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Nashville Scene Rebel Soldier

New box set reveals the raw spirit behind John Lennon's music

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  If any image has come to be associated with the late John Lennon--besides his own visage, of course--it's that of wispy white clouds floating against a pale blue sky. That pastel scenery first appeared on the cover of Live Peace in Toronto, 1969, then was used in slightly different form on the Imagine and Shaved Fish albums. By now, it has become as familiar as a trademark or corporate logo--and so it surfaces yet again on a newly released box set, The John Lennon Anthology.

In truth, though, those clouds and that sky seem like an inappropriate representation of his music and his life Yes, he had his utopian visions, but he was also fiery and complex, even savage when he wanted to be. Nonetheless, the money-making machine that is Lennon Music (and its associate company, Lenono Music) prefers to memorialize him as more Gandhi than Guevara. Ironically enough, The John Lennon Anthology contradicts that very image, for the music inside is far from sunny, dreamy, or bucolic.

A collection of work tapes, home recordings, and rare concert appearances, the four-CD box set covers Lennon's tumultuous solo years. It begins in 1970, just after the Beatles officially split. It ends in 1980, when Lennon was shot by a handgun-toting lunatic fan outside his New York residence. (The box set includes what is reported to be the last song Lennon wrote, "Dear John," in which he sings, "Don't be so hard on yourself/Give yourself a break.")

Many of the compilation's titles are familiar, but the versions aren't. Those wanting a good retrospective of Lennon's hits should look elsewhere: The four-CD Lennon box set from 1990, for instance, presents nearly every completed song of his solo career in fully finished form. But for those who already own the rest of his work, Anthology adds depth to the artistic portrait of one of the most important popular-music figures of our time. Modeled after the successful Beatles Anthology series, this collection contains 94 songs, all of which are being released for the first time.

Unlike the Beatles, Lennon rarely bothered with multiple takes of his studio work. So many of the songs included here were captured before Lennon had finished the lyrics or figured out how he wanted to present the tune. Since the ex-Beatle worked fast and preferred a minimum of fuss in the studio--at least with his solo work--there weren't that many alternate versions of his famous songs. That's why many of his more popular tunes--"Instant Karma," "Cold Turkey," "Gimme Some Truth," "#9 Dream"--aren't here at all.

Many others are only short snippets or included in almost unrecognizable form: "(Just Like) Starting Over," for instance, appears here as "My Life," a solo acoustic love song. "Mind Games" comes in two brief excerpts, both with entirely different opening stanzas than in the finished version. "I'm Losing You," featuring Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick, is presented as a swaggering guitar rocker that's much more ferocious than the song that later appeared on Double Fantasy.

Other familiar Lennon tunes are heard in stunning solo versions--"Working Class Hero," "I Found Out," "Imagine," "Watching the Wheels," and "Woman" among them. Still others reveal basic band tracks before they were sweetened by strings and overdubs, allowing listeners to hear stripped-down versions of "How Do You Sleep," "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier," "Jealous Guy," and several classic-rock covers from the Rock 'n' Roll album sessions.

For all its revelatory moments, though, it's worth reiterating that Anthology is a mishmash of oddities and spare parts; many of the songs have been poorly recorded. This is as bare-boned and unvarnished as any rock star recording that has ever been released. But then, it's a fitting tribute, given that Lennon's solo work was searingly honest and deeply personal. These are not prettified pop songs--not by a long shot. Like much of what Lennon had to say in his post-Beatles years, this is brutally confrontational, aggressively outspoken stuff.

That's why the clouds on the cover art don't fit. The music is raw, fierce, and often troubled: The scathing put-downs, polemical political commentary, and harsh self-assessments suggest that what Lennon railed against the most at this point in his career was pretense.

Sure, some of his songs were dreamy and idealistic, especially when he defined his vision for the future ("Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance") and when he discussed love and his relationship with Yoko Ono ("One Day at a Time," "Woman"). But those songs represented the world as he wished it was, or his own private moments of joy.

For the most part, Lennon sought to tear away the insulation of the Western world so that others could see what he saw: a pampered, protected population adrift in false idolatry. He wanted us to see the damage that our lifestyles and political machinations wrought on the poor, on other countries, on the Earth, and on each other.

Not only that, he had a mean streak that flared regularly, especially in several parodies included here. His targets were often former partners and fellow rock idols, including Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney (who gets skewered in a brief, satirical rewrite of "Yesterday" that features the couplet, "I'm not half the man I used to be/Because I'm an amputee").

Better pictorial representations of Lennon can be found on the front and back covers of the accompanying 60-page CD booklet. The back photo features Lennon and Ono in revolutionary dress, a ragtag mix of soldier and rebel clothes. On the front is an up-close facial shot, cropped at his forehead and chin. His nose is ordinary, his lips thin, but his eyes burn. The gaze is strong and direct--as if his eyes are shouting about everything they see, all the pain and damage and injustice, all the destruction of beauty and human potential.

Forget the blue skies and cartoonish clouds. It's those eyes that best represent Lennon: his desire to rebel, to fight for what he thought was right. That's the image that comes through in the music on Anthology.

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