LOS ANGELES — Fourteen years after Pete Townshend dismissed the very idea of growing up when he wrote “Hope I die before I get old,” a 40-year-old John Lennon sang a very different tune.
“I can hardly wait to see you come of age,” he sang in 1980 to his then-5-year-old son, Sean, unabashedly anticipating the future. And to his wife, Yoko Ono, he borrowed a sentiment from poet Robert Browning and crooned “Grow old with me / The best is yet to be ... whatever fate decrees, we will see it through.”
Fate, however, had something other than old age in store for Lennon, who died at the hands of a crazed fan just a few months after recording those songs and many others that signaled the start of a new chapter in the ex-Beatle’s life.
“It’s hard to believe he would be 70,” Lennon’s friend Elton John said last week. “It’s hard to believe he missed out on the computer, on Twitter. I wonder what he would have made of it all? I have a feeling he would have grabbed and run with it. John Lennon, who gave so much; he would still be at the forefront.”
Three decades after his death, in some respects he is. The approach of what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday on Oct. 9 brings with it a raft of special commemorations, recordings, films, books and live performances that indicate Lennon’s hold on the world’s imagination is as strong as ever.
“He, more than so many artists, truly just bared his soul,” said Robert Santelli, executive director of downtown L.A.‘s Grammy Museum, which on Monday opens an exhibit, “John Lennon, Songwriter,” focusing on his musical legacy. “He shared his demons, his weaknesses, his joys. ... As a songwriter, he looked into the mirror and what he saw, he put in his songs. That takes courage.”
EMI and Capitol Records will give Lennon’s post-Beatles solo catalog a major sonic upgrade with remastered versions of all his albums, which are being released Tuesday individually and in an 11-CD “John Lennon Signature Box” full of extras and bonus tracks. The label also is putting out a new double CD/DVD greatest-hits set (“Power to the People: The Hits”) and a four-CD box set (“Gimme Some Truth”) that samples a broader cross section of his solo career, broken down into four themed discs.
PBS makes Lennon an honorary American by including him in its “American Masters” series by way of a new two-hour documentary, “LennoNYC,” slated to air Nov. 22 and focusing on his and Ono’s years living in New York. The Grammy Museum hosts an advance screening Monday.
The American Cinematheque is wrapping up a full weekend of Lennon-related films including the Los Angeles premiere of “Nowhere Boy,” director Sam Taylor Wood’s exploration of Lennon’s pre-Beatles days in Liverpool as a member of the Quarrymen, whose surviving members were scheduled to be on hand with Wood and actor Aaron Johnson.
Various cities are hosting birthday vigils and celebrations, including a gathering Saturday at noon in Hollywood outside Capitol Records at Lennon’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His first wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian, will unveil a peace monument in his hometown of Liverpool on Saturday. Ono will spend that day in Reykjavik, Iceland, performing with the Plastic Ono Band at a peace concert, lighting the Imagine Peace Tower in his memory and burying a time capsule to be opened on the 100th anniversary of Lennon’s birth in 2040. Countless Beatles tribute bands will focus on Lennon’s music.
Former Capitol Records executive Jon Polk has crafted “The John Lennon Box of Vision,” akin to ” The Beatles Box of Vision” he put together last year, packaging all the original 12-inch-by-12-inch album cover artwork with extensive liner notes and other extras.
A new book documenting his final recording sessions through interviews with most of the participants is due for publication this month, author-musician Ken Sharp’s “Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Double Fantasy’” (Simon and Schuster, $26.99). It underscores the weeks leading to his death as an intensely happy time for Lennon, after the five years in which he largely cut himself off from the entertainment world to focus on raising Sean.
At the center of it all is Ono, who has spent a good chunk of the last 30 years deciding how best to honor her husband’s memory and legacy in contemporary pop culture. That’s encompassed allowing other musicians to record his songs as part of humanitarian recording projects, adding her approval to Beatles-related ventures such as Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show “Love” and the use of Lennon’s image and music in “The Beatles: Rock Band” videogame and revisiting their final recording studio collaborations together for a reconfigured version of “Double Fantasy,” the 1980 album that put him back at the top of the pop charts shortly before he died.
“Double Fantasy — Stripped Down” is a remixed version of the album, removing the bells-and-whistles production touches that he, Ono and album producer Jack Douglas used 30 years ago, especially the effects used to alter the quality of his naked voice.
“I think that’s really the best part, in a way,” Ono, 77, said during a stop in Beverly Hills recently. “When you hear it, it’s totally different in the sense that John’s voice is really so up (front in the sound mix). ... You’re going to really hear him for the first time, in a way.”
Raw emotion characterized “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” the first album he released after the 1970 breakup of the Beatles. But from “Imagine” in 1971 through “Double Fantasy,” he often double-tracked his vocals, adding echo and reverb or other aural processing. Were he still alive, this might be the one project he’d have trouble supporting.
“He was never satisfied with his voice,” Ono said. “But he was satisfied with what we were doing (on ‘Double Fantasy’) in the sense of the songs.”
Ono said she’s listened to those songs only sporadically over the years and that her response to hearing the album in its entirety during the remixing process recently took her by surprise.
“For business reasons I have to listen to certain things sometimes,” she said, “maybe one song, you know, if they want to use it for an advertisement, but not the whole thing. I thought, ‘I can take care of it as business, objectively,’ which I have been doing for 30 years. But to listen to ‘Double Fantasy,’ ohhh,” she said with a heavy sigh. “I was crying, actually.”
Asked whether “Double Fantasy — Stripped Down” also means her own voice will be cast in a new light, Ono nearly blushed. “Yes, that’s true,” she said with a jittery laugh. “I get a bit nervous talking about that. Most people in those days really hated the fact that I was there. But yes, you hear me too.”
Sean lent a hand to the remixed “Double Fantasy” project: That’s his sketch on the cover, a reproduction of the original album’s photo of his father and mother kissing.
Thirty years after that photo was taken, how might Lennon view the seismic changes that have transpired since he sang to his generation about a “Revolution”?
“In the days when John was young, there were few people who played guitar,” Ono said. “Now, is there a kid in the class who doesn’t know how to play the guitar? It’s very different now.”
Ono believes Lennon would be gratified by many of those differences.
“Just like people in old days: The white guys had to marry white women, that kind of thing,” Ono said. “In music too, in the old days, rock was rock, jazz was jazz, avant garde was avant garde, classical was classical. Now everybody uses everything, and they don’t mind it. ... It’s all mixed now. It’s beautiful.”
The musical polyglot is something she finds in sync with their longstanding efforts to promote world peace.
“To keep this planet as a beautiful planet, music is it,” Ono said. “Music is a healing power, and all musicians who are trying their best, they are all doing it, by their vibrations. Isn’t that great? Even if you make the music in your own garage and wouldn’t ever put it out, that vibration is healing the world.
“John categorically approved all musicians,” she said. “As long as it’s music, he feels good about it.”
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