Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out

The Lennon Anthology was released in late 1998. It arrived in the wake of the Beatles Anthology collection, as well as the widely booted Lost Lennon Tapes radio program. That show had opened the vaults, releasing every take, outtake, and muttered aside in one exhaustive collection. That landmark series provided an abundance of riches, from a skeletal acoustic demo of “She Said She Said” all the way through early versions of the Double Fantasy material. I assumed that the Lennon Anthology, though gracefully packaged with his familiar sky and cloud motif, was just a distillation of the more palatable selections from the radio series for public consumption. Real Lennon fans needed the whole picture – broken takes, multiple versions, song fragments. So I passed on the box set at the time.

In hindsight, the Lost Lennon Tapes were all too much. The most enticing material from that program drew from the elusive latter half of his solo career, when he’d retired from public rock star life. The myriad of home recordings from those years are loose and whimsical, but noticeably unpolished. They are not so much demos as musings, incorporating both his absurd fiction and personal struggles. Those recordings have been mined and vetted for gems by bootleggers, fans, and even the other Beatles for their brief reunion. Nonetheless, I don’t think John would have wanted much of that stuff to be released at all. Even a clever conceit like “Serve Yourself,” a wry answer to Dylan’s Christian phase “Gotta Serve Somebody,” doesn’t feel like much of a proper Lennon song. There’s a reason he started over for the Double Fantasy sessions, or least cherry picked the best ideas from those wilderness years for his new songs. Perhaps those home recordings were too much of a peak behind the curtain.

The extensive bootleg Lennon tapes also included multiple takes of familiar material, which aren’t particularly durable for repeated listens. There is a veritable album of “How Do You Sleep?”s available, none offering much more insight to the released version. And John’s solo debut Plastic Ono Band is the model of musical economy, a perfect album of perfect performances that renders outtakes somewhat superfluous. Similarly, Some Time In New York City, the much maligned stridently political Yoko collaboration album that I happen to love, relies on the sound of the sloppy energy of the Elephant’s Memory band squashed in that Spector style that John was so enamored with. It’s a great album – trust me, it is – but it’s certainly not his best batch of songs.

So when I finally listened to the Lennon Anthology box set several years ago, it was during a time when I was returning to his music after some burnout from the exhaustive bootleg material available. Of course, his solo albums are not enough, and in the cases of Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, not entirely satisfying. So it was a great pleasure to find that this box set is actually the perfect solution. It is cogently assembled in phases of his solo career (i.e. “The Lost Weekend”). Live tracks are culled from his few (and therefore famous) live performances, including a neat version of “John Sinclair” that mentions the name of the judge from that case. The first tracks I skipped to were actually the “Phil And John” conversations from the infamous Rock & Roll sessions. Those tracks capture the insanity from that period, with the two stars bickering as bird sounds inexplicably float around in the background; at one point, Phil stops a song before it even starts to scream at John about the count in – “You can’t yell four!” It’s madness. Of course, the results of those sessions were predictably messy and underwhelming, but we get a few great performances on this set. Just enough, I’d say. (Though I’d have preferred a full take of “Just Because.” Just saying.)

The selections from the home recording era are well chosen, including the aforementioned “Serve Yourself” and John’s birthday gift to Ringo, “Life Begins At 40.” In fact the fourth disc might be the best and most illuminating of the set. We get stripped down versions of gorgeous songs like “Woman” and “Watching The Wheels,” plus a sadly brief glimpse at the future with the solo piano recording of “Grow Old WIth Me.”

I always get a strange feeling when I listen to that Double Fantasy material. I was four when John died, when that album was at its commercial peak. I’m sure my dad – Beatles connoisseur – played it frequently around that time, as I did a few years later. I remember that back cover, the little moments of the sounds of the New York streets, Yoko’s orgasmic screams. It’s an odd album. But those songs feel irreparably connected with that time, and it feels like an organic part of my own childhood. On the box set, one can hear those fine songs on their own. And it’s clear that John’s gift had returned, that his genius was very much alive. John Lennon would have been 74 today. We all miss him.