But that stuff is not the point of the blog, is it? See, I'd rather this blog be a project that I actually maintain, even if occasionally, so here's me trying, though I make no promises. I haven't ranted on a Beatley topic lately, and I've got a few good rants stored up. Here's one for you.
So check this out. The Cult of John makes me angry. You know what I mean about the Cult of John: in which a genius who was tragically murdered is remembered as some kind of peacenik-shaman-martyr when he was in fact a flawed, self-interested, sometimes douchey, and all-around more interesting artist than that. The Cult of John continues even as more and more even-handed stuff is written about him. (I just bought a remaindered copy of the recent Phil Norman biography, which for all its reputed sycophancy has got to be a little more measured than the stupid Ray Coleman book I reread recently-- I'll be posting my feelings on this new one before too long. Also, by the way, I am feeling cautious optimism about Nowhere Boy, a film about John as a teenager that will get a US release in October.) The Cult of John sets the tone of much of what is said about the Beatles, which is a huge bummer, ADDED to the original huger bummer of the fact that John died too young in the first place.
But the Cult of John has particularly ruined "Imagine," hasn't it? I can't remember who said this, but I once read someone's opinion that it's impossible, now, to explain what "Imagine" sounded like before John was killed, because ever since then it's less of a song and more of a symbol. And I believe it. The song is a great song, one that I am hardly unique in loving-- it's simple and anthemic, which was an aesthetic John was interested in at the time, but it has an underlying intelligence (both musically and lyrically) that's very appealing. If that makes sense. Though, if I may get bitchy for a moment, it has never struck me as his best melody. (You can hear this, by the way, when the song gets covered. Most other singers let the melody get plodding and boring-- they don't know what to do with it. John, of course, delivers it in a charmingly naive/vulnerable performance that's exactly right.) But see, ultimately, I feel like it's quite a good song that has, through no fault of its own, taken on almost more significance than it can bear.
Thinking about "Imagine" the song led me back to Imagine the album-- and this is an album that is so all over the place, so deeply and fascinatingly flawed, that I do keep coming back. I've said before that I find John's failures inherently more interesting than the failures of the other Beatles (Paul's bad albums, for instance, are just unlistenable, whereas only John's rarely get quite that bad for me). Perhaps you're not in the same camp, but hopefully you follow what I'm saying. To be clear, I wouldn't call Imagine a failure, but it is a complete mess of a album-- the work of a guy who seems confused about his own artistic aspirations and just what exactly he's doing, which is perhaps understandable given where he was at this point. Still, though, considering that it's the album that first introduced the ideas and images that would later get so caught up with the Cult of John, its messiness is interesting. (By the way, I'm aware that this album is the biggest Lennon solo album in terms of sales, and that it's been put into fairly reputable Best-Albums-Ever lists and stuff, but trust me on this. It really is a mess. This album's success is due to people confusing the whole album with the song.)
So, with all this in mind, I listened to Imagine in its entirety for the first time in a long while and had the following thoughts. This is by no means exhaustive, but if you haven't listened for a while either, you might try it and see if you agree.
1. "Imagine." Well, see what I've said above. This is a great, great song. But putting "Imagine" up at the front of album risks blowing one's proverbial wad early, especially given that lovely final chord with the wicked light touch of strings on it. It's literally downhill from here, and not just in that no other song is as good. It's that John reveals something divine at the beginning and then follows it with an album that will be very earth-bound.
2. "Crippled Inside." I go back and forth on how much I actually like this song. See, I think I know what John's doing here-- as is typical for him, he carefully diffuses any potential over-seriousness of "Imagine" by following it with a plucky country number we can laugh at and dance to. (Compare this to the way he followed "Let It Be" with "Maggie Mae," which in that case just comes off as mean, since Paul had no say in the matter. It's a similar impulse, I think.) But he might overshoot his intent a bit with this. Yes, the dark lyrics belie the swingy musical setting, as many have noted, but I don't think this is one of those Lennonist dark self-portraits in the manner of "Come Together." The lyrics look too much outward-- he's judging the world, you guys, not himself. "You can go to church and sing a hymn / Judge me by the color of my skin." Etc. He thinks WE'RE crippled inside-- totally '70s John at work here. It's like his optimism about humanity in "Imagine" has turned sour in a split second. Plus, when I'm in certain moods, this country parody stuff just grates.
3. "Jealous Guy." There IS one song on Imagine that is even better than "Imagine." And it's "Jealous Guy." Now this is a terrific melody. Damned near perfect. For what it's worth, John actually wrote this while still a Beatle, on the extended trip to India in 1968. At that point it was called "Child of Nature"-- the final lyrics came later. But this probably isn't a coincidence. I don't know what happened to the Beatles's minds when they split, but they almost never replicated the level of song-writing they managed to achieve while with the band, even when writing entirely on their own as they mostly did in India. Point is, "Jealous Guy" is amazing. It's just dripping with this beautiful suffering, and its focus on all the guilt and fear JOHN is feeling (rather than Yoko, whom he's singing to) is such a Lennonist move that I love it. Also, good tinkly piano there, John! It tinkles like raindrops... or tears.
4. "It's So Hard." I always forget this song when I'm recalling the album's tracks, which probably tells you something about my feelings about it. The song is good. The song is fine. It's a pleasant blues number with a big ol' sax part, and although the whole thing could stand to be a bit dirtier (John's trying with his vocal, but there's some singing-from-the-basement thing in the production that mutes it for me) there's nothing particularly wrong about any of this. Do note, though, that at track 4 we're already in our fourth VERY distinct genre. (Piano-based anthem--> cornball country--> exquisite ballad--> straight-up blues.) This is what I'm talking about when I say John's not sure what he's doing artistically on this album. These genre exercises sound like he's working through some kind of block, just trying to figure out what to do next.
5. "I Don't Want to Be a Solider Mama I Don't Want to Die." Exhibit A in what I mean when I say "interesting failure." The song is... not good. John, in love with his own wordplay, riffs forever and ever and ever on his title line. It surely sounded awesome in theory when discussed over bong hits, and maybe he could have pulled it off if he'd cut the length in half and cut the production by like 80%. But what I suspect happened is that when he recorded it he realized it was kind of boring, and then he and Phil Spector went and overproduced the thing into this really heavy, echoed, droney (not in a good way) wooly mammoth of a song. Then there's this ludicrous sax solo that comes off as some kind of crazy Hail Mary move-- not that it works. The song is bad in an interesting way, but it's still pretty damned bad.
1. "Gimme Some Truth." After the crap at the end of side A, we fortunately kick off side B with one of the best songs on the album. "Gimme Some Truth" is one of John's political songs that works, mostly because it's a rant against power that he keeps so universal (Tricky Dick notwithstanding) that it's still easy to identify with. (I mean, listening to "John Sinclair" these days is just not that fun, right? Right.) It doesn't hurt that it's a kickass performance, with John's voice nice and screamy, just awash in righteous anger, and the guitarist (George Harrison, by the way) rocking the solo and then, elsewhere, playing this endlessly circling guitar part whose relentlessness reminds me of a throbbing vein in a forehead. It's good stuff. More like this, please!
2. "Oh My Love." Well, we clearly won't be getting more like that, because instead we get "Oh My Love." Opinions differ on this one. Is the lazy, static feel here beautiful, or dull as toast? I side more in the latter category. As ballads go, "Jealous Guy" is about ten trillion times as cool for me. I will give some props to the piano part at the close, which is produced in a "Jealous Guy" kind of way but now sounds less rainy and more like dappled sunshine. I don't know-- I guess it's like "It's So Hard." It's fine, but I don't have a lot of strong feelings about it.
3. "How Do You Sleep?" Okay. Now. HERE is a song I have strong feelings about, and not one of those strong feelings is a positive one. The story in a nutshell: Paul McCartney wrote a couple of really opaque lines in "Too Many People," the 1971 "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" B-side, that referenced John. They were barely offensive, and they could have been about anyone. But John, in one of the fits of rage that John-Cultists pretend didn't exist, went freaking ballistic and wrote the nastiest song ever in response. This whole song is just a Fuck-You-Paul move, and it's loaded with really obvious puns and insults to make it very clear who he's talking about. It is, to put it mildly, unbeliveably uncalled for. More importantly, it's not a very good song. See, when Bob Dylan or even Carly Simon writes a song for the sole purpose of insulting someone, they at least do it with some poetry, with some dignity, with some musical gravitas. But John is so lost to his own rage here that everything just becomes subsumed in it, and the song is overproduced and shallow. So, yeah, I'm biased, because I don't like it when Beatles feud with each other in ways that end up being preserved forever. But I also don't know how JOHN could sleep, or indeed look his peace-preaching self in the eye, while he was spewing/recording/producing this shit, the nasty little hypocrite. Seriously, it's like he wants me to hate him. By the end of it, he's almost gotten me there. This John Lennon song actively encourages hate, and not hate at the power structure in a "Gimme Some Truth" kind of way-- real, actual hate at the people who were your friends. I mean, think about that.
4. "How?" And now I'm so angry after "How Do You Sleep?" that all I want to do is yell at John, who, at this point in history, was busy giving interviews disowning half his Beatles records for their "overproduction" and insinuating that Paul was a sissy because he wrote ballads-- even as he records the most navel-gazing ballad ever with about a thousand tons of strings produced into it. Seriously, that first explosion of strings is gag-inducing, isn't it? Fuck you, John. But, okay, no. When I'm calmer I can admit that the song is not the worst thing ever-- with a more simple setting it could have worked on his previous and far superior album, Plastic Ono Band. It's not bad, okay? But gah, that production. John, seriously.
5. "Oh Yoko!" And John, if you think you can win me back to your side with this jangly little love ditty, you are... well, maybe one-third right. Sure, the song is pleasant. Yes, yes. Goody for you. But it's now that I notice again something that's been bothering me. I think John, back in 1971, was losing his edge a little in the lyrics department. He's relying too heavily on this litany structure-- just look back at "Oh My Love" and "How?" and "Oh Yoko!" All these songs are basically lists. This is not exactly a bad thing, but there was a time when John would have done a bit better than just, you know, listing all the places where he might call Yoko's name. Or, in "Oh My Love," listing all the things that he sees. (The clouds, the sky, the trees.... I mean, there's simple and then there's simplistic, you know?)
And on that slight note, the album's done. Looking back at it, was it what you'd call a Best-Album-Ever list contender? I'd have to vote no. It has some HUGE high points, sure, but some unbelievably low ones too, and lots of just meh stuff. I think a lot of the problem with the Imagine album is that half the material is so forgettable, no one even remembers anything except the title song. It's an album that coasts almost entirely on that song. If John had named this one Plastic Ono Band II or something instead, this thing would never have been remembered so well at all.
Maybe this seems cruel. But I enjoy having unpopular opinions about the Beatles sometimes, and when it comes to the solo work, I have a LOT of unpopular opinions. (Namely one big one, which is that the solo music is mostly, with some key exceptions, not very good.) In this case, my unpopular opinion is that "Imagine" and "Jealous Guy" are really the only songs here worthy of being put on any list of great things. The rest is filler, in a couple cases embarrassingly bad filler. This is the kind of single-driven album that the Beatles used to take pride in NOT releasing. But so be it. As long as people love to listen to "Imagine," people are going to buy this and be subjected to "How Do You Sleep?" as well, assuring that the myriad pieces of John's personality are ALL preserved.
Next time I write about an entire John album, I promise that it'll be Plastic Ono Band or Walls and Bridges, both of which I like a lot more-- so there will be some more positive energy. But if you've read my rant thus far, thanks! Hopefully there's more in me.