I actually wrote this post in April and never published it. Oops. Happy birthday, John. You can check out Sean Lennon’s interviews with Elton John, Julian Lennon, annnnnnnd Paul McCartney on BBC Radio 2 if you are needing an extra dose of Lennon today!
I’ve spread my wings a little lately and graduated to Beatles solo careers, spending a lot of time listening to and contemplating John Lennon’s final studio album, Double Fantasy. Both the album and Lennon’s murder turn 40 this year, which is just as much time as Lennon spent on the earth–a harrowing and humbling fact.
The genesis of Double Fantasy is well-known: with the birth of his son Sean in 1975, Lennon retreated from the music world to devote his time and energy to his newborn son. Years later, following a turbulent and transformative sailing trip to Bermuda, Lennon felt creatively re-energized, having written a handful of new songs. The album eventually became a joint effort with wife Yoko Ono, with one of Lennon’s songs being “answered” by an Ono composition, resulting in one critic to wish that Lennon had stayed in retirement and “kept his big happy trap shut until he has something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko Ono.”
The critical response to the album was initially vitriolic before being awarded Album of the Year at the 1981 Grammy Awards, in wake of Lennon’s sudden and senseless murder. This shift in attitude is clearly linked to Lennon’s murder, as memory is in large part tied to emotion, and Lennon’s murder enveloped multiple generations in paralyzing, numbing grief. And for the critics, perhaps it was an apology or a saddening realization of what we once had and would have no more.
Considering Lennon’s solo career, the first two albums, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, are masterful in their own distinct ways, yet he then faltered and never quite regained the same level of artistry on an entire album. (This is not to say that there are not outstanding compositions and performances on the subsequent albums.) I can imagine an avid John Lennon fan in 1980, eagerly awaiting the release of a new album after a five-year absence and being mildly disappointed. Lennon, the edgiest and most outspoken of the four Beatles who best encapsulated rock ‘n’ roll and all its connotations, had waited five years to release an album full of songs about…middle age (euuuugh!)–marriage, parenthood, relations between the sexes, which he’d plastered on the front cover by giving half of the album to his wife! At any other point in his life, Lennon would have gagged over such a prospect, but his life had never had the domestic stability and contentment he did in the final years of his life. That fact, coupled with his murder, is what lends the album so much emotional weight and poignancy.
The hopeful, tinkling tones that usher in “(Just Like) Starting Over” are a harsh contrast to the heavy, somber tolling bells at the start of Plastic Ono Band’s opening track, “Mother”, recorded ten years earlier. This telling contrast reveals just how much life Lennon had lived in a decade–shattered and hollow from the abandonment of his parents to a stable cocoon of apparent domestic bliss. “I just gotta tell you goodbye,” he sang in 1970. “It’ll be just like starting over,” he announced jubilantly in 1980. Not only is the song an expression of his love for his wife but it is also a homage to Lennon’s rock ‘n’ roll idols: Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly. Unlike Yoko’s contributions, which embraced contemporary influences, Lennon primarily stayed true to the rock ‘n’ roll that he embraced as a teenager.
While “(Just Like) Starting Over” offers a rosy image of the Lennons’ marriage, “I’m Losing You” shows the relationship’s strain and frustration, making it an outlier on the album. It is also the only track that carries Lennon’s famous lyrical and vocal bite. “I know I hurt you then/But hell, that was way back when/Well, do you still have to carry that cross? (drop it!)/Don’t want to hear about it…” Yet all that anger and frustration melts away into the sublime “Woman.” For all her flaws and criticism–sometimes undeserved and often unnecessarily cruel–the beauty of this song and its sincere expression of love for Yoko is breathtaking–literally. It can be difficult to sing along because you can just feel how intense and heartfelt Lennon’s words are, with the knowledge that he was unexpectedly and unjustly ripped from his wife and children lodged firmly in your throat. “Hold me close to your heart/However distant, don’t keep us apart.” I mean, can you even imagine someone writing such a song for you? “Dear Yoko”, on the other hand, pales in comparison, as any song would.
My favorite on the album just might be “Watching the Wheels,” which is reportedly the track that convinced Lennon he could tell the world (or, rather, let Yoko tell the world) that he was making music again. The song is a response to those who criticized Lennon for leaving the music industry to “play house husband.” It’s playful, direct, and insidiously catchy.
“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” is, of course, the gentle, loving lullaby for Sean, whose picture adorned the studio during record to remind Lennon of why he was there. “Good night, Sean, see you in the morning,” he whispers in the song’s final moments–and knowing that is all he wanted to go upstairs and say on the night of December 8 just rips your heart out.
I first heard all of these songs on the only John Lennon CD I had as a child: The John Lennon Collection (the cover photograph was taken by Annie Leibovitz on the morning of Lennon’s murder). (The only Lennon composition not included, “Cleanup Time,” has not stuck with me.) I don’t remember grouping the songs as Double Fantasy and not Double Fantasy, but I do remember enjoying the Double Fantasy songs just as much as (and–in some cases–more) than the other tracks–the same way I do now.
Listening to Double Fantasy in its entirety, I am inclined to skip over Yoko’s contributions–not to discount or disrespect her as an artist (although, really, she had no inkling of songwriting or knowledge of popular music until she married John Lennon and only then because of Lennon) but because I simply just don’t care for her music. At all. And while Lennon loved her and indulged her musical endeavors, I don’t subscribe to the view that I have to just because he did.
This all leaves the album where it ended–irrevocably tied to Lennon’s murder. He never intended for it to be his last statement on record, but he was undeniably proud of it at the time. Listening to the album is a reminder of how happy, fulfilled, and excited for the future Lennon was.
“When I was singing and writing this and working with her, I was visualizing all the people of my age group, from the sixties, being in their thirties and forties now, just like me. And having wives and children and having gone through everything together… I’m singin’ to them. I hope the young kids like it as well, but I’m really talking to the people who grew up with me. And saying, ‘Here I am now. How are you? How’s your relationship goin’? Did you get through it all? Wasn’t the seventies a drag, you know? Here we are, well let’s try to make the eighties good, you know?’ ‘Cause it’s still up to us to make what we can of it. It’s not out of our control. I still believe in love, peace; I still believe in positive thinking – when I can do it. I’m not always positive, but when I am I try to project it,” Lennon declared in his final interview, hours before his murder. “And we’re goin’ into an unknown future, but we’re still all here. We still… while there’s life there’s hope.”
Tracks had already been recorded for a follow-up album, and Lennon was planning to tour again. But it wasn’t to be. Lennon, who valued and demanded truth throughout his life, stumbled across the most brutal truth in the end: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.