Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions - John Lennon/Yoko Ono



Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions
John Lennon/Yoko Ono
Zapple ST 3357
1969

It was John Lennon's birthday a few days ago.  He would have been 71 had he not been murdered, nearly as old as my Mom.  It is hard to imagine what he might be like were he still alive.  I wonder what he would think of this record if he could hear it now.  I suspect it would hold a lot of memories for him.  It was a record born out of love and pain, half of it was recorded in the hospital in London where Ono was recovering from the miscarriage of their child which is depicted on the front cover.  On the reverse side the couple are seen getting busted for drug possession by some smug looking English bobbies.  Side one consists of "Cambridge 1969" which was recorded at a 1969 concert at Cambridge University.  It is 26 minutes of Ono howling, bleating, laughing, groaning and making bird sounds while Lennon lays down a storm of shrieking guitar feedback.  Towards the end they are joined by a percussionist and a sax player at which point the cacophony of sound reminds me a bit of John Coltrane's experiments with free jazz.  It sounds like torture, but I kind of dig it.  I like the exuberance of the performance and it is sort of trippy.  It sounds like a tone deaf person trying to sing a work by Gyorgy Ligeti.  I admire Lennon's willingness to explore new sounds and new forms of music.  Whatever criticisms one might make about this record, there is no denying that Ono certainly expanded Lennon's musical horizons.  You can't get much farther from Elvis and Chuck Berry than this.  I don't like side two as much, but is definitely out there as well.  It begins with "No Bed for Beatle John" with Ono and Lennon singing the text of press articles about them and the Beatles, it resembles the kind of choral polyphony one would associate with medieval church music.  It suffers from Ono's limitations as a conventional singer, I find her more effective in her banshee mode.  It is followed by "Baby's Heartbeat" which is five minutes of a recording of their baby's heartbeat prior to his death.  I find it depressing to listen to, although the sound itself is mildly compelling.  It is almost a relief when it is followed by "Two Minutes Silence" which is exactly that.  The side finishes with "Radio Play" which is twelve minutes of someone messing around with the radio dial (back when radios still had dials) abruptly switching frequencies every couple of seconds.  Now this is torture.  I find it extremely irritating and the only thing I find interesting are the bits where you can hear Lennon talking on the telephone in the background.  Nevertheless of the three Lennon/Ono avant-garde albums, I like this one the best by far.  Admittedly I almost never listen to side two, but side one appeals to me both as music and as art.  As difficult as they are at times to listen to, all three albums succeed to varying degrees as personal statements and in that sense I think can be considered to be artistically successful.  It is debatable whether they work as music, but as works of performance art, I think they are interesting.  Lennon and Ono do have chemistry together and listening to these records you can feel the affection and enthusiasm they have for each other.  I suppose you could argue that their art was exhibitionistic and narcissistic but personally I like that quality in art.  Recommended for people who'd prefer a trip to the museum over a rock show.

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