Sunday, October 24, 2010

For the Other Half of the Sky....

After begging off numerous requests from his mother, Sean Lennon finally agreed to sketch the cover of Double Fantasy (above) for the 2010 Double Fantasy Stripped Down project. Sean's reluctance, Yoko hints at in the liner notes, stemmed from his association of the album with the deep psychological scars left in the aftermath of his father's murder.

It would probably be impossible to overstate the impact on my life of a gift I received for my 12th birthday. A few months earlier, I had discovered some old record albums in my mother's closet - Beatles' records. Like every kid in the late 1970s, I knew Paul McCartney from Wings. Never heard of George Harrison. I'd heard some 'old' Ringo Starr songs [from 'a-way' back in the early 1970s] but thought no more about them than I did the Partridge Family's Greatest Hits. John Lennon? Never heard of him.

Until that point where I discovered the old Beatle records, remember, Lennon had been out of the music industry for much of my 'formative' years of listening to popular music. By the time I was semi-regularly listening to pop music - I'd put it mid-to-late 1974 - John was pretty much gone from the music scene. So, I suppose, it's not that surprising that in the fall of 1980 I would not know John Lennon by name - as amazing as that is to think about today.

Shortly after I started listening to the Beatles songs, of course, John was murdered. I've written before about the effect - for whatever reason; I long ago gave up trying to figure it out - John's murder and its aftermath has had on me. I've written before about waking up that Tuesday morning, opening my bedroom door in our duplex apartment [not in the sky, folks; I said duplex, not deluxe] and seeing my parents on either side of our television [we finally got color during that summer of 1980, by the way]. On the screen - just fading out - was the text 'John Lennon 1940-1980' with a photo of a guy who looked a lot like Elvis did back in the 1950s [later I recognized that they'd used a photo of John from Hamburg in 1960 for that memorial fade-out on TV]. I'd seen my mother before with that sad look on her face, but it was my father's reaction that struck me and that I remember to this day: he looked lost. Not sad, but confused as if you'd just told him that I wasn't his son, or that my mother wasn't his wife. The kind of 'lost' that said, "What the hell just happened here?"

So, by the time my birthday rolled around a few months later, I'd become totally immersed in Lennon and the Beatles. I wanted for my birthday - very badly - to get Lennon's last album - the one he'd been promoting in the final days of his life - Double Fantasy, done with his wife, Yoko Ono. One reason I wanted the album - a small reason, but a precursor/warning to the puberty-hell that was about to rip my life to shreds - was that my buddy Donnie Kellerman [some buddy; asshole gave me chicken pox...but more on that in a moment] had gotten a hold of Double Fantasy [Donnie's family had money; which, in my world, meant that his mom and dad could afford the $9.99 it cost to buy Double Fantasy] and told me that on one of the songs Yoko Ono "had sex". It's hard for me to remember what that meant to me in the winter of 1980-81, but I do know that I knew it was something I'd never seen and was not meant to see.

Of course, what Donnie had heard was the second track on the album, Yoko's "Kiss Kiss Kiss", which includes throughout the track Yoko mimicking an orgasm. Donnie was more advanced than me, because when I finally did get the album and did hear "Kiss Kiss Kiss", her orgasm sounded awfully painful rather than titillating.

Anyway, I wanted that album. So, when it finally got into my hands it was as a 12th birthday present from my Aunt Ida. Ida was - and is - an interesting character. She loved, loved, loved the Beatles..... pre-1967. Anything they did after that was - with a few exceptions like "Hey Jude" - Bohemian. To her, something bizarre had happened to John [and the rest of them, but it had particularly addled John, in her mind] and he'd gone nuts. That bearded hippie singing "Give Peace a Chance" was not John Lennon as far as she was concerned. Unlike most, Aunt Ida never blamed Yoko. "He was just always nuts," was Ida's opinion. It just took Yoko to bring it out of him, she said.

It was kind of ironic, then, that Aunt Ida was the bearer of this gift, this record that would have such an effect on my life. Ida couldn't figure out why everybody was all upset about John Lennon's death. "How does it effect my life" was her response. Plus, it drove her nuts the way Lennon's music was EVERYWHERE in the months after his death. "If I hear "Watching the Wheels" one more time I'm gonna vomit," Ida said.

Yet, for her little nephew B, she'd have scaled the walls of the Dakota to get me an autograph of John [pre-death, obviously] if I'd asked her. So, Ida, who could afford the $10, went against her better judgement and got me the album.

Now, a chain of events transpired right around this time that contributed to this whole love affair with the record. A few days before my birthday, I was taking off my shirt to get into my pajamas when my mother shrieked, "What's that!" Apparently, I had red spots on my lower back and - now that I looked closer - on my stomach, too. At almost literally that moment, Donnie Kellerman's mother called. Guess what she found on Donnie's back and stomach? And on his little sister's, too? In case you haven't guessed - which I sure as hell couldn't have - all three of us [Donnie, me and his twerp sister] had chicken pox. For Donnie and me, we were screwed. At 12, that was awfully old to be getting chicken pox. The disease - now, apparently, almost totally eradicated - is quite painful at that age, in addition to being an itchy hell.

At almost the exact same time as Double Fantasy and chicken pox fell into my life came a medical warning intended - as most of these are - to scare the shit out of people for no good reason. The Centers for Disease Control [CDC] began cautioning physicians and parents about the association between the use of aspirin and the outbreak of something called Reye’s Syndrome, particularly in children with chicken pox or virus-like illnesses. While generally a harmless virus in adults, in children about 30% with Reye's Syndrome died. With that confluence of 'aspirin', 'Reye's Syndrome', 'chicken pox', my mother went into full panic mode.

Needless to say, there'd be "NO ASPIRIN FOR YOU!" Instead, to deal with the pain from chicken pox, I got Tylenol, which was about as useful as cat piss in the fight against pain from chicken pox. [As an aside, the folks at Tylenol loved Reye's Syndrome and the CDC in early-1981. They immediately went on the airwaves with commercials touting the fact that Tylenol did not result in Reye's Syndrome. Of course, in a few months, Tylenol would be faced with something a helluva lot more devastating to their bottom line than Reye's Syndrome was to the aspirin folks, as some still-unknown asshole started putting poison in Tylenol in a tampering terror that changed the way all of us looked at each other, let alone our medicines].

So, all of these things converged at the same time: my birthday, chicken pox, Double Fantasy and Reye's Syndrome. What it meant was that I'd be suffering in bed on my 12th birthday on simple Tylenol [rather than aspirin, which would have actually helped], in misery with the fucking chicken pox. But what I did have was hours and hours and hours of time to play that Double Fantasy album over and over and over and over again. No school with chicken pox, and no sleep with only Tylenol to fight the pain, folks. As I look back, had I not had the opportunity to - literally - listen to Double Fantasy almost uninterrupted for 24 hours a day for 10 days straight, who knows whether it would have had the effect that it did.

I'm not sure if I can explain in words why Double Fantasy means what it means to me. I listened to it, obviously, knowing that it would be Lennon's last. All of that had been set up for me, making the lyrics more poignant than John would have ever intended them. But there was a feel to the album, a joy. I may have been the only 12-year old in the world who even liked Yoko's songs on the album. I thought they were really, really good. I now know that one of the reasons I felt that way is because John's guitars, pianos band backing vocals are all over Yoko's tracks. Indeed, he delivers backing vocals on two of my favorite Yoko songs on the album ["Every Man Has a Woman" and "Hard Times Are Over"]. But it was also because Yoko's lyrics on Double Fantasy really had something to say. Indeed, the whole album - as both John and Yoko intended - is really a dialogue between husband and wife. And - with a few exceptions - Yoko's contributions were actually, as John would say in one of his last interviews, "Bloody good pop songs, folks."

There was also the issue of John and Yoko's five-year old son, Sean. At five, I'd lost my grandmother who had been very close with me. So, I know on some level John's death resonated with me for that reason as well. I also felt a 'kinship' of sorts with Sean, although obviously the differences between the two of us and our situations were monumentally different. Indeed, until I had my own children, one of the things that I think convinced me that I wanted to be a parent was the joy with which John wrote, spoke and sang about fatherhood on that album and in the promotional interviews.

Later, the album and my love of it took on more meaning and deeper feelings. First, I read Playboy writer David Sheff's All We Are Saying: The John Lennon Playboy Interview Tape. The book was a full transcript with back-stories of Sheff's August 1980 22-day set of interviews that made up the January 1981 Playboy interview with John Lennon. [One of the bazillion ironies about the whole evening of John's murder is that - for literally millions of Americans - they learned about John's death while listening to their newly purchased Double Fantasy records while reading the newly delivered - that very day - January Playboy magazine that featured the Lennon interview].

The interviews and transcripts were amazing because Sheff had literally unfettered access to John over a period of the first three weeks of the making of Double Fantasy. There were sessions where John and David sat on the floor of one of a bathroom in the Dakota for hours on end as Sheff would call out the titles of Beatles songs and John would tell Sheff of his recollections of who wrote what, how it came about, everything. Then there were trips to John and Yoko's favorite restaurant, Cafe Fortuna, for coffee, pastry, cigarettes and conversation. There were also long nights talking in the living room of the Dakota. In one of those late-evening chats, there is a really, really creepy moment where John is speaking and - from down in the courtyard below - someone screams in obvious pain. John stops in mid-sentence and, not missing a beat, laughingly says, 'Oh, another murder in the Rue Dakota'. The interviews were really behind-the-scenes, day-by-day looks at how the album was made. Later, I would buy a bootleg copy of some of the Sheff tapes [John's copies] that were part of the trove of materials stolen by Lennon aide Fred Seaman on the night of his murder. The bootleg - A Heart Play - was like sitting down and having your own conversation with John and Yoko.

Then, a few years later, a friend of mine got me a bootleg of outtakes from some of the recording sessions of Double Fantasy. I later found out that this, too, was part of the cache of tapes stolen by Seaman. That bootleg was - despite the illicit nature by which it came out - just amazing. It consisted of conversations and recording jams that made you feel as though you were sitting in on the recording sessions of Double Fantasy yourself. One of my favorite moments on the bootleg include John quipping to someone who asks him if he wants to see playback of a video that had just been taken [and has never been released] of him singing 'I'm Losing You', "No, I don't need to see it. I know what I look like. Like a fucking bird."

Then there are the jam sessions. As John says at one point to guitarist Hugh McCracken when the latter starts calling out 1960s songs he wants to jam on, "Hughey, I don't back to the sixties, I go back to the fifties, man." Then there is the hysterical version of '(Just Like) Starting Over', as John sings it for the sessions musicians to learn:

Why don't we do it in the road?
A little hotel, where we used to screw.
A little motel, down in Montauk,
Just you, me the cooks and the servants too.

So, I think I've covered the point that I love Double Fantasy. Each song means something to me. It reminds me of 1981, where I was and what I was thinking, and all of the subsequent moments over the last thirty years where the album has been prominent in my life.

Yoko takes a lot of shit about the fact that over the past thirty years she's released countless outtakes, remakes, and repackaging of of John's stuff. She's painted as an opportunist bitch who just wants to make money off her dead husband. Generally, this opinion is held by those who felt that all Yoko wanted to do was make money off her husband while he was alive. I don't buy it. Instead, I think Yoko knows that - for lunatics like me - John is very much alive. And these vignettes of new stuff that we get every few years helps to keep him so. With them, John is never really completely gone because Yoko will come up with something we've never heard before. Where others look at this with disgust, we are grateful to Yoko for making that possible.

Such was the case in the celebration of what would have been John's 70th birthday. Of all of the things Yoko released a few weeks ago, nothing attracted my interest as much as a 'stripped down' version of Double Fantasy. With the exception of his first album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John would never allow his voice to be put on an album without overdubs, double-and-triple tracking and other 'touches' because he never liked his voice. Indeed, his relationship with Phil Spector and the latter's horrible productions of some of Lennon's solo work was a direct result of the fact that John liked how Spector 'buried' John's voice deep enough to John's satisfaction.

While the overdubs were nowhere near as heavy on Double Fantasy as they had been on Spector's butcher-jobs of Mind Games, Rock and Roll and even to some extent Imagine, they were there in 1980. Yoko decided that John's voice was so good on Double Fantasy, without the double tracking and overdubs, that it deserved to be heard. She has said she really wrestled with this because John was so sensitive about his voice. She has said she was afraid that she was wrong to be going against John's wishes in releasing a 'stripped down' Double Fantasy. In the end, though, she said she liked to think that by age 70 had he lived, he would have been comfortable enough to allow himself to be heard undubbed.

What follows in the next post [or posts] is a breakdown of Double Fantasy Stripped Down. I've included the lyrics, but also the new talk-ups to various tracks and some differences between this original version and the version that John and Yoko released in 1980.

For anyone who loves Double Fantasy as much as I do, I know you'll enjoy.
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