Arthur Janov, the Californian psychotherapist who created the controversial “primal scream” therapy method, has died this week at age 93. Janov pioneered a therapy based upon the concept of re-living childhood trauma and repressed memories by re-experiencing the pain as an adult and letting it out physically via screaming.
Primal therapy was practiced by a number of well-known people during Janov’s lifetime, including actor James Earl Jones and late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But by far Janov’s most famous clients were John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1970.
Janov published “The Primal Scream” that year, a book Lennon had read and been impressed with. The therapy was a catalyst for letting out a lifetime’s worth of the musician’s repressed trauma– from the death of his mother in 1958, to the unbelievable stress of being in the most famous band in the world for 10 years.
The result was Lennon’s first solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” released in December 1970. The influence of his newfound therapy is evident from the get-go. “Mother” is a sparse dirge and a means for Lennon to scream through the toughest trauma of his childhood: the loss of both parents, his mother’s death and his father’s abandonment. Lennon screams a couplet “Mama don’t go/Daddy come home” over and over until the song fades out.
On that and other tracks, the raw emotion of the therapy translated to a lean skeletal backing. Lennon either played guitar or piano on most songs, Klaus Voorman on bass and Ringo Starr on drums. Lennon’s voice was angst-filled and despairing on songs like “Well, Well, Well” and “I Found Out.” Perhaps self-consciously, he would dismiss the screaming as just “rock and roll” in a Rolling Stone interview, and singing he’d done since The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”
Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, also partook in the therapy with her own demons to bear, namely the loss of her daughter Kyoko in a custody battle to her first husband. With her husband she simultaneously released “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” and it was equally groundbreaking. Her powerful wailing runs through the album including on the staggering opening track alone “Why.” Ono’s voice is a powerhouse and became her trademark. Coupled with Janov’s therapy, Ono turns the act of singing into a cathartic art form.
The penultimate track “God” on Lennon’s album is a swift repudiation of many of the heroes and idols in Lennon’s life including the Maharishi, Bob Dylan, and Lennon’s former band, The Beatles. He would soon think the same about his treatment. “I still think that Janov’s therapy is great, you know, but I do not want to make it a big Maharishi thing,” Lennon had said after his therapy sessions were over.
Lennon’s take on primal therapy would influence self-professed Beatles’ fan Kurt Cobain in the 1990’s, another rock star who was thrust into the spotlight and whose life was marred by tragedy. But Lennon was first to create art from pain discovered in a therapeutic setting, nearly a quarter of a century earlier.