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John Lennon, Warts and All, OKd by Ono

October 18, 1998|Robert Hilburn

Paul McCartney wasn't the only legendary rock star to be the target of John Lennon's biting wit.

In what is bound to be one of the most talked-about tracks on an upcoming four-disc collection of previously unreleased Lennon recordings, the sharp-tongued musician offers a stinging response to Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody."

The Dylan song was a central track on "Slow Train Coming," the controversial 1979 album that was written during Dylan's "born-again" Christian period. In the tune, Dylan offered these lines of spiritual advice:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance . . .

But you're going to have to serve somebody . . .

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Upon hearing the song, Lennon recorded--but never released--his own response. Titled "Serve Yourself," it includes the lines:

Well, you may believe in devils

And you may believe in laws

But Christ you're gonna have to serve yourself.

In other tracks on the boxed set, titled "John Lennon Anthology" and due Nov. 3 from Capitol Records, Lennon pokes fun at George Harrison's Hare Krishna advocacy ("The Rishi Kesh Song") and McCartney, whose post-Beatles work was ridiculed as wimpy in "How Do You Sleep?," a track on Lennon's "Imagine" album.

The short, apparently spontaneous lampoon of McCartney's "Yesterday" is in such bad taste that you can sense the discomfort of anyone else who happened to be in the room: Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be / That's because I'm an amputee.

Elsewhere, the contrarian Lennon toasts his 40th birthday with a goofy--and rare for him--step into country music.

These songs are the extreme moments in a fascinating four-hour journey through Lennon's musical sketchbooks--a look at his solo years that consists chiefly of live or alternative versions of some of his most prized material.

"It was very important to me to put together a boxed set that John would be proud of," says his widow, Yoko Ono, who was executive producer of the set. "I didn't just [want to release] something that was mainly based on the curiosity factor . . . like, 'Hey, here is something you never heard before and you'll like it, whether it's any good or not, just because you are a John Lennon fan.' I wanted this to be an album that stood on its own."

About the takeoff on "Gotta Serve Somebody," Ono replies, "When John heard Dylan's song, he made a few, well, cursing remarks. . . . 'It's not that way at all. I don't want kids to think that. You have to take care of yourself. . . .' And so he went off on that in the song."

Ono says she included the other satires, including "Yesterday," because she wanted to give the total picture of her late husband.

"I know there are people who have called me the professional widow and think I always want John portrayed as a saint or something, but the truth is I like John to be known as he was. . . . The real John is a very complex character. He was so vulnerable, so sensitive, yet he was also arrogant and he could be very angry. . . . Through it all, and that's what I hope this boxed set shows, he was very, very talented . . . a superbly good and beautiful person."

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