John Lennon's Realpolitik
This new John Lennon album--billed as Some Time in New York City, by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band/Elephant's Memory--proves conclusively that the ex-Beatle deserves to stay in New York City. My evidence is a line from a tune called "Attica State": "Come together join the movement." No doubt the State Department, which persists in trying to deport him, thinks this makes Lennon a subversive, but I ask you, who but a true New Yorker would exhibit such chutzpah?
On the other hand, maybe it isn't chutzpah. Maybe it's just na´vetÚ. Among my movement friends the line seems to be that there is no movement, which like most 1972 radicalism is a deliberate paradox--we want the world, but we'll settle for George McGovern. That I write of "my movement friends" is one clause and "we" in the next is another paradox. I can't speak as a movement person--I've been tear-gassed a couple of times and can claim abortive participation in a few action projects, but like most people who perceive paradox too easily, I'm better at analyzing history than making it--and anyway, since the very idea of the movement has lost credibility, it would be politically counterproductive for me to do so.
More than ever, my skepticism applies to rock and roll. Unless the music business becomes a much stranger business than it already is, the violent overthrow of the U.S. government is not likely to come in quadraphonic sound. Right now, anything goes, and Some Time in New York City is in the spirit of anything goes. The lyrics are printed on the jacket, which is designed like a newspaper, and properly so, for seven of its ten songs are not only political but also topical, almost in the spirit of real broadsides.
The time is right for such a move. It's true that what used to be called protest music accomplished less with words than rock and roll did with nothing but sound--inflections that shook teen-agers out of their white-skin gentility, rhythms that aroused their sexuality and aggressiveness--but now things are more complicated. It's no accomplishment to boogie adolescents into youth rebellion any more. The hip young are rapidly turning into another interest group, like labor unions. If rock and roll is to continue to function politically, it must continue to liberate its audience--to broaden fellow-feeling, direct energy, and focus analysis.
It can, too, in many ways, and lyrics are one of them. Rod Stewart's "Handbags and Gladrags," in which Mike d'Abo describes a high-school girl from her grandfather's vantage, combats youth chauvinism as aptly as "Yakety Yak" unmasked parent power. The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" suggests a utopia free of liberal con-men. But the new Lennon/Ono songs are more direct, hence more risky. They attack issues so simplistically that you wonder whether the artists believe themselves. Is love and care all the inmates at Attica need? If I had the luck of the Irish, would I rather be English instead? This time John appears to have plunged too fast. Agitprop is one thing. Wrong-headed agitprop is another.
Agitprop that fails to reach its constituency, however, is hardly a thing at all, and since Lennon's forte has always been the communication of new truths to a mass audience, that possibility is very distressing. He isn't exploiting his charisma this time, he's gambling it. Not that he isn't singing better than ever. Not that Phil Spector hasn't added brilliant musical touches--invisible strings, bottleneck guitar, little Peggy March riff--or that Elephant's Memory, a fine-rocking movesymp band, doesn't boogie throughout. But the lyrics exhibit a fatal movement (and avant-gardist) flaw: While striving to enlighten, they condescend. I have yet to hear of a woman, feminist or no, who isn't offended by the presumption of the two feminist songs. Does Angela Davis have to be told that she's one of the million political prisoners in the world? It's bad enough to praise David Peel and worse still to record him, but imitating his thoughtless hip-left orthodoxy is worst of all.
Still, you can trust a paradox-finder to discern some hope in all of this. Imagine was a successful popularization of Plastic Ono Band's experiments. Who is to say John can't do it again? Wouldn't it be wonderful if all this heart-in-the-right-place effort could be transformed into something that could be expected to be real to people? Maybe we could even learn to love Yoko's singing as much as John does. Just imagine.
Newsday, July 1972