Friday, November 26, 2010

LennonNYC (Two Lefts Don't Make a Right Productions, American Masters, Thirteen for, PBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

Charles and I watched LennonNYC, a PBS American Masters documentary about the last nine years of John Lennon's life -- the period during which he lived in the U.S. and fought the U.S. government for the right to remain here, had his infamous "lost weekend" meltdown in Los Angeles in 1973, pulled himself together, reconciled with Yoko Ono, spent five years raising their son Sean while she handled the complicated business affairs from his years with the Beatles and his continuing income from their legacy, then worked with her on the comeback album Double Fantasy and was murdered three weeks after the record's release. Calling John Lennon an "American master" seems to me to be stretching a point just a little bit -- though he won permanent resident status in late 1975 and quite likely would have applied for U.S. citizenship had he lived longer (he had just become eligible a couple of weeks before he died). PBS paired this with Lennon Naked, the compelling if somewhat distorted dramatization of Lennon's life from 1968 (with earlier flashbacks) to 1971, thereby making this documentary seem a sort-of sequel to the dramatized (and partially fictionalized) Lennon Naked since it begins just when Lennon Naked ends, with Lennon's relocation to the U.S.

LennonNYC -- I think John Lennon himself would have appreciated the wordplay in the title (Lennon always had an affection for puns and wordplay, from the poetry he published to the lyrics of his songs to his jokes at press conferences and even the name of his most famous band) -- covers a surprising lot of ground in its two-hour running time, including Lennon's disgust with his native Britain (he said that when he was in New York City both he and Yoko Ono were treated like serious artists, whereas in London he was looked on as a bad boy who'd proved himself unworthy of his fame and she was outright hated, often in explicitly racist terms -- the girls who'd previously idolized him as one of the Beatles would actually yell at him, "Why do you need a Chink girl? Aren't white girls good enough for you?," and while the racism has declined the anti-Yoko animus hasn't: even in the documentary How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin one of the Russian Beatles fans in a 21st century sequence was wearing a T-shirt which read, "I'm still pissed off at Yoko"), his involvement with Left-wing politics in general and Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis (three-eighths of the infamous "Chicago Eight" put on trial by the U.S. government for allegedly conspiring to foment riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago) in particular and the apoplectic reaction of both the Nixon administration and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to the plan Lennon and the activists had to mobilize young voters in the 1972 election by having Lennon do a concert tour with voter registrars working the audiences.

Apparently Lennon's political involvement in the U.S. began when he was recruited to play at a benefit concert for the legal defense fund of John Sinclair, a 1960's white radical and music critic who had founded an organization in Detroit called the White Panthers and recruited a band called the MC5 to be its house group (later they hooked up with future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau and he pulled them away from the Left and tried to make them a mainstream success), and was arrested and given a 10-year prison sentence for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. Lennon not only showed up at the rally in his support but actually brought a new song, "John Sinclair" (on which he played slide guitar on one of those all-metal instruments the traditional blues musicians favored), to play at the rally -- and just two days later an appeals court found Sinclair's sentence disproportionate to his crime and ordered him released. This convinced both Lennon and the U.S. activists of the power he had to alter the political equations in the U.S. and shift the balance of power in the electorate Leftward -- and so they planned a politically-themed album and a concert tour and voter registration drive in support of it. (Today the idea of a major rock act touring with voter registrars working the audience doesn't seem all that radical; MTV would do it with Rock the Vote 20 years later.)

To accompany them, Lennon and Ono picked the band Elephant's Memory, fixtures on the New York scene and apparently the go-to band for any Leftist political organization needing someone to play at an event -- and the record they made was Some Time in New York City. As things turned out, Lennon was caught between the relentless attitude of the Nixon administration and its determination to deport him -- his immigration lawyer was interviewed for the show and he built a case indicating that other British musicians who had been convicted on drug charges in the U.K. (the official pretext for Lennon's expulsion), including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, had been allowed in the U.S. -- and the rotten reviews Some Time in New York City and the One-to-One benefit concerts he gave in New York City with Elephant's Memory, performing material from the new album as well as its predecessors in Lennon's solo canon (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine) and just one Beatles song, "Come Together." (At the time Paul McCartney, the only former Beatle who was doing regular live tours, was disinclined to play the Beatles' songs too: it seems that each time Paul goes out he fills more and more of his set list with Beatles material.)

Rolling Stone called Some Time in New York City "artistic suicide," and the negative reaction to the album and the concerts (which seems pretty inexplicable today -- the One-to-One Concerts were recorded and filmed, though they weren't released until 1982, and they reveal Lennon in top form, performing energetically and fully in command of his art) scared him out of any further live appearances until a one-shot in Madison Square Garden in 1974 on a dare from Elton John. (Lennon was quite bitterly homophobic -- in the 1970 Rolling Stone interviews he blamed Brian Epstein's business mistakes on his sexual orientation -- until his collaborations with Elton John and David Bowie in the mid-1970's turned him around; shortly after he recorded with Elton John he accepted an invitation to contribute to a publication raising money for Gay rights and did a series of cartoons with text called "why make it sad to be gay?") Though Phil Spector co-produced it -- as he had virtually all Lennon's previous solo records -- Some Time in New York City was designed to be rough-edged, and what comes across now as a precursor to punk just seemed in the early 1970's like artistic sloppiness, and with a few exceptions the lyrics are pretty direct sloganeering and lack the poetry and emotion of Bob Dylan's best political songs.

Taking "the personal is political" to lengths probably unimagined by the feminists who coined the slogan, LennonNYC directly links the (temporary) breakup of John's and Yoko's relationship to Nixon's re-election in 1972: according to this show, Lennon reacted to the news by getting drunk and taking a woman into the bedroom of the apartment where he and some of his activist friends were watching the returns on TV and fucking her, making so much noise -- with Yoko right there in the other room! -- that the other people there put on a Dylan record and turned the volume up loud to drown out the sound of John's in-your-face adultery. Then Yoko decided to send him off to Los Angeles with her assistant, May Pang, as a sort of caregiver and chaperone (and, though it's not made clear here, John ended up seducing her), and he spent most of 1973 there, attempting to record an album of rock 'n' roll covers with Phil Spector producing.

This remains one of the most misunderstood projects of Lennon's career: its origins had been in a successful plagiarism suit filed by Morris Levy, who owned the publishing rights to Chuck Berry's song "You Can't Catch Me," against Lennon for having appropriated both its melody and a snatch of its lyric in "Come Together." As part of the settlement Lennon agreed to make a recording of "You Can't Catch Me" and other rock oldies and give it to Levy to distribute, and to fulfill this commitment he decided to hire Spector and, rather than collaborate with him, just to sing with Spector's famous "wall-of-sound" arrangements behind him. The album might have worked out acceptably if Spector hadn't started his own descent into madness, and if he had recorded it the way he'd done his classic productions in the 1960's -- hiring his instrumentalists and perfecting the backing track in the studio, and then and only then bringing in the singer(s) to add the vocal. Instead Lennon insisted on recording his vocals and the backings at the same time, and as the studio chatter tapes included in this film reveal, he was fine at the beginning of every session. The problem was that he was drinking a gallon or more of vodka every day, bringing the jug into the studio with him and keeping it by his side, swigging between takes, like an old-style bluesman -- and as he got more and more drunk, he got more and more combative and quarrelsome until he was too busy arguing with everyone to sing. (It's interesting how a legal drug, alcohol, screwed up John Lennon's creativity in ways marijuana, LSD and even heroin hadn't.)

The sessions actually produced eight songs -- though two of them were issued only on Levy's version of the album, Roots (which he produced himself from a two-track tape Lennon sent him purely as documentation that he had finished it), while two others remained unreleased until 1986 -- and director Michael Epstein confused matters by playing over some of his footage of Lennon in L.A. excerpts from the second round of Rock and Roll sessions, completed in New York after Lennon sobered up and recorded the album Walls and Bridges, with the same musicians he had used on Walls and Bridges, turning in far better and more incisive performances of the old rock hits. Ultimately John and Yoko reunited at the Madison Square Garden concert Elton John gave in November 1974 -- they had recorded two songs together, a cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" released under Elton John's name and the original "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" under John Lennon's name for Walls and Bridges. "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" was picked as the first single from Walls and Bridges, and Elton John suggested to John Lennon that he appear as a guest at his New York concert and the two would perform the two songs as an encore. Lennon, still petrified at the thought of playing live, said, “I’ll do it if ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’ hits number one on the U.S. charts.” He didn’t think his record would do that well, but it did -- and he went through with his agreement with Elton John and they even did a third song, “I Saw Her Standing There” (which Lennon introduced as a song written by “an old, estranged fiancee of mine .. called Paul”), which Elton John released as the B-side of his single “Philadelphia Freedom.”

Yoko was at the concert and that night she agreed to a reconciliation, and the rest of the documentary was a brief precis of the so-called “house-husband” years of Lennon’s life, his decision to return to the studio and make the Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey albums (though the latter was not released until early 1984 because after the shock of John’s death it took Yoko that long to recover enough to listen to the tapes and prepare them for release) and his murder, though the name of Lennon’s killer is never mentioned here and director/writer Epstein avoids any account of the killing or any involvement in the ongoing debate over the killer’s motives. (The killer, Mark David Chapman, was supposedly either a “deranged fan” or a disturbed individual under the delusion that he was John Lennon and the one who had recorded Double Fantasy was an impostor he had to eliminate. In fact, he was a fundamentalist Christian who had never forgiven Lennon for having said the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” or for writing a song with a lyric that said, “Imagine no religion,” and he had even been in a prayer group that had prayed, “Imagine, imagine John Lennon dead.”)

About the only direct mention of Lennon’s death in LennonNYC is the footage of the improvised memorials that were put up outside the Dakota, the exclusive New York apartment building where John and Yoko had been living (and where I believe Yoko still lives), and a clip from Yoko saying, “Why would anyone want to kill an artist?” (Oddly, Lennon’s death was the third in a series of tragedies against people involved in peace activism over nine days in late 1980: on November 30 the octogenarian founder of the Catholic Worker organization, Dorothy Day, had died of natural causes: four days later the four Maryknoll nuns were killed in El Salvador, and John Lennon was murdered four days after that. I remember thinking at the time that the confluence of those events was an indication of bad karma from the election of Ronald Reagan as President.) LennonNYC is overall a marvelous film, presenting John Lennon in all his maddening complexity -- a useful antidote to the corrosive cynicism of Lennon Naked director Edmund Coulthard and writer Robert Jones, who seemed to have cherry-picked the life of their subject to include only the worst bits -- and once again underscoring the tragedy that Lennon was killed just when he’d finally grown up, accepted responsibility for his life and his actions and found a modicum of peace in his own head -- so much so that when Paul McCartney heard Double Fantasy in the three weeks between his release and Lennon’s death, he told a friend, “John’s made exactly the same kind of ‘home, family, love’ album he used to make fun of me for making!”