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John Lennon 1980: The Last Days…

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John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days Of His Life. By Kenneth Womack. Omnibus Press. Available 8 October 2020

John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life traces the powerful, life-affirming story of the former Beatle’s remarkable comeback after five years of self-imposed retirement.

As renowned music historian Kenneth Womack reveals in vivid detail, Lennon’s final pivotal year would climax in unforgettable moments of creative triumph as he rediscovered his artistic self in dramatic fashion. With the bravura release of the DOUBLE FANTASY album with wife Yoko Ono, he was poised and ready for an even brighter future, only to be wrenched from the world by an assassin’s bullets.

John Lennon, 1980 isn’t about how the gifted songwriter and musician died, but rather, about how he lived.

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Review

He had been a virtual recluse since an April 1975 television appearance in which an acoustic-guitar playing Lennon performed ‘Imagine’, his much vaunted anthem, and then quiety;y slipped back into the fortress-like Dakota apartment building. A few months later, his wife Yoko Ono had gibven birth to the couple’s first child, Sean, on John’s 35th birthday. And then, as far as the wider world beyond the Dakota was concerned, he had all but disappeared from public life.

In truth, John had been exhausted by his multiyear legal fight to stay in the United States, finally earning his much-coveted Green Card in 1976. During the same period, he and Yoko, who turned 46 in February 1979, had been reunited after John concluded his debauched “Lost Weekend” on the West Coast with hard-drinking Harry Nilsson, former bandmate Ringo Starr, the Who’s Keith Moon, and John’s girlfriend May Pang.

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I am not (and will never be) a music historian with comprehensive knowledge of the who, where, when, how of major (or indeed minor) artists. A former friend of mine is the total opposite whose encyclopedic knowledge would spew out during radio shows we used to host together. I’ll admit I was in awe and sometimes questioned my primary objective of listening and judging the music rather than the hype and history. However, the Covid-19 lockdowns have meant that there has been minimum listening and reviewing of records and concerts, and so the opportunity opened up to read and learn. John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In The Life by Kenneth Womack, is one of the books I’ve read and been fascinated by. Kenneth Womack is an acknowledged Beatles expert and has achieved something informative, wonderful and moving here. His journalistic style is backed by many references (for those who wish to delve deeper) and lends credibility to his masterful narrative. The book is essential for anyone interested in Lennon and former bandmates, and for those who have questions over Lennon’s USA life - your answers can be found here.

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While the book majors on Lennon’s ‘renewal’ in Bermuda, his return to Yoko Ono and their 5-month DOUBLE FANTASY record production from 1979-1980, the book provides earlier background information surrounding their tenancy of the historic Dakota apartment building purchased by them in 1973:

The “John Lennons”, as they were known among Dakota’s austere tenancy, had purchased their seventh-floor apartment in 1973, a year after the building had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Since the late 1960s, the building had been lodged in the national consciousness when famed director Roman Polanski had filmed the exterior shots for the supernatural thriller ROSEMARY’S BABY and deployed the Dakota’s imposing Gothic architecture to spine-tingling effect.

…the Dakota was also rife with its own, highly active rumour mill. In terms of the Lennons, the building’s co-op board worried about potential “social problems” with the likes of John and Yoko taking up residence…”We wanted conservative types as tenants, we wanted good, solid family types, we didn’t want riffraff”…Worse yet, residents believed that John and Yoko intended to buy up every last scintilla of space in the apartment house - indeed, by the fall months of 1979, they owned 28 rooms for their relatively small family.

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They needn’t have worried as for the most part, John kept to himself and during the 70s spent most of his time alone in his seventh-floor bedroom.

His one abiding passion was for the printed word. John’s bedroom-retreat was littered with the detritus of an insatiable reader. Books and magazines were strewn about the room, along with empty coffeee cups and ashtrays overbrimming with Gitanes cigarette butts. Titles of nearly every genre and stripe were in evidence, revealing John’s wide-ranging tastes, which ran from the eye-popping pages of The National Enquirer and The Wekly World News to such high-minded magazines as Scientific American and The Economist.

The book describes how fans would often be found assembling at the entrance to Dakota waiting for Lennon to appear, but it was rock ‘n’ roll’s glitterati that annoyed Lennon…

As John later recalled, “That was a period when Paul [McCartney] just kept turning up at our door with a guitar. I would let him in, but finally I said to him ‘Please call before you come over. It’s not 1956, and turning up at the door isn’t the same anymore. You know, just give me a ring.’ That upset him but I didn’t mean it badly. I just meant that I was looking after the baby all day, and some guy turns up at the door with a guitar.”

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During an early Rolling Stone interview Lennon seemed to be critical of previous Beatles songs but the book revisits that and concludes:

For his part, John adored the old Beatles tunes as much as anybody - possibly even more than the band’s most ardent fans…

Lennon’s surprising ‘war of words’ during the same interview caused record producer George Martin to respond in kind to Lennon’s comments.

Before long, the two old friends were “mulling over past glories like a pair of old codgers,” Martin later recalled, “I tackled him about the Rolling Stone interview. I said, ‘What was that all about, John? Why?’ He said, ‘I was out of my head, wasn’t I?’ And that was as much of an apology as I got.”

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Lennon had experienced a five-year hiatus from the music business but the book reveals that it wasn’t fatherhood and househusbandry that caused this, rather, because he had lost his muse:

What John really wanted was to regain his spark. He wasn’t done with music - not in the slightest…As the fourth year of confinement was coming rapidly to a close, John hungered for inspiration - to discover his lost muse. In his heart of hearts, he longed to pick up his Stratocaster and breathe new life into his art…

The book also describes Yoko Ono’s artistic development and Lennon’s support for her which concluded with her active participation in his last album before his death, DOUBLE FANTASY, for which she received notable critical acclaim. The book also holds several surprises including fellow-tenant Leonard Bernstein’s admiration of the Beatles:

As Bernstein famously remarked, “Three bars of ‘A Day In The Life’ still sustain me, rejuvenate me, inflame my senses and sensibilities.”

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Womack features many contacts between Lennon and some of the fans including in 1971 a homeless man who wandered onto the sprawling grounds of Tittenhurst Park back in Ascot, England:

The itinerant fan had sought out Lennon in order to make sense of his wayward thoughts, which had been fuelled on a heavy diet of Beatles lyrics and misconceptions about John’s personhood. “Don’t confuse my songs with your life,” John told the man, who clearly viewed him as a kind of lodestar. “I mean, they might have relevance to your own life, you know, but lots of things do. And so we’ve met, you know? I’m just a guy, man, who writes songs.”

Lennon’s family security and safety at the Dakota came into question in the late seventies which led to the employment by Yoko of an ex-FBI man. Lennon was sceptical:

To his mind, the ethics of being a longstanding pacifist and putting a security guard in harm’s way didn’t add up. “It’s my rationale,” he once remarked, “that if they’re gonna get you, they’re gonna get you anyway. First they kill the bodyguard.” Besides, Fred [Lennon's assistant] later recalled, John simply didn’t think he was at risk.

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