Since Mind Games and Ringo came out four days apart in 1973, I figured I’d tackle them together, starting with the first song on each: the title track of the former, and from the latter “I’m the Greatest.” We’ll get to that in a minute.

On the whole I’ve been surprised at how little has been written about Mind Games. I get that it’s considered a lesser Lennon album, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but still — given that this is John Fucking Lennon we’re talking about, and that he didn’t really make all that many records in the end, you might think there would be more to say.

As for Ringo — well, the drummer always got the least attention, didn’t he? There are about a thousand Lennon biographies, while for Mr. Starkey there appear to be three, one of which just came out. Of course the dead tortured genius makes for good copy, while Ringo just smiled and kept the beat.

Then again, Ringo went through his Dark Night of the Soul, didn’t he, before he cleaned up and went vegan? Isn’t there a story there? Should I seek out one or more of the Ringo books? Maybe later.

Nowadays, the term “mind games” comes with negative connotations. It’s usually used in a sentence in the form of “stop playing these mind games with me.” Yer Wikipedia sez:

Mind games (also power games or head games) are actions performed for reasons of psychological one-upmanship, often employing passive–aggressive behavior to specifically demoralize or dis-empower the thinking subject, making the aggressor look superior. It also describes the unconscious games played by people engaged in ulterior transactions of which they are not fully aware, and which transactional analysis considers to form a central element of social life all over the world.

But in Lennon’s lyric, mind games are a good thing:

We’re playing those mind games together
Pushing the barrier, planting seed
Playing the mind guerilla
Chanting the mantra, “peace on Earth”

“Mind Games” the song and Mind Games the album were written under the influence of a 1972 book called Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston.

Curious cat that I am, I had to get myself a copy. It begins like this:

About mind games:

Mind games anticipate the play-learning systems of the future, opening that future to you now.

Mind games are education, ecstasy, entertainment, self-exploration, powerful instruments of growth.

Those who play these games should become more imaginative, more creative, more fully able to gain access to their capacities and to use their capacities productively.

The players should achieve a new image of man as a creature of enormous and unfolding potentials.

The players should become increasingly hopeful that the powers of the human being are sufficient to deal with the problems that confront us.

The players should emerge from these games convinced that man is not something we know has to be surpassed; rather, man is still something to be realized.

And the mind games are a means of advancing toward what must be the main goal of every person in our time—

putting the first man on the earth.

Well, that’s clear enough.

The rest of the book is made up of detailed instructions for a series of games that groups of people are supposed to play together, with one participant acting as a guide. But they are so elaborate — and the authors are so insistent that they be completed in their entirety, in the order given — that I find it hard to imagine anyone actually doing it. Though I suppose if anyone did, it would be John and Yoko, who had ample leisure time, a large coterie of weird friends, and the best drugs money could buy.

If they did actually make it through, it doesn’t seem like it did them any good. Their relationship was deteriorating throughout 1972 and 73, culminating in what we know as the “Lost Weekend,” where Yoko kicked John out but kept tabs on him by appointing their assistant May Pang as babysitter with benefits.

Yoko looms large over the cover of Mind Games:

But as John pointed out to May, he’s walking away from her.

He’d be back, though. In fact the Lost Weekend appears to have been just another mind game.

As for the song, it was a conscious retreat from the radical politics that had absorbed John for the previous few years, which had brought him nothing but aggravation: Skeezy revolutionaries hitting him up for money, problems with immigration and the FBI. Nixon had just beaten McGovern like a rented mule, sending the entire American left into a spiraling depression. In the face of all this, John decided to double down on peace and love.

It was originally called “Make Love Not War,” but that was such a cliché that you couldn’t say it anymore, so I wrote it obscurely, but it’s all the same story. How many times can you say the same thing over and over? When this came out, in the early Seventies, everybody was starting to say the Sixties was a joke, it didn’t mean anything, those love-and-peaceniks were idiots. “We all have to face the reality of being nasty human beings who are born evil and everything’s gonna be lousy and rotten so boo-hoo-hoo…” “We had fun in the Sixties,” they said, “but the others took it away from us and spoiled it all for us.” And I was trying to say: “No, just keep doin’ it.” —J.L.

There seems to have been a vague idea that the “mind guerrillas” created by the Mind Games would bring about some sort of spiritual transformation. But the truth was, John was drinking heavily, increasingly disillusioned, and in no condition to lead anyone in anything. Soon he would head to Los Angeles, where he would kill a year carousing with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon.

Before that he found time to write a song for Ringo. Honestly this demo doesn’t sound all that promising, but I think John was just fucking around, knowing that it would be finished later:

“I couldn’t sing it,” John said, “but it was perfect for Ringo. He could say, ‘I’m the greatest’ and people wouldn’t get upset. Whereas if I said ‘I’m the greatest,’ they’d all take it so seriously.”

In March 1973 John and Yoko flew out to L.A. to work on the recording. Says producer Richard Perry:

We all sort of gathered around the piano and chipped in our ideas and helped complete it. Then the phone rang it was George, who said, “I hear there’s a track going on. Is it okay if I come down?”

So there you have it: As close to a Beatles reunion as would ever happen.

If you’ve gotten this far — and if you have, Jah’s blessings be upon you — you may have noticed that I didn’t have a plan. I still don’t. I just felt like writing a bit about 1973, the last year when all four Beatles released albums. (George’s Living in the Material World was the subject of a couple of posts back in May, and Band on the Run is looming on the horizon.) Happy Thanks to all, and I’ll see you when I see you.

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