Saturday, December 8, 2012
Put The Boot In: "Free as a Bird"-John Lennon-"At Home"
Spinning in the "rock room" this week in remembrance, and because its so damn good is the collection of home recordings fittingly named "At Home". This collection was compiled by the company "His Master's Choice" usually known for quality recordings. To my ears the majority of these tracks are from tape sources close to, if not the master Lennon tapes. Many fans on different discussion boards seem to think that these recordings are from the infamous "Fred Seaman stash" of tapes due to their stunning quality. For those not aware, Fred Seaman was Lennon's personal assistant through the last years of his life. He was later arrested and charged with pilfering the Lennon estate in exchange for a book deal. Regardless, this collection contains many things familiar to Lennon fans, and some things not so much. There is not a chronological flow to the recording, though all tracks are from 1976-1980 (except for one). The quality is the real star here, with the ambiance and clarity of Lennon's guitar/piano and voice unbelievable. The songs are raw and in various stages of development, the ironic content sometime too much to take.
The collection is broken into two compact discs with the first being guitar demos and the second piano based recordings. The first disc opens with the now familiar "Watching the Wheels" acoustic "Bermuda" version from Anthology, a fitting opening to the collection and one of my favorite Lennon lyrics. It's crazy how Lennon's ability to speak through his listeners is magnified when witnessed during the intimate moments of creation on recordings like this one. The poignancy of a solitary Lennon and his guitar is the real magic of his legend, and these demos. It's not "granny glasses" and his loud mouthed public statements; its his working class attitude, quick mind, and completely uncensored art. As the first disc of the collection continues there comes a series of "Dylan parodies" which have circulated for some time, but are still good for a chuckle. These parodies can become somewhat monotonous, as they feel like one big inside joke. But in the context of Lennon's situation at the time of their creation, they are a curious peek into his psyche.
Fittingly, following the Dylan satire is the Anthology version of "Serve Yourself". A vitriolic reply to Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" that unfortunately never got to see the light of day during Lennon's lifetime. If you have never heard this song before, do not pass go without finding it! Classic Lennon, with a venomous bite not heard since 1971"s "How Do You Sleep". It makes me giddy to think of what Lennon's follow up LP to 1980's "Double Fantasy" would have been with tracks like the aforementioned languishing in the Lennon tape vault. A follow up LP containing songs like "Help Me To Help Myself", Whatever Happened To, Serve Yourself" and "Gone From This Place would have been another career defining statement! Not too mention the finished studio songs, "Borrowed Time"," I Don't Want To Face It", and others. The LP would have been a definite change from the fantastic, but somewhat "safe" song choices John made for "Double Fantasy".
A track by track analysis of this set would be redundant and somewhat long as there are thirty six tracks on this set. The reason for this blog is more about sharing the vibe and encouraging a listen. By the time I get to the "Bermuda" home recordings that make up a fair amount of the guitar demo disc, I understand why "Double Fantasy" producer Jack Douglas said he'd release Lennon's demos as they were, unadorned. Obviously, Lennon made it into the studio, but the statement is a comment on the "completeness" of Lennon's home creations pre production. The single tracked version of "Stepping Out" on this disc is so crisp that every plectrum hit, every catch in the throat, and fading falsetto note rings inside my ears and head. I look at the timer on my CD player as it counts down to the next song and swallow in anticipation. This is a hi-fi series of lo-fi recordings, with every song beautiful. I look at the track listing know whats coming, but I still cant wait.
The song that had Lennon fans like myself "flipping Out" over this release was the acoustic version of "Grow Old With Me" that was rumored to exist since the 1998 release of Lennon Anthology. Starting with the rustle of papers and John's mumbled, " Hold it, and the next day" this "lost" version is everything you think it should be. Sure, there are a few moments of uncertainty as John searches for the chords during the bridge, but the intimate sound and soulful performance is enough to give chills. I feel that by showing the fallible side of Lennon only makes these "documents" more valuable.
I sometimes have a feeling of hearing something I shouldn't be hearing when spinning John's home recordings. As the crystalline version of "My Life" plays I hear Yoko's faint backing vocals sounding like they are coming from the corner of the room. It's like reading a diary, these performances are a private dialog not destine for public consumption, but they ended up here somehow, and I'm glad that they did. The double tracked version of "Woman" which John announces as "Take three" is again breathtaking in its completeness and sentiment. Superlatives cannot do justice to these discreet and passionate performances, the only way to feel them is to listen to them. I have to say "Woman" towers above the studio version, because of Lennon's impassioned vocals and one man instrumentation. Similar to Plastic Ono Band era Lennon some of these songs are so stark and powerful that they cannot be enjoyed in a casual listening session. Deep concentration and a perfect seat are required.
The first CD concludes with "Say It Again", which I think is a "Mind Games" era demo that made its way onto this collection mistakenly."Say It Again" is a desolate melody with the middle eight of the released Lennon composition, "You Are Here" gestating as its center. Following "Sat It Again" are three luminous takes of "Nobody Told Me". These versions move briskly like a Bermuda seabird, with Lennon's "rhythm ace" providing a tight back beat. Lennon's Ovation guitar chiming profoundly throughout my room its dynamics clear as the unbroken blue sky. The final song closing out the disc is a solo acoustic version of "I Ain't Got Time" a bluesy interpretation on a classic number, that epitomizes what the first disc was all about. A closely miked, unadorned, private recording not designed for pubic consumption but stunning in its beauty. Yoko's typewriter acts as additional percussion in the background as the song approaches its ending.
The second "piano" disc starts with a version of "Grow Old With Me" that contains a young Sean's yells in the background. Different from the "released" demo version found on "Milk and Honey" and a glimpse into the songs development. There is something "otherworldly" about John's piano based demos from this era that I have never been able to put my finger on. The ambiance of the recordings lends a natural reverb to the piano that gives it a spectral, or ghostly quality. One theory I have is that the tremendously high ceilings and thick walls of The Dakota building offered a historic spectral echo to the proceedings. I cannot be sure all of the piano based demos were captured there, but I think there is a good chance that many of them were. It's hard to explain, but if you listen to them you may understand my feelings on this. These home recordings have the ability through their fidelity to put me in The Dakota, with the West 72nd street traffic rolling by below, and an expansive vista of Central Park stretching before the jagged Manhattan skyline. John sitting at his upright piano, with crude cassette machine rolling and capturing his moments of creativity before they escape, "Free as a Bird" to soar forever.
Probably my favorite John Lennon demo recording is "Help Me To Help Myself", and this collection offers an extended version of the released take, and a lower quality version of an unheard alternate take. A beautifully sung gospel song with Lennon asking for God to "Help Me to Help Myself", and including another achingly blatant display of emotion from John. It's rare to hear John vocalize in such a way as his approach is slightly different from his "rock" voice.Being a "private" recording John lets himself go a bit more than he would in the confines of a professional recording studio. I can envision this tune eventually becoming dressed in a choir and glorious instrumentation, with John singing the shit out of it. Directly after, the unused Beatles Anthology Lennon demo "Now and Then" is included on this set. Complete and without the annoying "buzz" that plagued earlier recordings and Beatle producer Jeff Lynne. What would have made a welcome addition to "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" as "Threetles" recordings on 1995's Anthology, takes its repaired and rightful place on this collection. The melody unmistakably Lennon, the falsetto chorus chilling, the song so good it makes me weak.
Making up the rest of disc two are extended and upgraded piano based demos of "Cleanup Time", "Real Love", "I'm Losing You", and "She Is a Friend of Dorothy's which all contain something special to offer the listener. "Dorothy" is a fluctuating and rolling song, with tentative Lennon vocals still feeling their way around the melody line. There are more "complete" versions available (Dakota Home Demos CD) but this one has a delicate charm, brushing by my ears like a butterfly moving from leaf to flower. The electric piano version of "Cleanup Time" should be given special notice because of the emphatic vocalizations by Lennon. I have heard that the electric piano played on the "Cleanup Time" demos was a gift from Lennon friend Elton John. I find myself so entranced by disc two of this set that I switch between concentration on the music, to reflection on the source, and finally reasoning behind my ability to listen to it. What is amazing to me is that these private compositions emerge developed, and then metamorphosize into other compositions, which then spawn melody lines, for new songs. Lennon a musical miner, sifting through the rock and soil for his bits of gold, using everything he finds, no waste. It's a testament to the quality of Lennon's work that songs such as "Real Love" would be left behind in consideration for other tunes, and while others were continuously being developed.
The collection closes with multiple unique and clandestine compositions, "Don't Be Afraid" is a show tune styled paean to Sean similar to "Beautiful Boy" in its domestic tranquility. Birds can be heard screeching in the background a testament to the aural sound quality. A rare and early version of "Real Love" follows containing a middle eight eventually used for "Stepping Out". Finally the entire set closes with a composition titled "Solitude", a minor key, delicate work in progress with similar vocalizations to "Help Me To Help Myself". An appropriate conclusion to the set, with definite references to what would become "Strangers Room", and eventually I'm Losing You". "Solitude" contains all of the elements that make this set so amazing and worth your time. If you are a fan of John Lennon you owe it to yourself to put this music on, and using John's word's,"So we'll settle down, deeply, I hope, and comfortably in an easy chair and then, lay back, put the incense on, light the candles and give yourself a hard time".
This year, as the time comes to remember friends and family, and to share in the holiday spirit, also remember to reflect back on the music you love most, and the artists who create it. Think of how bleak our existence would be without artists like John Lennon, and how their creations can color our own lives. Remember how one of the greatest artists of our modern times was silenced by an assassin's bullets, but yet his music continues to this day to deliver the feelings of peace and love into our lives. Peace and love is not just a T-shirt or silly hippy ideal, its a way to live and a way to treat others. Lennon never thought this idea was silly and continued to express it until his last breath.
Lennon always tried to use his celebrity to spread a message, or to encourage his admirers to "think". Even though he is no longer of this world his medium will still distribute his message, and his simple belief that "love is the answer". Lennon had the ability to bring to the forefront things that should be obvious to us all, but sometimes disappeared to the back, obscured by bullshit. Through his experience and uncanny talent to express the human condition Lennon is still a part of all music fans, and his influence will endure forever. Listen to some of Lennon's non commercial works in progress today, and hear a side of the man unchanged by massive celebrity, and still constantly searching, changing, learning and creating.
John Lennon-Help Me To Help Myself
John Lennon-Grow Old With Me