John Lennon / Yoko Ono
Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions
If Two Virgins is the ecstatic, musique concrète first kiss shared between two of pop culture's greatest lovers, then Life with the Lions is the sound of the pair validating their love as something impenetrable and timeless. It's when we, the listener, begin to fully understand that the scope of their recording efforts was much more than a recording collaboration, and something closer to a performative documentary, a declaration of "Our life and our love is our art — every nitty, gritty part of it."
The collection begins with a more straightforward — at least in terms of explaining what it is — piece of improvised music, edited down from a live performance at Cambridge University's Lady Mitchell Hall in March 1969. By Life with Lions release in May 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon had begun performing avant-garde music together publicly. But the 20-minute-plus, improvisational "Cambridge 1969" represents just the second time Lennon and Ono had performed a public concert together (the first was The Rolling Stones' long dormant concert film Rock and Roll Circus). As Ono begins a sustained, atonal throaty wail, Lennon uses his guitar feedback to match Ono's resonance. They play and share in various stops and starts of sustainment for several minutes. You can feel Lennon become more and more confident in this public avant-garde coming out party for him. And you can hear Ono feeding off the growing confidence, as the conversation between feedback and vocalizations become more varied and playful. By the time drummer John Stevens and saxophonist John Tchicai enter, it almost comes as a release from the intense exchange.
The entirety of Side B was recorded in a patient suite at London's Queen Charlotte Hospital where Ono was admitted with pregnancy complications and ultimately lost a child. The album cover photo was taken in the suite, with Ono in her hospital bed and Lennon in a sleeping bag made up on the floor next to her, both of them looking exhausted from the process. The side begins with "No Bed For Beatle John," a sing-songy reading of gossipy newspaper clippings wherein the press thought it newsworthy to report upon Lennon's lack of a hotel bed. The cover image and track become especially cheeky given that Ono and Lennon spent a good amount of time "in bed" in 1969 as part of their famous Bed-in for peace protests against Vietnam. "Baby's Heartbeat" is exactly 5 minutes and 10 seconds of the unborn John Ono Lennon's heartbeat, made all that much heavier by the following piece "Two Minutes Silence." The silence is the absence of that tiny heartbeat and, one must assume, a moment of personal meditation for the lost pregnancy. Where most of us would make such a sorrowful moment one of our most private. "Radio Play" brings a touch of levity to the preceding two tracks, at least until one considers what they would be doing in their hospital suite after the loss of the child. Likely, you'd be mindlessly doing something like flipping back forth on a radio dial until the punches of sound and static became a calming, lulling rhythm — anything to take your mind off things for a moment.