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Doubling back to share Lennon legacy

Two new releases show his acoustic, rocking sides

John Lennon had two personalities, according to his widow, Yoko Ono. ''He was very acoustic-like at home and very rock 'n' roll-like in public," she said this week.

That's a novel way to put it, yet it is an apt description of the dual nature of two new Lennon releases coming out on Tuesday.

One is the highly recommended ''Acoustic," featuring seven previously unreleased versions of his post-Beatles songs (most of them home demos). The other is a remastered version of his competent but not earthshaking ''Rock 'n' Roll" studio album from 1975, augmented by four bonus tracks.

''It's a coincidence to release 'Acoustic' and 'Rock 'n' Roll' at the same time," said Ono. ''But [Capitol Records] came to me and asked to release both albums. I didn't plan that in the beginning. I was just going to release 'Acoustic' in Japan to coincide with a John Lennon tribute concert that was a week or two ago, and I was there for that tribute. But then Capitol heard it and said, 'Can we release it here, too?' "

That was a good call, because ''Acoustic" is the absolute winner of the two. It provides a stunning look at a more relaxed Lennon at home, via fresh glimpses of ''Well Well Well" (which sounds like a Robert Johnson blues recording) and ''God," which evokes Hank Williams's work as his alter ego Luke the Drifter. There are further lo-fi gems in ''Cold Turkey" (with Lennon's animal-like squeals capturing the kick-drugs theme of the song) and an aching treatment of ''My Mummy's Dead" that simply blew away this listener.

''With the acoustic songs, first he would play them to me, then he would say, 'Yoko, let's record this,' " Ono recalled of Lennon's home-studio efforts. ''And he would set up the microphone in such a way that his voice and his guitar sound was very balanced. At first I wanted to collect some acoustic stuff on guitar and piano, but the piano tracks were not in good enough condition to put out. When he was banging the piano, he would put the microphone on top of the piano, so that you'd hear the piano much more than his voice. The balance was not good at all, so I could not rescue those songs. But with the guitar, he did a beautiful job of balancing the sound."

The guitar work on ''Acoustic" forces a new appraisal of Lennon as a guitarist. Although overshadowed by George Harrison on guitar in the Beatles, Lennon had clearly improved his technique when he recorded these '70s solo tunes. He does some fancy picking on the previously unreleased ''What You Got" that sounds like Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore meeting up with Emmylou Harris's Hot Band guitarist Albert Lee for a rockabilly-style romp. And his acoustic 12-string skill on ''Dear Yoko" is a startling eye-opener.

''When John went into [an outside] studio and did these songs with instruments and electric guitar, it was a totally different tip. But this shows what he was doing at home," said Ono. ''You almost think he had Spanish classical-guitar training. He didn't, but the way he picked the instrument was so beautiful and so original. He just would do it, then arrange it later on. So I thought by putting this out, it would inspire some professional guitarists as well."

Lennon lovers will also notice the change of lyric in ''God." That's the controversial song in which Lennon sang, ''God is a concept by which we measure our pain," then went on to sing, ''I don't believe in I-Ching, I don't believe in Bible, I don't believe in tarot . . . I don't believe in Elvis, I don't believe in Dylan, I don't believe in Beatles." The next lyric on the original studio recording was ''I just believe in me, Yoko and me." But on the home-demo version on ''Acoustic," it is ''I just believe in me."

''He added the 'Yoko and me,' " said Ono. ''I didn't twist his arm or anything. It just came out. He added it in the studio, but it had been in his mind."

Aside from the seven previously unreleased tracks, the ''Acoustic" CD is fleshed out by a well-chosen array of Lennon solo tunes, from ''Working Class Hero," ''Love," and ''Watching the Wheels" to live versions of ''John Sinclair," ''Luck of the Irish," and Lennon's peace anthem ''Imagine." This last song has just been covered by the contemporary rock group A Perfect Circle and has become a modern-rock radio hit, though Ono has not yet heard it. ''Thank you for telling me about it. I'm going to go out and get it. I love it when young bands cover John's music," she said.

As for the ''Rock 'n' Roll" album, it is not as good. It was Lennon's homage to such early classic-rock figures as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and Fats Domino. He performs songs popularized by each of them, with mixed results. And the bonus tracks (previously unreleased) come from outtakes of those sessions that later appeared on his 1986 disc, ''Menlove Ave." These include versions of ''Angel Baby" and Phil Spector's ''To Know Her Is to Love Her."

Spector also did some production work on Lennon's original ''Rock 'n' Roll" album.

''He was a very dear friend to us," Ono said. ''He came at the tail end of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and he did 'Instant Karma.' Then when John was doing 'Rock 'n' Roll,' he said, 'I'm going to let Phil produce this.' But I said, 'Don't do it. Don't work with him. You can do this yourself.' And then John called me back and said, 'Listen, you were right.' I wasn't going to say I told you so, but . . ."

Regarding future Lennon projects, Ono said, ''I promised the fans after John's passing that I would bring out something every year for the next 10 years. And those 10 years have passed a long time ago [Lennon died in 1980], but I will do this as long as I can."

As for Lennon's work in the Beatles, there's a four-CD box set coming out on Nov. 16 that collects the first four Beatles albums issued in the United States by Capitol in 1964 and 1965 (with each disc featuring two versions of each song -- one in stereo, the other in mono). Don't expect any bonus tracks, though.

Further down the road, Ono is excited by the prospect of Cirque du Soleil becoming associated with the Beatles. ''Cirque du Soleil and the Beatles are now in partnership to do something with the Beatles' music," Ono said.

''They're a very interesting group of people, and it should be great. That's the kind of creative stuff that John's music can be used in."

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