Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions (with Yoko Ono) (1969)
A detour like this was bound to happen. After returning from India and partnering with Yoko Ono, John Lennon knocked out a series of them, recalling a sweaty morning puke session: blinding, excessively unpleasant, lingering. Perhaps he had excess goodwill as part of what Derek Taylor called “the 20th century’s greatest romance”, certainly too much to be completely wasted from a couple of off-the-wall sound collages but enough to burn a hole in his knickers. The second volume of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s avant-garde throwdowns, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions marked the axial period where fans went from “hey, it’s John!” to “not these weirdos again”. Emphasis on the plural.
Like a cell that splits itself in two, Lennon had transformed by 1969, having virtually grown a second head. Ono was as much a studio presence as John for the tense summer sessions that would yield the Beatles’ first double album, perching herself on Paul McCartney’s bass amp and getting girlfriend backup duty with Patti Harrison on “Birthday”.
Recorded around the time the White Album hit shelves, Life with the Lions finds the pair capitalizing on Beatlemania’s ebb into the recesses of the public mind after flowing through the streets. This was not long before his band’s January 1969 rooftop performance drew deer-in-headlights stares from bystanders rather than deafening hysteria. Had this appeared between A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles For Sale, Lennon’s primary outlet would’ve had a lot to answer for. After the “bigger than Jesus” flap, Magical Mystery Tour‘s flop, and their association with LSD, a certain strain of puritan fan had been weeded out. The burgeoning rock world still watched; the rest just paid infrequent attention now.
When listeners last heard from John sans Beatles, the cacophonous media frenzy had more to do with the cover of his first non-Fab outing, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, than the challenges within it (each LP side featured a lengthy, parabolic piece). Life with the Lions initially appears more digestible. Instead of two long “songs”, the recording is divided into tracks for easier consumption. They even have titles! But while Ono is kind enough to introduce opening cut “Cambridge 1969” by name, what follows is a brutal attack on the ears — nearly eight minutes of her shrieking, pausing only for breath, backed by John’s intermittent guitar feedback. Elsewhere, Lennon’s contributions would add just the right amount of tension to a wracked love song. Accompanied solely by Yoko’s damaged wails, this is positively unlistenable even for the most progressive ears. Where Two Virgins was a confusing confection, Life with the Lions is a bitter horse pill from the start.
It eases up, if only because it must. “No Bed for Beatle John” starts with Ono quietly singing topical lyrics on the couple’s personal life, which was anything but normal inside and out. Where “Cambridge 1969” assailed the eardrums, “Baby’s Heartbeat” coaxes them back in. The track has a curious gravity to it, all five minutes of their unborn child’s heartbeat, sped up to cocaine-level mania. And suddenly there’s nothing, with “Two Minutes Silence” not exactly bluffing about its modern art intentions (it’s the equivalent of a painter putting up a blank white canvas and calling it his latest creation). Ono suffers what wouldn’t be her last miscarriage, and the next two minutes is as empty as the couple’s heart. There are olive branches for those who strive to interpret, even on the surface. A reference to a hospital’s policy not to let the celebrity sleep next to Ono during her stay, “No Bed for Beatle John” provides a link to Lennon’s increasing propensity for reflexive lyricism in his traditional work, starting with “Glass Onion” and culminating on “How Do You Sleep?” There’s not only a method but a meaning to the madness here.
Whereas Two Virgins was ultimately peaceful, if not terribly interesting, Life with the Lions is horrific and unsettling, and all the better for it. It’s the stronger twin that reflects the turmoil from that fucked up year, for the Beatles and the world, of 1968. “Radio Play” smashes airwave transmissions into shards, some melodic, some not, but likely influential (the introductory blips on Radiohead’s “Sit down. Stand up.” come to mind). The CD reissue added two tracks walking each side of the line: the brief “Song for John”, which has a melody as basic as its title, and the plucky “Mulberry”, whose closest sonic relative is (in complete seriousness) turtles mating. Many reissues offer a window to enhance the listener’s understanding of the artist’s mental state at the time; this one makes the glass cloudier. Regardless, Life with the Lions is far superior to the previous wankfest not because of increased hummability, but because of the clenched-fist sense of purpose. Lennon’s got something to say here, they both do; they’re just burying it in the same swamp that birthed Virgins.
“The sleeve has not been censored or altered in any way,” Ono sings on “No Bed”, being her own liner notes with Lennon’s distant, priest-like vocals in back. In retrospect, Lennon’s legacy wasn’t significantly changed, either. We still love and remember him for his profound pop, but the Unfinished Music albums show he didn’t strive to fake perfection or produce a failure as grand as his victories. Considering the man’s sizable ego, that deserves more than a sigh. — Alex Bahler