John Lennon’s final recordings are so full of joy it breaks your heart…

During the heyday of Beatlemania, there was a commonly agreed-upon way of keeping up with each of the Fab Four…

Paul is the cute one
George is the quiet one
Ringo is the funny one
John is the smart one

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By “smart” I’m sure the fans meant John was witty, clever and—since his name appeared first on almost all Beatles songs–the real brains behind the band. Of course, John was very witty; most Beatles press conferences left reporters in stitches as he would fire wise cracks with machine gun speed. He also was extremely clever and despite the arrangement of the words “Lennon/McCartney” being a bit overblown, he was a brilliant songwriter.

But he was also “smart” in that he was sometimes an icy smart alec. Sometimes it was charming, like with this little shot during a concert in front of the freaking Queen of England…

Other times however, he could come off as entirely cruel. He used to mock disabled people and often showed contempt for political leaders in cities and countries he visited. There’s also the fact that he abandoned his first wife and son, and occasionally was violent against women. Interviews from friends and associates often referred to him as a hard nut to crack. His early life was hard as he was forced by the government to live with his aunt (single mothers were considered unfit to raise children in those days), not knowing for years that his mother was just a few houses away. He grew up poor and felt perpetually abandoned by the world around him. It’s the kind of background that turns a child into an isolated, angry adult.

As he began to find musical success he never embraced the kind of “god among men” mentality that other instant-celebrities developed. Instead, he tended to recoil against his popularity. Often he would push the boundaries of what was acceptable, almost daring his fans to turn against him. While the initial Beatlemania years were a thrill ride of fun and mayhem, Lennon quickly grew bored with touring and with dealing with mobs of screaming fans. His acidic personality, devil may care attitude and “say whatever” philosophy got him into more than one fight that might have tumbled the popularity of the Band were it not for skillful management by Brian Epstein.

A brief period of LSD abuse stripped away a lot of Lennon’s ego problems and attitude. He claimed in an interview that he spent most of 66-67 in a state of constant acid trip. Eventually he gave up the drug (and switched to heroin and cocaine) which brought his bad attitude and spiteful demeanor roaring back. During his LSD phase, Paul took more of a leadership role in the group, but once Lennon stopped taking the drug, he sought to regain a greater say in the direction of the band. That really was the beginning of the end of the Beatles.

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After the band broke up, Lennon and Yoko embraced their role as Activists to the extreme. Lennon’s anger at the world, coupled with Yoko’s incessant politicking made for a dangerous combination. Musically, Lennon suffered too. His first two albums were well received (his first, “Plastic Ono Band,” was embraced by critics, and his second, “Imagine,” was loved by everyone). But his third LP, “Sometime in New York City” was a disaster. Its social-charged “commentary” songs bombed with both critics and fans. The “Mind Games” record followed a year later and it fared no better.

Even when he tried to get back to doing more “commercial” songs, such as on the album “Walls and Bridges” fans weren’t paying as much attention to him as they were to Paul/Wings and other new singers of the decade (particularly Elton John, with whom Lennon collaborated to give him the only solo #1 hit in his lifetime).

Finally, after years of non-stop writing and recording, Lennon was tired, frustrated and creatively despondent. With the arrival of his new baby Sean, he decided to take a sabbatical from recording. Other than popping up at a friend’s concert, or at a nightclub around New York, John Lennon was out of the spotlight for the next five years.

And in that time he discovered something that he had not had in his entire life: He found “happiness.”

Then, in the summer of 1980, he took a trip (without Yoko or any family) to Bermuda. During his time alone he began to write songs based around some of the musical styles he encountered on the island, as well as lyrics borne out of his sabbatical and the raising of his son. Record producer David Geffen signed he and Yoko to a deal that would see the husband and wife collaborate on a record, 50/50. Setting aside Yoko’s contribution (because I don’t want to talk about it), the songs released by John Lennon on the album (titled “Double Fantasy”) have one over-arching theme. These are songs highlighting the obvious happiness that John feels for what seems like the first time in his life. He has a family, a “normal” life (as much as an ex-Beatle could have), and wonderful, blissful contentment.

Consider just a few songs, released on “Double Fantasy” and the follow-up (recorded at the same time) “Milk and Honey:”

Just Like Starting Over

The lead single to “Double Fantasy” and the first Lennon release since his sabbatical, Just Like Starting Over is the perfect song to demonstrate just how changed the singer is. The title leads you to think it’s going to be a song about starting his career over, but that’s just a clever bit of wordplay. Actually in the song, Lennon coos about how long he’s been with Yoko and how despite so many memories they’ve made together he still loves being with her, running away with her, and going on adventures together. As he says, everytime he sees her he falls in love all over again, with his happy feelings “starting over.”

It’s not deep or profound. A Day in the Life this is not. But what it is, is sweet and jubilant. It’s the kind of bubblegum music that he and Paul first wrote when the Beatles exploded; the kind of music he later trashed as “rubbish” right after the band imploded. But he was a very different person then than he became in 1980. Just Like Starting Over expresses that perfectly.

I’m Stepping Out

Stepping Out was passed over for the “Double Fantasy” album but it became the lead-off song on the follow up LP, “Milk and Honey.” It’s a little more rock and roll than Just Like Starting Over, but it still carries the same peaceful vibe.

There’s not much to it, lyrically, as it announces that his time away from music is over and he’s ready to “step out” again and make new songs. He talks about going crazy being stuck in the house watching Sesame Street reruns all day. In an interview he gave around the release of this album, Lennon spoke of how excited he was when he first started being a “house husband.” He describes the pride he felt when he baked his first loaf of bred, saying it was as thrilling as releasing a #1 song. But he grew frustrated quickly when the bread would be gone by sunset and there’d be nothing to show for all his work. The tedium of that life is poured out in this song, but instead of being bitter and angry, Lennon sings about how happy he is to start a new chapter.

Beautiful Boy

Today this song is beloved. Paul McCartney called it his favorite Lennon song, and so did Yoko. At the time, however, it was held up as exactly what was wrong with the “Double Fantasy” album. It was overly sentimental, not very radio friendly, and lacked an edge. Critics were waiting for the old John Lennon to emerge but he was nowhere to be found in these final recordings. This is a man who has grown up. No longer is he “angry war protester” or “eating chocolate cake in a bag” John. Now he’s “dad” John. Now he’s “family man” John. Shoot, rumors were that he supported Ronald Reagan for president! If that’s not a summary of how he changed, nothing is!

As for this song, it’s a bedtime song, written for Sean. It’s not too different from the Good Night ballad that closed the White Album. That song was also a bedtime song written to his son (Julian). The difference is, in 1968 Lennon asked Ringo to provide the vocals because he didn’t think his own style fit such a soft and sweet tune. By 1980 he was perfectly comfortable serenading his child to sleep, leaving his emotions bare. As with the others highlighted here, there is a sweetness to these songs about looking forward to the future that is laced with tragic irony and poignancy…

Grow Old With Me

Yoko found this cassette tape in a small box on top of the piano. The label on the tape read, in John’s writing, “for Paul.” Likely he had recorded it as a demo and intended to share it with his former songwriting partner, with whom his relationship had essentially mended entirely. It doesn’t seem likely that he wrote it about he and Paul, considering the line “man and wife together” toward the end, but it’s a nice thought for Beatles fans. More likely it’s an ode to his beloved Yoko. It’s the compliment to Beautiful Boy in that respect.

The refrain “God bless our love” and the simple piano melody make this song a favorite at weddings. It’s not exactly Woman is the Nigger of the World if you know what I mean. It’s a song about how happy he is and how he looks forward to spending his life together with Yoko. It’s sweet. It’s simple. It’s the new John Lennon.

And that was that.

 

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As for the “Double Fantasy” album itself, critically it was not well received. Reviewers thought the sound was too schmaltzy and old-timey (at least from John’s contributions; Yoko’s songs were just considered weird). It lacked almost any of the edge that Lennon had become synonymous with over the years. But that was the point: The edge was gone. No longer was this a man constantly rebelling against the system, or fighting authority, or lashing out at the world around him. Now he was a man of contentment and peace. Ironically, the one word—peace—that dominated a huge stretch of his life (late 60’s-mid 70’s) was something he was unable to attain until he just settled down and looked around.

Once he had finally found it, he recorded a series of songs to express it. And then, his life was ended.

This month would have seen John Lennon’s 76th birthday, but it was not to be. Just one month after the release of “Double Fantasy” Lennon was shot to death by John Mark Chapman. Instantly, as always happens, people put Lennon’s life and career into perspective, sales of “Double Fantasy” increased exponentially and it won the Grammy for album of the year. But that’s not the story here. The story here isn’t about Lennon finally finding commercial success again, but only after his death. That’s an ending too pat, too…Elvis.

This story does not have a happy ending. It has a happy final chapter with a terrible last line. In the end, Lennon found peace, happiness and a reason to sing again, and then–just as he was starting over, with his beloved wife and beautiful boy–it was all taken away by one nut with a gun.

There’s no happy ending to this article. The only good to come from Lennon’s death was the fact that these final songs–which, at the time were on their way to being forever forgotten—are now etched into history as the last, satisfied words of a dying man.

So long.

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