Thursday, April 1, 2010

Creeeeeak. (Also, Imagine the album.)

That is the sound of a rusty blog being wound painfully into gear by a lazy blogger. Creak creak creak. Argh. Is anyone out there? Hi! I haven't written in a while. I'm very sorry. See, I have this tendency in my life to come up with crazy projects, stick to them with near-religious fervor for a little while, and then drop them just as quickly. Already for 2010 I've adopted some other stupid projects to keep myself nuts-- I've been hunkering down on this book I've been trying to write for approximately 8,000 years (I'm either finishing it before the year is out, or giving up forever, because it's beginning to make me sick), and I've joined another choir, and then I've been busy elsewhere learning the ropes in this new industry I now work in (I've transitioned from trade book publishing of the cooking/lifestyle variety to medical journal publishing, and dear God is the scene different).

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.

Side A

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.

Side B

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.


  1. Good to have you back, kid. Hey, I don't know what your role at work is, but I'm a competent and very fast copy editor who works mostly for a publisher of medical/nursing textbooks. So if you ever need someone in that vein, gimme a shout and we'll see if we can do business together.

    Would you think me a bad person if I told you I'm not sure I ever listened to this album? I could fit the solo material I've heard and liked from all four guys onto one double disc. I'll only say this in John's defense: He'd just gotten out of a paradigm where he was idealized, and he was revolting against the deception. He was extremely into honesty. And heroin. So I don't hold How Do You Sleep? against him like you do. Maybe it helps if you think of him and Paul the way he would have liked you to have thought of him and Paul: as a couple of guys, who were none too fond of each other just then, airing their feelings on their way to a healthier relationship. I'm not saying it wasn't a dick move, but he wasn't running for sainthood. I might be playing devil's advocate here.

    Good to read you again ...

  2. You don't know me, but I've read through all of your articles and I'm very glad to see you back!

  3. Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back...

    Wow, I'm not sure why "Welcome Back Kotter" just popped into my head, but it did. Now time for Ovaltine. And then bed.

    Always a pleasure to read a new post on "A Year in the Life."


  4. Thanks, kids! It's good to be back. Though this piece does touch on why it's hard to come back-- once you've written through the Beatles songs, things get less fun for me. Still, I've got a few ideas.

    Anyway, I would never hold not listening to _Imagine_ against anyone. Pick up the title track, "Jealous Guy," and maybe "Gimme Some Truth" and leave it at that. And Troy, okay, sure, I do get that John was delighting in deflating some kind of Beatley mythology with "How Do You Sleep?" And I'm sympathetic-- I, indeed, take pleasure in trying to deflate the mythology of John and the specific myth that _Imagine_ is a good album. But he does it in such a mean-spirited way that it's completely off-putting. I really, really dislike him in that song. He IS into honesty, and the honest truth is that sometimes John was really freaking nasty, so I guess he'd want to have it preserved. But it doesn't mean I have to like that part of him.

    By the way, I work on the sales side, so I doubt I'd ever cross paths with someone who'd be looking for a copyeditor. But one never knows! (I actually always wanted to be a copyeditor-- I still copyedit and proofread gratis for the hell of it whenever I get a chance. But for some reason I ended up in sales, which has never stopped weirding me out a little.)

  5. Well, just when i thought it was hello-goodbye, it's hello hello again. Nice to see you back in print, Meg. I remember back in my youth when Imagine first came out. Of course the title cut was a huge hit, and really kept John on the map, so to speak, having been out-shined by Paul to that point, solo career wise, IMO. I have to tell you, I am almost sick of that song now, having heard it played ad nauseum over the decades.

    On an aside, i recall reading an article a few years ago where various celebs and famous folks were asked to name there favorite BEATLES song, and Jimmy Carter said Imagine. Hello Jimmy, it isn't a Beatles song. (Read the directions before answering the question.)

    But, back to the album. I remember liking it okay, but for the life of me I cannot recall a single other song on the album. Probably if I heard some tracks, I'd go, oh yea I remember that. I do not think i have listened to the album since my college days. And believe me, that's a long road back. I Imagine (pun intended) i still have the album downstairs buried in the rack with other stuff I'd just as soon never hear again. (I cannot listen to Pink Floyd. Doesn't hold up for me.) To be honest, you have peaked my interest with your post, but I'm not sure i want to pull Imagine out. That probably shows where i rank it.

    And i agree with you about How Do You Sleep.

    BTW, hey Troy; great to see you in print again, too! It's like a mini reunion.

  6. Great to see you back. I think you're totally on the mark about How Do You Sleep? I can't forgive John for this song because he spent the rest of his life (off and on) slagging Paul in the press. Even as late as 1980. Occasionally John would say something nice about Paul but John seemed like he was mostly interested in securing his own legacy and downplaying Paul's. Of course, Paul acted out of self-interest at times too, but Paul NEVER publicly attacked John's music or sought to diminish John's talent. Paul's criticisms of John on Ram were that John took his lucky break and broke it in two; and a remark about John "preaching practices." Nothing Paul said on Ram was an attack on John's music or skills.

    That's what bugs me most about How Do You Sleep. It isn't just filled with hate; it's also John trying to cut down his partner in order to boost his own reputation. And that's just tacky.

    There's a lot of forgettable songs on this album. I think part of the problem is the Phil Spector production. I'm no expert but the album sounds really dated to me.

  7. So glad to see this update Megan! Though I can certainly see the need for a long break after such a project. And a project so beautifully executed!

    I generally agree that too much of the solo work by the Fab 4 is underwhelming, but in terms of Lennon, I think "Working Class Hero" is as searing and to-the-bone as anything the Beatles ever wrote. Having grown up with the Beatles, as a young teen I really liked a lot of Lennon's political stuff (though I have no desire to own a copy of "Instant Karma" at present having heard it seemingly thousands of times), it really felt like the zeitgeist at the time.

    Tom R.

  8. Meh...just listened to Working Class Hero again for the 1st time in's OK, no biggie...TR

  9. Anonymous, I agree about the datedness. That kind of thing doesn't always bother me, though. When it's dated and also lame, then, yeah-- it bothers me.

    And Tom, "Working Class Hero" is okay for me. It's a bit ambitious, but the verses are solid. I was, though, exactly the right age when I first loved that song-- about 14. That's the right age for being that disaffected, I figure. (Though of course John was over 30 when he wrote it.)

  10. Frank!

    I agree pretty much totally with what everyone is writing about John and How Do You Sleep? I didn't mean to appear to support John -- just to explain him. Which is pretty funny, since there's no one here I feel needs me explaining anything Beatles to them. Comments are a weird place.

    I mean, I guess I was defending him, since I wrote "in John's defense," but really I just find myself empathizing a bit. He apparently felt so controlled as the Beatles broke, in terms of appearance and lyrics and possibly even music and certainly in his public behavior. And from what I've read of John, he's a guy who could have used a little controlling, what with the unfortunate attitudes and/or statements about women, blacks, gays, Jews, etc. So there's a part of me that appreciates (in the understands sense, not the likes sense) his compulsion, once free, to be brutally honest. For me, the part I hold against him is that I think he turned that into a focus on the lyrics almost to the exclusion of the songwriting and production, which I feel suffered a great deal.

  11. I hadn't taken time to thank you for all the great posts and work you did last year on the Beatles blog. It was excellent quality and the content was always interesting, always had me looking daily. I set up an RSS on My Yahoo and was happy to see your new posting today.

    John was a brilliant man but he could be small in so many ways. I never liked his attack on Paul but those guys competed against each other like 2 thoroughbreds their entire careers. And we are the lucky ones for it because the world received the gift of their talents that will live forever.

    Keep up the good work! You have an different slant on the Beatles and I for one would love to see more of your creativity. Thanks!

  12. Wow....I am totally knocked out by this post. I am also someone who can confess to not having listened to every solo album the boys released post-Beatles. Their solo output really isn't on a par with the Beatles. But then as far as I'm concerned no artist in the history of the world is on a par with the Beatles.

    At first when I started reading the post, I was like hold on there girl, you are knocking Imagine?? But then I actually found myself agreeing with you more and more as I read down the page. Although I do love Imagine and think it is perfect in many ways, it's lost any emotional meaning for me now, whereas the beautiful vulnerability of Jealous Guy still gets me every time I hear it (John's version or covers), so it perhaps does have the edge in terms of being a better written song. And you are so right, Imagine should have closed the album...what was he thinking!

    Great thought-provoking post and I can't wait to read the rest of your blog, only sorry I missed it last year.

    Loving your tags by the way 'Meg has opinions'. You certainly do!

    Thanks for sharing and to the commenters too, so refreshing to read some unique analysis of John's output.

    By the way I managed to see Nowhere Boy twice while it was released here in the UK. It definitely will give you an all-rounded portrait of John as an angry young man driven as much by ambition as art. And it doesn't do any harm that the lead actor is absolutely gorgeous!! Mimi and Julia are portrayed by two extremely talented actresses and Ann Marie Duff (as Julia) in particular is a standout performance. There's great detail paid to beatles legend as well (eg George's Raunchy audition upstairs on the bus) which was nice as the director could have just concentrated on the bigger moments. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it once you see it!

  13. Hello, I do not agree with the previous commentator - not so simple

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