Not content to be merely an ex-Beatle. John Lennon has carved out a new career for himself as political gadfly, floating member of the international avant-garde and as rock’s most psychologically daring tightrope artist. John has always displayed an amazing capacity for growth, and if one is impatient with the speed with which he takes up and then discards various causes, philosophies, and people, the other side of the coin is that he hasn’t fallen into the latter-day complacency of various other rock and roll over-achievers.
Yet despite his quest in and out of music, Imagine raises the question how much further John can progress with the vocabulary of concepts and feelings laid down on John Lennon / Plastic One Band.
POB’s importance lay not in the fact that it is the culmination of certain tensions which can be seen in John’s work since the beginning (the lyrical directness and vocal intensity, for example), but that it was also their solution. As an early adolescent, John chose rock as both his artistic and therapeutic medium. Rock and roll’s way of solving problems is simply stating and restating them (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” is the classic example) and through the resulting emotional and physical exhaustion, the pressure is temporarily alleviated. However, the intervention of the primal therapy experience forced John to redefine his approach in a subtle but decisive way. Where he had sung “Twist and Shout” with the urgency of someone who had to get something off his chest, he sang the songs on POB as a final recreation of his original traumas, and as a document of their cure. POB is a profoundly “ultimate” album, because it unbends the mainspring of at least one man’s rock and roll career. The question of following up POB was thus inescapable because it was difficult to imagine its successor being merely more of the same.
The problem of following an album as perfect as POB is of course more than a stylistic one. POB took an individual course. Where the trend of rock over the past few years had been one of increasing complexity and sophistication (certainly John, with songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus” is as responsible for this as anyone), POB represented a return to rock’s most visceral, and still implicit origins. Of course, it was not done naively, but with a full regalia of theoretical justifications. But it is a style which, because it is so bound up with a particular experience at a moment in time, is obsolete once it is expressed.
On the evidence of Imagine, I don’t think John has resolved the manner in which a masterpiece and an artistic dead-end like POB can successfully be followed. In its technical sloppiness and self-absorption, Imagine is John’s Self-Portrait. Most of it centers around issues which have already been dealt with on POB, only here handled less passionately and, strangely, less fastidiously as well. For POB, in its singing and instrumental work, was as much a triumph of artifice as of art. It managed to sound both spontaneous and careful, while Imagine is less of each. Even though it contains a substantial portion of good music, on the heels of POB it only seems to reinforce the questioning of what John’s relationship to rock really is.
“Imagine,” for instance, is simply the consolidation of primal awareness into a world movement. It asks that we imagine a world without religions or nations, and that such a world would mean brotherhood and peace. The singing is methodical but not really skilled, the melody undistinguished, except for the bridge, which sounds nice to me.
I first heard “Crippled Inside” on my car radio. I didn’t know right off who it was (though the dobro sounded like George), but was convinced that only someone very famous, in this age of banal competence, would dare put out something so haphazard. The song’s refrain and theme is “One thing you can’t hide/Is when you’re crippled inside,” and is another pitch for John’s personal outlook. It sports an Ed Sanders-type vocal.
It is not clear whether “It’s So Hard” came before or after John’s primal therapy experience. “It’s so hard, it’s really hard/Sometimes I feel like going down.” John sings, and the words can have the most general meaning, or, applied to John’s own past, the most specific. The guitar playing is extremely basic; the sax playing by King Curtis is extremely compact. Like “Crippled Inside,” it sounds to have been done in a single take.
“Oh My Love” is another post-primal testimonial, to the effect that John can only now see, feel, and love for the first time. John’s singing here is not as full-bodied as on POB, though part of the blame must be placed on the quality of the recording, which doesn’t sound as good to these cars as that on the earlier album.
“I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” is an enumeration of all the roles John withdraws from, and contains some incisive lines like, “Well, I don’t wanna be a lawyer mama, I don’t wanna lie” and, “Well, I don’t wanna be a thief now mama. I don’t wanna fly.” The melody is essentially the Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me.” An aura of grandiose decadence envelops this cut. When John shouts “Hit it!” to the horns, it is like some ancient tyrant commanding the Nubians. He sounds both long-suffering and cruel.
“How,” again has a nice bridge, but is otherwise fairly drippy, and contains predictable lines like, “How can I have feeling when I don’t know If it’s a feeling?” “Oh Yoko!” is a charming bauble, another tribute to his wife.
The three really worthy, musically effective numbers are “Jealous Guy,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “How Do You Sleep.” And while on a spontaneous level I find them the most musically appealing, I think there are also sound reasons for their quality. Each of them represents an area of John’s sensibility which he has previously not presented, and while I find “How Do You Sleep,” John’s character assassination of Paul McCartney, horrifying and indefensible, it nevertheless has an immediacy which makes it more compelling than most of the rest of the album.
“Jealous Guy” is a touching confession. It boasts a brilliantly tortured, pathetic vocal and an eloquent string arrangement. His voice here is weak and lacks range, but this only contributes to the effect. The song is powerful because it progresses beyond the realm of POB. There, John’s whole realty was “Yoko and me.” Here, then insulation and mutual devotion comes unstuck out of John’s lack of trust in her, and the moment is a humane and revealing one. The initial musical motive and the piano arrangement are highly reminiscent of “Day in the Life.”
“Gimme Some Truth” is one of John’s famous polysyllablic songs, and like “I Found Out” is a series of denunciations. Here, however, the shock of recognition is not dramatized, rather, John knows perfectly well what the truth is, and is merely disgusted with all the hypocrites whose business it is to obscure it. It contains a brilliant seething guitar solo by George.
In sheer viciousness, nothing on the album surpasses “How Do You Sleep.” It begins with the orchestra tuning up, a la Sgt. Pepper, and proceeds to lay waste to Paul’s character, family and career. John is still a wicked punster, and lines like “The only thing you done was yesterday” hit then mark. But beyond the cruelty of it, it is offensive because it is unjust. Paul’s music may be muzak to John’s ears, but songs like “Oh Yoko” or “Crippled Inside” are no more consequential than anything on McCartney or Ram. And while a song like “It’s So Hard” is more “serious” than much of what’s on those two albums. it is certainly no better. As for “You live with straights who tell you you was king,” popstars do have their sycophants and I wonder if John is really such an exception. As for “Jump when your momma tell you anything,” that is an unusual accusation for John to hurl at someone else. Finally, there is the audacity of the retrain “Ah how do you sleep at night?” as if to suggest that Paul’s conscience should be bothered by the course his life has taken.
The motives for “Sleep” are baffling. Partly it is the traditional bohemian contempt for the bourgeois; partly it is the souring of John’s long-standing competitive relationship with Paul. When they were both Beatles their rivalry was channeled towards the betterment of the Beatles as a totality. Apart, it is only destructive.
Most insidiously, I fear that John sees himself in the role of truth-teller, and, as such, can justify any kind of self-indulgent brutality in the name of truth. In “Gimme Some Truth,” John complains, “I’ve had enough of watching scenes. Of schizophrenic-egocentric-paranoic-prima donnas”; who is he speaking about now? Personally. I’m interested in John the man, his personal trials and dramas, because he has revealed them to us as John the extraordinary artist. If he does not continue as such, his posturings will soon seem not merely dull but irrelevant. It seems to me that John is facing the most extraordinary challenge of his career, both personally and artistically. But then, great artists, of whom John is one, are nothing if not resourceful.