Mind Games

Four-CD Lennon Anthology leans too heavily on inferior versions of familiar tunes

Ultimately, such modest surprises are the Lennon Anthology's greatest musical rewards. It's reassuring to hear the lovely trifle "Dear John," recorded only days before Lennon's death, in which he revisits a theme from "Hold On" a decade earlier: that everything would work itself out if he didn't worry unduly. Home recordings of "Woman" and "Real Love" are similarly touching.

Best of all, the pristine outtakes from Lennon's inconsistent Rock 'n' Roll album easily eclipse their muddy official counterparts. A rockabilly romp through the irreverent "Move Over Ms. L" (donated to Keith Moon) breathes fresh life into what always seemed to be an overly hyperactive genre exercise, and Lennon's gusto-filled larynx shredding on "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Be Bop A Lula" reminds you that even if he'd never written a single song, this guy would've been a major rock artist on vocal ability alone.

But if you're looking for clues to the enduring puzzle that is the Lennon enigma, they're not very plentiful here. You get some hilarious studio chat between Lennon and Phil Spector that confirms that Spector was/is a cantankerous nut case ("You haven't been in tune all evening. Why change?") and you'll get ample evidence that Lennon had an unhealthy Dylan fixation (the strangely vicious "Serve Yourself" and numerous vocal parodies, including one that begins "Lord, take this makeup off of me"). You'll also find some cute exchanges between Lennon and his son Sean, including one where a 3-year-old Sean exuberantly sings the bridge to "With a Little Help From My Friends," while his dad struggles to remember the song's title. But that's about it.

Yoko would have probably served Lennon's legacy best by releasing a smaller set that focused primarily on unreleased songs. Although he later claimed to have hardly touched his guitar during his 1975-80 sabbatical, the home-recording evidence shows that Lennon actually wrote numerous songs during this period, in some cases devoting years to reworking tunes that eventually popped up on Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. Some of these songs, like "Whatever Happened To," a fascinating third-person account of a has-been artist, or "Tennessee," a tribute to playwright Tennessee Williams, would add more dimension to the Lennon story than a nondescript rehearsal take of "Jealous Guy" or "Steel and Glass."

Yoko probably thought she was being protective of her husband's memory by leaning heavily on familiar material, but in the end it feels like a bit of a cheat to spend so much for so little new stuff. Even with its frequent glimmers of greatness, the John Lennon Anthology--much like The Beatles Anthology--will probably end up being one of those collections that you listen to for a week and rarely go back to again. Rough drafts may be interesting for a while, but who wouldn't prefer to have the finished product

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