John Lennon was in a strange mood in the first part of 1964.
He was 23 years old and had already achieved success beyond his wildest imaginings; Beatlemania had reached critical mass in the UK and was turning into a Cat 5 hurricane in the US, and he‘d just finished principal photography for the first feature-length film featuring him and his band – movie stardom had been a secret dream of Lennon’s from his school boy days). It was clear by July, 1964, that as successful as these four boys from Liverpool had been so far they were about to shoot straight into the stratosphere, worldwide.
And yet, John doesn’t seem too happy about it. In fact his mood in 1964 is downright melancholy. The Beatles released two albums in 1964, A Hard Day’s Night, and Beatles For Sale, both of which feature some of Lennon’s most dour work. “I’m A Loser,” “You Can’t Do That,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” all came from this period. Heck, even his love songs are overly tender and uncertain, pitting the protagonist against a distant lover, either physically or emotionally. These songs sound like a man on the edge of the abyss, his feet slipping and kicking little bits of gravel into the depths below, trying with everything he has to stem the flood pushing him in.
John was always a perceptive man, attuned to the cultural mood like some sort of social weathervane. It was clear to him that The Beatles were close to something unprecedented, massive, earth-shattering. He was on the edge of a cliff. For five years he’d been pushing and singing and writing and struggling and screwing and punching and taking pills and drinking and laughing, all for this moment. And now that it was here, he wasn’t all that certain he wanted it, he wasn’t certain he was cut out for this uber-celebrity bag.
A Hard Day’s Night (the movie and album) was about to be released and it would prove the critical point in The Beatles’ career. No Hard Day’s and The Beatles probably fade quietly away, become one of those great bands from the early-sixties that get put on compilation albums sold in Walgreens for $7.99. But it is going to be released and it’s going to do what everyone knows it can do. It’s going to blow the doors off of the recording industry and give The Beatles enough momentum to carry them through the curves and dips of one of the most volatile decades in musical history. John couldn’t do a damn thing to stop this. He knew this, so he did what John did best, he rebelled.
Arguably no song from this period more perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy that was John Lennon in 1964, lyrically, musically, and inter-textually than “I’ll Cry Instead.” A throw-away track from Hard Day’s, the kind of pop industrial product the Lennon-McCartney factory was churning out daily by this time, “I’ll Cry Instead” features a nearly forgettable blues-rock arrangement and clocks in at a curt 1:46, the shortest track on the record. It ostensibly tells the story of a jilted lover who‘d get revenge by becoming a ladies‘ man if only he could stop feeling sorry for himself. It sounds simple, but there‘s a lot going on here. “I’ll Cry Instead” is a tiny truffle, sweet on the outside, but filled with surprising stuff on the inside.
Two things were true about John in 1964: he was capable of incredible bouts of self-pity, and he also had a famously short fuse. Both of these qualities are on display in “I’ll Cry Instead.”
It starts with one of the most bizarrely ill-timed lead lines ever:
“I’ve get every reason on earth/to be sad.”
Yet in early 1964 John didn’t have any reason to be sad. His band was hugely popular and about to get bigger, he had money coming out the yin-yang, and he had a beautiful and doting wife and child waiting in the wings for him whenever he felt like being a husband and father. In classic Lennon fashion, though, he viewed all of these things with a wary, even hostile eye, always certain the other shoe was about to drop (it would, of course, in properly disastrous style in December of 1980), and therefore unable to fully appreciate the magnificence of what was happening to him.
The song then goes on to waffle psychotically from bravado to depression to barely concealed violence. Take the third and fourth lines for instance:
“If I could get my way/I’d get myself locked up today/But I can’t so I’ll cry instead.”
This lyric is coming from a man who hit his girlfriend so hard he knocked her out. This lyric is coming from a guy who would, just a few years later, publicly walk away from his wife and son and seemingly never look back. These lyrics should not be taken lightly. John Lennon, if nothing else, always told the truth, and these lyrics are razor-sharp.
Later in the song he says he’s going to break all the “hearts all around the world,” which of course is absolutely true. He would break millions of hearts over his twenty year stint as an entertainer and public figure, but probably only two really matter, the two he was writing about in this song, even if it was a veiled attempt.
Cynthia and Julian, the two millstones around John’s neck.
He’d hooked up with Cynthia when he was a nobody because she was a decent girl and he didn’t want to be alone, but now he was never alone and they had a baby together, and his inability to fulfill his roles as husband and father were constant sources of embarrassment, anger, frustration, and sadness.
I don’t believe for a second that John didn’t love Julian no matter how callously he hooked up with Yoko, but for most of his life John ran away when his emotions became too complicated, and his relationship with Julian and Cindy were always too complicated for him to sort out, never more so than in early 1964, on the edge of the biggest thing to ever happen to pop music.
So, maybe John did have every reason on Earth to be sad. He was, after-all, losing the only family he’d ever had…unless, of course, you don’t count The Beatles.
The ukulele version of “I’ll Cry Instead” doesn’t sound sad at all. The venerable Mr. Atwooll crafts a snappy, zydeco-blues combo that’s more like a celebration of the ended relationship than a dirge.
This is a guy who’s finally free and about to hit every club in town, his boys in tow, for a long weekend of breakin’ hearts. This is the sound of relief. This is the sound of a new beginning. It’s the sound John might have made if he went back to early ’64, put aside the anger and the Elvis, and allowed himself to be Daddy.
This was originally posted as part of the incredible multi-year project The Beatles Complete on Ukulele.