I'm not quite sure if I would have survived high school had I not discovered the Beatles' music in ninth grade. The group showed me there was a world outside of prom and homecomings, and that it was OK to express one's self to a broader audience.
I have always been more of a Paul fan over the years. His cheerful, ever present optimism and melodicism are to me more foreign and thus more admirable than John's more introspective and cynical view of life. When Paul sang "It's getting better all the time," John just had to chime in "Can't get much worse..." Still there are times when I just have to listen to one of John's songs- he speaks to me like no other artist. Thus it was a real treat when I added a welcome addition to my CD collection- the new John Lennon box anthology. The set includes demo, alternative and live versions of his solo work and it just is a reminder how sad it is that we lost such a vital and inspired artist at the return of his creative peak.
I began collecting the Beatles' LPs along with solo work from each member (this was also the time when I discovered the cost saving wonders of used records via Cheapo) when I was in ninth grade. The first new album from an ex-Beatle that I bought upon its first day of release was John and Yoko's Double Fantasy. My initial reaction was that it was great to have new Beatlelike music and I especially loved Just Like Starting Over, but still I was much more fond of Paul's work even at that early point and I was anxious for him to release some new music.
I played the LP constantly and must admit although Yoko's stuff seemed "weird", I enjoyed the interchange and obvious love husband and wife shared. I religiously read all the corresponding press the couple's return to music making caused, and it was comforting to know that Lennon's legendary demons seemed to be lessening their hold on him. He seemed happy as his words and music clearly demonstrated. A few nights later, my Mom and I were watching Johnny Carson when NBC News interrupted with a report that Lennon had been gunned down outside his home in New York City. I remember sitting stunned, and looking at my Mom who knew that the news would sadden me.
I had already established a reputation as being a tad eccentric in my high school. The one thing my classmates really knew about me was my fondness for the Beatles (and how could they not know? I would often belt out a Beatle song at the top of my lungs at the most quiet moments...) So the next day at school was a bit tough. It seemed everyone wanted to know my thoughts on John's murder. I had brought my copy of Double Fantasy with me and I was actually more publicly shaken than I ever remember being before or since.
The Lennon anthology is a thankful reminder of what made me love the Beatles music in the first place: wit, melodicism, inspiration, poetry, anger, love. The best thing about the box set however is its demonstration of John's wicked sense of humor. (My favorite moment is a little snippet were John begins singing Yesterday and improvises the lyrics "I'm not half the man I used to be... because I'm an amputee...") Lennon was full of anger, cynicism and bravado, but I can't think of another musician who has the sensitivity and a sense of humor that can even come close to John's.
There has been no more devastatingly depressing rock album than John's first post-Beatle LP. The brutal honesty, the straightforward confessional is art at its most painful. The irony is that the myth that John admirably attempts to puncture is the very myth that makes the listener want to listen in the first place. The outtakes captured on the first disc of the anthology are therefore the most revealing. In particular the alternate version of God the 1970 LP's defining moment, shows that above it all John was a great singer. In the official released take the drama John creates in his delicate soft spoken singing contrasts with the intensity of his primal screams which makes the silence in the song even more effective. On the up to now unreleased take, John is still trying to find the right voice for such a painful song. It is fascinating to finally be able to hear him try and find his way through this intensely personal song.
There are many great moments on the box set. Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out is pure Lennon. The demos for I'm Am the Greatest and Life Begins at 40 recorded for Ringo Starr are John at his wittiest. We hear an early take of John's most famous song Imagine done as a hymn and it is spine tingling. The same is true with two ballads from the same period, Oh My Love (my all time favorite Lennon song), and Jealous Guy. One Day at a Time sounds downright Leonard Cohenesque in this alternate version.
The anthology had to be difficult for Yoko to ensemble, giving a glimpse of a three dimensional John brought to life, full of pain and passion and brilliant as hell. His is a much missed voice we're lucky enough to hear once again.