As hard as it may seem, it’s been 40 years since the murder of John Lennon. That his murder happened at his return to the music world made the tragedy even harder; mere weeks before, he had released his comeback album, Double Fantasy. Kenneth Womack’s new biography, John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In The Life, examines that fateful year in sharp detail.
The allusion to The Beatles “A Day In The Life” in the title serves as a perfect analogy for Lennon’s last year. Like that song’s amazing orchestral buildup, 1980 happened extremely fast. Lennon decides to record a new album in July. Recording begins in August. Mixing begins in September. Record deal with Geffen signed and first single “(Just Like) Starting Over” released in October. Double Fantasy released in November. Lennon murdered in December.
Indeed, up until a fateful sailing trip in the summer, Lennon lived his life much like his previous few years, enjoying being the idle rich, raising his son, reading anything he could get his hands on, and writing songs as the fancy struck him. Yoko Ono took care of their business interests, leaving John to do as he fancied. But she also gave him some duties, including traveling to exotic places by himself—no handlers, no managers. A brilliant move on Yoko’s part; she wanted to remind him about the way life is lived without being John Lennon.
But it’s a fateful sailing trip to the Bahamas that changes his life and reinvigorates his spirit. During the trip, the ship hit a tropical storm. For his part, Lennon’s only duty was to serve as chef; he had no sailing experience. Seasickness hits the rest of the crew, and after sailing the ship for 30 hours straight, Lennon is assigned to take over. Nervous at first, Lennon has no choice; he spends the next few hours on deck, pounded by the waves and the rain. When they reach their destination, he’s reborn, reinvigorated. In a club, he hears The B-52s hit “Rock Lobster” and suddenly realizes that the world is ready for Yoko’s music, too.
Upon his return to The Dakota, life hits hyperdrive. It’s to Womack’s credit that he captures the intense speed of that era. While the first half of John Lennon 1980 is slow and somewhat boring—not Womack’s fault; Lennon’s life has been well-covered by now, an Lennon’s life was dull—the second half simply flies by. Offering some of the most in-depth coverage of the Double Fantasy sessions, the excitement is palpable; it’s hard to put the book down. Excitement and hope for the future ooze from the pages. Discussed plans include or quick follow-up album, world touring, music videos, and a 1981 that promised to be the biggest year for any of the solo Beatles.
Yet December 8, 1980 brought it all to a shocking and horrific end.
Womack offers up a well-written and well-told story about a subject he clearly loves. He’s not afraid to point out some of John’s flaws—his treatment of “citizens” who try to be his friends hint at a deeper, sadder aspect of his life—but character flaws aren’t the focus here. Aside from a bit of whitewashing in terms of the reception of Lennon’s new record—he mentions criticism, but downplays just how poorly Double Fantasy was received—John Lennon 1980 offers a relatively honest and superbly-written history of a very challenging year.
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