“Something was starting to happen, like the dead silence before a tsunami. The air was getting tenser and tenser, denser and denser. Then, I distinctly saw airwaves in the room. It was wiggly lines, like on the heart monitor next to the hospital bed, just before it becomes a flat, straight line. “John, are you all right?” I asked through the density. He just nodded and kept listening to “Walking on Thin Ice,” playing it loud.” Yoko Ono describing the Sunday before John Lennon’s death.
Every year, as the days and weeks get closer to the anniversary of John Lennon’s tragically senseless murder on December 8th, 1980, I often ponder the circumstances, and more and more, look to the posthumous interviews and recordings that Lennon made leading up to it.
Yoko Ono, John’s famously polarizing widow, has gone on record many times to say that her husband simply had a bad karma in his future, as if it were just a matter of time before something bad had to happen (of course isn’t it just a matter of time for ALL of us poor human beings?). Yet, even if you refuse to chock up the whole event to Yoko Ono’s prophetic “after the fact” pronouncement following her husband’s death, there is no denying that there seemed to be some ominous foreshadowing’s looming on the horizon.
In fact the more one uncovers officially released and demo songs from 1980, the more striking it is to me the number of times he references dying and some sense of foreboding. I know this sounds suspiciously redundant and trite since we are talking about an EX Beatle and all that this implies, including all the well documented feverish obsessions by which fans since the mid 1960’s have poured over Beatle album covers and lyrics looking for clues for the meaning of life and whether Paul is actually dead or not—but it does seem clear from his lyrics, that John was certainly grappling with some heavy issues at the time, regarding his mortality and legacy.
Of course in this information age, we are all experts at sifting through never before heard interviews and transcripts, as well as the bottommost of barrel demo recordings. Even his more optimistic sounding titles like “Life Begins at 40” offers a hedging caveat like—they say life begins at 40, age is just a state of mind, if all that’s true you know that I’ve been dead for 39.”
Other unfinished demo songs like the very promising “Dear John,” speak of reaching some momentous end in sight– “Dear John
Don’t be hard on yourself
Give yourself a break
Life wasn’t meant to be run
The race is over, you’ve won!
This is similar to songs like “Living on Borrowed Time” from the posthumously released album “Milk and Honey” which offers a very light, breezy vocal, nevertheless delivering lines like “Living on borrowed time, without a thought for tomorrow.”
Of course, in retrospect, it is easy to take artistic license with even lyrics that predict GOOD endings, as it just makes it all the more sadly ironic. The lovely ode to his son Sean on Double Fantasy, “Beautiful Boy” features this story book line—“the monsters gone, he’s on the run and your Daddy’s here.”
On the demo song “My Life” John offers himself up like a martyr—“It’s my life, take it. For better or worse take it. Do what you want. I dedicate it to you.”
The very sparse piano (almost gospel sounding) demo “Help Me to Help Myself”—“but the angel of destruction keeps on following me all around.”
The song “I Don’t Want to Face it” playfully examines different aspects of hypocrisy and alienation—“every time I look in the mirror, I don’t see anybody there!”
And while the elegiac ballad “Grow old with me,” which Lennon never finished while alive, but was later wonderfully produced by George Martin with strings, speaks of an optimistic “world without end” and “the best is yet to be” the overall feel is heartbreakingly fragile.
The Double Fantasy song “I’m Losing You” reopens old wounds of marriage insecurity as he sings “so what the hell am I supposed to do? Just put a band aid on it, and stop the bleeding now?”
Another demo song with great promise, and some new “found sound” boogie woogie piano is called Mr. Hyde’s Gone (Don’t Be Afraid)
“Don’t be afraid,
it’s just the wind and light.
Don’t be afraid,
this house is very strange.
In the morning we’ll be gone, don’t be afraid.”
Taken as whole, whether prophetically referring to a pessimistic demise or a stoic happy ending down the road, many of the lines in Lennon’s songs, seem loaded with something imminent about to happen.
So in summation, does all this not make for a compelling case? Has this author not proven, without a shadow of doubt, my major thesis that John Lennon did in fact have a definite premonition about his early demise?
Of course not. Except to again say what a transparently fascinating, and conflicted artist John Lennon was.
At the time he wrote these songs before his death, critics and regular fans like you and me, generally took fiendish delight in deriding these new songs for being way too detached from the zeitgeist of the times—(“darn it John, we needed a master work like “I am the walrus” from you!”) and way too domestic and content.
And then, in the flash of a hand gun, he was gone, and then it really sank in what we had had, now that we had really lost him for good this time. And those songs are forever awash in a loaded sense of poignancy and bittersweet foreshadowing.
Or is it just a fans mania in succumbing to the post mortem grief in overthinking a pattern that may have been there all along his career anyway? Certainly a suspicion of something about to go wrong, is pervasive ground covered in JL’s song writing career. His doubts and darker emotions were always close under the surface.
Knowing this tendency takes a bit of steam off of my haunted last year theory of songwriting. Lennon was an intensely personal song writer who dared to delve deep into his psyche to plume his inner demons to record his changing world. Songs like “Yer Blues” from the White Album contained the most unadorned lyrics imaginable to convey the same doom and gloom—“I’m lonely, wanna die.” Of course, hopeless conspiracists can go all the way back to 1961 if need be to find clues as to the way Lennon would eventually die, and be totally convinced while doing it (“If only he had never met Paul than he would never have become famous and later shot!”).
Of course, as fans and listeners, we can never separate our feelings from the shocking finality of Lennon’s murder late that Monday Football Night on December 8th. We will forever hear hidden meanings and ironies in the Double Fantasy songs and the posthumous demos—it is also part of the transparent genius Lennon had for making us instantly care and identify with what he was experiencing.
We see conspiracy behind every shadow and corner, and find it always tempting to wonder “what if?” What if Lennon and stopped at the Stage Deli on the way back from the studio and not returned back to the Dakota? What if they had had the limo drive straight into the more secure courtyard of the Dakota instead of outside on the curb?
John and Yoko were famous in their Avant guard art staging’s, to speak of “wish fulfillment” as a way to make positive change happen. For Yoko, in her marriage to John, this manifested itself frequently in her very controlling method of sending John out on various trips based solely on astrology and complicated Tarot card readings—(Yoko—“John, listen to me, you must board a plane to Hong Kong during the full moon cycle of this month!” John—“But Mother!”)
Unfortunately all of that planning and intuition, did not come through to protect JL on December 8th.
But if you are still unconvinced, and want to stick to some Holy Grail theory regarding Lennon’s fate, there is this strange bit revelation from an interview with Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglass, who was the last person outside of Yoko, to talk to John before his murder.
JD: It was the end of “Walking On Thin Ice.” It was the last day of
mixing, but there were things, there were some strange things said in
the control room.
GM: Like what?
JD: I don’t want to talk about it. I erased the tape.
GM: Things said by Lennon?
JD: Yeah. So I erased that tape because it was a real painful tape.
This destroyed studio tape on Lennon’s last night alive was also chronicled in Albert Goldman’s salacious biography—From the Lives Of John Lennon, p682 (may be different in other editions):
“Before the session ended [on 8 December 1980], during a period when Yoko was out of the studio, John leaned back against the tape machine, where he had delivered so many monologues during the past four months, and said to Jack: “Don’t repeat to Yoko what I’m going to tell you.” Then he went into the same rap that he had laid on Fred that night he conceived the album in Bermuda. John said that his days were numbered and that he was living on borrowed time. He didn’t allude to assassination, but he appeared completely resigned to dying. He even discussed what would happen to his legend after his death, boasting that he would become much more famous than Elvis. Jack had heard Lennon speak of death before – but never with the sense of its imminence that he conveyed that night.”
Of course, Albert Goldman is a notoriously questionable source as a reporter of truth and good, balanced journalism.
So why did Douglass destroy the tape? Threats from the Yoko camp? Some cleverly constructed plan to gain leverage as a great interview and speaker some 30 years down the road?
But if you want to believe it—and run with it—see if you can find that missing tape.
So there! If we can’t cope with the senselessness and unfairness of John Lennon’s death, we can at least cling to the overriding notion that Lennon HIMSELF knew that his time was up! Perhaps John did have an eating disorder and knew confided to Jack Douglass that he was dying.
This would also validate that Yoko was right about his bad horoscopes and karma too. And nothing could prevent the forces of fate from acting out the way it transpired. And of course, nothing sounds more heroic and fable worthy than to believe that our hero had a 6th sense about his demise and WALKED towards it with some resigned sense of martyrdom.
Or we can just go back to applying our own flawed, subjective reasons as fans for simply liking what we like when we think back on those last final days of John’s back at the Dakota and appreciate the music for what it was—a great therapy for Lennon to exercise his formidable writing chops to make songs that reflected what he was going through at the time. To derail them for being incomplete is of course, ridiculously unfair, since most of the songs, were exactly that–rough demos to just get the feel of what would be improved upon later.
The music and the spirit and wit of John Lennon was always more fascinating, (and maddening too) than any missing tape or poor, doomed rock star martyr conspiracy. Like many tortured geniuses, Lennon was intensely living on the edge of happiness and gloom every day, with no automatic pilot mode setting for peace of mind. It is doubtful that he ever had his act together well enough to sense he was being swept down the current of some predestined early death.
Probably the most jarringly hard aspect in all this to deal with, besides the loss of life of course, is contemplating the shock, measured in mere days and weeks, of witnessing as a fan—this greatly anticipated career COMEBACK only to have the object of our affection be pronounced dead one night later (as George Harrison said afterwards—“robbing someone of their life is the ultimate robbery”)
But the most important thing to remember is—to get a life and avoid clinging to every geeky analysis of the Beatles. Moving on with our lives is, after all, exactly what Lennon would have said to do (probably very bluntly).
Let the missing tape stay missing. What we know already is enough.
Unless of course………we live long enough, so that just perhaps, one day we can enter a time travel machine and beam ourselves back to 9 PM or so on the evening of December 8th, 1980 so that we can affect and alter history, by redirecting John Lennon from getting dropped off at the front of the Dakota building on that frosty evening, or at least subduing his would be assassin.
Or better yet—maybe we could send him a subliminal message when he finished up in the studio that actually persuaded him to the Stage Deli for a bite to eat instead of coming home to say goodnight to his son.
Then we would never have to read this long winded article and never have had to wonder about the fatalistic nature of all those John Lennon penned songs from 1980!