Anthology Mirrors Life And Mind Of Lennon

The collection was assembled chiefly by Yoko Ono.

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

Anthology.

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

those songs.

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

hallmarks.

But without the leavening affect of their respective extremes, Lennon

and McCartney apart never came close to the sublimity of Lennon and

McCartney.

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.