“John Lennon 1980. The Last Days in the Life” by Kenneth Womack (published by Omnibus Press)
The world read the news that day, oh boy
Mostly 1980 is remembered for the John Lennon and Yoko Ono dual comeback album “Double Fantasy”, released on November 17, because it marked Lennon’s return to recording after a five-year halt, and the studio sessions in New York are dealt with comprehensively by author Womack. Plenty of other things of interest went on in that year though, including visits to South Africa and Bermuda, and Womack sometimes must also pay attention to events of the 1970s that ultimately set the scene for Lennon’s last days in the new decade.
The author opens up, though, right at the beginning of the final 12 months, in late December 1979 when Lennon had been a virtual recluse since an April 1975 television appearance in which he played an acoustic guitar version of “Imagine”, his most vaunted peace anthem. Following that he quietly slipped back into his home in the fortress-like Dakota apartment building alongside Central Park on the Upper West Side of New York.
On October 9, 1975, his wife Yoko gave birth to their first child, Sean, fortuitously on John’s 35th birthday. “And then, as far as the wider world beyond the Dakota was concerned, Lennon all but disappeared from public life,” Womack writes.
The birth followed the much-publicised “Lost Weekend”, which actually lasted about 18 months from mid-late 1973 to early 1975, when John and Yoko temporarily separated. We’ve read about this debauched period too many times, and would have preferred Womack not to put us through it again, though it’s always a grin to recall the Los Angeles waitress’s “Kotex” comment, a put-down Lennon himself would surely have appreciated if he hadn’t been on the receiving end.
And then there was the issuing of his “green card” to stay in the US in 1976 after a political battle with the Nixon Administration. But there were no new albums in the second half of the 1970s, only a full-page newspaper ad in The New York Times in May 1979 titled “A Love Letter from John and Yoko to People Who Ask Us What, When and Why”.
This implored the world to understand that their self-imposed silence was one of love and not indifference. Meanwhile John was spending his days quietly in the couple’s gilded hideaway in the Dakota, bringing up Sean and wandering his neighbourhood, largely within the space of a few city blocks. He found solace with strolls in Central Park or went to his favourite eateries, keeping largely to himself when not spotted by fans. Fame was a prison in its way.
Womack writes that Lennon felt liberated by the expiry of his recording contract with EMI in 1976, although at the same time music-making was in his mind. But while there were brief spurts of creativity at home these resulted only in song fragments. He had lost his muse.
The author tells us that in the self-imposed “retirement” these home demos featured a wide number of cover versions, sea shanties and old music hall favourites (“My Old Man’s a Dustman”, anyone?). Womack appears to have been able to hear a lot of these recordings, and what’s more he also seems to have a very good inside knowledge of the “Double Fantasy” sessions, suggesting some inside cooperation with his book, or simply bootlegs.
A problem for the former Beatle was the over-zealous fans who congregated around the Dakota’s main entrance, an imposing arched porte-cochere guarded by a copper-plated sentry box. Fans could be a hassle and still sometimes got into the building, where they became a problem both for the Lennons and the other residents. A rarely used back door known as the Undertaker’s Gate allowed easier access for the Lennons and their neighbours.
As 1980 proceeded, then, John was luxuriating in the family’s “superkitchen”, his career on hold while he concentrated on raising Sean properly after not having been around for his first son Julian. He read non-fiction and made lists of errands for his personal assistant. Yoko was tending to the “evolving complexities of the Lennons’ business empire, which not only included a web of Beatles-related interests, but also a host of new investments”.
In the rare times when they were together, asserts Womack, the couple busied themselves with unchecked accumulation, buying nearly every possible kind of consumer good. Yoko’s dealings included what Womack calls a real estate buying spree. In January 1980 the Lennons bought El Solano, a beachside mansion built in 1919 on Florida’s Palm Beach island. The white stucco, Spanish-style estate had 22 rooms, plus full-sized ballroom, tennis court, breach cabana and saltwater and freshwater pools.
The Lennons flew down while John’s personal assistant drove the Lennon’s requirements from New York to Florida in a brand-new, apple-green Chrysler station wagon, diesel-powered and the first of its kind in New York. Lennon dropped in at a posh local department store and bought USD 25,000 of furs in his first 10 minutes, reportedly remarking to the sales staff that one of the furs, a black fox, would be his wife’s “breakfast fur”.
This latter interest in buying luxurious homes and even valuable cows is of importance at the end of the year when Esquire magazine’s issue of November 1, 1980 – just over a month before Lennon’s murder – featured him on the cover and a lengthy article titled “John Lennon, Where Are You? In Search of the Beatle Who Spent Two Decades Seeking True Love and Cranial Bliss Only to Discover Cows, Daytime Television, and Palm Beach Real Estate”. In it, the journalist went looking for the “missing” peacenik Lennon, only to discover expensive estates on Long Island and in Florida, and as many apartments as the couple could buy in the Dakota, not to mention the cows. Lennon was disgusted by it.
Womack refers to the article as one of the year’s most bizarre media excursions, and makes a point of mentioning that Esquire had an international profile and its domestic US readership extended from “Alaska to Hawaii”. The reference to Hawaii would appear to be deliberate, as Lennon’s killer lived there and perhaps he read the Esquire article.
Readers can draw their own inference as to whether the article helped fuel the murderer’s grievances against the “phony” Lennon, the writer of “imagine no possessions” who the killer believed had not lived up to his utopian dream. Still, the murderer (whose name is never mentioned by Womack, mirroring Yoko) also had other celebrities on a list of people he wanted to kill.
Meantime, 1980 had been proceeding with John’s well-documented bread-baking and his fancied role of “househusband” (with considerable staff at his beck and call). There was a heroin relapse for Yoko and, in some of the best sections of the book, well-researched details of the trips to South Africa and Bermuda.
Yoko, who earlier had initiated a 10-day vow of silence for John to cleanse his soul, also occasionally sent him on “directional trips” to re-centre himself and reset his place in the universe. She packed him off on a 12,000-kilometre flight to South Africa, where he spent five days. As far as a restless John was concerned, this was a small price to pay to earn his upcoming ocean adventure. He had gained an interest in sailing, and in June he and four crewmates set out in a chartered yacht on a five-day, 1100.kilometre voyage across the Atlantic from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda.
Lennon was the most inexperienced aboard, but when they hit a perilous storm that raged for more than 40 hours with gale-force wind and 20-foot waves, his crewmates became seasick or exhausted, leaving John to steer the yacht. Driven off course, the voyage took eight days.
The experience exhilarated Lennon and his two-month sojourn in Bermuda proved to be a working retreat that jumpstarted his muse in fine style, amassing a dozen studio-ready songs. “More than a year earlier”, Womack writes, “John had likened himself to a phantom who only existed inside of people’s minds. With a clutch of new, top-drawer compositions in hand, that self-same phantom was ready to make his grand return to the corporeal world beyond the imagination.”
“Double Fantasy” was recorded at the Hit Factory in New York in secrecy because Lennon was uncertain about the quality of his songs and didn’t want the press to know if he fell on his ass. Recording went very well but eventually had to hurry to meet Yoko’s strict deadline because a “significant moon change” was in the offing.
And so, we come to the final birthday party on October 9. Yoko hired a skywriter to display a Happy Birthday message over Central Park and John’s presents were a diamond- and ruby-studded flag pin valued at USD 75,000, a rare priceless Patek Philippe watch and a tie knitted by Yoko.
There was a media blitz for the new album, the last tweaking of the recordings, the last photo sessions, the last interviews. Then came December 8. The number of fans outside the Dakota had grown. John had a longstanding belief, driven by his overt pacifism, that he didn’t want a bodyguard because beefing up security would be tantamount to placing his minder in imminent danger, as much as himself….