While the recent re-release/remix of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy (in celebration of what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday) offers a mildly rewarding new perspective on the former Beatle’s creative process, the experience is, of course, tainted by the persistent pain that accompanies his tragic absence.
Having been killed mere weeks before Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Lennon fans must continue to wonder how the events of that decade and years that followed might have inspired the artist’s tendency toward political activism and humanitarianism. It is an ache that tends to overshadow the towering achievements of his all-too-brief solo career.
The “stripped down” version of the last album he completed before his murder, in December 1980, offers no radical revelations, but it is pleasant to hear Lennon vamping at the end of “Cleanup Time,” and while it may be somewhat disillusioning, there is an appropriate and fragile humanity in his unadorned vocals throughout — how could it be that the man responsible for these occasionally shaky performances qualifies as the fifth greatest singer of the rock era (Rolling Stone, November 2008)?
Lennon’s humanity was a troubling and persistent “problem” when he was alive. While he was the charismatic point guard for the band during Beatlemania, courting the press with his curiously unique brand of British humor, Lennon could do no wrong, but the staggering level of fame they achieved led to ill-advised comments about the popularity of Christ, (supposedly) open references to drug use and veiled admissions to marital infidelity, not to mention his brutal behavior toward women and reoccurring suggestions that he was a closeted homosexual. A complicated man, indeed.
But even as he became one of the first international superstars of the rock era, he consistently denounced that status and wrestled to superimpose the smallness of his humanity over his commercial image. His solo career began with the insistence that he believed in nothing except himself and his relationship with Ono (“God,” Plastic Ono Band). Thereafter, he denounced “Fame” in a song he co-wrote with David Bowie. The first five years following the end of the Beatles were also capped by his “lost weekend,” a period of reckless partying and drunkenness in Los Angeles. A clip of Lennon, co-presenting (with Paul Simon) the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1975 (found on YouTube by one of my facebos — thanks, Dave!), reveals a strangely awkward, even anxious man, fidgeting and wiggling, abandoning the painfully awful script to insert even more painfully awful ad libs. Troubled and out of control.
The five years spent at home with Yoko, raising their son, Sean, seemed to have regrounded him, and by the time he re-emerged with Double Fantasy, it seems like he had found his footing, perhaps more firmly than ever before. Milk and Honey, the posthumous follow-up, shows an even more comfortable soul, as he steps away from the kitchen and starts to respond to the world outside.
Curiously, last week’s episode of “Community,” a television show you are probably not watching, addressed this point. Pierce, a clueless/eccentric member of the study group (played by Chevy Chase), is in denial over the recent death of his mother. The gang realizes he needs help and goes to great lengths to help him accept she is gone, but even though she has recorded a final message for him, recommending he embrace his own life as a precious and finite commodity, Pierce continues to believe she is alive and well, living in a small, blue canister (roughly the size of a can of bug spray).
When I listen to John Lennon’s music at home, separated from media focus, coordinated sales releases and commemorative events, I can still hear the music for what it is: songs about being real, focusing on what is important (whatever that may be). And while I recognize that it is important to help the general public remember his work, when these anniversaries come around and the market responds with new and/or re-packaged product, it just makes me sad. I’d rather just convince myself that he’s still out there somewhere, enjoying a well-deserved retirement, far from our ever-enduring scrutiny.
Dedication: Happy 45th birthday, JT!
For further consideration: As we feel the need to move on from one thing to another, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira offers acceptance for what has passed and quiet vigor for the unknown future.