Genius is a funny thing. It knows no bounds of logic. It follows no
linear path to fulfillment. It is an equal-opportunity benefactor and
tormentor -- it can bring fame and fortune to its bearer, just as it can
bequeath madness and despair.
All of which, in one way or another, describes the life and work of John
Lennon. And all of which is documented in a lovely, aching, gritty and
mesmerizing manner in the four-CD boxed set, The John Lennon
There is very little that is entertaining in this set, at least in the
superficial sense of the word. Unlike the 1990 4-CD set on the
Parlophone label, Lennon, Anthology is not a greatest hits
or favorite tracks compilation.
Over the course of its 94 cuts, Anthology goes instead to the
heart and mind of Lennon during his solo years (if, with wife Yoko Ono
in constant personal and creative tow, the term "solo" can be applied).
With its myriad album cast-offs, studio outtakes, home demo recordings
and assorted ephemera, the set, as assembled by Ono, is a cut-and-paste
collage of Lennon in the final 10 years or so of his life. Moving in
roughly chronological order, the tracks lay out the convoluted path of
Lennon's post-Beatles work and the mirror it held up to his life.
It opens with one of his greatest songs, the stark, bitter and biting
"Working Class Hero," (RealAudio excerpt) from his greatest solo album, Plastic Ono
Band (1970). As his voice scrapes across the scathing lyrics like
fingernails over a chalkboard, there is an instant recognition of the
nature of his genius. No matter what the rest of the set holds in store
-- and it is a mixed bag at best, aesthetically -- one thing is clear.
When Lennon opened his mouth to sing, truths poured out.
In the case of "Hero," it is the bleakness of life lived by numbers. As
the set progresses, however, emotional truths of all varieties are
manifested. From the uninhibited joy of the first, deliciously breathy
"Wellllllllll-ahhhhh" of Lennon's cover of the classic "Be Bop A Lula";
to the bile of "Steel and Glass" (Lennon's slap at former manager Allen
Klein), Anthology bristles with feeling. Or feelings ... be they
mocking or maddening or tender or heartbreaking.
Lennon was full of feelings. And he used them even as they seemed to use
him, to create a culture dish of expression. Thus, when Lennon began his
solo years, pushing away the Fabs while embracing Ono and recreating the
world as he knew it, that effort yielded "God," in which Lennon turns
his back on the old by screaming out his negation of it ("I don't
believe in Beatles," among many other things).
Later, as he became more politically involved in the United States, his
activism was funneled into his art with songs like "John Sinclair" and
"Luck of the Irish" (both captured in raw live recordings at a 1971
protest rally). And just as his anger seemed posed and forced, so do
Much was made in the mid-'70s of Lennon's infamous "lost weekend"
separation from Ono. Nothing captures that manic year and more away from
hearth and home than Anthology's three studio snatches of verbal
brawling and bantering between Lennon and producer Phil Spector (during
the Rock 'N' Roll sessions). Lennon seemed out of his mind at the
time -- and by many accounts, he was.
And still later, at the end of the '70s and near the end of his life,
Lennon's years of domestic bliss with Ono and their son Sean culminated
in the songs of Double Fantasy (1980). As they did on the album
itself, tracks like the home demo versions of "Woman" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Watching The Wheels" positively glow with affection.
Wisely, Ono has included other home tapes -- of the three of them
talking and laughing, of Sean singing the Beatles' "With A Little Help
From My Friends"; purely the sort of mundane, domestic stuff that
filtered its way through Lennon's psyche ... and came out art. Moments
like these go to the core of Lennon -- the man and the artist -- in ways
that the many outtakes and other "previously unreleased" tracks of
Anthology never come close to approximating.
Artist, genius, or otherwise, Lennon was also a musician.
And, in an irony worthy of Lennon himself, that is where
Anthology comes up short. This is not the fault of Ono and her
collaborators on this set, but of Lennon's body of solo work.
Plainly stated, the vast majority of Lennon's solo work -- and the
tracks of this set -- are middling at best. For every "Imagine" (RealAudio excerpt) (there's
a grandiose version included here that surpasses the record itself),
there are scores of mediocrities like "Goodnight Vienna" (a demo for
Ringo Starr's version) and "Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out."
And those mediocrities give way to complete inanities like "Attica
State" (recorded live at the fabled Apollo Theater) and "Woman is the
Nigger of the World," among many others.
Looming in absentia is Paul McCartney. He makes an appearance on this
set in a brief parody of "Yesterday" that Lennon tosses off during a
recording session. More prominently, he is the subject of Lennon's
scathing "How Do You Sleep?" Created in 1971 at the height of the former
songwriting duo's acrimony, "Sleep" is a lyrical tirade, but it is also
a great song. And there's the rub. The fact is that Lennon -- genius
that he undoubtedly was -- was merely half of a greater, two-headed
genius that went by the songwriting name: Lennon/McCartney. When the two
split, their subsequent solo songs seemed to split as well.
Lennon's sheared off into cynicism, raw emotion, bitterness,
frustration, anger and love -- all of which were displayed outright,
with no veneer of perspective. Similarly, McCartney's were imbued with
the facile melodicism, optimism and musical polish that were his
But without the leavening affect of their respective extremes, Lennon
and McCartney apart never came close to the sublimity of Lennon and
In Lennon's case, the results are plain to see ... and hear. The bulk of
Anthology is a grab bag of one-dimensional songs that are lent
distinction only by Lennon's miraculous voice. Most melodies are slight;
most musical backgrounds are provided by musical hacks (with the
exception of the inventive basslines of Klaus Voormann); and Lennon
often seems less inspired than simply... busy. (One suspects that
McCartney's upcoming anthology of Wings material will be much the same
-- for similar reasons).
That said, however, Anthology is a fascinating historical
document and provides a wealth of insights through which Lennon's life
and work can be filtered and digested. With most rock artists, such
extra effort is hardly necessary. With Lennon -- a musical titan of the
century -- it is imperative.