While it might seem sacrilegious to say it, John Lennon's last album wasn't the watershed it was supposed to be. In fact, it's really not very good.
Double Fantasy was not a good album. For a long-time fan who, 18 years old at the time of its release, had waited five years to hear from John Lennon, it was a profound disappointment. I was still grappling with it, simultaneously deriding its middle of the road production and lack of edge and making excuses for it, when I heard on the radio that condolences could be sent to Yoko Ono care of the Dakota. The next day, when a news commentator suggested that "artistic betrayal" may have been the motive for murder I was in too much shock to take it all in. Intellectually, however, I knew there could be a valid basis for that opinion. And that made me feel guilty.
But no, it wasn't a good album; in fact it wasn't even an album, it was barely half a record, a mere seven songs. Even those Lennon fans who respected Yoko's art, while not actually liking it, hadn't been looking forward to hearing another album where she and John traded songs. The last time this had happened was with Some Time in New York City in 1972, their only studio collaboration that was at all in a pop vein, and not much more commercial than the "experimental" music the couple had recorded together.
So imbued with the radical chic ethos of the early '70s, Some Time would have sounded strangely dated by 1980 even if the autumn chill hadn't hinted at the coming Reagan revolution. Featuring joint songwriting and shared vocals, this work seemed easy to disconnect from the rest of Lennon's output. If he hadn't actually disowned it, it did appear that he had moved on. None of the three albums that followed had included Yoko, but her presence and artistic incompatibility on the new record were something that listeners had no choice but to take or leave. And she was only part of the problem.
At the end of October the first glimpse of Double Fantasy appeared and like thousands of others I rushed out to buy the single, "(Just Like) Starting Over." Three tones from a wishing bell gave way to the iconic voice, unadorned but for plangent acoustic guitar chords, like the return of a long-lost friend, "Our life together is so precious together…" The drums kicked in and Lennon was back.
On the first few listens it sounded as if Yoko was singing back-up (she wasn't), but it all seemed to work and not detract from the overall sound. My reaction was guarded, though. There was nothing embarrassing about the song or the recording, but there was a certain sterility to it, as if the performance and production had somehow conspired to mute the urgency of the lyrical plea and flatten what should've been rock 'n' roll into some sort of corporate pop/rock. If any song should have let loose with abandon to capture the raw fifties sound that Dr. Winston O'Boogie insisted we "should have been there" for, this was it.
"This one's for Gene and Eddie and Elvis… and Buddy" John almost whispers at the very start of Double Fantasy/Stripped Down; his hushed dedication sounding equal parts reverent and joyful, as if careful not to break a fragile spell, perhaps the very same spell cast by the wishing bell it replaces. "I never liked the way songs were mixed in the '70s and the '80s," Yoko states in the liner notes to the new release which accompanies the re-mastered original album, "raising the tracks and burying the voice." And while the fresh mix sheds some of the original clutter, bringing the (at some points) surprisingly thin, almost fragile, vocals into sharper relief, the result is less than revelatory.
The chief benefit is for listeners to hear Lennon's count ins, spoken word intros and fade outs unobscured, as well as various moans, growls and whoops that do serve to rescue some of the human emotion from the mass of production sheen. One example: while it was always clear that John said "Bubble, bubble" in the intro to "Clean-Up Time", and one could reasonably guess that "toil and trouble" followed, it was always difficult to make out, and he actually says "toil and no trouble". How trivial this is or isn't, as always, will depend on the beholder.
At 18, I found such matters to be not the least bit trivial. But what I can now understand to be both everything and nothing was, in 1980, only everything. When I first heard "Clean-Up Time", I could almost not comprehend that an album with only seven songs could contain such unabashed filler, and as his second track. Anyone who had followed Lennon's career and read the interviews that greeted the album's release knew what the songs were about, so the songs had as much a mandate as ever to stand on their own.
The sentiments associated with "Beautiful Boy" are sincere and affecting; John was writing proudly about his son, Sean, and the seismic shift his life had undergone in the wake of his arrival. If there is any lyric from Double Fantasy which has found its way into the popular lexicon, it's this song's "life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans". But while Lennon's greatest ballads had an almost eerie, ethereal quality that somehow transcended rank sentimentality, one of many lessons he learned from Buddy Holly, this distinction was utterly missing from "Beautiful Boy". In fact, the pseudo-Caribbean flavor of the arrangement reminded me of nothing so much as Jimmy Buffett.
"Watching the Wheels", a classic Dylan-influenced mid-tempo statement of purpose and defense of bread-baking domesticity, struck me at the time as a mere restatement of his "house-husband" interview persona. Where was the guitar? The song just seemed to lie there. Opening the second side of the vinyl LP, it seemed to encapsulate everything that I found wanting as I tried so much to like it. At the very same time, the familiar voice, missing for so long, sounded great. The contradiction was maddening.
Most positive reviews of the album focused, as much of rock criticism seems to do, on the lyrics. "Woman" is often dissected in contrast to Beatle John's "Girl" as a sign of his growing emotional maturity, but that's not at all what first occurred to me. Easily the most classically Beatlesque track on the album, this was not the least because its melody is strikingly reminiscent of "Here, There and Everywhere".
Of course, I didn't know if the similarity was at all deliberate or even conscious, but that's how I initially saw it. Everyone knew Paul wrote the latter song, and I, always one to side with John in whatever dispute between the former bandmates, no matter how seemingly childish, found it amusing that there could be no charges of plagiarism brought against an ostensible co-writer. Take that, Paul.
"Dear Yoko" was upbeat and John sounded fully committed, ripping Buddy Holly's "a-well-a-hell-a" from "Rave On" and giving it his all performance-wise. Still, it was hard to relate to. The intensely personal nature of much of Lennon's solo work was a two-sided coin; while a song like "Mother" dealt specifically with his very individual childhood trauma, this didn't hinder its ability to resonate with the masses anymore than "Julia" was necessarily tethered to his mother or Yoko ( of which "ocean child" is apparently an English translation).
But by referencing his wife by name on a record where she would be "answering" on the very next track, especially in an instance where a lyric could only have been taken in one way ("one track mind" indeed), he almost seemed to be limiting the listener‘s imagination by design. It's ironic that a similarly-themed, but much better song, "Oh Yoko!" rose above this lack of universality to be a standout on the soundtrack to the movie Rushmore.
Only "I'm Losing You" matched my expectations completely and demonstrated that rock hadn't been abandoned entirely for middle of the road pabulum. "I'm a born-again rocker," Lennon told Rolling Stone, "I feel that refreshed." Had the scorching version recorded with Rick Neilson and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick been substituted for the album track, this would've been even more evident. Nevertheless I clung to this track like a life preserver. It wasn't so bad after all. I told myself I needed to keep playing the record, that the songs would grow on me.
I did keep playing it, and the songs did change. In the immediate wake of the horrible, random, searingly painful news of Lennon's death I heard the opening piano chords of "Watching the Wheels" sting like a reproach. Numb, I felt irrationally guilty having criticized the album, like a child who somehow feels responsible for his parents' divorce.
Suddenly everyone had been a John Lennon fan, although the vast majority couldn't name three solo songs on a bet, and he received more airplay than at any time in the previous ten years since the Beatles broke up. I heard "Imagine" so many times that the moment that always gets me, the "a-ha" at the end of each verse, wasn't even noticeable anymore; it was just a bland wash. My friends and I tried to cope with the sadness and confusion through gallows humor, singing the refrain of "She Said She Said" ("I know what it's like to be dead") as a joke. It wasn't funny, nor did it help with the guilt.
Slowly, over time, it became possible to listen to Beatles/Lennon solo music again and not think of what happened, or at least not to think about it first and foremost, but in the same way that music's mnemonic power can take one back to a first love or heartbreak even thirty years on, Lennon seems to die again every time his last album is played; there's no earthly way to separate one from the other.