Playboy: And the Beatles taught people how to swim?
John: If the Beatles or the Sixties had a message, it was to learn to swim. Period. And once you learn to swim, swim. The people who are hung up on the Beatles’ and the Sixties’ dream missed the whole point when the Beatles’ and the Sixties’ dream became the point. Carrying the Beatles’ or the Sixties’ dream around all your life is like carrying the Second World War and Glenn Miller around. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy Glenn Miller or the Beatles, but to live in that dream is the twilight zone. It’s not living now. It’s an illusion.
Playboy: Yoko, the single you and John released from your album seems to be looking toward the future.
Yoko: Yes, “Starting Over” is a song that makes me feel like crying.
-John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Autumn 1980
(Clear your mind of what you think of John and Yoko. You’re gonna have to anyway for the purposes of this Project. Clear your mind, watch this video, and think of how you’d feel about it if it starred, say, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Or, I dunno, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Or you, and yours. If possible, full-screen the shit. Also, yes, Yoko’s sunglasses in the first shot are ridiculous. They reappear once more, at the end. There’s a reason for that.)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono found peace. It had been their obsession as long as the world had known them as “John & Yoko,” but their early efforts at preaching the cause fell far short because their lives were a mess and their methods weren’t sharp. A runaway campaign of neurotic politics led to their separation in 1973; they reunited backstage at an Elton John concert in 1974. (The reunion was facilitated by Elton, who contributed to Lennon’s single “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” on the condition that stage-shy Lennon would join Elton onstage if their collaboration got to number one on the Billboard charts, a feat Lennon solo had never achieved. Their collaboration got to number one.)
The reunion led to dates, and to reconciliation, and to their son Sean, the product of seven years attempting pregnancy, a rich reward after a lengthy string of miscarriages. John had spent his time away from Yoko drunk in Los Angeles, partying with Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, and a coterie of addict friends; “I tried to drown myself in the bottle,” he told Playboy some weeks before his death, “and I was with the heaviest drinkers in the business.” (All quotes in this piece are taken from “the Playboy interview,” an epochal conversation recorded weeks before Lennon’s death that is a remarkable read, as well as legend amongst Beatle obsessives.)
A notorious hard-partier for the length of his life, Lennon saw the bottom and decided it wasn’t for him. After Sean’s arrival, he absented himself from the music industry and took to raising the boy while Yoko set about untangling her husband’s considerable, complicated financial portfolio. “We learned that it’s better for the family if we are both working for the family, she doing the business and me playing mother and wife,” he explained to Playboy. “We reorganized our priorities.” He would pop up from time to time, throwing the tabloids a quote, no doubt relishing the blast of fresh press reading the tabloids over breakfast. (John, like so many, was determined to become a Real New Yorker.) He learned to bake bread, and he learned how to live a life unburdened by expectation, devoted in his entirety to enriching his marriage and raising the son that marriage birthed. With his former bandmates turning out albums at a regular clip, observers and eager critics lamented that Lennon was wasting his talent, was squandering prodigious gifts.
John didn’t turn the other cheek to the blowback; he ignored it. To declare that he “found happiness” in the final years of his life would be a banality at which the man himself would roll his eyes, cigarette smoke escaping the nostrils. But he was getting there. He took a step back and a very deep breath, and found a way to harness the madness that had both facilitated and restricted his genius. “Let’s say in one way I was always hip,” he told Playboy. “I was hip in kindergarten. I was different from the others. I was different all my life. The second verse [of “Strawberry Fields Forever”] goes ‘no one I think is in my tree.’ Well, I was too shy and self-doubting. Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I’m saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius.”
He harnessed the craziness, and, of course, the genius found its way back to the forefront. After a long, tropical sail with Yoko, Sean and friends, John decided to give his lifelong passion another go. He went back to the studio, his wife a full collaborator, and recorded Double Fantasy. He got back the itch.
Playboy: Briefly, what about the statement on the new album?
John: Very briefly, it’s about very ordinary things between two people. The lyrics are direct. Simple and straight. I went through my Dylanesque period a long time ago with songs like “I Am The Walrus:” the trick of never saying what you mean but giving the impression of something more. Where more or less can be read into it. It’s a good game.
It is impossible to listen to Double Fantasy through a lens unshaded by Lennon’s death. “(Just Like) Starting Over,” the album’s lead-off track and mission statement, was rejected by radio audiences until its author was gone. After, the song’s charms began to reveal themselves, that “simple and straight” lyricism flying in the face of all the doubt so prevalent amongst Yoko-loathing Beatle fans. “It’s been too long since we took the time,” Lennon sings,” “no one’s to blame–oh, how time flies so quickly! …but when I see you, darlin’, it’s like we both are falling in love again…it’ll be just like starting over.”
All aspects of Fantasy derive from the themes of that lyric. A married couple, confident in their own and in each others’ artistry, staring each other in the eye over a mic and releasing their deepest thoughts about the difficulties and rewards of their union. (Double Fantasy is constructed as a dialogue, with John contributing a song, followed by Yoko, followed by John, and so forth, with little variation.) It is not a perfect expression of that union, and all the deep breathing in the world will not get one through some of Yoko’s more experimental tracks. Her explanation of “Kiss Kiss Kiss”–the B-side of “Starting Over,” a catchy track derailed by a wannabe-erotic disaster of a finale, and the second song on Fantasy–is very much game and rather admirable, but it does not excuse the inevitable.
Yoko: On the other side of [the “Starting Over” single] is my song, “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which is the other side of the same question. There is the sound of a woman coming to a climax on it, and she is crying out to be held, to be touched. It will be controversial, because people still feel it’s less natural to hear the sounds of a woman’s lovemaking than, say, the sound of a Concorde, killing the atmosphere and polluting nature. Altogether, both sides are a prayer to change the Eighties.
There is the usual eye-rolling to be had here, and not without reason. (“A prayer to change the Eighties?”) But her sentiments are strong, and adult. Ono for too long foregrounded sexuality in her work, when she was too young and too eager to shock. (The “short film” of John’s penis slowly growing erect comes to mind.) The family time did her just as good, though, and her contributions to Fantasy are every bit as brave as those of her husband. Of course they aren’t that pleasant to hear, even to the devoted fan. Being a fan of the Beatles and a fan of Yoko Ono are somewhat mutually exclusive–not because of the history, but because of the songcraft. Those who canonize “In My Life” aren’t likely to take much pleasure from Yoko screeching “Don’t put your finger in my pie,” but the lyrical slip doesn’t change the fact that “I’m Moving On” is one of the best songs on the album. Plus, it’s the back-end of Fantasy‘s most ambitious conceit, as John’s spectacular, preceding “I’m Losing You” leads directly into “Moving On,” not a crossfade, but a continuous studio performance. The effect is inescapable; they’re the rawest tracks on the record. They sound like Plastic Ono Band.
But they’re not the point. Fantasy, like all great things, reveals its pleasures over time, and, with the conclusion of “Losing You/Moving On,” shifts all of its focus to the pleasures of love, of flesh, and of child. On vinyl, “I’m Moving On” was the penultimate track of side A, and a good time for any listener to take a moment. The next song, however, unfolds right away, and it breaks the heart.
(See above rules. Seriously, what’s the point of reading all this if you don’t know the music?)
In Sean, John found his focus. He had fathered a son, Julian, by his first wife and “first girlfriend” Cynthia Powell, far too young for either parent to manage. (“Cyn” is the forgotten bootheel of John Lennon’s life. She is, by all estimates, a wonderful, fragile woman who happened to conceive a child by the founder of The Beatles before The Beatles had recorded their first single.) John’s connection with Julian was a work-in-progress–“It’s not the best relationship between father and son,” he admitted, “but it is there”–but his devotion to Sean was indisputable. It is not often that rock legends, with all the ego that status demands, take half-decades off to raise a single child. Most of them leave children littered like empties across the road map of a tour. John, finally, after tremendous effort (borne of obvious reasons: he had an unplanned son that he knew he’d fucked up, sired with a woman he never had any intention of loving) had created a child, the right way this time.. He loved it.
John: Well, sometimes, you know, she’d come home and say, “I’m tired.” I’d say, only partly tongue in cheek,
“What the fuck do you think I am? I’m 24 hours with the baby! Do you think that’s easy?” I’d say, “You’re going to take some more interest in the child.” I don’t care whether it’s a father or a mother. When I’m going on about pimples and bones and which TV shows to let him watch, I would say, “Listen, this is important. I don’t want to hear about your $20,000,000 deal tonight!” [To Yoko] I would like both parents to take care of the children, but how is a different matter.
“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) is the distillation of that love. It is a magnificent song, one of Lennon’s finest. As with any of the great tracks on Double Fantasy, there are aspects of production that scrape the chalkboard. It’s a little slick, it’s got those heavy synths. It doesn’t matter.
And, as is befitting the album, Yoko contributes a response song to her husband’s number (her response is titled “Beautiful Boys,” in case we couldn’t figure out the connection for ourselves), but it bears the misfortune of being downright terrible. The lesser aspects of Fantasy, though, are not Yoko’s sole burden to shoulder. John’s “Cleanup Time” is a lazy return to the style he’d adopted in L.A., all crack musicianship and desperate faux-fun; “Woman,” however heralded by whomever, is a more upbeat, far less listenable version of “Jealous Guy,” released nine years earlier on Imagine, along with “Oh Yoko!”, one of Lennon’s best, that on Double Fantasy is rewritten as “Dear Yoko.” “Dear Yoko” is good, but come on.
That’s the point, though. Having found himself–another phrase at which no doubt Lennon would retch–he decided it was time to find his footing. He exuded no shame about the manner in which he’d conducted his life, even if it alienated those fans who felt owed further slices of his genius, those who’d exuded a kind of fascistic hostility toward the woman with whom he’d chosen to spent that life.
Playboy: How do you feel about all the negative press that’s been directed through the years at Yoko, your “dragon lady,” as you put it?
John: We are both sensitive people and we were hurt a lot by it. I mean, we couldn’t understand it. When you’re in love, when somebody says something like, “How can you be with that woman?” you say, “What do you mean? I am with this goddess of love, the fulfillment of my whole life. Why are you saying this? Why do you want to throw a rock at her or punish me for being in love with her?” Our love helped us survive it, but some of it was pretty violent. There were a few times when we nearly went under, but we managed to survive and here we are. [Looks upward] Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Playboy: But what about the charge that John Lennon is under Yoko’s spell, under her control?
John: Well, that’s rubbish, you know. Nobody controls me. I’m uncontrollable. The only one who controls me is me, and that’s just barely possible.
Playboy: Still, many people believe it.
John: Listen, if somebody’s gonna impress me, whether it be a Maharishi or a Yoko Ono, there comes a point when the emperor has no clothes. There comes a point when I will see. So for all you folks out there who think that I’m having the wool pulled over my eyes, well, that’s an insult to me. Not that you think less of Yoko, because that’s your problem. What I think of her is what counts! Because — fuck you, brother and sister — you don’t know what’s happening. I’m not here for you. I’m here for me and her and the baby!
Yoko: Of course, it’s a total insult to me—-
John: Well, you’re always insulted, my dear wife. It’s natural.
For a long time, Lennon understandably was enraged by the rage his wife inspired, and baffled by it, too. Lots of things enraged him. He was a volatile man, and remained so, knowingly, ’til his death. (“Now I may be very positive–yes, yes–but I also go through deep depressions where I would like to jump out the window, you know. It becomes easier to deal with as I get older; I don’t know whether you learn control or, when you grow up, you calm down a little.”) In some fashion, he came to accept it. He plodded toward contentment, best he could navigate, working on himself and the relationships that mattered most to him, and taking time for himself (“I had been under obligation or contract from the time I was 22 until well into my 30s”) for the first time in what had been, however much money and adulation it evoked, a hard life. The hardness never soured his humor, however, and the best song on Double Fantasy is more heartbreaking even than “Beautiful Boy.” Its lyrics suggest a man content with himself. Its music suggests a man ready to take back the stage.
It could’ve been brilliant. For what it was, it was.
Playboy: You disagree with Neil Young’s lyric in “Rust Never Sleeps–“It’s better to burn out than to fade away…”
John: I hate it. It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It’s the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison–it’s garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They’re saying John Wayne conquered cancer–he whipped it like a man. You know, I’m sorry that he died and all that–I’m sorry for his family–but he didn’t whip cancer. It whipped him. I don’t want Sean worshiping John Wayne or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it’s garbage, you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn’t he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.
DUDS and/or DISASTERS
Yoko’s material throughout Double Fantasy is a revelation, duds and all, but perhaps her finest contribution is “Yes, I’m Your Angel.” A Lennon collaborator indulging in some heart-on-sleeve old-timey music-hall croonery? Not a familiar phenomenon, not at all.
Vast. As ever, The Solo Project recommends shelling out chump change for the mp3s, finding a copy of the album on vinyl (less recommended this time around, as John released only a handful of solo records and they are all rare and expensive, even if used), or…well, finding your own Googly methods.
IN THE MEANTIME…
Paul released McCartney II in May of 1980. Its lead single, “Coming Up,” was first released as a live recording by Wings. John: “I haven’t seen any of the Beatles for I don’t know how much time. Somebody asked me what I thought of Paul’s last album and I made some remark like, I thought he was depressed and sad. But then I realized I hadn’t listened to the whole damn thing. I heard one track–the hit “Coming Up,” which I thought was a good piece of work. Then I heard something else that sounded like he was depressed. But I don’t follow their work. I don’t follow Wings, you know. I don’t give a shit what Wings is doing, or what George’s new album is doing, or what Ringo is doing. I’m not interested, no more than I am in what Elton John or Bob Dylan is doing. It’s not callousness, it’s just that I’m too busy living my own life to be following what other people are doing, whether they’re the Beatles or guys I went to college with or people I had intense relationships with before I met the Beatles.”
George was between albums in 1980, having released George Harrison in 1979 and having yet to record Somewhere In England, released in 1981 and including one of the best Beatle songs about John’s death, “All Those Years Ago.”
Ringo worked on an album, Stop And Smell The Roses, that was originally to include a song by John, entitled “Life Begins At 40.”
ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
A scan of New York City FM radio, recorded the evening of December 8, 1980.
COMING UP NEXT
Monday, July 18th: George Harrison’s Cloud Nine.