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Paul McCartney's "Let It Be" and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" had, almost simultaneously, struck a pseudo-religious note in the 1970 hit parade. John was openly contemptuous of "Let It Be," but he was to write the third of these definitive rock hymns himself. "Imagine" is probably the most widely-revered of all John's songs, including those by the Beatles. Here, at least, he bettered Paul, whose solo work could never surpass a song like "Yesterday" in popular affections. The restful opening notes of "Imagine" still strike a deep chord in people of all beliefs. Strangely, not even its explicitly secular message has stopped the song becoming a favourite at modern-minded religious events.
But the currents that run through "Imagine"'s lyrics are muddy, as was Lennon's attitude to the Christian faith he was raised in. "I'm a most religious fellow," he told Playboy in 1980. "I only now understand some of the things that Christ was saying in those parables." As a child he attended Sunday School and sang in the choir. Christian hymns would have been his first formal engagement with music, just as the Christian God was the first philosophical concept he had to wrestle with. Therefore the church-like tenor of "Imagine" was quite natural for him, especially as he composed it on the piano rather than the guitar. And the subjects it covers -- from the existence of God downwards -- were themes that nagged at him for years.
As the lyrics unfold we are asked to imagine a universe sans heaven or hell, and a world where people live for the day instead of the afterlife. Religion, like nationhood, is cited as a cause of conflict. Can we imagine ourselves without them, or material possessions, and living in global harmony? He'd ended his previous albums by declaring that "the dream is over." He begins this one by announcing a new dream, and inviting us to share it. There was something nearly clairvoyant too in John's critique of national boundaries. The US immigration service would become the bane of his life, and the fight for US citizenship his longest-running battle.
"Imagine" has its origins in Yoko Ono's book of poems, Grapefruit, published in 1964. In it, Yoko begins each poem with a similar invocation. Thus, Tunafish Sandwich Piece starts, "Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time...." Rubber Piece begins, "Imagine your body spreading rapidly all over the world like a thin tissue...," and Cloud Piece is quoted on the album sleeve itself: "Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in." John would later say that he should have given Yoko a co-writer credit for the song. But, he told Playboy, "I wasn't man enough...I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with the guys all the time, having to share everything."
The second source of inspiration was a prayer book given to John by the US comedian Dick Gregory. Advocating "positive prayer," the book advised that to receive anything from God, we must first imagine it for ourselves. This idea impressed John greatly. The day before he died he was still expounding "projection of our goals." If we wish for a positive future we should exert our mental energy and visualise one. In 1980 he observed how this idea, once considered wacko, was now being adopted by everyone from business organizations to sports stars. If we conceive of the future as something violent, like Star Wars, then we run the risk of creating precisely that.
Sitting in the spacious white music room of his agreeable English manor, imagining "no possessions," Lennon was accused of hypocrisy. But his Utopian dream, with its wistful existentialism, tapped a vast reservoir of feeling in the post-War world. The song has become a standard. John's own opinion was typically perverse. He stood by John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, believing it more "real" than anything else he'd done. But the softer tones of "Imagine" represented compromise, or even sell-out. "'Imagine' was a sincere statement," he told NME's Roy Carr in 1972. "It was 'Working Class Hero' with chocolate on. I was trying to think of it in terms of children." When Paul McCartney was so incautious as to praise "Imagine," Lennon quickly fired back: "So you think 'Imagine' ain't political?" It's 'Working Class Hero' with sugar on for conservatives like yourself."
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Text Copyright © Paul Du Noyer 1997