also more distanced than all of the #1 hit songs in the UK and the US at the time! Those data definitely are consistent with the idea that Lennon may have been saying that this and other songs he wrote were random as a way to stay out of touch with the underlying themes that were on his mind when he was writing.

LSD and Lennon

TS:  We can’t end this interview without bringing up LSD.  How much of a factor was it for John Lennon and for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

TK: I’ve come to conclude that LSD was crucial to the song, but not in the way that most people have suggested in the past. I do think that Lennon may have been unconsciously attracted to the fact that his son Julian had created a picture the boy said was of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Research does show that people have a real preference for initials and words that have some personal meaning for them – for example, there is a statistical over-representation of people named “Louis” who live in St. Louis. So I think that unconsciously Lennon may have been pulled to write a song whose title had the initials of his drug of choice.

But I think more important is what LSD had done to Lennon’s brain. The man had been taking large amounts of this really powerful drug quite frequently in the year before he wrote Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. What little research exists about LSD suggests that taking so many doses of the drug increases the chances that painful experiences from one’s past will begin to break through one’s psychological defenses and emerge into one’s awareness. I think Lennon’s heavy use of LSD caused some particular experiences from his own past to begin pushing up into his awareness, albeit in a highly symbolic and disguised fashion, and that helped to form Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.



William Todd Schultz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Pacific University in Oregon and edited the Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press 2005).

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