Has New York ever embraced a transplant quite as happily as it accepted John Lennon when he moved here, with his wife Yoko Ono, in September 1971? And John and Yoko reciprocated by making the album “Sometime in New York City,” their first after relocating here. John and Yoko ultimately settled in the Dakota, on West 72nd Street, a few feet from what later became immortalized as the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park.
With the indelible lyrics, “Que pasa, New York, Que pasa New York,” Lennon captured the breeziness and sheer fun of the city in the early 1970s, before the financial crisis and the crime of later years.
The album turns 50 this month – and it remains as much of a fascinating document of its time as it was upon its release.
A little history: John and Yoko, who got married in March 1969, fled London largely because of the racism and sexism that Yoko had encountered. She was a much-maligned figure, both as a performance artist and, notoriously, the “The Woman Who Broke Up The Beatles” (which, by the way, then and now, was a ridiculous assertion).
But there was also another, resounding reason why John and Yoko came to New York, where Yoko had lived happily as a struggling artist a decade before. They were restless in London and John, too, had to cope with an oppressive recently crafted image of his own. To the British press and ordinary citizens, he was labeled The Crazy Ex-Beatle, what with his drug bust, very long hair, bed-ins for peace and what had been seen (unfairly) as his flaky artistic leanings. London had clearly worn out its welcome and John and Yoko were determined to find peace of mind and artistic stimulation in America.
New York was the obvious place – really, the only place. Lennon once sneered that “LA is where you go to get a hamburger.” He also said that New York was the place that every foreigner associated with America. The Beatles had come to New York in their first visit to the U.S. in February 1964, right?
John Lennon in 1972
By the time John and Yoko made “Sometime in New York City,” Lennon was riding high. His first post-Beatles solo album, “Plastic Ono Band” (1970) had made an impression with its raw lyrics and spare guitar-piano-bass-drums sound. His follow-up “Imagine” (1971) contained the memorable title track as well as the rocking “Gimme Some Truth” and “How Do You Sleep?,” a song so vicious that it’s sort of amazing that its target, Paul McCartney, ever dared to speak again in public, much less make music.
A Whole New Experience
But remember, Lennon had recorded those two albums in his familiar London, with his friends.
In New York, he was really a stranger in a strange land. He adopted the local band, Elephant’s Memory, to accompany him – no George and Ringo on these new songs, as had been the case in his previous solo work.
If Lennon had sounded wistful, as well as a little impish and playful on Imagine, he reinvented himself on this album. The songs contained largely political themes. The lyrics were frequently biting and angry, commenting on the oppression of women, the tragedy at the Attica prison and even nods to such activists as Angela Davis (a year before the Rolling Stones paid tribute to her) and John Sinclair.
Uneven – and Significant
The musical quality of “Sometime in New York City” will always be a personal choice. It did not have universal appeal. The music was wildly uneven. Critics tend to dismiss it, preferring to focus on Lennon’s more famous and revered solo work.
The album is perhaps best appreciated as a kind of document, representative of a time when Lennon was anxious to shed his Beatle legacy and create something brand new. This album came out just before the Nixon White House harassed Lennon, fearing that he might disrupt the Republican National Convention because of his new friendship with Jerry Rubin, of Chicago 7 fame. If Lennon had wanted to confound his audience, his alliance with eccentric, New York street-musician David Peel surely did the trick.
Ultimately, “Sometime in New York City” accomplished what Lennon wanted: a shot at crafting will always a new public image, away from the Beatles.