Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

John Lennon: Some Time In New York City

JOHN LENNON: SOME TIME IN NEW YORK CITY (1972)

1) Woman Is The Nigger Of The World; 2) Sisters, O Sisters; 3) Attica State; 4) Born In A Prison; 5) New York City; 6) Sunday Bloody Sunday; 7) The Luck Of The Irish; 8) John Sinclair; 9) Angela; 10) We're All Water; 11) Cold Turkey; 12) Don't Worry Kyoko; 13) Well (Baby Please Don't Go); 14) Jamrag; 15) Scumbag; 16) Au.

General verdict: Bad news: too much politics, self-righteousness, and Yoko Ono. Good news: John Lennon is really sexy when he's angry.


It certainly took a lot of inventiveness and gall for John Lennon, the most beloved of all ex-Beatles in the hearts and minds of the «progressive» rock'n'roll press of the early Seventies, to shoot himself in the foot right in the presence of all his fans, but that is precisely what he did with the release of Some Time In New York City, almost inarguably his worst, or at least most embarrassing solo album — and yet a strangely fascinating one at that.

Released at the start of the Nixon vs. McGovern campaign, the record was clearly more of a poli­tical statement — a very, very, very straightforward political statement, next to which ʽGive Peace A Chanceʼ and even ʽPower To The Peopleʼ had all the appeal of a tender Paul McCartney love ballad — than a musical venture; so much so that even people who generally shared John and Yoko's social and political views were taken aback by its revolutionary propaganda. It seems fairly obvious that, more than any other Lennon album, this one was recorded with one particular and very concrete message in mind... except that the message backfired. Wanna know why Nixon was re-elected in one of the largest electoral landslides in US history? Half of the people who voted for him had paid for Some Time In New York City. Thanks a lot, John and Yoko!

Joking aside, though, I think that it was not so much the political gesture itself as the scope and vehemence of the gesture that spooked people back at the time. I mean, nobody blamed Neil Young for ʽOhioʼ or Mick Jagger for ʽSweet Black Angelʼ (which, if we think about it hard enough, is actually creepier than ʽAngelaʼ, because we know how much Mick Jagger had the hots for sexy black ladies, and his "free de sweet black slave" on that song is every bit a political slogan as it is a lyrical link to the fantasy of "scarred old slaver knows he's doing alright, hear him whip the whomen just around midnight"). It is only when you get all of that baggage — feminism, Irish independence, African-American activism, prison riots, Angela Davis, John Sinclair — dumped on your head in a single, frenzied, spit-dripping psycho-attack, and with Yoko Ono singing and wailing on top of it all, that the shit finally reaches the fan.

But you know what, though? In retrospect, now that most of the people who get an inkling to listen to this album weren't even born when Nixon was re-elected, Some Time In New York City is actually not that bad. It is still my least favorite Lennon album, one that I never ever get the urge to relisten to in its entirety (comprising the live LP, which we will get to in a bit), but two things I know for sure: John never made a record that truly disregarded melody, and John never made a record that was anything less than 100% sincere and faithfully reflective of his state of mind at the time. In 1972, the man was on an adrenaline roll — for whatever reason, he truly believed, even in that early post-Woodstock era, that music was still capable of introducing changes to the world rather than merely reflecting them, and he was almost literally jumping out of his skin here to make it happen. He may have made a fool of himself in the process, but it is still fascinating, and sometimes quite entertaining, to watch somebody like John Lennon make a fool of himself. (Though, perhaps, not quite as entertaining as to watch Kanye West make a fool of himself — here is one art that has actually progressed quite a bit by the 2010s).

Apart from the loyal Jim Keltner, John and Yoko are no longer backed here by whatever used to pass for the Plastic Ono Band. Instead, the sound is provided by Elephant's Memory, a local NYC bunch of semi-musicians, semi-political activists led by sax player Stan Bronstein. They are loud, brash, and overall decent, but there is certainly nothing outstanding about their sound, and on the whole, the album seems to initiate a strange period in John's musical career when he would select his team players based on any criterion except for sheer musical merit. Luckily, most of the musicians that hung around John were not arrogant enough to be totally non-professional, but still, Paul would always have John beat in that respect from now on. In this case, Bronstein himself can blow a mean sax — I think the sax parts on the album are the ones that will stick out the most in memory once the storm has passed — but his band is quite a meandering little outfit. And with no Ringo, George, or Nicky Hopkins to hang around, this only places even more emphasis on political slogans and propagandist atmosphere.

Nevertheless, far from being a fan of «militant» feminism, I will defend ʽWoman Is The Nigger Of The Worldʼ to the death. It literally towers over all the other political anthems on the record, making them seem petty and disposable in comparison — something that is clearly manifested, for instance, when you play it back to back with the Yoko-sung ʽBorn In A Prisonʼ, which has multiple melodic similarities with ʽWomanʼ (an even slower, but comparable waltzing tempo, an equally prominent role for the saxophone, multi-layered wall-of-sound arrangements, etc.). A big, fat, old hyperbole of a song, whose adoption for the official ultra-feminist movement anthem was probably only thwarted by two reasons (a: use of the N-word, b: being written and sung by a man), it manages to unleash a magnificent musical tempest that wreaks havoc on the senses re­gardless of how much you identify with the lyrics. Maybe you agree that woman is (still) the slave to the slaves and maybe you do not — to me, what has always mattered was the way those feelings were spilled out rather than the ideas behind them. Everybody works in good conjunction here: John's vocals, gradually and believably winding up from quiet patient sermon to desperate hysterics — Bronstein's sax, following and deepening the wisdom and ecstasy of the vocal melody — Keltner's powerhouse drumming — even the lead guitar playing of Wayne ʽTexʼ Gabriel on some of the solos adds to the collective pleading. No surprise at all that this is the only song of the lot that seems to have survived into the modern age (though, unfortunately, the N-word is currently creeping out all those who have been raised on too much political correctness and not enough brains).

Everything else is much harder to defend, because it is only on ʽWomanʼ that John actually takes on the risk of making himself sound like a Biblical prophet and getting away with it (in my opinion, at least). On pretty much every other song he sounds like a musically enhanced Abbie Hoffman, with Yoko bleating at his heels. And it is not just the lyrics: my initial negative reaction to ʽSunday Bloody Sundayʼ was certainly not due to the "anglo pigs and scotties", or to "it's those mothers' turn to burn", or any other expression walking the thin line between justifiedly indignant and embarrassingly offensive — it was due to the fact that the irate, burn-'em-up atmosphere was simply not congealing. On this track, John's angry verses just sound angry — not pained, not troubled, he is simply screaming out like a mindless protester with no personal stake in the business; and the idea of donating the chorus to Yoko, so that she can bleat out "Sunday, bloody Sunday" in the manner of a crazy homeless lady harassing unfortunate bypassers, while John is goading her on with forced and laughable R&B-ish "do it, do it!"s was one of the worst artistic side effects of their relationship.

Better songs still get spoiled by manipulative ideas: ʽJohn Sinclairʼ is actually pretty catchy, an overall solid attempt at writing a folk protest song in the old toe-tapping Woody Guthrie style, with very nice steel guitar playing from John himself and that other guitarist — and it is even hard to complain about the lyrics this time around, though they are not exactly the apex of protest poetry, either (but then again, neither was Woody Guthrie). But what was up with the ridiculous decision to have that "gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta... set him free" on a seemingly endless loop? Once again, as they say, at the last moment defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, as an honest, straightforward, and musically satisfactory message is needlessly embellished with a manipulatively mantraic resolution. Heck, if each single one of those gottas gained Nixon a new fan, I wouldn't be surprised — and that, my friends, is still a much more humble hyperbole than the ones spread all around this record.

Surprisingly, Yoko-sung tunes frequently emerge as more reserved and acceptable than John's: ʽSisters, O Sistersʼ is like a friendlier, poppier, humbler retort to the preceding ʽNigger Of The Worldʼ, adorkably danceable and totally A-OK if it weren't for Yoko's constant attempts to sing so much higher than her natural range: the "freedom, oh freedom" and "wisdom, oh wisdom" bits, in particular, are blatant crimes against humanity that all but annihilate whatever contributions to the right cause the song might otherwise offer. The same goes for ʽWe're All Waterʼ, a fast, joyful, potentially infectious piece of booty-shaking delirium (Chubby Checker would be proud), but in desperate need of better organized lyrics (Bob Dylan to the rescue!) and tranquilizers for all the bleating fits — despite all of Yoko's attempts to modify the vocal clichés for rock'n'roll frenzy, some mountains are way beyond a single human being's brave attempt to move them. Of course, "there may not be much difference" between Rockefeller and her if we hear them sing... but then again, what difference there might be would probably constitute sufficient ground for termination. Still, a fun tune if you reserve all the reservations.

The crazy nature of Some Time In New York City, well summed up in the post-ʽBallad Of John And Yokoʼ narrative of the title track (which, by the way, is probably the album's second best song after ʽWomanʼ), continues on the second LP — a chronological mish-mash, but also a pre­cious historical document, consisting of two tracks from a 1969 show by the Plastic Ono Band and four more tracks from a joint 1971 performance with Frank Zappa and the Mothers. The 1969 part contains a magnificent version of ʽCold Turkeyʼ and a 15-minute jam version of ʽDon't Worry Kyokoʼ that you can take or leave; I much prefer the shorter version from Toronto, with far more precise and expressive guitar work and... well, four minutes instead of 15 mean ten minutes less of Yoko, which is always a plus. As for the 1971 show, the blues number ʽWell (Baby Please Don't Go)ʼ is surprisingly sharp and poignant — John performs it in his ʽYer Bluesʼ mode, which is always mind-blowing when he really gets into it — but the Zappa jams are passable at best, and, on the whole, Zappa and Lennon just weren't too good of a match: John understands very little about Frank's musical universe, and Frank is just way too cool to take part in John's. Essentially, this is the Mothers of Invention trying to adapt their craft to Plastic Ono Band values, and since it is not quite clear why they should try something like that in the first place, the experiment remains just that — an experiment. (It must be noted that the recent CD release of the album almost completely omitted the Zappa segment — because it is now available on its own, and in a much more honest mix that brings Frank's guitar back up front, on Zappa's posthumously released Playground Psychotics album).

But no matter how mixed this «scumbag» is, Some Time In New York City, for all its flaws and embarrassments, retains that simple quality which many «objectively better» albums of its gene­rations do not seem to have — it is interesting. It is a record that bursts at the seams with life, even if that life is sometimes stupid and misguided. In a way, it captures the throbbing cultural pulse of New York City in mid-'72 better than anything I can think of, and I'm pretty sure all those songs would have been big hits at CBGB's, had the place already been open back then. At the same time, its wildness is compatible with the glam rock excesses of the era — the sound of ʽAttica Stateʼ and ʽWe're All Waterʼ is pretty close to whatever Marc Bolan was doing, for instance. All in all, it is just one more piece of evidence how a fascinating person's failures can be, well, more fascinating than an average person's greatest achievements. The next time I listen to this record in its entirety is probably the next time I decide to review it (again!), but I know for sure that I, too, felt a little more alive while listening to it than I usually feel.

11 comments:

  1. Even a super talented artist can deliver a poor work from time to time. This album could be important to understand the historical moment and Lennon's life. From a musical perspective is not a good one. Lennon's best songs are personal, not social.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *whispers* "Imagine" is his best song. (Ok not really but it's clearly ONE of his best songs.) (And even people who try to deny "Imagine" will admit "Working Class Hero.")

      Delete
    2. Well, I prefer anytime Help, In my life, Strawberry Fields, Don't let me down, Cold Turkey, Mother, God, Jealous Guy, Watching the wheels. All great. All personal.

      Delete
    3. "God" is pretty political. "Cold Turkey" is pretty expendable.

      Delete
  2. Honestly, I like this album. Most of the melodies are decent, and I don't care much about Lennon's lyrics most of the time. Surely he did release worst material than this.

    ReplyDelete
  3. John was good with the Beatles, but solo he was an Ed Sheeran of his time. Bland and unadventurous. His solo albums have their moments, but as a whole they're unlistenable. Same goes for Paul, to a smaller degree.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "...solo he was an Ed Sheeran of his time..."

      OUCH.

      Delete
    2. Paul’s solo career was brilliant, almost on par with the Beatles in terms of consistent and adventurous pop/rock songcraft, if not ‘historical importance.’ John, artistically speaking, was more conservative and seemed to prefer the earnest, confessional singer-songwriter mode, which generally lended itself to much less interesting music. Even George ended up surpassing him after the Beatles’ breakup.

      The Ed Sheeran comparison is a low-blow though...

      Delete
  4. Bertrand NevouetMay 9, 2018 at 4:14 PM

    My CD edition omits the Zappa stuff in favour of a tepid Yoko song ('Listen The Snow Is Falling') and the 'Happy Xmas' single : a string-laden rip-off of Stewball with a Yoko-led children choir on the chorus, that still manages to sound great despite the odds.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I admit I haven't listened to this one - have been seriously considering getting into Mr. Lennon's albums, having been a longtime fan of Mrs. Lennon, which brings me to my next point.
    Elephant's Memory backed her for "Approximately Infinite Universe", released the same year as "Some Time..." and I've always thought they did good things together, compared to the session musicians who worked on her 70s and 80s music. I'd be interested to hear (read?) your thoughts on albums such as "Approximately Infinite Universe", "A Story" and "Season of Glass" - I can't say for sure whether Yoko was an unfairly overlooked talent or not (though she's had a string of hits with remixes of her old stuff), but I do think she has a talent for producing and composing.
    Longtime reader of your work, by the way. I've greatly enjoyed perusing your reviews and, at the risk of sounding (reading?) effusive, discovering this blog was akin to finding the lost Emily Bronte novel (finally! A review of "Lick My Decals Off, Baby"!). Keep up the good work :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. George. For, like, 15 years I'm reading you. Now it's time to say that I'm proud and satisfied to see how well you aged. You now understand and point out things that were hidden from everyone back then.

    You interpret J and P actions on a totally different level compared to almost anything I've read. Oh, some advanced musicians / producers are maybe capable to compete with you in that direction, but they rarely write.

    In this review the part that blew my mind was about J understanding Zappa's universe very little. Bravo! But the comparison of J and P's sidemen was pretty on-point, too. I doubt 1.5 decades earlier anyone could observe like that.

    Please don't stop.

    ReplyDelete