Strange days indeed . . .
I was only eight years old when John Lennon was killed. At the time, I had an idea of who he was, but wasn’t aware of the man’s legacy. I was familiar with The Beatles, but did not yet know of how important they were. That would come in a few years’ time. However, I can recall when the fact that John Lennon was no longer around finally sunk in. That would be the first time I heard “Nobody Told Me” from Lennon’s first posthumous album Milk and Honey in 1984. I really loved the song and thought to myself, “Yeah, but Lennon’s gone now. There won’t be anything else like this ever again.”
Shortly thereafter, I embarked upon my Beatles excursion that would in turn inspire me in countless ways. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that each of the ex-Beatles’ solo works never had any of the spark that they had when they were together. Of course, that’s just how it had to be. But it was strange how John, Paul, George, and Ringo each started out pretty strong (or at least within a couple of tries in McCartney’s case) after the Beatles broke up and then just sank into comfortable mediocrity. Even Lennon.
To me, John Lennon singing about marriage and home life after a while was as trite as hearing Lou Reed go through the same motions in 1980. After all, Lennon was the man who issued the raw and moving Plastic Ono Band at the start of his solo career (not counting the Unfinished Music volumes, The Wedding Album and Live Peace at Toronto), a work that had at its core Dr. Arthur Janov’s primal scream sessions churning away. “Momma don’t go / Daddy come home!” screamed Lennon on that album’s harrowing opening track, “Mother”. And then, to top it all off, John sang “I don’t believe in Beatles” on “God” to effectively break down the supergroup illusion that had been seemingly torturing him for years. After finding Yoko Ono, there wasn’t much room for Paul McCartney, who for all intents and purposes had been the closest person to John for a long time.
So John shed Paul and in turn the two began battling it out in songs and LP sleeve art. Remember, this was way back in the days before rappers saw fit to do battle in the studio ad nauseam. At the time, it must have been amazing to hear Paul sing songs like “Too Many People” (with its “Too many people preaching practices” line) and “Dear Boy” on Ram, with Lennon attacking McCartney in “How Do You Sleep?” on Imagine. Even so, Paul was quick to try and mend things by recording “Dear Friend” for John on Wings’ Wild Life LP and “Let Me Roll It” on Band on the Run. But at the moment, it seemed John was happy just spreading his message of peace to the world and also getting in trouble with Harry Nilsson for a while (the two were removed from a live Smothers Brothers show after a hefty amount of heckling).
People often speak of Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, and Lennon’s final album with Yoko, Double Fantasy. Left out of the picture are things like Walls and Bridges, Mind Games and Sometime in New York City. During these works, John was going through a difficult time, at one point being separated from Yoko and spending time with May Pang (at Ono’s request), trying to come to grips with balancing a god-like rock and roll stature with being a family man and being forced to leave New York City after a lengthy and ridiculous FBI investigation. He would not be allowed back in to the States until the close of the Seventies.
It must have been difficult for Lennon, who obviously wanted to sing what was close to his heart. And while he still had legions of fans, the music didn’t always burn up the charts. But it didn’t need to. Lennon was his own man and made a big comeback in 1980 with Double Fantasy, an album that was half John / half Yoko. Even the critics praised Ono’s songs for the first time. Was it because Lennon was making his return in New York? It’s hard to say. Maybe the press had just softened. After all, punk had come and gone, and new wave was taking punk’s influence and dressing it up in makeup and synthesizers. Maybe it was just good to hear John Lennon back on the airwaves making good old rock and roll, singing like Elvis in “(Just Like) Starting Over”, addressing his “comeback” in “Watching The Wheels” and singing to Yoko in “Woman”.
And while John and Yoko were working on Double Fantasy, they were also getting songs ready for their next album, Milk and Honey, whose central theme would be based on Robert Browning’s “Grow Old Beside Me”. Lennon and Ono were already planning on dressing up like Robert and Elizabeth Browning for the cover of Milk and Honey, but after John heard “Grow Old Beside Me” in an old film, he quickly wrote his own take on the poem entitled “Grow Old with Me”. According to Yoko, the song was originally intended for Double Fantasy but saved for Milk and Honey because of time constraints.
The Lennons were definitely ready to reclaim some soil. John’s move back in to New York City seemed to have rejuvenated his muse. He was back on top. But it would not be for long enough. On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon, effectively taking away the life of one of the greatest people in history in a senseless act that will never be forgotten or forgiven.
In the wake of Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono issued her own Season of Glass album that featured a picture of Lennon’s bloody glasses on the front of the LP. It may have seemed rather crass, and a move based on exploitation, but Ono only wanted to have John’s memory remain vital to his fans. As if to say “Don’t forget what came before and what could have been.”
What could have been was finally issued in 1984. Milk and Honey was the final album of “new” material by John and Yoko. Like Double Fantasy, it is also billed as “A Heart Play”. The music is leaner at times, probably because a few of the tracks were nothing more than demos, but even so, the “final performances” are fine takes. The opening track, “I’m Stepping Out”, features a funky strutting chorus that embraces both the old rock and roll Lennon loved and just a twist of the new New York City sound that was infiltrating the airwaves.
On “I Don’t Wanna Face It”, Lennon rocks hard with a nice hint of boogie thrown in. “Say you’re looking for some peace and love / Leader of a big old band / You wanna save humanity / But it’s people that you just can’t stand”, sings Lennon. If anything, his wit was still intact as he was never afraid to face his mirror and describe what he saw. “Well I can sing for my supper / But I just can’t make it” goes one of the choruses.
“Nobody Told Me” still seems to be the strongest song on the album, mainly because here is Lennon standing, looking around at the world and wondering how it all changed. From “Everybody’s smoking and no one’s getting high” to “Everybody’s making love and no one really cares” and “There’s UFOs over New York and I ain’t too surprised”, “Nobody Told Me” gives the impression that perhaps Lennon was finally coming to terms with everything in his life and just marveling at the existence of it all. Either that, or he was just being gleefully sarcastic as always.
Elsewhere, “Borrowed Time” features a nice reggae lilt, and “(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess” expands on that feeling. Both songs are good, but not necessarily must-haves. And it should be noticed that the remastering on the disc has taken away the more annoying aspects of the echo box found on the original take of “Grow Old With Me”. On the original album, it sounded too tinny, but here the song features a warmer ambiance.
It’s honestly tough to enjoy Yoko’s songs. Personally, I never liked the ones on Double Fantasy, (especially “Kiss Kiss Kiss” which seemed to find Ono orgasming at the end), and her songs on Milk and Honey fare no better, especially in light of the fact that her songs were full blown, glossy productions that leave Lennon’s half of the album sounding out of place or is it Ono who is out of place? No matter, as songs like the laughable “O’ Sanity” (“Drink up, shoot up / Anything you please”), “Sleepless Night” - another horny song, and the bad reggae of “Don’t Be Scared” illustrate, Ono was never a pop star or a rock and roller. But John and Yoko always felt that they were a singular force, take ‘em or leave ‘em.
Included on the bonus cuts on this reissue are a charming acoustic version of “I’m Stepping Out” and an interview with John just hours before he was killed. It’s not that the interview is unnerving, but the fact that one knows that this was “it” while listening to it is a little unsettling to say the least. Still, it is interesting to listen to Lennon at that time talking about his career. Milk and Honey is certainly not the greatest album John (and Yoko) recorded; it isn’t even “great”. But it is vital if only for completing the musical story of John Lennon. After this, Ono would go on to release Menlove Ave., a collection of John’s outtakes from the mid-‘70s. It’s hard to say which album captured the essence of Lennon better, for they both have their flaws amidst the gems. Let’s just say that Milk and Honey finds Lennon in a happy state of mind, which is not a bad way to end a story at all.