November 22, 2011

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.