by Allan Kozinn, The New York TImes, 15 Nov 1998
At a glance, the just released four-CD ”John Lennon Anthology” looks very much like an ambitious collectors’ trawl. Lavishly packaged and copiously annotated, this ”Anthology” (Capitol) brims with studio outtakes, concert performances, private composing tapes and assorted spoken bits — 94 selections in all. The thriving bootleg market has proved that the Beatles, collectively and individually, have a following that voraciously snaps up material of this kind.
But satisfying the quasi-musicological obsessions of collectors is not the primary purpose of this set. ”Anthology,” compiled by Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, is less a freestanding record release than an installment in a continuing multimedia biography. It joins a mountain of CD’s, videotapes, material for film documentaries and radio series, picture books, collections of Lennon’s writings and art works — that Ms. Ono has released, overseen or sanctioned since Lennon was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980.
This body of posthumously released work is an object lesson in the building, polishing and maintenance of the myth that envelopes a cultural icon. Outside the world of pop music, one sees similar treatment accorded to Lennon’s neighbor at the Dakota apartments, Leonard Bernstein. Soon after Bernstein’s death in 1990, his children and his production company, Amberson, began arranging commemorative concerts and documentaries, reissuing classic television appearances and encouraging performances of newly published, authoritative editions of his works. An official Web site and a newsletter keep the world abreast of these developments.
Many pop stars fare less well. Since the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, RCA has reissued his recordings by the boxful, the Postal Service has memorialized him on a stamp, and there have been several books and documentaries, not all of them sympathetic. But he left no legacy of self-defining interviews, and with no one seeing to his posthumous image, he has become an amorphous figure — an overdeveloped larynx attached to an increasingly dissolute body.
On Lennon’ behalf, Ms. Ono has projected a carefully defined picture of a musician, peace campaigner, husband and father, a man with a complex temperament and an equally complex sense of humor. In her liner notes for the ”Anthology,” in fact, Ms. Ono begins with an almost novelistic physical description:
”In person, John was a much more attractive man than the one you saw in photos and films. He had very fair, delicate skin and soft, sandy hair with a touch of red in it when the light hit it a certain way.” Then, after describing the moles on his forehead, the gracefulness with which he carried himself, and his personal magnetism, she adds: ”His slumming, clowning and acting the entertainer was just a kind of play acting he enjoyed. But it was obvious to anybody around him that he was actually a very heavy dude: not a prince, but a king.”
This is hagiography, certainly; yet Ms. Ono pointedly avoids making Lennon into a plaster saint. Even if she were so inclined, his life was too thoroughly documented for that, and doubtless Lennon would have loathed the idea. So her notes discuss bad times as well as good, and touch on his angry, stubborn, indiscreet and remarkably inconsiderate sides. She describes, for example, an incident in which Lennon had sex with another woman at a party while Ms. Ono and the other guests waited in the next room. Telling that story follows a principle of myth-making that goes back to ancient times: an iconic figure’s flaws put his virtues in high relief.
Granted, as popular culture icons go, Ms. Ono has plenty to work with: Lennon’s work with the Beatles guarantees him a constituency. But it is Lennon’s post-Beatles work that Ms. Ono is most vigorously promoting, and the audience for that has always been shakier, because the work itself was uneven. At its worst — the batch of topical broadsides that made up the ”Sometime in New York City” double album — it is workaday and expendable. Even Lennon regarded it that way. His best music, though, is incisive, abrasive and hard-hitting.
Many of the songs on his best albums, ”Plastic Ono Band,” ”Imagine” and ”Double Fantasy,” are also intensely personal. It is not lost on Ms. Ono that for the personal songs to live, listeners must remain curious about the circumstances that led Lennon to write them. Hence the constant stoking of the Lennon story: if either his music or myth were not constantly in the public eye and ear, his post-Beatles music might fade into 1970’s oldiedom.
This is why Ms. Ono has not opposed the use of Lennon’s music and image in advertisements, to the chagrin of Lennon’s most ardent and idealistic fans. Hearing him sing ”Revolution” in a Nike ad or seeing him portrayed, along with Einstein, Gandhi and Bob Dylan, in Apple Computer’s ”Think Different” pantheon, serves a purpose beyond the hawking of someone else’s product.
Lennon himself was a championship-level promoter of his work and ideas. When world peace became his pet project, in 1969, he turned his honeymoon with Ms. Ono into a Bed-In for Peace, news media invited. To reporters who asked why, he said that since the news media were reporting on his marriage anyway, he might as well use the occasion to get his message out. Thereafter, he periodically promoted his albums with interviews that were so expansive that several were published as books, in question-answer form.
LENNON’S volubility on a range of issues, and his uncanny ability to tap into the Zeitgeist made him a spokesman for his generation. But his pronouncements and his penchant for elaborate self-explanation have been equally useful in death: however much has been written about him, his image is now not radically different from what it was during his life.
Still, images of the famous are rarely permanently fixed. As time passes and biographers a generation or two removed take up the story, the focus inevitably shifts. Even now, Ms. Ono is hardly the only shaper of Lennon’s myth. A raft of insiders has weighed in with books, among them Lennon’s sister (Julia Baird’s ”John Lennon: My Brother”), his closest childhood friend (Pete Shotten’s ”John Lennon In My Life”), his lover during an 18-month separation from Ms. Ono in the early 1970’s (May Pang’s ”Loving John”), his tarot card reader (John Green’s ”Dakota Days”) and two of his personal assistants (Anthony Fawcett’s ”One Day At a Time” and Frederic Seaman’s ”Last Days of John Lennon”).
Independent biographies have ranged from the scholarly (Jon Wiener’s ”Come Together”) and the respectfully balanced (Ray Coleman’s ”Lennon”), to the openly hostile (Albert Goldman’s ”The Lives of John Lennon,” which portrays Lennon as a violent, musically inept junkie). Judging from the discussion of Lennon and his music on the Internet in recent years, most readers touch on these extremes and either reject one outright or create a dialectic of their own.
What does ”Anthology” add to the Lennon story? Breadth of detail and sharpness of focus, mainly. We’ve known since the Beatles’ first news conferences that Lennon had a quick wit, but here a selection of parodies (several of which skewer Mr. Dylan) offer a more private view of how Lennon’s humor functioned. A series of alternately jokey and tense exchanges with the producer Phil Spector, recorded during the sessions for the 1975 ”Rock-and-Roll” album, convey the ambiguities in that peculiar relationship.
One of the unreleased songs, ”Serve Yourself,” eviscerates the born-again religious sentiments of Mr. Dylan’s ”Gotta Serve Somebody.” Given the number of comparatively tame, expletive-free versions of this song available on bootlegs, it is striking that Ms. Ono has released this one, by far the best, but also the harshest and most cutting version Lennon recorded.
Also among the home tapes are Lennon’s unadorned recording of ”Real Love,” a song the other former Beatles fleshed out for their own ”Anthology,” and ”Life Begins at 40,” a country tune that was one of several here that Lennon wrote for Ringo Starr. The studio outtakes, along with some shaky early run-throughs, include a seemingly inebriated Lennon doing his version of the Ronettes classic ”Be My Baby,” a discarded take of ”I’m Losing You” with Cheap Trick as Lennon’s backing band, and a lovely account of ”Imagine,” in which a harmonium supports the piano.
The four disks divide Lennon’s work along mostly chronological lines, beginning with sessions recorded in England soon after the Beatles’ breakup, then moving through the heavily political New York years, the ”lost weekend,” as Lennon called his separation from Ms. Ono, and a group of recordings e made in 1979 and 1980, as he prepared to return to public life after five reclusive years. (For non-archivists, most of the best material is included on a highlights disk, ”Wonsaponatime.”)
This will not be Ms. Ono’s last word on Lennon. There is a sufficient supply of outtakes and home recordings — some more interesting than those included here — to draw on for future releases. There is also some unreleased performance video, and Ms. Ono recently signed a contract to tell their story (again) in a film. One hopes, though, that she is also thinking in grander terms. However unvarnished her portrait of Lennon may be, so long as it remains the official portrait, there will always be questions about its completeness.
There was talk, a decade ago, of a Lennon museum, a rock star’s version of a Presidential library, where researchers would have access to correspondence, recordings and other memorabilia. Ms. Ono must at some point loosen her hold on this material, and when she does — when biographers have these resources at their disposal — the Lennon myth will take on a life independent of her. It will still be an interpreted myth, of course: biographers decide what to include and what to leave out, just as Ms. Ono has. But distance, emotional and temporal, often brings clarity.
Packaging of an Icon: A Work in Progress
In the 18 years since John Lennon was murdered, his widow, Yoko Ono, has either overseen or authorized the release of an array of projects, all of which not only add up to a continuing multimedia biography of Lennon but also keep his life and work in high profile. Following are the most prominent projects:
”The John Lennon Collection” (1980), a compilation of hits, expanded upon its CD reissue in 1989.
”Heart Play: Unfinished Dialogue” (1983), selections from Lennon’s last interviews.
”Milk and Honey” (1984), the album that Lennon and Ms. Ono were working on when Lennon was shot.
”Live in New York City” (1986), a recording of the One to One charity concerts that the Lennons and their backing band, Elephant’s Memory, gave at Madison Square Garden in 1972.
”Menlove Avenue” (1986), a compilation of previously unreleased studio recordings.
”Imagine: John Lennon” (1988), the soundtrack from the documentary film.
”Lennon” (1990), a four-CD compilation of his best post-Beatles’ recordings.
”Lennon Legend” (1997), yet another compilation of hits.
VIDEO AND FILM
”Live in New York City” (1986), the One to One concerts, 1972.
”Imagine” (1986), the long-form video produced to accompany Lennon’s 1971 album of the same title — not to be confused with:
”Imagine: John Lennon” (1988), a documentary by Andrew Solt using archival footage and private film.
”Live Rock-and-Roll Revival, Toronto” (1988), filmed by D. A. Pennebaker at a 1969 concert, Lennon plays oldies with Eric Clapton and company; Ms. Ono sings in a bag.
”John and Yoko: The Bed-In” (1990), a documentary about the second of the Lennons’ Bed-Ins for Peace, in Montreal, 1969.
”Lennon: A Tribute” (1991), Elton John, Natalie Cole, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Joel, Lenny Kravitz and others sing Lennon songs, from a 50th birthday concert in Liverpool in 1990.
”The John Lennon Video Collection” (1992), promotional clips for 19 of his songs.
”The Mike Douglas Show” (1998), all five days of the Lennons’ as co-hosts on the afternoon talk show in 1972; includes Lennon’s performances with Chuck Berry.
TELEVISION AND RADIO
”John and Yoko: A Love Story” (1985), a dramatization.
”The Lost Lennon Tapes” (1988-92), 221 hours of radio programming that drew heavily on Lennon’s private tape archives, supplied by Ms. Ono. The series was the source of dozens of bootlegs.
”Skywriting by Word of Mouth” (1986), a collection of Lennon’s short stories, poems, drawings and general zaniness.
”Japan Through John Lennon’s Eyes” (1990), a book of drawings and notes Lennon made when he was studying Japanese. ALLAN KOZINN