Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Still More Tales From the Crypt

Okay, here's another of my Greatest Hits, i.e. one of my old pieces for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review (AKA Sound and Vision), in this case from the March 1981 issue. For obvious reasons, I rather agonized over this one back in the day, so I was actually rather pleased to find upon re-reading it now that the only thing that embarrassed me were some dire predictions that (mercifully) didn't come true.

Two historical notes: At the time of the Smithereens reference, they were strictly a local NYC band; they wouldn't get a record deal or a hit for another four or five years. And that terribly sad photo of John and Yoko outside the Dakota is the same one that originally ran with the review.

I should also add that a few weeks after the piece appeared I got a very nice note from a woman who had worked as a personal assistant to Brian Epstein at the height of Beatlemania. She told me that of all the reviews of the album she had seen, it was the one that most resonated for her. That meant a lot to me.


A few days after the murder of John Lennon, I was at a Village club listening to a wonderful Sixties-influenced power-pop band called the Smithereens. After the second set, the group came back for an encore and suddenly got very serious. "When I was a kid," the drummer announced to the crowd, "there were certain things that were cool. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was cool. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were cool. But Johnny Lennon...he was very cool."

As I write, it has been a week since Lennon was killed; by the time you read this, chances are that, unless we're really lucky, there will have been a commercial-cash-in rock circus on a scale that will make the Elvis Boom look like a P.T.A. bake sale. As a media event, his death has been unprecedented. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the upheaval in Poland and Iran, inflation, Reagan's election...who cares? They all pale into insignificance. 1980 will be remembered as the year a "wacko" (the word the police used) pulled off the first rock-and-roll assassination. And the tributes will continue. Endlessly. They will range from the genuinely moving to the merely fatuous and self-serving to the downright disgusting, but the end result will be the same: canonization. No matter how many sensationalist details emerge, no matter how many of John's old drug connections sell their memoirs to the newspapers, the last fall-out of Beatlemania will ensure that he's elevated to secular sainthood.

Well, John was a lot of things, but a saint he was not. By his own admission he was a bit of a bastard, and he well may have been; nobody gets to be one of the biggest phenomena in the history of show biz by being Mister Rogers. But I liked what the Smithereens drummer said about him because it's a perception that separates those of us who were there at the time (when he was, in Murray the K.'s immortal phrase, "what's happening, baby") from the younger fans who now haunt Beatles conventions and patronize Beatlemania touring companies. Those kids can't possibly understand that John Lennon was the coolest guy in the universe. Cooler than Elvis (dumb greaser!), cooler than Brando or James Dean or Lord Byron or Willie Sutton or Muhammad Ali or Cary Grant or Robert DeNiro or Bruce Springsteen. Cooler than Elvis Costello, even. Not to mention Travolta and the Fonz.

Understandably, this is an aspect of the man that has gotten lost in the shuffle. Right now, in the face of the pointless loss many of us feel, he's being painted as the most wonderful, warm, caring human being who ever wore shoe leather. But cool is closer to what he was. He had wit, style and songwriting genius. He invented the world's most exclusive men's club and made millions of dollars thumbing his nose at the Establishment. He gave countless people joy and in the process changed the world a couple of times, substantial achievements whatever your background might be. I can't think of a neater role model for a teenager and I can't think of my own adolescence except in terms that he defined.

IS musical accomplishments will probably be debated endlessly. The lingering, mindless fan clamor of the last ten years has done a great deal to cheapen his reputation, and there has been the inevitable critical backlash (ironic when you consider that all us rock critics owe our very jobs to him, for there wasn't any such occupation to speak of before the Beatles). The punks, by and large, have no use for him, though I was delighted to find out that John, for his part, got off on the Pretenders and the B-52s. My guess is that in the long run it's his early stuff -- through, say, Beatles VI -- that will hold up best; in fact, my personal tribute, in response to the gentle homilies of "Imagine" that saturated the airwaves in the wake of the tragedy, was to blast the teenage lust of "Anytime At All" and "You Can't Do That" as loud as I could, and to hell with the neighbors. But his finest work, I think, which includes the first two solo albums and the 1975 Rock and Roll set, constitutes an achievement as personal and innovative and moving as can be found in the history of the music he helped shape. If it takes a senseless crime to make people remember what John accomplished, well, that's unfortunate, but it's also the way of the world.

As for Double Fantasy, the comeback record that now becomes his artistic farewell: in honesty, I hated it before he died, and now that he's gone I find listening to it all but unbearable. The simplistic celebrations of the the love that he and Yoko felt for each other and for their son seem, in retrospect, too painfully sincere to take: the cruelty of his ending intrudes too much. Musically, it shows that he hadn't completely lost his touch. The voice was still thrillingly intact; it's worth mentioning that John Lennon had perhaps the most hauntingly expressive voice in all of rock-and-roll. At least two of the songs -- "Watching the Wheels" and "Woman" -- are, on a melodic level, as fetching as some of his lesser Beatles efforts. Yoko's stuff strikes me as precious. The vaguely trendy "Kiss, Kiss, Kiss" could pass for a minor British New Wave pop hit, and whether time has vindicated her earlier avant-gardisms (as John was convinced it would) I will not venture to guess. The kindest thing to say about Double Fantasy, all in all, is that it wasn't designed as a rock record and shouldn't be judged as one. Its music is what the industry calls Adult Contemporary; I don't think it's successful even within the confines of that bland genre, but I can see that some kind of case could be made for it.

ROCK-AND-ROLL deaths tend to turn quickly into shopworn metaphors of one kind or another -- think of Altamont or Janis Joplin -- and there will doubtless be attempts to grasp some "larger" meaning behind the sad events of December 8. There has already been a spate of "The Sixties are finally over" pronouncements; John, of course, tried to point that out to people ten years ago, but then artists are always ahead of the crowd. Beyond that, what can one say? That we should boyott those who would turn his death into a commercial venture? We're all of us ghouls to some degree; being fans, how could we be otherwise? The Lennon Industry will continute to alternately fascinate and repel us; there will be dignified historical retrospectives and shameless mawkish reminiscences, scholarly rummaging through the tape vaults and flagrant rip-off repackagings. The well-meaning and the jackals will together compete for our attention as long as people remember. There's not much that can be done about that. As for the pain we feel right now...well, Pete Townshend once said that rock won't help you forget your problems, but it will let you dance all over them. That advice seems worth remembering. — Steve Simels


GEFFEN GHS 2001 $7.98.


dave™© said...

Well, in retrospect, mixing all of John's cuts from "Double Fantasy" and "Milk and Honey" together gives a better idea of what he was like, "artistically", at the time - and it certainly rocks out more!

I wish the guy had lived long enough to see porta-studios and mash-ups. He'd be a fucking king!

dave™© said...

BTW, speaking of a "commercial cash in rock circus," I was working at the Big Record Store That Is Now Out of Business when Lennon got shot (true story: my roommate and I were listening to "A Hard Day's Night" when another roommate came in to tell us Howard Cosell had just announced Lennon's death). I went down to the store that night when we heard, and the Lennon (and Beatles) albums were flying out. The next morning when I came into work, my manager was on the phone ordering every Lennon or Beatle poster our warehouse had. We sold them out on arrival...

Ali said...

Thanks for working the night shift to keep me in reading material, steve.


That was most enjoyable, and you were right on the money.

Nancy Willing said...

That morning (I already owned Double Fantasy) a neighbor lady came over. Very out of charactor.
This woman was a country, old-timey Blue Grassy type.
We were five-rooms-full-of-hippie-heaven that shared a duplex with this lady.
I usually had my tea with Talking Heads or, your know, Warron Zevon, the freaking seventies. But I loved Lennon above all else.
Anyhoo, that morning, fricking too close to my Dec. 16th Birthday fuck you very much....
the lady next door to this college bunch came over a knockin'. She asked me to check her water. To taste it. She said that she thought that something might be wrong with it.
Mind you, we lived on a street on the total but tiny hippie college neighborhood at the time in a crimeless town that housed the state's main University.
Saying, yes, of course I would check her water, my twenty-year-old ass went into her back door to see staring back at me...the headlines. John was dead.

This lady was one musical dude in her own style as we all were fixated on music. Who knows to this day if the news that shook my soul was the news that shook her sense of reality. I assume it was.

At any rate. I took a drink from her faucet and declared her water good. And left. John was fucking dead.

Nancy Willing said...

oh well, I left out the whole point of the story...
When this lady let me in her back door, her little laundry area, there was the morning news. The usually innocuous newspaper had the headlines splashed across it there lying on her washing machine.

I always thought that she was alone and freaked out at the news and made up the story about the water tasting weird to bring me over to calm her down. It did and I did. 'nuff said???

VforVirginia said...

Wonderful. You are such a terrific writer, steve.

Gummo said...

A moving piece, steve, and by and large accurate (even if I don't share your affection for Lennon's Rock'n'Roll album).

I guess one can't blame Yoko Ono for spending the last 28 years trying to sell the image of her famous husband as a secular saint, but it does him such a disservice -- the whole man was so much more, and so much less, than that -- he was a brilliant, flawed, human being, not afraid to fuck up in public, and that was one of many reasons so many of us loved him.

And yes, "Where were you when John Lennon was shot?" is a question that has taken on the same generational-defining charge as the question, where were you when Kennedy was shot. As well it should. It was that important.

Gummo said...

And he was a helluva rhythm guitar player, right up there in my personal pantheon of rock rhythm guitar players (which includes Pete Townsend, Lou Reed and Bob Weir, not than anyone's asking).

steve simels said...

Gummo, at this point I'm ambivalent about the Rock n Roll album, but I figured changing the original piece would have been cheating.

Gummo said...

Well, as you know, I hate artists who go back and tamper with finished work, so more power to you!

TMink said...

Very touching Steve. I appreciate the way you approached your feelings directly. I also like how you refused to make John something he was not, a nice guy.

Great job. Did you read what Art Dudley wrote about you in $tereophile? I like reading Art, but this officially puts him in the grumpy old man category as far as I am concerned.


steve simels said...


Haven't seen Stereophile in years.
Is this something recent?

Brooklyn Girl said...

I guess one can't blame Yoko Ono for spending the last 28 years trying to sell the image of her famous husband as a secular saint, but it does him such a disservice

I do blame her, actually. I saw "Lennon", that monstrosity masquerading as a Broadway show, which mercifully closed after only a few performances ... Yoko was aggressively involved in it, including making the decision to have several actors play John since, according to her, John was "every man".

No, he wasn't. He was himself.

res ipsa loquitur said...

And yes, "Where were you when John Lennon was shot?" is a question that has taken on the same generational-defining charge as the question, where were you when Kennedy was shot. As well it should. It was that important.

And now, "Where were you on September 11th?"

Great piece, Steve. You write, "We're all of us ghouls to some degree; being fans, how could we be otherwise?"


steves said...

Thanks, Steve. That was a wonderful piece--not merely for its well-written look at the way we were, but also because it makes one think about the way we are.

Personally, I view Lennon's murder as the start of the big decline. I remember then-president-elect Reagan responding to the tragedy by saying something like, "Well, guns don't kill people..." Who would have guessed that the clown we all knew back then would become the beloved Saint Ronnie of the Right now?

I also agree with BG upstairs, and I'll add to the indictment her unforgiveable "dance remixes" of Lennon's compositions as well as her incredibly dreadful 9-11-special remix of "Give Peace a Chance" (or was it "Imagine"?)

OTOH, even if we don't buy into John posthumous sainthood, he will forever be cool, which can't be said about 60's survivors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby (or Paul McCartney, for that matter).

Well done, my friend.

David said...

I admire that you were bold enough to mention the fact that Lennon was a bit of a bastard, especially to do so during the canonization period. Whenever I get too swoon-y on Lennon the man, I remember an interview I saw with Julian Lennon who said, in effect, here was this man that people all over the world associated with peace and love, and he basically abandoned me. And then he wrote a bunch of songs saying how great fatherhood was and how much he loved his OTHER son. Pretty damning stuff...but something about genius and being a bit of a bastard go together. I think Pablo Picasso might agree.

steves said...

P.S. One thing that jumped out at me was this: "The punks, by and large, have no use for him."

Since you're the true musicologist here, I'll take that at face value. But I see it as purely posturing on the part of the punks. Certainly, the pre-Epstein Lennon was as much, if not more, of a punk than any of them, and you can certainly hear his influence in the Clash's music (the only punk band that matters, IMHO). So, yeah, while it may have been cool for the punks to diss the Beatles, I ain't really buying it.

ms. rosa said...

I feel like a real jerk now having bought my son the "Imagine"(tm) snowglobe when he was a baby. HA!

Great, great stuff, Steve. Thanks for posting (and for not changing a damn thing).

steve simels said...

ms. rosa:

Who is the band in your gravatar?

Brooklyn Girl said...

OTOH, even if we don't buy into John posthumous sainthood, he will forever be cool, which can't be said about 60's survivors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby (or Paul McCartney, for that matter).

McCartney is most definitely not cool.

Ringo, otoh, has acquired his own kind of coolness as he's gotten older.

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

Thank you for posting the review. BTW, you are cool, too, Mr. Simels.

Here is an original song from 2005 that may or may not commemorate the Lennon death. It is part of a 48 Hour film project, and is called Headshot. (The music starts at 1:30; just skip to there if you prefer to see your blood in vampire films.) Lennon certainly influenced my friend, as he sings every conceivable country, pop, or punk standard in an Adult Contemporary "Watching the Wheels" style.

TMink said...

Hey Steve, it was the August 08 issue, in Art Dudley's column. The short version is that he really apprecaited your reviews till you shared that you do not like Bowie. Then he dumped you.

I shared his sentiments in the first sentence where he shared how your work was important to his tastes. The second sentence came across as weird and just grumpy.


steve simels said...


Thanks. I'll go check it out...

ms. rosa said...

roky erickson playing at the conroe catfish cajun festival last fall. conroe is about 45 minutes from to houston. great, great show!

steve simels said...

ms. rosa:

I thought it looked like roky. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Twenty seven years on and it's still hard to sift through all the emotions I feel thinking about Lennon's death.

He was a rocker, a punk, the ultimate peacenik, a great father, a great husband, a voice of his generation, a lousy father, a lousy husband and great at shooting his mouth off without thinking.

Just like the rest of us. He just did it larger than life for all to see.

PS Steve: Though I disagree with some minor points in the review it is a extremely fine piece of rock & roll journalism.


MBowen said...

He was from a semi-generation before me, so I can't see him as being cooler than, say, Joe Strummer. And, yeah, "Double Fantasy" was awful, particularly if you looked at the amazing music that was being made at the time.

But from the point of view of someone to whom The Beatles were a Saturday morning cartoon (and one that I liked less than Bugs Bunny), I remember the weird numbness I felt when I heard he was shot.

Your column, Steve, even if the predictions it made weren't 100% accurate, turned out to be one of the truest in hindsight. It worked then, and it works now. Well done, sir.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Steve, with this Double Fantasy posting I hope we can finally, completely put an end to this ridiculous notion of yours that a compilation of your old reviews (prefeaced & annotated by Simels 2008) wouldn't make an absolutely stunning book. Moreover, in conclusion, & furthermore, I am so right about this and you are so wrong.

TJWood said...

Steve, first of all, I'll second Who Am Us's suggestion. Second, I presume you haven't backtracked on your opinion of Double Fantasy. The initial reviews I remember reading about the album were highly critical of it being complacent. I certainly don't consider it his finest moment, but I didn't (and don't) hate it either, and I find the album reflects the interviews John and Yoko were giving at the time of its release. So I guess you can say that the album in its own way is honest. Some of your dire predictions indeed did not come true, but you were on the mark about Lennon at times being lifted up to the point of canonization, something he almost certainly would have taken issue with as much as any of the rest of us. Well written, and deserving of the compliments it has received.

steve simels said...

Major thanks to everybody who's been so nice about this little bit of self-indulgence on my part.

And as always, thanks to NYMary for giving me the spare set of keys to the car.

FeralLiberal said...

Again, I remember reading this at the time, and your review of R&R where IIRC you gave it BotM.

Reading this again brought back a lot of memories.