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by RIP RENSE

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LENNON'S GREAT LOST SONG
(Oct. 9, 2018)
(copyright 2018 Rip Rense)

                John Lennon’s so-called “house husband” years really are so much bunk, so much (double) fantasy. Oh, he had retreated, yes, and he was intent on spending fatherly time with his young child, Sean, and he did, by all accounts, become adept at baking bread.
               But to buy the public relations put out long ago by John-and-Yoko, one would think the five years of withdrawal from performing and public appearance amounted to a bucolic, even beatific seclusion in which he had found supreme contentment. Nope.                Lennon was notoriously complicated, (“an enigma even to himself,” as Cynthia Lennon once told me) and that hardly stopped, as if he was bathed in revelation and spiritual insight between 1975 and 1980. He periodically “sneaked out” to visit May Pang, for example, smoked copious amounts of dope, watched copious amounts of TV (mostly switching around), day-slept, had the occasional flare of temper (as Sean would attest), and fought ennui and depression.
               His reported psychological “breakthrough,” alleged to have occurred while taking the wheel of a sailboat during a June, 1980 storm off Bermuda rings true, however, and seems to have prompted him to rediscover muse and motivation, as it led promptly to the songs for Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. Lennon called the maritime event “the most fantastic experience I’ve ever had,” and those close to him attested to the profundity of the moment.


Lennon at home, 1980.

               Yet it is not as though he abruptly rediscovered songwriting, after a long, fallow period. Lennon, as is now well-known, never stopped writing during the “househusband” time; never stopped playing around with song fragments, ideas, even fairly complete works. Left in the wake of his fiendish murder were countless cassette tapes of songs-that-might-have-been, including the demos for “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” that, for better or worse, became Beatles songs. (One demo-turned-Beatles song remains unreleased, the reportedly completed “Now and Then,” in McCartney’s possession.)
              A number of these home recordings were, creditably, issued on the Lennon Anthology and the Lennon Signature Box, but the overall curation is open to criticism. While it’s laudable that the complete, beautiful take of “India, India” (written in 1968), for example, was released on Signature (why, oh, why was this not presented to the so-called Threetles for a reunion track!), one is left to wonder, couldn’t something more creative have been done with all the demo material? Couldn’t some of the fragments have been completed by other artists, old friends of John’s? Couldn’t old Lennon musical colleagues have been enlisted to provide full accompaniment on the more complete songs? What might an orchestral composer, say, Carl Davis, do with this music? Or what, for that matter, could Sean and/or Julian do with it? Apparently, we will never know.
              Which brings up the point of this piece: that something should be done, at the very least, with one of the loveliest, most poignant and reflective songs Lennon ever wrote, a song that exists only in several home “takes,” a song that does more, in my view, to capture the alienation and sadness of Lennon’s five-year retreat---or perhaps anyone’s alienation and sadness. . .

                Memory oh memory, release me from your spell
                Today is all I need to know
                Why do you have to haunt me when I thought I'd let you go
                I hear you whispering through the cold and lonely snow
. . .

                The song is “Memories,” and it began---as first reported, I believe, on the old Lost Lennon Tapes radio program---as “Tennessee,” a heartfelt paean to the works of Tennessee Williams. (About as unlikely a song and subject as Lennon ever ventured.) The first and only known recordings of  “Tennessee” date to 1975, and feature unusually reflective and sincere poetry. A sample:

                Tennessee, oh Tennessee what you've shown to me
                Your words like water pure and clear
                The sadness of your soul reveals the music of the sphere
                And sealed beyond your spirit mind
                Your poet's love and fear

                America, America
                Your heroes are alive
                Your faded fear and glory will survive
                The madness in your soul supplies the all consuming fire
                Beneath your spirit (unknown) lies the Streetcar Named Desire

                 (Note: I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the words; they are an approximation from listening on Youtube.)

             
Whatever Lennon’s reputed affinity for the work of Tennessee Williams might have been, it was not enough to stop him from rewriting the song in coming years as “Memories”---with a very complete, multi-verse version in 1980, and the long-standing fragment, “Howling at the moon,” worked in as a “middle eight.”  While the lyrics read as if in finished form, there are a couple of rougher patches that, one assumes, Lennon might have worked on further. He accompanied himself tidily at the piano, and overdubbed syncopated acoustic guitar lines here and there.

                Memory, memory, you're meaning less to me
                Watching late night movies on TV
                Motionless I see them as they drift before my eyes
                Crystal-clear and sparkling
                Reflecting through my mind

                Wondering, wondering, Is that really me?
                Running ‘round in circles like a fool
                Ah, with such absurdity
                It's a wonder I survived
                Ah, the angels have been good to me
                I'm glad to be alive

                Sometimes, I think the daylight
                Daylight has come too soon
                Hoping for something that’s better
                Than howling at the moon. . .


                (Note: “absurdity” sounds like “insanity” the second time he sings it, later in the song.)

               What immediately strikes is how the song has gone from “Memories, memories, release me from your spell” (1975), to “Memories, memories, you’re meaning less to me” (1980.) In other words, it’s clear that Lennon has tried to come to terms with the “memories” that haunted him, and has been “released from the spell.” These seem the poetic utterances of a 40-year-old man settled in philosophy, perhaps fair to say a man changed by having singlehandedly navigated that Atlantic storm. (If anyone were to record this, I would counsel starting with the 1975 verse, and then segueing to the later lyrics, as it the singer is answering the tender question he poses at the outset.)
                It’s also clear that Lennon worked thoughtfully on the lyrics; they do not read like “place-holders” to be rewritten later. They are marked by the characteristic poetic quality found in all his tender, contemplative ballads, and, rather chillingly in retrospect, they might read more like the mulling of a person reaching the end of life, rather than embarking on middle age. To wit: the very Buddhist line, No friends and yet no enemies / But teachers that all have been. No greater wisdom was ever expressed by any sensei or swami.

                Verse three:

                Endlessly, endlessly like driftwood on the sea
                And memories are flooding on in
                And the cats just listen to someone else's dream
                No friends and yet no enemies
                But teachers all have been. . .
 

                The melody of “Memories” could not be more evocative of the subject matter. Questioning, plaintive, it sounds almost like something from reverie, dream. And as with Lennon’s composing habits (perhaps all songwriter and composers’ habits), the song’s music had been in his mind quite a while, and was adaptable. In other words, there was a basic melodic idea put aside in Lennon’s musical lexicon long ago, waiting for lyrics deemed best-suited. (Obvious example of this: “Child of Nature” morphing into “Jealous Guy.”) And the “Memories” music does crop up here and there in his other work; you hear bits of it in “India, India,” “Watching the Wheels,” “Grow Old With Me”---even, and this might be stretching a point, in Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude.” (Compare the change on the line, “Motionless I see them. . .” and “Remember to let her under your skin.”)
               “Memories” was “finished” in 1980, but Lennon kept it on the shelf during the sessions for what became the Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey albums. Perhaps he wanted to polish it further, perhaps he rejected it altogether---though given the work expended on revising and writing it, this seems unlikely. I prefer to think that he was saving the song for a premiere spot on a future record. The demo is of far too poor quality, sad to say, to be completed by other musicians. But. . .
               This song is far too moving, lovely, and meaningful to be forgotten in a pile of what-might-have-been cassette demos. It is a substantial utterance by Lennon in the prime of life, when he was, in my view, yet evolving as a melodist and lyricist.
               “Memories” is, in short, the great lost Lennon (solo) song, and it begs to be realized properly, preferably by someone who appreciates it, and can sing at as affectingly, or nearly so. Sean? Julian? Both? Or someone who brings no baggage or emotional complication---say, Alison Krause? Pity that Joan Baez, who is releasing her final album, didn’t know about this one, as it seems very fitting for her voice, and as a kind of valedictory.
                Meanwhile, “Memories” remains unfinished, raw, lost on bootleg and Youtube. . .
               Endlessly, endlessly, like driftwood on the sea.

Listen:
Late version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wL1G3_kqZBE
Earlier version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pe_TmwO3iVw

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