13. John Lennon - Imagine

If ever there was someone with an ego big enough to think that he could write a song that could change the world, John Lennon was that person.  The main reason The Beatles broke up was because Yoko stoked John's ego to such a degree that he was convinced that he didn't need The Beatles to be great.  To a certain degree, she was right, because John did some amazing songwriting after the split.  "Imagine" was one of those songs, if not the song.  It wasn't a song that talked about how awesome or brilliant he was, though.  "Imagine" is a song that talks about a better world, a song that wants to inspire people to make a better world.  And in many way, it's succeeded.

At the time he recorded "Imagine," John Lennon could've recorded selections from Liverpool's phone book to critical and popular acclaim.  But one of the other reasons he left The Beatles is because he wanted to make his music, with his message.  And I hate to break it to you, millions of Beatles fans, that's okay.  John Lennon wasn't morally obligated to remain in The Beatles just because they made some of the best music ever or because you wanted him to.  In The Beatles, the "sit at the piano and sing a poetic song guy" was Paul, for the most part.  "Imagine" was John's turn to give it a try.

Musically, "Imagine" is very minimally constructed.  It's just John playing piano, backed by a nice string arrangement and a very simple drum beat.  Phil Spector, who was smart enough to know that his trademark "Wall of Sound" wouldn't work on a song like this, gave the song a sparse, yet powerful mix.  Instead of the fullness that so many of his productions had, he just added a simple drum beat and some strings, to add atmosphere.  Phil knew the message of the song and John's great vocals should be the main focus.  I've talked many times about bands' rhythm members putting their egos aside for the good of a song, but I never thought I'd write about a producer doing the same.  But that's what made Spector one of the greatest producers of all time - he knew what would make the song best, and just did that.

John was usually the Beatle that did vocals on the songs that needed an edge, or growl, to them.  The gentle voice was Paul's.  Playing again against type, John gives a vocal performance that's restrained in style, but supremely powerful in its simplicity.   It's conversational, the way he asks us to "imagine all the people, living life in peace."  Simple, yet powerful thoughts delivered simply, yet powerfully.

As simple as "Imagine" may seem, it's anything but, lyrically.  Look at the following line:

Above us, only sky*

In just four words, John encapsulates a universal vision.  The thing is, it differs in so many ways depending on who's interpreting it.  Some might interpret it as a world free of warplanes dropping bombs.  Another sees it as a clear sky, free from the choking clouds of pollution.  Ask a third person, they'd see it as a call to get off the couch and enjoy the allure of a sunny day outdoors, playing soccer with your kids or seeing shapes in the clouds.  Four words and countless interpretations.  That, my friends, is pure poetry.  Striking brevity, but boundless depth.  It's the stuff of Shakespeare or Frost.  I know words like that only confirm John's enormous ego, but when you're the best at something, you can be a little cocky.  Guys like John Lennon, Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs have that cocky swagger because they've earned it, as much as we hate to admit it.

In case you think he just got lucky with that one line, here's another:

Nothing to kill or die for

The implications of those six words are almost limitless.  There are so many things in life that we consider worth taking someone's life or giving up your life for it.  As much as martyrdom may benefit a cause, imagine a cause that doesn't need any martyrs.  People have been killing for money, sex, religion, power, hell, even sneakers for as long as there have been people+.  The thought of a world where none of that is necessary or even occurs is tantalizing.  Imagine...

So in ten total words, John Lennon inspires countless hours of discussions and sets the bar pretty high.  Everything ever conceived or invented started first with imagination.  We can fly across the world in less than a day because the Wright brothers wondered "What if....?"  Mother Teresa knew that the untouchables in Calcutta could be saved, one at a time, because she thought, "What if I can save just one life?"  After that, it's just one more, then one more, and before you know it, thousands of lives have been saved.  John Lennon is telling us, "If you can imagine it, it can happen."

Even though the thought isn't original, the packaging sure is.  Taking deep and complex philosophical ideas and wrapping them up in a pop song is brilliant.  There's an infinitely longer lasting impact from one song like "Imagine" than there would've been from ten thousand articles in the Journal of Philosophy.  Former President Jimmy Carter said, "In many countries around the world—my wife and I have visited about 125 countries—you hear John Lennon's song 'Imagine' used almost equally with national anthems."  That's some pretty lofty praise from a man who's become one history's greatest proponents for peace.

Sometimes when you're that good, it's okay to be cocky.  Go ahead and gloat, John, you've definitely earned it.

* There may be one unintended interpretation to that line that John never thought about.  They renamed Liverpool's international airport after John Lennon, their most famous favorite son.  Their new slogan became, "Above us only sky."  So I guess you can add airport slogan to the list of interpretations of that amazing line.

+ In the Bible, we didn't even get to five people total before someone decided to kill someone else.  Even though I'm a Christian, I have to admit that the plot holes of the whole Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel story are pretty huge.  So Cain must've slept with his sister (that we don't even know about)?  Ewww.  Hopefully, they just ran across some random lady that lived down the street that God created out of a pizza box** or something, because I don't have a sister, but, ewwwwww!

I picked this video because the lyrics play along with the song, so you can appreciate the poetry that I talked about.  They're brilliant.

** My wife was offended by the pizza box line, but I said that it was funny.  While she admitted that it was indeed funny, she said it was also offensive.  I said, "If you can give me a phrase that is as funny as pizza box and not offensive, I'll use it."  After a while, I asked her if she had a substitution.  She just shook her head and said, "It's not my job to make your job less offensive."  So pizza box it is, I guess.  And you know it's funny, don't you sweetie?
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