Originally published on April 28, 2010
(“The Songs We Were Singing” is a new column in which I plan on discussing some of my favorite albums. )
“After all is really said and done, the two of us are really one.”
It is impossible to separate Double Fantasy from the events that came after. As the world knows, on December 8, 1980, less than a month after Double Fantasy‘s release, John Lennon was murdered outside of his New York home, the Dakota. This record only had three weeks to work on its own merits before being imbued with another, permanent layer of poignancy. And though from the bottom of my heart I wish this hadn’t been John’s final finished work, it is nevertheless the perfect closing chapter in a life filled with so much love, anger, triumph, and disillusionment.
The inner sleeve of the original release calls the album Double Fantasy: A Heart Play, and that could not be closer to the truth. John and Yoko had the marriage of the millennium, though it was fraught with its own trials and tribulations. I would hope that no one today still thinks that Yoko broke up the Beatles, after all the evidence to the contrary, not to mention the remaining Beatles themselves expounding on the situation. Yoko’s presence did not help, and indeed exacerbated the band’s growing resentment towards one another, but one woman could not tear apart four men as strong as the Beatles.
It is worth asking why John let Yoko dominate him so. He expressed his individuality at every opportunity, yet his greatest accomplishments always came when he yoked himself to another. Perhaps it’s that he grew up with his Aunt Mimi, a substitute mother with a domineering will. The Beatles never would have become the Beatles had he not collaborated with Paul McCartney. Once he felt he had outgrown Paul, he found Yoko, an artist and spirit he considered his equal.
Perhaps it’s that he viewed anyone able to overcome his own ego as being worthy of attention. His first wife Cynthia, and the girlfriends he had before and during both of his marriages, let him control them, sometimes even down to what they wore or how they acted. Yoko obviously did not. But no matter what one could theorize about how John submitted himself to Yoko’s will, or how she infantilized him, one thing is evident: they loved each other. Their love was a deep, spiritual love, one that echoes throughout their music. Though John and Yoko had previously collaborated on three experimental releases, a highly underrated live album, and 1972’s heavily political Some Time in New York City, it was not until Double Fantasy that they managed to produce the perfect testament to the beauty of their relationship.
While John was in Bermuda with their son Sean, he would call Yoko and the two of them would sing to one another songs they had written. These songs would eventually form the backbone of Double Fantasy, a conversational album in which John and Yoko exchange songs and feelings. The album is a cohesive emotional work, and while the pieces stand on their own–including some of John’s best post-Beatles compositions–when played together they project an almost magical aura.
The chiming bells that kick off the album purposely mirror the ominous gongs that opened John’s first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Double Fantasy is a very different sort of album, but in its way, just as confessional. Whereas on Plastic Ono Band, John was coming to terms with childhood traumas and life after the Beatles, Double Fantasy finds him settling into the life of a mature, married adult, warts and all. Beginning in 1973, John experienced an 18-month “Long Weekend,” during which he and Yoko separated and, at Yoko’s behest, he became involved with his assistant May Pang. He also recorded Walls and Bridges and Rock ‘n’ Roll, albums he would later deride as “the work of a craftsman.” Once he and Yoko reunited in 1975 and she became pregnant with Sean, John abandoned the music business to become a househusband, and enjoyed it, too. He got to spend the time raising Sean that he never did with his and Cynthia’s son Julian.
Happy and in love with his family, songs came flooding back to John, and the material on Double Fantasy is clearly better than anything since 1971’s Imagine. He comes out of retirement with a bang: “(Just Like) Starting Over,” fittingly the album’s first track, is one of the best songs in his post-Beatles oeuvre, sounding both of its time and removed from time altogether. John described his singing as “Elvis Orbison,” and indeed he simulates Orbison’s baritone with Elvis’ swagger. The result is a supremely confident statement of marital bliss: “But when I see you, darling, it’s like we both are falling in love again.” Any couple should be so lucky.
“(Just Like) Starting Over” is followed by Yoko’s first song on the album, “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which sounds decidedly more of its time. It’s got a slightly disco, very new wave feel–but, this being Yoko, it’s typically atypical. Though Yoko never lacked variety in her apocalyptic wailing, when she sings her range is reduced dramatically. On “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” she begs for John’s touch in a stern monotone that you’ll either hate or find seductively becoming. Guess which way I feel. For my money, the song is at its best when Yoko begins wailing in the background, her crazed dolphin sounds panning back-and-forth between stereos as she literally reaches orgasm and climaxes.
Tony Levin’s skittering bassline picks things back up for John’s “Cleanup Time,” a pleasant, laid-back ode to his househusband days: “The queen is in the counting home/Counting out the money/The king is in the kitchen/Making bread and honey/No friends and yet no enemies/Absolutely free.” However, this leads to a troubling three-song stretch in which John and Yoko begin to drift apart. On “Give Me Something,” Yoko’s monotone is harsher than it was on “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” as she is beginning to see the couple’s contentment as complacency. She finds the food cold, his eyes cold, the bed cold. She yells, “Give me something that’s not cold!” before a fierce guitar solo (either by Earl Slick or Hugh McCracken, the liner notes don’t specify). She pleads with John that if he can still give her something, “I’ll give you my heartbeat, and a bit of tear and flesh.”
John’s rejoinder is “I’m Losing You,” in which he chastises himself for infidelity while also berating Yoko’s constant demands. He acknowledges that he’s hurt her before, “but hell, that was way back when,” urging her to drop the cross she’s been carrying for all these years. He’s lost in a “valley of indecision,” and the song overall is one of the best on the album, with a dark sense of foreboding that lingers throughout, strong guitar work, and John getting back to some of the great guttural screams and noises he hadn’t used since Plastic Ono Band. Some of his phrasing is wonderfully weird, and all the better for it.
The song breaks down into distorted, stuttering noise, and Yoko’s “I’m Moving On” could almost be a direct continuation. The guitar work is just as good, and the song just as dark. She can’t take any more of John’s bullshit, angrily yelping, “You didn’t have to tell a white lie/You knew you scored me for life.” As the song ends, she says, “Moving on, it’s getting phony,” and an agonizing ululation tears from her throat. The trilogy of “Give Me Something”/”I’m Losing You”/”I’m Moving On” could almost be the “Lost Weekend” in miniature. I have no idea if that was the intent, or if it speaks to deeper problems that could have had long-lasting implications. In any case, the fact that both of them were willing to be that frank about their past-or-present relationship woes speaks to what made them both great artists.
But then silence falls, and the sound of lapping waves rises in the background, washing over and erasing the friction like sand on a beach. What comes next are John’s best pieces on the album, the incredible one-two punch of “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” and “Watching the Wheels.” “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” is the sweetest song a father ever wrote his son, but also the saddest. “I can hardly wait/To see you come of age/But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient.” John, of course, never got see Sean grow up, and all of the blissful minutiae which John describes is made almost unbearably tragic because of it. I can’t imagine how Sean feels when he hears this song, let alone Julian, who never got this close to their father. Nevertheless, it has a tropical, lighthearted feel, with subtle keyboards and synthesizers that never threaten to overstay their welcome. Plus it gives us one of John’s best bits of wisdom in, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
“Watching the Wheels” is another beatific hymn to adult life, with John answering those who can’t believe he abandoned showbiz and superstardom with the claim that he’s “no longer riding on the merry-go-round, I just had to let it go.” John was always a human being first and a star second; this is a perfect example. After the song ends, there are faint carnival sounds, musicians playing in the background, then footsteps approach, a door swings open, and now we’re in an amiable bar as Yoko sings the rather 40’s-esque, vaguely cabaret-ish “Yes, I’m Your Angel,” in which she wishes John a happy birthday and offers to grant him anything in her power.
The rest of the album, for the most part, sustains that feeling of mutual affection: “Woman” is a classic Lennon love song in which he expresses his gratitude for Yoko’s understanding and apologizes for past transgressions; “Beautiful Boys” is somewhat more cautious and brooding, as Yoko extolls the virtues of her child and husband while urging her husband to never settle, to never “be afraid to go to hell and back”; “Dear Yoko” is very much a sequel to Imagine’s “Oh Yoko!,” with its exuberant mood and the chorus, “Oh Yoko, I’ll never ever let you go!”; and “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him” finds Yoko searching her soul and asking herself the question, “Why do I run when I know you’re the one?” It’s honest, but not anguished, and the fact that a single was released which stripped away Yoko’s lead vocal while bringing John’s backing vocal up in the mix is more than a little wrong.
The final song yet again reminds us that the harmony on this album was not to last. While John’s songs on the album are typically more at peace than Yoko’s, “Hard Times Are Over” is Yoko’s ultimate testament to their committed relationship. “It’s been very hard/But it’s getting easier now/Hard times are over, over for a while.” And yet they weren’t. Three weeks later, John would be shot dead. In the aftermath of his death, the album, which had already been falling off the charts, became John’s best-seller, and it was named Best Album of the Year at the Grammys, which it would not have been otherwise. The album Milk and Honey, which John and Yoko had been working on before he died, was released in 1984; it’s great stuff, but simply by virtue of being unpolished and unfinished, it isn’t as good as Double Fantasy.
Because John Lennon was dead, bringing to an end a fascinating life and a complex relationship that doubtlessly would have had more rough patches ahead, more love to spread, and more music to make.