A revolutionary never rests
THE LAST THIRTY YEARS OF JOHN LENNON*
In October fans celebrated the 70th birthday of John Lennon. The first forty years of his life are known down to the last detail to virtually everyone on this planet, therefore we will try to tell the chronicle of the last thirty years from the album Double Fantasy up to these days.
It is easy to see why events in the last three decades of John Lennon’s life are far less known to the public than those of the previous four; in those years he was busy making history with the Beatles and then on his own, retreating and acting the part of the paterfamilias rather than the rock star for five years after that, thus one might say with reason that the year 1980 saw a new era commencing in his career, one perhaps less noisily celebrated and full of success than the first one but equally important. Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono had avoided the limelight for five years, refusing even to give interviews previous to the release of Lennon’s comeback album Double Fantasy, but when it was finally released, Lennon was back on the scene, and in top form, too, talking about himself, his relationship with Yoko, the Beatles and the world in general in a series of the characteristically witty and brilliant interviews which had become his hallmark.
Despite all that, Double Fantasy did not really become a hit album, especially not at home in the UK where people no longer seemed really interested in John Lennon any more. The album made it only to number 14 in the sales list, and not even (Just Like) Starting Over, meant to be “the” hit number of the album, was able to overtake pop hits by new stars like Super Trouper or The Tide Is High, reaching only a disappointing Number Eight slot. The situation was slightly better in Lennon’s adopted country, the US, where Double Fantasy managed slowly to climb into the Top 10, with Starting Over leading the singles list for three weeks, but then it began to slide from its leading position and also from the public mind.
Lennon, however, did not lose momentum, and recorded the material of Milk And Honey with Yoko in a mere couple of months. The album hit the shops in the autumn of 1981. Once again, like Double Fantasy, the album failed to make much of a stir, and it was after Milk And Honey that Lennon began to talk about the possibility of resuming live concerts. At that time, though, he seemed to be still wary of the idea. “I don’t want to expose Yoko to the anger of those creeps who feel they must blame someone for the passing of the Sixties at all costs,” he said to Time magazine in an interview at Christmas 1981. Two months later, however, he sang two songs (Nobody Told Me, I’m Stepping Out) on the popular TV show Saturday Night Live, after which he said repeatedly that he would not mind playing live again.
In 1982 he made his first public appearance after many years: he unexpectedly turned up onstage at a New York concert of his friend Elton John in the final block when they sang Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds together; the murmur of disbelief among the audience heard at the start went over into a roaring standing ovation by the time the song was finished. At the end of October he released a single, the song Get Well Soon, inspired by the Falklands War and confirming Lennon’s opposition to all kinds of war once again. In the meantime he turned up on several recordings by others, playing the guitar and doing vocals in David Bowie’s song Modern Love, playing harmonica in the title song of Bruce Sringsteen’s album Nebraska, and partnered up with Elvis Costello in writing a song for the latter’s album Imperial Bedroom.
Moreover, he played keyboard under the pseudonym Ted Dakota on the 1984 hit number Valotte of his son Julian.
Finally he gave in. In April 1984 he gave two concerts at the Madison Square Garden to sold-out houses, but true to his vow made in advance, he did not play a single Beatles piece, only his own songs. In late autumn in the same year he released his next album, Siamese Twins, the last one in the series dubbed “The Yoko Trilogy”. Siamese Twins failed to impress either the critics or the public, from which Lennon concluded that his next album must be made without Yoko. Their life together, full of ups and downs as it always was, came to a new crisis anyway, and in 1985 they separated. Lennon moved out, leaving Yoko alone with their son Sean, ten at the time.
Also, in the same year his attacked Live Aid in two interviews, making headlines worldwide. “What’s the use of it all? I‘m sure Bob Geldof means well but he ought to understand that even if that money ever makes it to Africa, things will go on in the same way the next day,” he said, referring to his own bitter experiences following the Bangladesh aid concert of 1971. Public opinion turned completely against Lennon then; he was called selfish by Geldof and cynical by Phil Collins who appeared on both sides of the Atlantic the same night. Lennon felt the air thinning around him. He was increasing lonely and isolated. His feelings of uncertainty are reflected in his first untitled album which bears nothing but his name, the one released in 1986. “Lennon seems to have reached the stage where the part of family man becomes him better than that of the rock musician,” Rolling Stone wrote in a scathing review and disdain for the album mustering electronic drums and synthesizers was almost unanimous. The “bird album”, so called because of its cover, has remained Lennon’s worst-selling record up to this day, which he himself came to call “shit wrapped up in silk” later.
It was after this fiasco that Lennon, fleeing once again to alcohol from the problems of his private life and artistic crisis, and turned off by the activities of the Reagan administration anyway, decided that he must leave America to be able to make a new start and put his family life back on track. The new destination was Berlin (still West Berlin at the time). “I wouldn’t call myself English or American either, but if I have to belong somewhere, then I’d rather choose to be a European,” he told Der Spiegel in March 1988, after having moved to Berlin.
Lennon was genuinely reborn in the city. He had his hair cut short, got rid of his addiction and made up with Yoko who followed him to Berlin. They owed their reunion mainly to their adoption of an orphaned girl from Namibia by the name of Numa. A grammar school was found for Sean, too, in Berlin, so the only remaining thing for John was to shift his musical career back in gear. He blamed the failure of his last album for his lack of a true companion (the role was filled first by Paul McCartney and by Yoko after that), so he went looking for one and found it in the person of Brian Eno. They began to work together in 1989, their joint effort receiving a new impetus on 10 November when John, too, walked past Checkpoint Charlie, sharing in the general euphoria. All the songs in the album were pervaded with the same dizzy feeling of freedom (and they also made good use of the opportunities provided by the sampling technology). The album came to be finally released in the spring of 1990 under the title Freedom Child, bringing the first “return to form” type reviews and sighs of relief for Lennon in many years. A juggernaut success, the album dominated the hit lists, won several Grammy nominations, and the video clip made of the title song directed by Wim Wenders was on MTV day and night (a song, by the way, featuring Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths, on the guitar).
In the autumn of 1990, John, Yoko and Numa ventured to the newly freed countries of East Europe. That was when Lennon made his first and last visit to Hungary ever up until now. The musician politely refused an invitation by Gábor Demszky, the newly elected mayor of Budapest, and did not participate in any formal program, thus his visit became a subject mainly of legends and rumours. He was seen leaving record stores on the city’s boulevards laden with recordings by the Illés group and the folk music band Muzsikás, and in the October 28 issue of Kurír, Tibor Márton, the head waiter of the restaurant Kárpátia, was quoted as saying that Lennon had been “a generous guest”. It is not a legend, though, that the song Walking Across the River on his next album released two years later had been inspired by Budapest being shut down by the taxi drivers’ blockade.
This latter album, Blood And Breakfast, had no longer a trace of the electronic adventure trips of the previous records: Lennon proudly declared that he was listening to The Pixies, Sonic Youth and Nirvana, and the record’s producer this time was Steve Albini. The song Little Viper (allegedly inspired by the little Numa) turned out to be Lennon’s biggest hit since Imagine. That encouraged him to build a tour upon the album with a raw, punk-like sound, giving concerts in eight European capitals (unfortunately getting only as far as Vienna), with his 17 year old son Sean playing second guitar.
Lennon the political activist was also back with a vengeance. He urged the taking of measures to stop the war in the former Yugoslavia, travelling to Sarajevo as the ambassador of UNICEF, but the real surprise came when at the end of 1993 he confessed to Melody Maker that he was considering a visit home. “I love living in Berlin, but find myself thinking of Liverpool and England more and more often. Nostalgia has never been my thing, but I certainly would like to show my kids where I grew up, as far as there are still things to show,” he said. The big moment arrived in 1994: after two decades of self-imposed exile, John Lennon returned to the UK, where he bought a mansion in Cheshire while keeping his Berlin apartment as well. Appearing live also in Wembley, Lennon was caught up in the patriotic Zeitgeist of the times, hanging out with Britpop bands and celebrating the new Britain in his next album (Marmalade) which is more of a throwback to the world of the Beatles than any of his previous solo recordings (the producers were Geoff Emerick, the one-time sound engineer of the Beatles, and Stephen Street, known from the records of Blur).
In 1995 Lennon appears on the cover of the New Musical Express four times, taking part in the recording of the aid album Help! (with an adaptation of his old favourite, Kinks Wonder Boy), has a conversation with Paul McCartney again á propos the releasing of the Beatles selection entitled 1, and even saying something about “rather liking” Tony Blair. The optimistic, “Britpop” Lennon, however, was soon to retire to the countryside, and hardly a year later he was already talking to The Times about “having got tired” of guitar music, and listening to nothing but trip-hop, jungle and drum ‘n bass. His new record Cloudville, appearing in November 1996, features Nellee Hopper and Goldie, and its dark “post-industrial” sound shocks the world. At the same time Lennon gets entangled in a lawsuit with his former manager who, Lennon alleges, has swindled him out of 10 million dollars, while severe asthma forces Numa to live under constant medical attention. These are hard times for him.
Following Cloudville, Lennon turns back upon himself a bit: he takes medication for his increasingly severe depression, becomes disappointed in the New Labour government before anyone else, begins to paint, and puts music aside for a while. He is inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame (together with McCartney, of course), mends fences with the ailing George Harrison, with whom he was barely on speaking terms for two decades, and although he keeps repeating that a reunion of The Beatles is out of the question, he sees his former fellow group members increasingly often, and writes a song for Ringo Starr’s album Vertical Man. In the meantime Jim Jarmusch makes a documentary about him (Invisible Man, a success in Hungary’s cinemas, too), in return of which he plays a cameo role in the director’s movie Ghost Dog.
The new millennium was welcomed by John Lennon with a record of duets celebrating “the many colours of the world”. The album, called simply Duets, contains 14 numbers recorded with artists ranging from Little Richard, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin to Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Lennon’s favourite new orchestra, with a measure of international flavour thrown in with the appearance of King Sunny Adé, Peter Gabriel and Ibrahim Ferrer. The year 2000 also saw the opening of a joint exhibition of Yoko’s and Lennon’s art in London’s newly inaugurated museum Tate Modern. Cooperation in music is being replaced by cooperation in art between the two of them.
The big question mark, though, is naturally the Beatles. And while Lennon abhors nostalgia of all kinds, he consents to producing something new together with the former members of the Beatles. They begin joint work in the spring of 2001 which, however, has to be cut short because of the operation of George who is ill with cancer. In the summer of the same year the album Rings Around The World by the Super Furry Animals appears, in whose song Receptacle For The Respectable, Paul McCartney is asked to contribute by chewing a carrot in rhythm with the music, as he once did for the Beach Boys album Smiley Smile. McCartney’s contribution is recorded over the phone, and since Lennon is in his home visiting just then, he gets in on the game, too, taking the carrot, while Paul has a celery to chew. After thirty-one years, this is the first recording in which the two of them are heard together, and at that time they have no idea that there would be no more either.
George’s condition is not getting any better, so they decide to suspend their work temporarily, and his death at the end of the year puts an end to the reunification process once and for all. Lennon is deeply shaken by Harrison’s death. He declares more than once that without George there can be no Beatles. On top of it all, he experiences another shock at about the same time: he is in New York on 11 September 2001, and the two traumas combined together are two much for him to get over anytime soon. He retires again, disappearing for months from public view. He is jolted out of indifference by the Iraq war, which brings the peace fighter in him to the fore once again. Lennon is the first world famous musician to begin blogging; his notes are followed with a huge interest. He has an opinion on everything, and his frequent posts represent a constant topic for the media as well.
Thanks to the Internet, he gradually gives up his isolation and, as a public figure, takes every opportunity to attack George Bush and Tony Blair. In 2002 he accepts a minor role in the movie About A Boy, based on Nick Hornby’s novel, and his own prose writings are published in a volume a year later. And while music remains his main outlet, he feels less and less inclined to continue his activity within the confines universally accepted up to then: he is the first musician to declare the death of the album format, making his new music put together in his home studio freely downloadable from his home page in 2004. Not being contracted by any of the recording studios, he has the freedom to discover new routes without bounds. Later on the 2004 songs, recorded together with Beck, are arranged also into a regular album under the title The Home Sessions and, like all of Lennon’s records since 1990, it leads the British top list.
Lennon’s last album to date, Pension, is a return to the simple single-songwriter idiom. The producer is Rick Rubin, the sound puritanical and simple, Lennon’s singing is accompanied either by an acoustic guitar or a piano, and the lyrics are about things like getting old, war, grandchildren and talk about an inner peace. Ironically, in the song Dreaming, Yoko Ono turns up again after a break of almost exactly twenty years. However, the song Rats In The Cradle, written by Lennon for the G8 conference of 2005, ridiculing politicians with a vicious sense of humour is missing from the album.
So what has John Lennon been doing since then? What is he up to? In 2008 he appears at the opening ceremony of the European Cultural Capitals Project in Liverpool, undergoes a prostate operation two months later, moving to Iceland still in the same year, so he is able to comment on the financial collapse of the island country live in his blog which is read by millions. In the same blog he talks with genuine enthusiasm about several young bands (he is especially taken with Arcade Fire probably because of the musical collaboration between the couple Régine Chassagne and Win Butler), and he also confesses that he plays chess online with strangers under a nickname. The Guardian devotes a full year to finding out Lennon’s nick but no use. He has homes in several countries, however, he avoided New York between 2001 and 2009 in protest to the Middle East wars. Barack Obama nevertheless wins his sympathy too.
Early this September he gave a longer interview to Pitchfork, saying, among other things, the following: “At the age of seventy you no longer have serious plans…This spring we were stuck for days here in Reykjavik because of the Eyjafjallajökull with Numa in hospital in Paris, and we simply couldn’t get to her, no matter how much we wanted. Well, it would be enough to make me happy if she just forgave me for this.”
*Available also in pdf.
© 2010 Bence Inkei
(First published on the Quart.hu web site, in Hungarian.)