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John Lennon, Remembered at 80: Former Beatle as Fascinating and Relevant as Ever
Sean Lennon performed his father’s song “Isolation” on last night’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the Empire State Building was lit up in blue and white to celebrate what would have been the 80th birthday of John Lennon today, Oct. 9.
And with a host of new releases – an amazing new box set, Gimme Some Truth, featuring some of his best-loved songs, remixed from the master tapes (don’t miss the 5.1 disc in the CD box set), a great new book due later this month chronicling the making of his peerless 1970 Plastic Ono Band album, and a host of radio and TV specials and streaming concerts and other tributes around the world — Lennon feels as present as at any time in the 40 years since we lost him.
Click here to purchase the 2-CD/Blu-ray/124-page book Gimme Some Truth set
Click here to purchase the 2-CD set
Click here to purchase the 2-LP set
Click here to purchase the 4-LP/poster/bumper sticker box set
In honor of his birthday, Rock Cellar has compiled recent interviews with his family, friends, collaborators, and those who have studied his career, to reflect on the scope of Lennon’s remarkable 10-year solo career, and the legacy he’s left behind.
— The Beatles (@thebeatles) October 9, 2020
It all began with Plastic Ono Band:
Rob Stevens (Lennon archivist): If you take, let’s say, the end of the Beatles, there was the B-side of Abbey Road, which is orchestral and beautiful. And then Plastic Ono Band was completely stripped down. So, you now had both ends of the spectrum. And John knew that he had merged both ends of the spectrum, or that’s what I felt when I heard it. This was the self-aware Beatle, after all.
Paul Du Noyer (author The Complete John Lennon Songs): I nominate Plastic Ono Band as the greatest solo achievement by any of the Beatles, and there were tough contenders for that. But I think it’s the best album that he did. This was a solo record in the fullest sense. It so steadfastly addresses the big fact: John is no longer a Beatle. John is now just himself. He was actually addressing straight on the great fact that we were all dazzled by, the fact that the Beatles were split up. He’s not skirting around it.
Klaus Voormann (Lennon friend and session bassist): John never told me what to play. I always played whatever I thought was right for John and the song.
Kenneth Womack (author or John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In The Life): All of those themes in that album would show up over and over again throughout his music, because he was clearly always thinking deeply about them. They were found objects. Primal Scream therapy with Arthur Janov was a gigantic found object that he was ready to explore in that very quick spate of music.
Klaus Voormann: The way Paul (McCartney) was approaching things at the time, it was very much into detail and “do it again” and “add another voice here” and “let’s do the vocals.” But on Plastic Ono Band John started stripping things down. It never was not kind of intricate work that Paul was doing, because that’s not what John aimed for. To him it was much more important to get the songs across, the lyrics across, the feeling across, with not too much around it.
Imagine followed, and became a worldwide smash album. The title song has grown into an anthem of peace beyond all measure in the years since Lennon’s passing:
Yoko Ono: Imagine says everything, whereas Plastic Ono Band or Walls and Bridges can be many different phases of life.
Jim Keltner (Lennon friend and session drummer): John and Yoko would do things, like the bed-ins, so they were always in the paper, talking about peace and love. The older I get, the more I realize that peace and love, as cliché and silly as it may sound, it’s the only thing that we’re lacking right now in our world. We were lacking in it then, and we’re lacking in it now. And John and Yoko were the head of that movement, at that time, at least as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know anybody else doing that. And I remember telling them after we met, “I don’t know where you’re going, or what you’re going to do but I want to go do it with you.”
Klaus Voormann: He was very loose. When he was on camera he might not be as funny, because he tried to be careful not to let go, but he could be outrageous. And that’s the part that most people don’t know, the way John was funny in private when I met them first in Hamburg, swearing all the time and telling dirty jokes. But all that stopped as soon as they realized that the press was on their backs. If you compare the early Beatles interviews — where they were still a loose, fresh, cocky bunch of people — bit by bit, every interview, one after the other, they started getting more careful about what they said, because they knew the press would blow it up to something outrageous.
Rob Stevens: In his love songs, like “Jealous Guy,” he was asking for forgiveness in the purest way possible, without any hang-ups; without any of the baggage that a lot of people carry around now.
Jim Keltner: I remember lots of details, but my memory goes fuzzy sometimes when I think about recording with John, because I was overwhelmed.
Klaus Voormann: He was almost apologetic about “How Do You Sleep?,” in a way. But at the same time, it was apparent that it was just a thing that, when it was done, it was forgotten. John knew it was unhealthy, but important, too, But for him it was just a statement. “That’s the way I feel right now.” And tomorrow, or the week after, he felt completely differently.
In 2018, a box set chronicling the Imagine sessions was released, and Lennon’s voice, which he often buried in the mix, was now up front and center.
Yoko Ono: It was my conscious decision. I listened to John’s takes and I was surprised that they were so good. I thought it was criminal to not show you how he really sang.
In 1971, Lennon and Ono left England for what would be the last time. The political album Sometime In New York City, with the East Village band Elephants Memory, and Mind Games followed.
Jim Keltner: Those records have been reviewed in many different ways. Some people have loved them; some people have thought it’s not his best work and so forth. But me, as a musician, I just loved every moment being in the studio with John, no matter what he was doing. He was extremely focused on those records, especially with Elephants Memory. That was he and Yoko befriending these guys who were basically a garage band, you know, punk guys. They were good, though. And their energy and their enthusiasm made up for anything that they lacked in.
Lennon decamped for Los Angeles in 1974 after being kicked out by Ono. He lived there with girlfriend May Pang, fellow former Beatle Ringo Starr, The Who’s Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson. The wild days and night of the Hollywood Vampires were born.
Jim Keltner: John was really a kind man and really thoughtful. But if you’re going to compare the Imagine time to the rest of the time, like the Rock ‘N’ Roll record, those days were chaotic. He had been sent away, basically, by Yoko. And so the freedom that he was supposed to experience came at a price. He was pretty much a mess, which then caused most of us to be a mess as well, so everybody was kind of in the same boat. So there was a huge difference between that period when I first met them when they were sort of fresh as an item. But what I loved about John was that he loved rock and roll so much. He just loved playing it. That’s all he wanted to do. And so then when we got to the Spector record, it was really gonna be a ball. Spector had all these great musicians together all in a room and it was supposed to be like this big party.
And we were playing these great songs but each night just degenerated to like a dirge because of the craziness that was going on. And so that was a huge difference.
Intent on cleaning up and reuniting with Ono, Lennon headed back to New York, to finish his Rock ‘N’ Roll album, and to cut what would be another chart-topper, Walls and Bridges.
Jim Keltner: He loved Yoko madly. And when he was in L.A., on his dark days — his “Lost Weekend” or whatever the hell they call it — every time he got so messed up that he couldn’t even hardly talk, he was always shouting and screaming Yoko’s name. And so I always loved letting Yoko know that. For a minute the freedom was fine, but then he just wanted to get back. I think he reached out a bunch of times and she was not ready. So there was so much going on in that story. But eventually he headed back to New York and got serious about his life and getting back together with Yoko. So I want for the picture to be that he loved her madly and that I think their relationship was kind of magical.
Klaus Voormann: John, particularly later, liked to get out of the studio as quick as possible. Walls & Bridges was like that. He wanted to get the songs done, you know, because he was always very uptight and wanted to have it done quickly.
After reuniting with Ono, the pair holed up in their Dakota apartment, where Lennon, for the most part, left his guitar hanging on the wall while raising their son, Sean.
Kenneth Womack: I go to great pains to help people understand how he got to 1980. That he had been writing, but lacked a certain level of confidence. And it really comes to a head for me in that audio diary he makes in the fall of 1979, where he picks on Elton John and Paul McCartney and, certainly, Bob Dylan. He’s at times vicious; at times just very cold as he analyzes them. And I think when you look at that moment, it demonstrates that what he lacks is the confidence to get into that arena, particularly after so much time had passed.
1980 is a very crowded field. All the bands that we now call dinosaurs were coming out with their dinosaur eggs. They were releasing album after album. Queen has a massive album. The Who were plotting the first of many comeback tours. Dylan is a commercial success prior to that year in ways that he hadn’t been previously for quite some time. Elton is about to come back in a big way. And John, even though he liked to talk about how he didn’t subscribe to Billboard and Rolling Stone anymore, and he’s just this guy who’s separated himself from the business, he was very cognizant of what was going on. And I think that’s a turning point, because he also records a song then; the very dark, anti-Dylan song, “Serve Yourself.”
Jim Keltner: John loved New York. John was considered a guy who just intimidated the shit out of everybody else. All the other guys, when they’d be at parties, John would be there and they’d all be afraid to talk to him because they’d be afraid they wouldn’t be smart enough or something. Try to imagine that. Isn’t that funny? So he needed that break from being John Lennon.
Kenneth Womack: New York in those days is like the land that time forgot. We get nostalgic thinking about how different that world was, but it’s amazing how circumscribed he was by his neighborhood. He had his bodega, which is now a CVS, across the street from the other CVS, near the Dakota, which is down the street from the other CVS near the Dakota. It’s such an interesting and different world.
Then, in 1980, after a five-year hiatus, Lennon was ready to make a comeback.
Kenneth Womack: In April, when he goes to Cannon Hill, their place out on Long Island, he begins to work on a few other new songs, including one for Yoko, and refines that one. And within a matter of days he’s hearing Paul McCartney’s new single, “Coming Up.” Of course, this is important because when he had been interviewed, he had been very careful to note that he wasn’t always satisfied with Paul’s music, but we know that in private, he might have had different opinions. And that song very much struck him as Paul moving outside of his own comfort zone. The McCartney II version. And for John, that was a big deal. Here’s Paul coming out with a record that he wished he had made.
Paul Du Noyer: I think that the really interesting thing to me about the final music — and I’m including Milk and Honey in that final batch of music he made in 1980 — is that it’s an early attempt by a rock and roller to come to terms with the fact that he’s no longer young, which is just a really challenging point in a songwriter’s development. And it hadn’t been done, really, at that stage by anybody.
Kenneth Womack: Another marker is certainly his trip to Bermuda, and the moment when he finds himself in a mythical battle with the Gods, as he described it, when the boat he was sailing on hit a storm and the crew got sick and he ends up having to man the helm. Here’s this guy who has done anything and everything anyone might imagine doing, and been very successful in so many spheres, and he believes that that’s the first moment he’s ever felt alive.
Earl Slick (session guitarist): He came out of five years off with a whole lot of ideas, and a whole lot of desire and energy, which served the whole situation well. Because sometimes when people do take a hiatus and they come back, it almost sounds like they’re trying to make a comeback. It wasn’t that. It was a continuation, the way I experienced it. It was, okay. I took these give years off to be with my kid because I didn’t do such a great job the first time.
I’m not even sure if he engineered it to five years, but obviously when he hit that five year point, he was ready. It wasn’t like he’d put his guitars down the whole time, which people think he did. They just picture him in a kitchen making dinner and baking bread. But he always wrote, and he always played. So a lot of that stuff was written in that trip that he made to Bermuda. He refined old songs and wrote new ones, so by the time he had finished that trip, he was ready to go. And he was excited about it.
Kenneth Womack: One of the parts of the legend is John went to Bermuda and wrote all of these songs, but of course most of them, not all of them, but most of them, had been in some kind of process, which shouldn’t surprise anybody, if you really look at the history of his songwriting. He’s a guy who wrote in fragments and then would find a way to graft them together. And of course if you graft three really good fragments together, you’ve got a hell of a song.
Earl Slick: He didn’t talk much about the songs at all. We just did them. There weren’t any magical, deep conversations about the songs. And the term rock and roll must’ve come out of his mouth every day in some version or another. That’s where his head was at.
Paul Du Noyer: In Britain, the expectation, or the hope, was that John was a kind of prophet of punk rock, and now, when he came back to make some new music, he’d come to claim that inheritance. It would reflect what had gone on in London. But it didn’t. He didn’t pay that close attention, really. So John made a very middle-aged record, and a lot of people disliked it for that reason. They would say, as a term of damnation, “It’s a very middle-aged record.” Of course, now that I’m middle aged, and beyond middle aged, myself, I no longer see that as a term of abuse. I see it as just opening a field of inquiry for a good songwriter to tackle.
Earl Slick: To the end he was still excited. “We’ve done this thing and I’m really digging it.” It wasn’t until we got towards the very end of the process of recording that he got into the mindset of, Am I still relevant? Are they going to like it?
To promote Double Fantasy, released in November 1980, Lennon and Ono began a publicity campaign that included interviews with Playboy, Rolling Stone and Newsweek, as well as radio interviews for the BBC on December 6, 1980, and RKO Radio on Monday, December 8th.
Laurie Kaye (RKO Radio producer): They were definitely trying to get the message across that despite everything, despite any commentary, and despite what the public thought, they were a couple. They were together, and there was a good reason behind that, and it wasn’t just because they were in love or had fallen in love or had a child. It was because they were together. They completed each other, in a way.
They were almost like one person, in a way. They didn’t care about what other people thought, yet John and Yoko still wanted to let people know what everything was like for them. For example, “Starting Over” was a beautiful and brilliant encapsulation of their relationship, and the levels that it went through in order to get where they finally were. It was inspirational. And yes, it got mixed reviews, but I mean, look at it over the years, and at how the songs have really just grown into people’s hearts. And I don’t think it’s just because he was assassinated. I think it’s because they’re wonderful, stimulating songs.
Earl Slick: Everything that we did, whether it was his or hers, the same amount of time and care got put into the songs in the studio. And her stuff has stuck because, truth be told, in hindsight, she was ahead of the game. We didn’t know. Not then. But now you look at it, and you go, “Yeah. Well ahead of the game.”
Laurie Kaye (RKO Radio producer): It was so wonderful to hear him open up about so many things, about so many aspects of his life, whether it was how he was, you know, feeding Sean breakfast, or spending time apart from Yoko so she could get her work done. It was just — it was all so very touching.
Upon its release, however, Double Fantasy was not an instant smash.
Kenneth Womack: My favorite scene in the whole story is the one where Yoko comes to John, who has been planning his big return to England, has written the relatives, especially Julia Baird, and said, “I’m coming home, going to have a big hit, I’ll take a liner up the Thames, it’s going to be beautiful.” And it’s not selling as quickly as they expected. And she realizes that and she’s very concerned that it’s going to send him spiraling. And she goes to see him and says, “Yeah, it’s just not selling as quickly as we thought,” and John says, “That’s okay. We have the family.” I love that, because it says something about him.
Earl Slick: If he’d lived to promote that album properly, and if we’d been able to go out on tour, it would have been a major hit album. It’s all about getting in front of the people and it would’ve sold, one way or the other.
Kenneth Womack: I think he would’ve accomplished everything he had wanted. In fact, I think, he would have gotten on the road and become very much a part of those tours. But I love the line where he’s talking to the guys in the band one of them had just toured with Paul Simon and says, “We don’t do 20-minute concerts anymore, buddy. You don’t just go in and get screamed at for 13 songs and then go home.” But he would have given the people what they wanted, and he would’ve been jazzed by it. Particularly if he shows up with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” That would’ve been a gas. And with that band, who played so well with him. It would have been amazing.
Ultimately, it wasn’t to be.
Jim Keltner: John was an amazing person. Every time you were with John was just an interesting time. Because he was John Lennon, and every time you picked up the newspaper you would read something, a quote of his, it felt like something you could live by. That’s the way I was. I wasn’t a rock guy, I was a jazz guy. But every time there was something in the paper about John Lennon I would read it and I would always be in agreement with him somehow.
He was like the English version of Bob Dylan for all of us. Neither one of them would accept the mantle that was bestowed upon them, being the spokesman for their generation, but they were, in very many ways.
Laurie Kaye: We had been warned nonstop by the record company that we were not to bring up the Beatles, and we were not to bring up Paul McCartney. We were not to bring up anything in the past. That this was all Double Fantasy going forward. So then to be sitting there, and all of a sudden John starts bringing up the Beatles, and starts talking about working with Paul McCartney, it was like my heart expanded in the room.
As for Lennon’s message of peace, which feels so relevant today?
Klaus Voormann: It’s terrible that nothing much has happened. You think that he did something, but in the long run it didn’t even change much, I’m sorry to say. But I’m hopeful, as John would want it to be.
Typically, on the night he died, Lennon was already looking toward the future, and believed he’d found a new direction.
Kenneth Womack: What I love about the story is seeing how forward-thinking he was, and how really healthy that was. By the time Yoko has that conversation with him, where he says, “Hey, we still have the family,” the reason he’s in such good shape is because he’s just had this great experience making this record, and just because it’s not No. 1 yet, and maybe never will be, as far as he knows, didn’t mitigate the quality of the experience. That’s him saying, “Damnit, let’s go make ‘Walking on Thin Ice.’ We didn’t finish that.”
Earl Slick: I can’t really say what he would’ve done. He wasn’t the most predictable guy on the planet, so it could’ve been more “Thin Ice.” It could’ve been “Imagine.” I don’t know. It could’ve been anything. We don’t get to know. But working on that track, and the way it grew and developed in the studio over the course of the sessions was a bit of a mission for him, and was an amazing experience.
Paul Du Noyer: When she came out with “Walking on Thin Ice” — which was released not long after John died, and was what they were working on the night he was assassinated — that completely revolutionized my attitude toward Yoko. That really made me sit up and listen, because it’s one of the great tracks.
Rob Stevens: She had a hit record with that not that long ago. And that is artistic retribution, most especially the artistic acceptance. I remember the Friday night — because it used to be that the charts would come in on a Friday night — when “Walking on Thin Ice” went to No. 1. I called her up and I said, “Yoko, it’s number one.” Silence. And then she said, “And you mean they can’t take this away from me?” So now that she’s finally gotten the public recognition of her brilliance from a pop audience. I think it’s so richly deserved. It’s like righting a wrong. For both of them.
Yoko Ono: I think John would be saying, “Hurray!” By the way, in 2017 there was a new album from me, if that interests you!