Week 377: “Imagine” by John Lennon

It’s a beautiful Saturday and I’m sitting in a coffee shop. My cup has been empty for a while now, but I’m still taking occasional sips from it, because I don’t want the employees to think I’m only here for the free Wi-Fi. I would buy a muffin, but they’re glistening in a way that makes me doubt their freshness.

This isn’t a fancy place, but they’re trying. Ever since the Starbucks moved in across the street, they’ve made some valiant and endearingly low-budget attempts to compete. The muffins are one example. They used to be “blueberry” but are now “wild blueberry.” There’s a fireplace, but the spider webs inside would indicate that it’s been touched about as much as the muffins.

Track lighting has been installed, and serves two purposes: it distracts patrons from the water stains in the ceiling, and it illuminates locally-produced paintings of various entertainment icons which hang from the off-white (once-white?) walls.

Elvis is here. So is Sinatra. Marilyn Monroe. David Bowie.

Right across from me is a portrait of John Lennon, and I wish you could see it. I’m pretty sure the artist used a still from the “Imagine” video as a guideline, but the resulting painting bears about as much resemblance to Lennon as this coffee shop does to the Starbucks across the street.

His hair is frighteningly ragged. He’s giving a pained half-grin that reveals three teeth, one of which is far bigger than the other two. His eyes slope downwards towards the edges at a strange angle, and the eyes are pointing in slightly different directions. Some portraits have the uncanny ability to follow you as you move around the room; this one has the equally strange quality of not looking at you regardless of where you stand.

There’s a small price tag at the bottom indicating that this can be yours for only $190.

I realize how obnoxious and condescending I’m sounding at the moment, but I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like this place…I’m actually very comfortable here, and I find their attempts to beautify both noble and wonderful. They’re imagining themselves to be better, in the hopes that they will become so. Besides, I’m sitting here drinking imaginary coffee, so who am I to criticize?

And holy smokes, no kidding, somebody just bought a muffin.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. In the opening seconds, the piano is mixed dead centre, but as the vocals begin, it shifts left and right, opening up the sound in a wonderfully subtle way.

2. Lennon’s voice isn’t going to shatter any windows with its power, but it’s honest and completely unaffected. These days a singer with Lennon’s voice might be auto-tuned into oblivion, but producer Phil Spector chose just some light reverb and the occasional doubling, dressing it up slightly without altering its delicate nature.

3. When “Imagine” was released in 1971, the flowery optimism of the 60s had begun to fade somewhat. But Lennon’s lyrics seem hopeful and unhurried: as long as the ideals he sings about can be imagined, that world remains possible.

Recommended listening activity:

Cloud gazing.

Buy it here.