Music Features

Lennon 7.0: Some Time In New York City and Mind Games

Yoko Ono: “Male chauvinist pig engineer. (giggles) Yeah.”
John Lennon: “Raht ahwn, sistah.”

As if to stress himself fully as a preaching subversive willing to almost justify Nixon’s paranoia, Some Time In New York City was John Lennon acting editor-in-chief to his underground news rag, the album’s cover symbolizing the media’s power as not only a source of factoids functioning as dietary supplements for the American social consciousness to chew on and consume, but also as an unauthorized wealth of activism and idealistic persuasion.  On equal ground as collaborators, Lennon and Yoko Ono shared songwriting and performing duties along with the band Elephant’s Memory, who were incorporated into the Plastic Ono fold for release.

As a megastar-turned-political liability, Lennon’s cult of personality had already taken a step toward the avant-garde, Ono’s established rep as an outsider artist allowed some oddity to seep into his songwriting approach.  Woman is the Nigger of the World was after all based on an observation that Ono had come up with, and with it Lennon had an opportunity to unabashedly lambaste men’s assertion that woman is, by and large, the weaker sex.  Such potentially antagonistic and presumptuous claims, though, (so certain his claim that he states, “If you don’t believe me take a look at the one you’re with,” as if to say ALL men are guilty of keeping women in roles of submission), stay fairly consistent within the grooves of Some Time In New York City and inject a “holier than thou” positioning that’s both preachy and self-righteous. 

But, consider the album as an artifact, one born out of a turbulent political climate while Lennon himself had been targeted by governmental forces and threatened with deportation for basically speaking his mind.  Some Time In New York City, inasmuch as Lennon bites his thumb at authority (Attica State) and colonization (Sunday Bloody Sunday, Luck of the Irish) and acts sympathetic name-dropper to activists (John Sinclair, Angela), as a newly transplanted New Yorker, he clearly reveled in the prospect of city life.  New York City is relatively jovial, Lennon praising his new home and stating for the record: “Well nobody came to bug us/Hustle us or shove us/So we decided to make it our home/If the Man wants to shove us out/We gonna jump and shout/The Statue of Liberty said “Come!” 

Ono’s contributions, while at times abrasive, fit well enough with Lennon’s penchant for melody, the girl group approach of Sisters, O Sisters is pleasant enough, philosophically positive and at least up beat.  Born In A Prison follows the accusatory tone of Attica State with an easy-going disposition, though no less prone to point out truths with an air of superiority.  Aside from New York City, Ono’s We’re All Water is one of the album’s most unifying moments, people’s similarities and the future we share bonding humanity to some degree and lessening the impact of our differences.  Ono expounds through yelps and yowls a little too much at the song’s extended climax, but at least the album ends on a hopeful note.

Accompanying Some Time In New York City, as if to further the album’s already alienating position and sound, is a live album simply dubbed, Live Jam. The initial two tracks, (Cold Turkey and Don’t Worry Kyoko), were recorded in 1969 at London’s Lyceum Ballroom.  The point, or points, of interest surrounding Live Jam is the set Lennon and Ono played with Frank Zappa and The Mothers in 1971.  Zappa was in the midst of recording songs for what would be released as The Mothers: Fillmore East — June 1971.  Music journalist and MTV mainstay, Kurt Loder, asked Zappa about the sessions in a Rolling Stone interview in 1988:

“During our time onstage, a number of pieces were improvised, but a number of pieces that were played were absolutely written compositions that had already been on other albums — namely, a song of mine called King Kong.  The deal that I made with John and Yoko was that we were both to have access to the tapes and could deploy them any way we wanted. They got a duplicate copy of the master, and they mixed it their way. I had a copy of the master, and I was gonna mix it and put it out as part of this Mothers album. They put out this record and took King Kong — which obviously has a tune, and a rhythm, and chord changes — and they called it Jam Rag, and accredited the writing and publishing to themselves. Take a look at the album. “

With the Apple reissue, credit for Jamrag is still given to Lennon and Ono.  Aside from Jamrag, the song Scumbag was mixed to omit Mothers’ singers Flo and Eddie, (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman), who were apparently having a laugh or two at Ono’s expense, (Zappa: “There's a reason for that. They're singing, ‘Now Yoko's in the scumbag, we're putting Yoko in a scumbag.’").  The true mix of Scumbag was released in 1992 as part of a two-disc Zappa album entitled, Playground Psychotics.  (Song titles were changed, mostly notably the very long and shrill Au, which was renamed A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono).

Mind Games followed in 1973, Lennon breaking away from Phil Spector as his producer and keeping with the autobiographical/peace advocacy of Imagine.  The title track itself was originally called Make Love Not War, and was based on an idea Lennon pulled from a book (Robert Masters and Jean Houston) that focused on world change through mental power: “Keep on playing those mind games forever/Raising the spirit/Of peace and love.”

Though still vocal about “power to the people,” Mind Games is not the Greenwich Village inspired radical manifesto that its predecessor was.  Still threatened with the possibility of deportation, and apparently struggling with his marriage to Ono, Mind Games is mostly a stab at self-reflection, songs like Aisumasen (I'm Sorry) and I Know (I Know) humbly apologetic while One Day (At A Time), Out Of Blue and You Are Here kept him connected to Ono.  It was around this time that Lennon went on his 18 month bout of self-destruction known as his "Lost Weekend."

The album itself is soft and ornate, at times almost contemporary like so many elder rock musicians become as their respective heydays pass them by.  Tight A$ and Meat City both push Lennon to enjoy his guitar a bit like a rock musician should and the overall positivity of Mind Games’ message seems to glaze most of the album even in spite of Lennon’s introspection. 

His political bent is expressed with Bring On The Lucie (Freda People), the four-second and silent Nutopian International Anthem (a place free of borders) and Only People, but none of these songs really deliver the vitriol he’d up to this point been known for.  Bring On The Lucie (Freda People), in particular, plays like island music in spite of the song’s issues with government, (“So while you’re jerking off each other/You better bear this thought in mind/Your time is up you better know it/But maybe you don’t read the signs”).  Only People is like a show tune: accessible and snappy.  Though not a complete retreat from his rep as a working class hero, Mind Games at least suggested that the political arena had lost its appeal to some extent.