A response to a friend's comment about the previous post re: John Lennon, but it was too long for the comment box

>> Thursday, June 06, 2013

John Lennon as a has-been wanna-be. Ha! You really can be funny, sometimes, Eric.

He changed music. Then he changed it again. Then he kept on changing music. Mick Jagger as a strutting banty rooster who should have quit years ago, yes. John Lennon as a has-been? Nope.
- Brother Tom, in the comments (June 6th, 2013).

I hope this doesn't seem like I'm picking on you, Tom, because I'm not.  I grokked your comment  and I think it reflects a common feeling that I'm sympathetic to.  But I wrote a response that was longer than the comment box allowed, so I'm making it a post and I hope it's all cool.
Coming after Imagine, Some Time in New York City proved a sharp about-face for Lennon fans expecting more of the same when the double album appeared that summer. Critics were not impressed. In a scathing review published in Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden wrote that "the Lennons should be commended for their daring", but not before calling the album "incipient artistic suicide", adding, "except for 'John Sinclair' the songs are awful. The tunes are shallow and derivative and the words little more than sloppy nursery-rhymes that patronise the issues and individuals they seek to exalt. Only a monomaniacal smugness could allow the Lennons to think that this witless doggerel wouldn't insult the intelligence and feelings of any audience." Dave Marsh wrote a mixed review for Creem, writing that "it's not half bad. It may be 49.9% bad, but not half." The Milwaukee Sentinel declared that John and Yoko had produced "another crude, superficial look at trendy leftist politics and have plunged even further into their endless echo chamber." Although the UK release managed a number 11 chart peak, it only went to number 48 in the US. Lennon was reportedly stunned by the album's failure and consequently did not record new music for almost a year.

With Imagine he began affecting attitudes bereft of emotional force. As he turned to petty gossip and didactic social commentary, his gambit of combining simple thoughts with simple music backfired. What was moving when applied to his own life was unbearably pretentious when used to offer aphorisms concerning larger issues.... The album's music might have served as the basis for a good LP if it had been paired with some new lyrical insight and passion. But instead, Lennon has come up with his worst writing yet. With lines like, "A million heads are better than one/So come on, get it on," a listener can only accept or reject them. I've done the latter.
I proffer these examples because the '70s were a rocky decade for Lennon, in which he went from generally good notices and sales for Plastic Ono Band and Imagine to being so ravaged by the critics and doing such middling business on the charts, it's generally considered a factor in his decision to effectively retire from the music industry and be a house husband.  (Which, not incidentally, is basically what "Watching The Wheels" is all about: "Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game... Don't you miss the big time boy, you're no longer on the ball?")  Indeed, Double Fantasy was itself dismissed with negative reviews--until three weeks after its release, when Lennon was murdered.

Now, I really want to be clear that I think time has been much kinder to these records than the critics initially were.  I was cringing a little, looking for those old, negative reviews and finding much to disagree with, there.

But the thing about that is that I have to consider the real possibility my positive evaluation of much of the material is colored by my grief and anger for Lennon and my sympathy and affection for Ono.  Is it possible that if Lennon hadn't been stolen from the world, our subjectivity would be different?  And I don't see how the answer to that question isn't "yes": I don't think it's possible for a Western listener conversant with the Lennon story (however superficially) to hear these songs without John's awful death lurking in the shadows.

Which was kind of the point of the original piece: I'd happily trade Lennon's life back to us in exchange for "John Lennon hasn't recorded a decent piece of music since 1971."  I wish he were alive and we could complain about him, instead of having his music--including, ironically, tracks that I think are objectively great songs (or as objectively so as art can objectively experienced)--tinted and shadowed by sadness and unfilled potential.
I think it's also only fair to point out this is a track that runs both ways: if, as I think, our feelings about John Lennon's solo music are influenced by his death, one wonders how much of the negative reception of Lennon's solo work during his lifetime was influenced by critics' (and fans') feelings towards The Beatles' death.  Maybe John Lennon's work is something that can't be objectively evaluated at all, at least not by us and not in our lifetimes, because we spent one chunk of time listening to Lennon's music as post-Beatles solo recordings and the remainder listening to it as the posthumous evaluation of the late, great John Lennon's music after his tragic death.  Maybe we have to leave it to another generation to be able to listen to Lennon's work and say whether it's good (or bad) because it's actually good (or bad).

Or maybe it's just me.


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