Thursday, September 23, 2010

John and Yoko and 'Double Fantasy'

Sometime in late September of 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono completed work on Lennon's comeback album — their collaborative effort, "Double Fantasy."

Lennon had been out of the public eye for five years, raising his infant son while his wife handled the family's business dealings. But, in 1980, he was ready to return.

I was in college at the time, and I remember sitting in a friend's yard one autumn afternoon and listening to the radio. Lennon's single, "(Just Like) Starting Over," came on. I had never heard the song before, and, for whatever reason, it just didn't sound like Lennon to me.

My friend smiled and nodded and made some offhand remark about Lennon's comeback, but I didn't make the connection until the song ended and the DJ said that had been Lennon's newest single.

The single was released a few weeks after Lennon's 40th birthday. The album on which it appeared was released only three weeks before Lennon was shot and killed.

After that happened, you couldn't find a copy of "Double Fantasy" anywhere. I remember searching all over town the day after Lennon was killed, trying to find a copy of the album to give as a Christmas present to the girl I had been seeing. But all I could find was an 8–track tape.

(She did have an 8–track player at the time, so that was OK.)

Actually, I was lucky to find the tape. Although CNN did exist at that time, it was still trying to find its identity and, in those essentially pre–24/7 news channel and pre–internet days, you had limited sources even for breaking news. Most Americans probably heard of Lennon's death the way I did — from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.

Word was slow getting out that night — certainly by contemporary standards. But it got out, and people hit the record stores as early as they could the next day and snapped up copies of "Double Fantasy" as long as they were available. And that wasn't long at all.

In hindsight, I must say that the response to Lennon's death was even more dramatic than the response I had seen a few years earlier when Elvis Presley died — or that I did see nearly 20 years later when a musical icon from another generation, Frank Sinatra, died.

In all three cases, music stores quickly ran out of albums by the dead singers. It seemed more pronounced after Lennon's death — perhaps because he was murdered — but most of the initial demand seemed to focus on his latest album.

Oddly enough, I found some copies of Lennon's older albums, a few of which I bought for my personal collection. And I was happy to get them. I preferred then — as I do now — Lennon's albums without Yoko.

Maybe it was Lennon's particular brand of marital loyalty, but, for some reason, he seemed to think that Yoko was a great singer. And he alternated tracks on the album with Yoko. When photographer Annie Leibovitz came to Lennon's home to shoot photos for Rolling Stone on the day Lennon was killed, she wanted to shoot photos of Lennon only. But Lennon insisted that Yoko be in every picture, and he made Leibovitz promise that they would both appear on the cover.

(As I got older, I found that a copy of "Double Fantasy" in one's collection was a pretty accurate litmus test for separating the true Lennon fans from the poseurs. Their copies of that album were always scratchy on the Lennon tracks — and pristine on Yoko's. I concluded that they had lifted the needle off the record when Yoko's tracks were playing and put it on Lennon's next track on that side.)

When "Double Fantasy" came out, the timing may have been right for someone like Yoko. Her style was definitely of a punk nature, and punk acts were hot in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I must confess that I have often wondered how that album might have done if Lennon had not been killed. I'm sure it would have done reasonably well with Lennon's fans, who had been waiting for several years for new material from him.

But would it have been popular with the punk fans? Surely, it wouldn't have generated the same kind of sales it did in the days after his murder. But would punk's have embraced Yoko? I honestly can't say.

Perhaps Yoko was inspired by her husband's burst of creativity in that last year of his life. Or perhaps she was infused with fresh confidence as punk acts were getting positive publicity.

Whatever it was, she seemed energized in a way she hadn't been before. She had seven songs on the album, the same number as her husband. Would she have been a punk star in the '80s if her husband hadn't died on that December night 30 years ago?

Again, I can't say.

What I can say is that it took Yoko three years after Lennon's death to finish work on the projected followup to "Double Fantasy," an album of recordings the two made for an album called "Milk and Honey." That album was released posthumously. While it followed the format of "Double Fantasy," it didn't enjoy the same commercial success.

And since its release in 1984, I don't think Yoko has made another recording.