Double Fantasy is a meditative experience. It plays like a story of a relationship which begins in the middle — a genius move that lends itself brilliantly to playing it over and over, to “start over” again and again.
Lennon’s gift for songwriting is undoubtedly enhanced by his relationship with Ono. I’ve always regarded them as the only “real” power couple in history. Since I was old enough to know their story, I’ve clung to the double fantasies of knowing a connection as deep as theirs, and yielding such brilliant work as theirs. Suffice to say, I’ve never sympathized with the popular rumor that Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles. To the contrary: I believe that Yoko Ono may have made John Lennon the legend he is today.
Taking turns singing lead vocals on the album, the fantasy begins with “(Just Like) Starting Over.” This is not the “boy meets girl, gee ain’t love swell” song we might have expected from Lennon’s early years. “(Just Like) Starting Over” is the breakup sex of pop ballads. It’s laid-back swing and shiny hopefulness makes you want to grab someone you love, swing them around, and sing along. Doo-doo, doo-doo.
Funny story about “Kiss Kiss Kiss:” when I was teaching sixth graders, I threatened to punish them by playing some awful music they would hate while they worked on an essay assignment (we’d already agreed as a group that they couldn’t work in silence, so I conceded to playing music during quizzes and while working on worksheets). The song I chose was “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” and to my chagrin, they loved it. I inspired the next generation of Yoko Ono fans. Yeah, it was hard to explain to the other faculty why my students were singing “KISS KISS KISS KISS ME LOVE!” through the halls through the end of the school year, but that’s a past life now.
“Cleanup Time” sounds contemporary as if it were written last week. Okay, it’s a little dated, with those slick and jazzy riffs. Paul McCartney was legendarily jealous of John’s ability to write bluesy, concise songs with simple lyrics, so this song probably drove McCartney up a wall. Oh, and that saxophone!
Yoko Ono is an formidable artist, and the track where her fiery intensity shines is “Give Me Something.” This song boils with frustration and sadness. Ono punches the lyrics, pleading for something “that’s not cold” or “hard,” and in exchange:
I’ll give you my heartbeat
And a bit of tear and flesh
It’s not very much but while it’s there
You can have it, you can have it
The next two tracks are the turning point. Like the musical The Last Five Years, it’s as if John and Yoko are breaking up in the middle of the album with “I’m Losing You” and “I’m Moving On.” The former begins with a drawn-out, guttural sigh by Lennon. The bridge might be one of my (numerous) favourite elements of the album, the lyrics “Here in the valley of indecision/I don’t know what to do.” If “Cleanup Time” showcased Lennon’s skill at lyrical simplicity, “I’m Losing You” reminds us what a poetic genius he can be when he wants to. “I’m Moving On” doesn’t stand alone very strong, but as the sassy clapback to “I’m Losing You,” we start to really worry about this couple.
As pop lullabies go, they don’t get better than “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” Melodically flawless (and so catchy!), lyrically sublime, perfectly understated. The song takes on a peculiar posthumous sadness, especially with the lyrics:
I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
But I guess we’ll both
Just have to be patient
Cuz it’s a long way to go
A hard row to hoe
Yes it’s a long way to go
But in the meantime…
Double Fantasy was Lennon’s first album after the birth of his son, Sean, whose name is spoken at the end of the song. Following Sean’s birth in 1975, Lennon distanced himself from the music community (as referenced in the next track, “Watching the Wheels, another masterpiece) to focus on his newborn child. Five years later, he and Ono re-emerged with Double Fantasy, released on November 17, 1980. Three weeks later, Lennon would be dead. Murdered in front of his own home. He would never see his “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” grow up to “come of age” after all.
As Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy takes on more mythical status. “Watching the Wheels” immortalizes Lennon’s laid-back nature (his legendary laziness also referenced on Revolver with “I’m Only Sleeping”) and explains away his five-year absence from the music business. I heard this song playing in a Trader Joe’s once and I’ll never forget where I was standing when I “got it.” The song has an immediately anesthetizing effect — maybe we can’t all relate to stepping of the “merry-go-round” that Lennon references, but we all remember a time when we’ve decided, “I just had to let it go.”
“I’m Your Angel” is a cutesy burlesque routine of a song that almost seems like a shot across the bow of those who resented Ono for taking John away from Paul, George and Ringo. The opening lyrics assert, “Yes I’m your angel” (and I’m always citing the name of the song incorrectly, “Oh I love that song YES I’M YOUR ANGEL…”), in case you doubted that these two were completely goofy in love. The lyrics are …REEEEEDiculous. Fairies, angels, hearts and frog princes, it’s like an eight-year-old Girl Scout picked all the marshmallows out of a box of Lucky Charms and then puked them up onto her Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. I do have to give it up for my favorite lyrics of the tune as a jumble of romantic nonsense manages to pull a vividly poetic image out of its back pocket: “we believe in the sun that looks over our shoulders/and brings our shadows together, tra la la la laaaa…”
Favorite song off the album? Hard to chose, but “Woman” might actually be my favorite solo Lennon endeavor. Is there any ballad that is so lushly romantic, yet so simple at the same time? Calling back to the apologetic undertones of “(Just Like) Starting Over” with “woman, please let me explain/ I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain” because we cannot ignore the fact that no relationship is perfect, and it would be naive to expect it to be. The lyrics — those perfect lyrics! — swirl and build until the song trails off into repetition and nonsense. Overflowing with emotion, maybe this is why Lennon’s lyrics are so simple: he says only what he needs to say, then he lets the melody take over. “Oooh, ooh ooh ooh ooh, yeah yeah, doo-doo-doo doo doo…” You have to admit, there’s a genius to writing a song so simple and so short, everyone can remember the lyrics and sing along.
Every December 8th, a crowd of fans (including myself) gather in Strawberry Fields in Central Park with a small band to sing and mourn John on the anniversary of his murder. It’s probably the most moving and spiritual ritual I’ve ever participated in. I can’t actually point to a solid reason why this is. I do know that it feels like coming home to a community. We all know all the words to the songs, we harmonize and keep time together, we joke and laugh between songs, shouting out requests, whooping and clapping for the band. It’s deeply ceremonial, but completely improvised.
The second song on the album titled “Beautiful Boys” is a little too weird for my tastes. Is it about Sean? Is it about John? What does Yoko mean when she sings “don’t be afraid to go to hell and back”? I’m lost.
I like to think that “Dear Yoko” is John’s response to “I’m Your Angel” (because I’d hate to think that Yoko’s cute little tune is meant to compete with “Woman,” which is totally not fair). It has that same goofy romance and flowers and goddesses oh my. Here’s the “Boy meets girl, gee ain’t love swell” song we were looking for! “Even when I watch TV/There’s a hole where you’re supposed to be” I mean, FANTASTIC! Lennon blunders through the verses as quickly as possible to stretch out the chorus for emphasis. Is anyone else reminded of “Give Peace A Chance” here? “Ohhhhhhh, Yoko. I’m never ever ever ever ever gonna let you go.”
“Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him” is definitely dated with those 80’s synths. To me, it’s dated to the day John was murdered in front of her: “Every man has a woman who loves him/rain or shine or life or death.” There’s a chilling foreshadowing to this tune, with it’s minor key and ominous percussion. Now, I’m a HUGE fan of the Beatles (did you hear me hit that high note in the video? That’s devotion), BUT. BUT. BUT. On every album, I find there’s one song that’s just TOO SAD for me to handle. On Revolver, it’s “Eleanor Rigby.” On Sgt. Pepper, it’s “She’s Leaving Home.” I find myself skipping over “Every Man…” because it sounds too much like Yoko singing to John from across the grave. When I do listen to it, it’s hard to forget that John was so much more than a pop idol and the greatest songwriter of the 20th Century. He was loved. As a father, as a husband. Double Fantasy is a peek into John’s vulnerable side that was only just beginning to blossom. We may have lost our hero too soon, but that’s nothing compared to losing a soulmate.
The album comes full circle with “Hard Times Are Over.” Is this the response to “(Just Like) Starting Over,” but with Yoko taking lead vocals rather than John? Here’s where it gets brilliant: if you start the album over again, “Hard Times Are Over” leads right into “(Just Like) Starting Over” and you can ride the ride all over again. Every single lyric of this song is perfect.
You and I watching every other on a street corner
Cars and buses and planes and people go by
But we don’t care
We want to know
We want to know
In each other’s eyes
That hard times are over
Over for a while…
Singing these lyrics, they had no idea that hard times were only just around the corner. Or maybe it’s meant to be reassuring. No matter what “hard times” are going on — and there’s always hard times, isn’t there? — they’ll come back, they’ll be over “for awhile,” but we don’t care. Double Fantasy is overwhelmingly about love, and paired with John & Yoko’s lifetime devotion to peace, that is the legacy of John and Yoko. Peace and Love. War is over, if you want it. All we are saying is give peace a chance. Imagine all the people living for today. Hard times are over, over for a while. Don’t let another day go by, my love, it’ll be just like starting over.