Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Oct 8th 2010 2:30PM by Richie Unterberger
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Whether it's veneration, exploitation or some combination of the two, Lennon's longtime label EMI is seizing the day with a blow-out campaign of reissues the week of his birthday. Besides the de rigueur greatest-hits collection and a more all-encompassing four-CD survey, a whopping 11-CD 'Signature Box' repackages all of his studio albums (digitally remastered, of course) and singles with a disc of outtakes and home recordings. Also available is a two-CD edition of 'Double Fantasy,' the last Lennon release (co-billed to Yoko Ono) he saw reach the light of day in his lifetime, one disc being the "John Lennon original remastered" mix of the album, the other presenting "stripped-down" or less elaborate versions of its songs.
The four-CD set is titled 'Gimme Some Truth' after one of Lennon's hardest-hitting early solo songs, but in real truth there isn't much on these releases that will spark reappraisal of his career. Unless you're coming to John's solo output from scratch, you've likely heard everything here, even the mediocrities (like much of 'Mind Games') and failures (like most of 'Some Time in New York City'). The die-hards will have at least some of the previously unreleased material on bootlegs, and some similar rarities have already shown up on collections like 'Anthology' and 'Acoustic.' But whether you feel obliged to upgrade your Lennon collection for (possibly) the last time or take it as an occasion to listen to your pal's copy (or, heaven forbid, download it), what does hearing his core solo work top-to-bottom do to us emotionally, even if you're already intimately unfamiliar with it?
For me, it's striking how manic the tone of his solo recordings is when you stack it against the matchless classics he contributed to as one of the Beatles. An unfair comparison, perhaps, as it would be when assessing the legacies of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Yet it's an unavoidable one, especially on the early-1970s 'Plastic Ono Band' and 'Imagine' tracks. There, John – liberated from the constraints of working with his onetime buddies but also missing much of the melodic color McCartney, in particular, lent the Beatles – often felt free to lash out against everything and anyone, almost as if there was a direct line from his id to the recording console. Most notoriously, those targets included the Beatles on 'God,' a tune that slammed people and institutions Lennon had lost faith in almost as meticulously as if he were crossing them off his Christmas card list.
Less attention has been given to John's frequent digressions, sometimes disagreeably so, into bathetic sentimentality in the absence of the Beatles' checks and balances. This was not just a quality that rose to the surface in his celebrated odes to househusbandhood in the 'Double Fantasy' era, but present even on the largely vitriolic Plastic Ono Band's 'Love' (an admittedly 'Love'-ly acoustic-guitar-backed studio outtake of which is included on 'Signature Box'). How could the same guy who vilified McCartney for jumping "when your momma tell you anything" celebrate domesticity so sappily on 'Double Fantasy' songs like 'Beautiful Boy' – a track that, had Paul done it, critics (and possibly Lennon himself) would have had a field day decrying as the emasculation of a once-great talent? More obscurely, how could someone who castigated the Maharishi and dismissed the Beatles' trip to study meditation in India so viciously – in John and Yoko's skin-crawling, still-unreleased private tape 'The Maharishi Song' – croon so fondly about the country on the home recording 'India, India,' another highlight on the disc of unissued material on 'Signature Box'?
Consistency of attitude was not Lennon's forte, and based on his erratic solo catalog (and the memoirs of some of his intimates), such see-saws could make him hell to live with. Why, then, do so many of us nonetheless regard John, the artist and the man, with such forgiving affection?
In part it's because, whatever you thought of Lennon's songs, you had to be outraged at the tragedy of a man being gunned down in front of his home by a deranged fan at the age of 40, just at a point where he seemed primed to re-enter public life after five years or so of seclusion. However, perhaps it's also because Lennon, unlike so many celebrities who veer from emotional and political stance to stance, was so guilelessly unfettered by and admitting of his contradictions and fluctuations. Even in his dippiest odes to home and hearth, there's sometimes an underlying cynicism that makes you sense it's impossible for him to buy into any such idealism, no matter how cozy. Conversely, there's so often the feeling that no matter how nasty he's trying to come off in his most spiteful songs, he can't quite suppress his underlying humor and generosity.
You get this in spades in numerous Plastic Ono Band outtakes and demos – some now available, some still only circulating on bootleg – where grim diatribes are punctuated by jovial false starts, asides and jokes indicating that, far from exorcising his demons, John was exercising his funny bone. It could just be that Lennon often intentionally suppressed his funnier, happier side to make himself appear angrier and more serious than he really was. You don't get such scraps too often on the new Lennon reissues. But when such jiving chit-chat does show up on the 'Signature Box' rarities disc and "stripped" 'Double Fantasy' versions, it's like eavesdropping on the murmurings of a beloved if sometimes wayward family member.
This is a large if seldom-cited reason why, I'd reckon, we have such an emotional response to the work of John Lennon, and indeed all of the Beatles as a group and individuals, decade after decade. Listening to them – whether it's their timeworn classics or newly unearthed scraps of between-song banter – makes us feel almost as though John, Paul, George and Ringo are unofficial brothers of sorts, both among themselves (at least in the 1960s) and to us. If John's legacy is more poignant than the others, it's because he's the brother cut down before his time, so cruelly and unexpectedly.
San Francisco writer Richie Unterberger has authored eight rock history books, including The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, which won a 2007 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. His latest book is White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day. Read his blog on Red Room.