Imagine (live, 8 December 1983).

A few days after John Lennon was murdered, the battle for his afterlife began. Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone‘s ambassador to the punk scene, walked into the RS office complaining about the tribute vigils in Central Park. The songs that everyone kept singing—“Imagine,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance”—were Lennon at his most maudlin and sappy, Young said. (Lester Bangs made the same point around the same time.) The real Lennon, the scabrous rocker, the cutting observer of human folly, was nowhere to be found in his own tributes. That “wouldn’t have been appropriate,” his boss Jann Wenner allegedly replied. (From Robert Draper’s Rolling Stone: the Uncensored History).

“Inappropriate” Lennon, unsurprisingly, soon packed off. In his place was a myth-gone-man, John Lennon as the greatest (and last) of the Sixties martyrs. Sure, every five years or so, some new book or film appears to show Lennon as he could be: pissy, ridiculous, righteous, delusive, outrageous and self-deflating. And those discordant notes fade soon enough, while remaining, unblemished, is the peace-sign flashing Lennon of dorm room posters and T-shirts, the glasses-and-hair caricature on coffee mugs.

On the third anniversary of Lennon’s murder, at the end of the last show of his triumphant world tour, Bowie sang “Imagine” to a Hong Kong audience. It was an apt tribute, as “Imagine” was becoming myth-Lennon’s greatest hit, another way that the Sixties were being reduced to a collectible set of soundbites and slogans.

Lennon’s killing had horrified Bowie, and Bowie’s presence in the Eighties—the sense of immaculate distance, his cultivating of a bland commercial sound, his apparent determination to mean less to people, to defang his cult—seems in part a reaction to that December night. Lennon had been vulnerable, walking the streets without bodyguards, his home address common knowledge to fans. He had spent the latter half of the Seventies quietly humanizing himself, living in exile in plain sight, surfacing in 1980 to promote his and Yoko’s new record by reminding his fans that the memory cheats, that the past is dead.

We were the hip ones of the Sixties, he said in one of his last interviews. But the world is not like the Sixties. The whole world has changed…Produce your own dream. It’s quite possible to do anything…the unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions.” The cruelest legacy of his murder was that Lennon’s open commitment to the future was overshadowed as he became a mythic trademark of the lost, glorious past.

And considering the vicious rocker Lennon to be the “true” Lennon was just another type of myth, conveniently ignoring Lennon’s sappy side (he wrote “Good Night,” remember). Lennon was a sentimentalist as much as he was an iconoclast, filling his last records with odes to his wife and son. He had intended “Imagine” to be schlocky, calling the song his sugar-coated bit of poison, a little nihilist-utopian message fit for Andy Williams or Robert Goulet to sing; it would have delighted him that the artless naif David Archuleta sang “Imagine” on “American Idol” a few years ago (even with the atheist lyrics carefully omitted).

So Bowie’s version of “Imagine,” which comes close to Vegas schmaltz—the saxophone fanfare, the Simms brothers emoting, Bowie doing such an uncanny Lennon imitation that it sounds like he’s auditioning for “Beatlemania”—is true enough to Lennon’s intentions. In its broad, tasteless way, it’s as fitting an elegy as Lennon ever received.

Recorded 8 December 1983 at the Hong Kong Colosseum. Though “Imagine” appears to have been recorded professionally (Bowie was considering releasing a live album of the tour, and “Imagine” could have been a sales hook), it’s still only found on bootlegs.

That’s all until after Thanksgiving. Have a great holiday: for those who don’t celebrate it, have a great Thursday.

Top: The World Trade Center, NYC, 1983. “The towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light,” Don DeLillo, Players, 1977.

12 Responses to Imagine

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    I’ve heard this before on some bootleg – it is smaltzy, but hey, Bowie knew the guy, he could mourn him any way he wanted to. I’ll forgive him.

    Nice touch – the now gone twin towers and the DeLillo quote (don’t think I’ve read that one). Wonder what Lennon would have made of 9/11?

    Have a great holiday!

  2. sofahead says:

    Lennon gets a lot of stick for the sentiments he articulated in ‘Imagine’. Even Elvis Costello, a big fan, stuck it to him in his song ‘The Other Side Of Summer’ (“was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions’?”). The thing is, why shouldn’t a millionaire be able to dream of a better world? Do you have to be poor to qualify?

    I’ve not heard the Bowie version before. It’s pretty horrible. I wanted to pull off my own ears when he goes large towards the end. With tributes like this, who needs insults?

    This blog is the greatest, by the way.

  3. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Brilliant write-up. I feel so bad when I see people making out Lennon to be this sexless, sinless saint. It’s the last thing he would have wanted.

  4. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Also, Christ, that Lester Bangs piece reads like a suicide note. “…I feel deeply alienated from rock ‘n’ roll and what it has meant or could mean, alienated from my fellow men and women and their dreams or aspirations.” God. This from the man who showed such indescribable ecstasy when writing about the Velvets… and he’d be dead not 2 years later.

  5. Brian says:

    “…according to Bowie , New York City police discovered that his name was next on a hitlist of targets of John Lennon’s assassin , Mark David Chapman .”

  6. Frankie says:

    What a coincidence! I’ve just been listening to Walls and Bridges for the first time! And in terms of Lennon’s complex and outstanding personality, I could perfectly see why he may have secretly lusted for Paul. And I don’t hold it against him!

  7. don o says:

    Happy Thanksgiving chris

  8. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    happy thanksgiving, everyone.

    • diamond dog says:

      I can forgive the horrible version as it was the thought that counted , heart in the right place. Interesting to hear the nypd had info on Chapman going for Bowie next , he must have been terrified. Lennon is my fav Beatle because he was flawed , the saint like image is pure coporate bullshit to move sales along. It was a tragedy we were robbed of a good man and a great talent well before his time bit he was no saint. The crappy cover fits well with the new bowie image clean , crisp and souless with all the old addictions and rough edges erased, though I hope there was more to it than shifting a live lp, I thought montreal was slated for release ? Not this gig.

  9. David L says:

    There must be something wrong with me because I actually thought this cover was pretty good, much better than I was expecting after reading the comments here.

  10. David L says:

    “artless naif” — LOL. Another excellent write-up.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Better than his cover of “Across the Universe”. David’s voice sounds like his ’74 voice. Must’ve been really strained or still using cocaine (actually, I think bowie said he didn’t stop his rec use of coke until well into the ’80s).

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