John Lennon and the American left: Some Time in New York City (1972)

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After the one-two punch of the “Instant Karma” single and the galvanizing Plastic Ono Band album, it appeared that John Lennon was beginning to believe his own press. The man who had also given his generation a pair of embraceable slogans, “All You Need is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance,” began 1971 with a slice of illogically hollow rhetoric, “Power to the People.”

Then came “Imagine,” a pretty, optimistic ballad praying for world peace. Fair enough. In years to come, it would be brought to the world’s attention that the sensitive ex-Beatle who so sweetly sang “imagine no possessions” was, in this period, extremely wealthy and something of a pack rat – and more than happy to be coddled and treated, in private and in public, like a demi-god. In fact, this very incongruousness was one of the reasons that idiot would shoot him in the back in 1980.

Back to ’71. John Lennon clearly loved being perceived as “the voice of the people.” Every utterance was treated in the rock press as if it were of biblical proportions. Certainly he was a smart man, and blessed with genuine and one-of-a-kind artistic ability. But he was also canny and shrewd. And had an ego that loved to be fed.

At the time, fans didn’t seem to notice that the Imagine album was, musically and lyrically, a pale shadow of Plastic Ono Band. John Lennon referred to the album as “Plastic Ono with sugar on top,” and it sold spectacularly well, but the songs – when you really looked at them – weren’t much. “Crippled Inside” and “It’s So Hard” were sloppy bar-band knockoffs, “How Do You Sleep” was shocking (a vitriolic knock at Paul McCartney) but facile; “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier” interminable rambling junk; “Oh Yoko!” embarrassingly trite. “Oh My Love” was a virtual re-write of “Love” from Plastic Ono Band. Arguably the best song, “Jealous Guy,” had been written in India back in 1968, during the White Album period. All he did was change the lyrics.

After Imagine, John and Yoko left England for New York City, where he would live for the final nine years of his life. Almost immediately upon their arrival, Lennon was approached by the radicals Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who believed (rightly) that having Lennon on their side would draw attention to their political cause – an American revolution from the extreme left. He was happy to listen, and quickly bought into the idea.

It’s significant that the first record John Lennon made in New York was the single “Happy Christmas”; one suspects it was bubbling up in his mind before he’d abandoned Great Britain. This jolly little singalong was certainly not a harbinger of things to come. For that, we must look back to “Power to the People.”

Following many months of “indoctrination” by the country’s left-wing hippie radicals (John loved the attention), he entered his ardent “political” phase. Like all artists, what he was thinking and feeling would eventually emerge in his art. In the summer of ’72 came Some Time in New York City, a two-LP set of agit-pop that is not only the worst John Lennon record of all time, it’s the worst (non-Ringo) solo Beatles record. Ever. Phil Spector (over) produced it.

John Lennon was fascinated by the idea of making political and social comment “immediate,” and so the songs on this album all had to do with the hot-button issues of the day – women’s rights, the Black Panthers, the drug bust of Michigan writer John Sinclair, the troubles in Northern Ireland. The package was designed like an edition of The New York Times, with the song lyrics – by John and Yoko both – printed like the text to the “stories.”

A couple of things went immediately wrong. One, by the time the LP was released, many of the issues discussed had either been resolved or were no longer on the front-burner political radar. The “newspaper” was already dated the day it appeared. Two, the band John Lennon employed on the album was Elephant’s Memory, a truly awful bunch of street musicians whose steady gig was playing in Washington Square Park. Their playing was, at best, pedestrian. At worst, it was boring as hell. The songs were recorded quickly, in one or two takes, without the benefit of overdubs.

Unfortunately, even the millions of fans who believed “Imagine” was clear-headed musical truth saw Some Time in New York City for what it was – badly written, badly played and ultimately, an excruciating listen. It was “rhetoric for the people” from a millionaire rock star. The single, “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” was shock value with no payoff. Did we mention that half of the songs on the record were written, and sung by, Yoko?

Some Time in New York City was so bad that John Lennon’s career as a solo artist – this is a point that many will quibble with – never got back up to speed. It’s been argued that he was, creatively, out of gas by the time of Mind Games (1973) and Walls and Bridges (1974). Perhaps so.

What’s inarguable is that Lennon’s willing appropriation by left-wing American leaders and glad-handers, for their own selfish purposes, was nothing more than the exploitation and abuse of an artist. Oh, he went willingly – that’s the way he was – but it was a mistake he would never forget.

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