50 Years Ago in New York City: John Lennon’s First Death

50 years ago today, FWIW, the American release of John Lennon‘ s worst solo album.

I can’t imagine that there’ll be much debate about that here or anywhere else. Obviously, Lennon made terrific albums with the Beatles, and his first two commercial studio albums John Lennon/Plastic One Band (1970) and Imagine (1971) were downright superlative. But then…it was as though Lennon had stepped off a creative cliff, so great is the dip in quality when you arrive at 1972’s Some Time in New York City. Since time immemorial dude-bros have blamed Yoko Ono for this development, and while that would be convenient, it would also imply that one of rock’s most critically acclaimed artists had no human agency on his own behalf. No, Lennon went at this dubious project with enthusiasm, misreading the critics, his fans, the public at large, and society. No one wanted this belated musical excursion into radical politics from the leader of the Beatles.

For some context, Lennon and New York based conceptual artist Yoko Ono had gotten together in 1968. They instantly became inseparable, one might even say co-dependent. The pair began collaborating artistically across multiple forms, including visual art, experimental electronic recordings, avant-garde film, and performance art events. Meantime, Lennon’s political and social messaging, which had always been playful, elusive and universal, began to be more explicit and on the nose. The song “Revolution” (1968) started this new phase, followed by “Give Peace a Chance” (1969) which became an anti-Vietnam anthem, then “Instant Karma” (1970), followed by “Power to the People” (early 1971), then a couple of the songs on Imagine (fall 1971), and the holiday hit “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (late 1971). With the exception of “Power to the People” perhaps, Lennon had managed to maintain a certain appealing ambiguity in his lyrics that allowed the listener wiggle-room for buy-in, if they weren’t 100% on the side of this or that political position. Now he would try a new tack: literal advocacy for action on specific issues in song.

Why? Why this? Why then? It’s instructive to look at the timeline. Lennon moved to New York around the time Imagine was released. Imagine was highly praised, and contained lots of “statements”, although to be fair and to Lennon’s credit, most of the messages on that album remained Utopian, wide-eyed, more philosophical than doctrinaire. I think of Lennon’s worldview to be not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s. He’s an artist. His vision is vague. He wants world peace, an end to racism, poverty, brutality. But he also knows that governments, including (perhaps chiefly including) Communist Dictatorships are inherently oppressive and autocratic. So he usually proposes little that is specific. He just knows what he doesn’t like; he knows what he is against. Still his recent messages must have appealed to the leaders of the American left, who recognized a potential ally. And Lennon had been outspokenly against Vietnam, for example, since at least 1969.

Imagine had been written and mostly recorded at Lennon’s English country estate. But the fallout in his native land, a year after the breakup of the Beatles, was still shrill and unpleasant. Ono was a New Yorker. She knew that in the immense, complex, international city there’d be so much going on that the pair could make their new life together there without blame for the dissolution of the world’s favorite pop group threatening to consume them.

But…oddly, the scene they got into, almost immediately, was not one you could call “cutting edge”. You might describe it as the political vanguard, I suppose, but only if the direction the country was moving was farther left, and by that time it wasn’t. Hollywood, show biz, the media, and the Democratic Party were still theoretically in that place, but not for long. Everything was about to shift right. The relatively progressive George McGovern would lose the 1972 Presidential election in a landslide (ensuring only “moderately” liberal candidates thereafter in general elections going forward), the Vietnam War would end (diffusing the Anti-War movement), the next phase of the Civil Rights movement fizzled over the issue of school busing, and Nixon resigned, leaving the left without a boogey-man. On the horizon was Ronald Reagan, and in retrospect we can see warning signs for his coming hegemony. When I think of what young people were into musically in 1972, it definitely seems to be spinning away from the “counterculture”. When I think of the best albums of that year, my first thought is of things like the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, David Bowie’s Ziggie Stardust, Lou Reed’s Transformer, T Rex’s The Slider. Glam, decadence, theatricality, roleplay.

So, far from being on the leading edge, the scene the Lennons were about to get into was anywhere between a decade and four years behind the current zeitgeist. Think about it — Bob Dylan had abandoned topical songwriting in 1964! Now, eight years later, John and Yoko were hooking up with people like Anti-War activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, whose big moment had been in 1968; folk-singer Phil Ochs, associated with Greenwich Village in the early ’60s; and Washington Square Park busker David Peel, perhaps best known for his 1968 anthem “Up Against the Wall”. Art school dropout Lennon became enchanted with these characters and the circles they moved in, ranging from earnest activists to showboating clowns and poseurs. As often as not, Lennon and Ono had been counted among the latter themselves over the past several years. Some Time in New York City would unfortunately seal that reputation in amber.

Phil Ochs had called himself a “singing journalist”. In their new record, John and Yoko decided to explore that idea, penning an album of songs written in response to the news of the day, packaged like a newspaper. And after all, New York was the media capital of the globe: both publishing AND the recording industry. BUT (and perhaps you will see this coming) this was 1972. Today, you can watch a news story, write a song, perform it and release it to where millions can access it all in a single day. In 1972 you could turn an article around that fast, or a segment for the television news. But a record album took weeks and months to turn around. So Some Time in New York City was dated before it even hit the stores, and has continued to age ungracefully ever since.

As “topical” as they were when Lennon released them, these songs are all on subjects that will require a certain mount of research for young people. Just think: these are songs about 50 year-old news events, each of them relatively major in their own ways, but still — ancient history for anyone born since then. But that’s not why the songs are bad. I am only too delighted to listen to songs about the Depression and Fascism by Woody Guthrie, for example, or about Civil Rights and nuclear war by Bob Dylan. The concept is sound. After all, the Federal Theatre Project had that “Living Newspaper” project in the 1930s. The real issue is that these are terrible songs. There are many aspects to pop music one can examine: lyrical content (what it’s about), lyrical form (how it’s expressed), elements of musical composition like melody and harmony, and skill of performance. Some Time in New York City misfires in all but the last category, and even that is marred by many poor choices. I’ve wanted to like this album. I’ve tried many times to give it a chance. But it’s too witless, on the nose, and not at all playful or up to Lennon’s gifts as a writer.

Two of the songs on the album are so notably awful that I’ve already written about them: “Woman is the N–ger of the World” and “The Luck of the Irish“. The remaining songs are very much cut from the same cloth, however. They are:

The album’s title song “New York City” sounds better in the abstract than it proves to be. It’s a self-indulgent recounting of Lennon’s and his wife’s adventures, along the lines of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” but set to an unmistakably Chuck Berry influenced rock track and not nearly as fun, playful or original. Instead of Peter Brown, he now namechecks the likes of Jerry Rubin and David Peel. Do they deserve to be immortalized in song as they are here? Is the world dying to hear of their legendary doings? Somehow the shift now takes us from self-indulgence to self-abasement. Who has the status here? The world’s greatest rock star? Or these counter-culture clowns, these answers to trivia questions? Lennon seems too enthusiastic about his new-found acceptance by these would-be “revolutionaries” (Rubin would soon sell out the counterculture shortly enough). I am reminded of those embarrassing songs of Eric Burdon’s, “Monterey” and “San Francisco Nights”, where the singer of many a top ten hit himself is suddenly gushing about peers and the scene around him as though he himself were a mere groupie or the rock critic for his school paper.

Further (and I don’t know if anyone will share my feeling on this) but I have always been put-off by Lennon’s love affair with New York. It sort of makes me squirm. “Cool” is something one is drawn to. One goes to IT. Lennon had once possessed that quality. For Americans, part of the complex matrix of his charms was the novelty of his origin. He was English. He was from Liverpool. That identity sort of informed every word that came out of his mouth. Part of it was the working class beginnings. But I am also drawn to the image of ex-Beatles composing their masterpieces in whimsical mansions on multi-acre English country estates. Even Imagine had been cooked up in those conditions. Now, Lennon was a mere supplicant, hat in hand, fawning all over New York and America, being photographed at the Statue of Liberty. We love him because he’s English, not because he loves America. That’s his power. WE go to HIM. Not the other way around. To me, late Lennon comes off like a kid in Disneyland, wide-eyed. He’s lost all power, like Samson shorn of his locks. Granted, he’s enthralled by Abbie Hoffman instead of Richard Nixon, but he’s still the one doing the genuflecting.

As for his musical homage to Chuck Berry, it’s a far weaker exercise than peers like T. Rex and Elton John were up to at the time, or that he himself had engaged in previously in songs like “Come Together” which TRANSFORMED the source into something NEW. “New York City” is just a throwaway knockoff.

This leaves just four more songs:

“Attica State”: The Attica State Prison Riot (in which several inmates and prison staff were killed) happened right around the time the Lennons moved to New York, some nine months before this album came out. The event is also referenced by Al Pacino‘s character in Dog Day Afternoon. This is probably my favorite song all-around on the album, mostly because the tune is good, with a very sing-able chorus, even if the lyrics are not ones you necessarily want to parrot. Lennon goes all the way from commonly shared condemnation of Governor Rockefeller for his callous disregard for human life…to singing “Free all prisoners”, a sentiment I’m pretty sure few people share. “Free MANY prisoners?” Sure. “Free wrongfully or unjustly incarcerated prisoners?” Of course! Free ALL prisoners? Where’s that plywood? I need to board up the windows.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday”: There are no fewer than two songs about the Northern Ireland question on Some Time in New York City, even though the Big Apple happens to be 3,000 miles from Belfast. This tune is far inferior to Bono’s eponymous song on the topic, a much better example of how it’s done. U2’s is no less polemical than Lennon’s, but it’s also musically dramatic and has perfectly simple and digestible lyrics. The massacre in Derry had occurred six months before Lennon’s album. You can argue that it was natural for Bono to write the better song, as his came a decade later, and he was, after all, actually Irish. Be that as it may, despite some excellent production, Lennon’s song on the topic is far from immortal. The tune and feeling of the track sounds almost identical to “I Don’t Want to be a Soldier” on the previous album, and Ono’s presence on the chorus is an unwelcome distraction.

Then there are two numbers designed to generate sympathy for two left wing causes célèbres of the day. “John Sinclair” is about the poet, activist, Black Panther ally and manager of the proto-punk Detroit band MC5 who was unjustly jailed for simple possession of marijuana. Lennon’s song is a very unoriginal blues melody with tedious lyrics exhorting “the bastards” to “set him free”, even though Sinclair had already been released from jail six months earlier. The song’s most interesting and original element to me is Lennon’s broken-record-style repetition of “got to got to got to”, the sort of lyric that a rock singer might repeat once or twice naturally, but Lennon hammers in about ten times with persistence. It’s obnoxious but creatively justified and I’ve never heard anyone else do quite the same thing in a song. It’s still not enough to salvage this tune though.

The other martryrdom song “Angela” concerns black American communist Angela Davis, who was jailed in 1970 when some guns she owned were used in the commission of a crime. Again, she was released from jail prior to the release of this record, making its message moot. It’s a pretty song, and it might have conceivably been one of the better tracks on the album, if Yoko weren’t singing it along with Lennon. Is it enough to compensate for the unconscious racism in “Woman is the N–er of the World”? That’s someone else’s call.

Obviously Yoko had a hand in the composition of these terrible songs, and she sings several worse ones herself, with titles like “Sisters, O Sisters”. When I hear phraseology as terrible as “We’re all mates with Attica State”, I begin to suspect an origin in the mind of someone whose first language is not English. And someone who is masterful in expressing himself ought to know better. But Lennon was in some kind of crisis. He abandoned his own distinctive and much beloved voice.

To compound the egregiousness of this album, Lennon then added a second disk of live jams, not unlike the unnecessary and boring third disk in George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Some of these live jams were recorded with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. What a wasted opportunity. Zappa actually was vital in ’72. Some kind of funny concept album co-written and performed by John, Yoko and Zappa might have served the moment (if such a thing were possible. Zappa didn’t respect Lennon too much). Instead Lennon tossed off this disposable thing, almost contemptuously, to the “fucking peasants”, as he refers to his fans in the earlier song “Working Class Hero”.

So this is the crest of the wave on the career of Beatle founder John Lennon. He seemed to spend the last of his remaining credibility and creative capital on this album. Fans and critics alike rejected it decisively. (Where Imagine had been a #1 album in the U.S., Some Time in New York City barely cracked the top 50 — this from a Beatle). Little has been made of this idea, but I think the failure of Some Time in New York City may have been instrumental in Lennon’s temporary breakup with Yoko, his “Lost Weekend”, and the end of the pair’s ’60s era collaboration (which they later resumed with Double Fantasy). After the debacle of this record, Lennon needed to do something spectacular and groundbreaking (as he had so many times before) to regain his former stature. But he never did. His post-1972 records Mind Games (1973), Walls and Bridges (1974), Rock and Roll (1975) and Double Fantasy (1980) are all lukewarm retreads of former glories with no genuinely new ideas, not even ones as lame as the ones on Some Time in New York City. Once John Lennon had literally set the tune that everyone else danced to. For the next three decades he was basically Jack Lemmon in The Out-of-Towners.