THE PERSUASIONS / “Imagine”
Imagine. Everyday. Not just think, but full-out visualize. Breath in your dreams. Exhale realization efforts. Taste both the grit and sweet of your future. Dance to the rhythms you hear stirring inside yourself and emanating from your comrades. That fragrance in the air is the stank of the shit we must slog through but also wafting betwixt is a bouquet of enticing aromas, the fruit and flower of our struggles. Imagine. Boldly. With brilliant determination. Imagine. Post-Beatles, John Lennon wrote one hell of a song with this declarative statement, the title track of his 1971 album. A couple of days before his death he revealed that the song was not his creation alone but actually something he was inspired to write by his much-derided mate Yoko Ono from whom he borrowed key concepts, including the one-word injunctive title. Whereas many hardcore Beatles fans accused Yoko of breaking up the Beatles, John himself believed that Yoko was responsible for his further development as a human being willing to confront both contradictions within and without, especially macho-sexism and the Vietnam war. Hopefully, all of us can find helpmates and comrades who will help us confront our own demons and embrace our own angels. Imagine. We, of course, start with John Lennon’s original recording featuring piano and spare instrumentation. I’ve always dug the songwriting, but considered the vocals barely bearable. I realize that’s my particular idiosyncrasy, the calibration of my ears and what I like in terms of vocal stylization. While very effective, John’s version would hardly be my choice to listen to on the regular. Now, blues-based Keb’ Mo’ brings his own stark subtext of guitar and voice country blues traditions to bear on this Seventies song. Keb’ Mo’ is about as unembellished as it comes in his singing, but there is a certain something in his voice that I find compelling. He does little things, slight grace notes at the ends of phrases, sure-footed micro-syncopations in his timing, and that utter lack of showing off that plain-spoken men bring to their music, an up-frontness that encourages you to accept their sincerity. (Think of Otis Redding, Bill Withers, or more recently Anthony Hamilton.) On the other hand, check out the brilliance of Randy Crawford, the musical continuance of that African high-nasal, wide vibrato vocal approach, which can verge on the annoying when not done with total artistry, and at the same time can send you into semi-orgasmic raptures when intoned by a master. Esther Phillips had it. Dinah Washington, in spades. Bunches of female blues singers before them. It is a profound sound whose keening sharpness cuts through a lot bullshit. Just grabs you by your gonads and arouses you to action. Randy is a master. Just listen to how she makes the melody soar, how her huge voice hits you squarely, the lyrics becoming an insistent, albeit tender, order. And then, here comes The Persuasions, one of the ultimate, all-time best acapella doo-wop groups. This is a radical interpretation, one you will either love immediately or else forever wonder why in the world they messed up that song. It’s such a smooth street-corner symphony their voices conjure up, that unfailing bass line booming on the bottom, the close harmony of the backing voices, and the tenor leading the charge. I was both surprised and delighted when I first heard this version and assume you will share my delight. We conclude with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba whose prodigious technique is both awesome and awe-inspiring. This is a jazz interpretation, and as such, there is not only improvisation but also a harmonic sophistication that “imagines” many different ways to sound out the basic song. Note particularly how the right hand is percussive but the left hand accompaniment is tender, the treble notes ring, the bass notes roll, setting up that ying/yang reality I alluded to in the opening paragraph. This is the version I could listen to forever, precisely because there is so much here that each listen encourages new thoughts or encourages reconsiderations of old thoughts. I’ve played these tracks over and over, and find something richly rewarding in each listen. Hopefully we all can make contributions to this world that inspire others to imagine. —Kalamu ya Salaam Honestly ready for serious change I like all four of these interpretations of Lennon’s tune, but I agree, the Gonzalo Rubalcaba version is the best of the lot. It’s sensitively rendered, but persuasive too. And, as I listen to it now for the third time, the Persuasions’ version is quite special too. (No pun intended earlier: ‘persuasive’ / Persuasions.) One thing that’s always amazed me about “Imagine” is the way it has been accepted here in the States as a ‘feel-good’ kind of song. I’m amazed by that because the lyrics clearly espouse elements of communism and, in key lines, outright anarchy (politically). The concepts Lennon puts forth—living in the now, the non-existence of religion, the abolishment of countries and war, unification across all lines (racial, political, social, etc.)—are not the types of ideas that one would expect to go over well in Bible Belt America, or even, for that matter, with most average Black folk in America. Still, “Imagine” is routinely sung at high school graduations, beauty pageants, talent contests and the like. Am I underestimating the average American’s interest in social change, i.e., revolution? Or are most people simply not paying attention to what the man actually wrote? In America, we’ve never had a non-Christian president. Our money is stamped ‘In God We Trust.’ Each school day, our children ‘pledge allegiance’ to the American flag. We send our young men and women 6,000 miles away to bomb other countries in order that we might be safe and prosperous here in America. And we do all of that with no small amount of patriotic pride. And yet—with no apparent irony—we all join hands and sing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine”?
Imagine there’s no heaven. Imagine there’s no countries. Imagine no possessions. Imagine all the people sharing all the world.So which is it? Are we honestly ready for serious change? Or are we just not paying attention? —Mtume ya Salaam
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