See upcoming 92Y Lecture Series information at the end of this review.
Sherlock Holmes has nothing on Music Historian Kenneth Womack. This dense, extensively researched book is meant for those obsessed with the former Beatle. Like a fly on the wall, one hears and sees in such detail it’s as if the reader was present. (You can fast forward past his preferred restaurant, and names of the celebrity’s optometrist, pharmacist, and favorite switchboard operator.)
The Dakota (venerable building on the Upper West Side of New York City) Co-op board was understandably wary that “John and Yoko intended to buy up every last scintilla of space – indeed by the fall months of 1979, they owned 28 rooms for a relatively small family.”
It will unnerve anyone shaken by Lennon’s murder that fans regularly got past the doorman and wandered the halls, some even ringing Lennon’s doorbell. (He was most always charming.) Lack of security eventually compelled him to hire an ex-FBI agent, as much in fear of his son Sean’s kidnapping as for his own safety. A pacifist, Lennon objected to the ethics of putting someone else in harm’s way for his sake.
We hear about four years prior when the artist lost his muse, seemingly content to be a househusband while Yoko handled all business, Beatles related and otherwise. Everything he wrote, composed, and drew, from demo to recording, is documented and often analyzed. Journalistic interviews are quoted. Relationships with prior band members and friends in the building are supported by incident and anecdote. Conversations are so often quoted, one has to presume paraphrasing- but armed with information.
Lennon’s assistant Fred contributes, among other things, shopping lists that read like scavenger hunts, stories of intimate birthday parties, stories of sailing expeditions with new “civilian” friends (Lennon was never a snob), and taking stock of a room full of poorly kept, expensive guitars. Daily cash infusion quickly rose from $1000 to $3000. John and Yoko – more John – apparently went on money-is-no-object shopping trips wherever they were in the world. Rooms overflowed with “every kind of consumer goods.” Real estate acquisitions are described. There’s even a floor plan of one.
Heroin addiction relapses are respectively included (without deep elucidation) as are intermittent references to “Yoko’s retinue of psychics, numerologists, astrologers.” Not only did she follow advice, but his wife assigned Lennon periods of silence “in order to recharge.”
The couple’s marriage was far from smooth. Yoko evidently set John up with 22 year-old artist May Pong with whom he had an affair. He purportedly loved the young woman, but when his wife wanted him back, there was no question of ultimate allegiance. One infers as Paul, George, and Ringo suspected, that the older woman had an insidious hold on him. The photo Lennon himself felt represented the relationship was then-neighbor Annie Leibovitz’ Rolling Stone cover showing naked John in a fetal position wrapped around clothed Yoko.
Fatherhood was paramount. After several miscarriages, Yoko gave birth when she was 42. Lennon was intent on making up for time not spent with first son Julian (with Cynthia Powell) by being hands on with Sean. (Oddly, Julian is barely mentioned.) Domestic scenes are warmly painted.
Inception through completion of comeback album, Double Fantasy is dissected almost day by day and song by song. Even John and Yoko’s plans for the year he’d never experience are outlined. December 8, 1980 is reported in full. There are some photos at the book’s center, numerous annotations, and a huge bibliography. We do get a sense of character here as well as circumstances, but be seriously interested before tackling.
Photo of Ken Womack by Marissa Carney
Photos courtesy of the publisher
Hear Kenneth Womack “Live” in four lectures though 92Y
Wed, Oct 7, 2020 – Wed, Oct 28, 2020 8 pm ET
“Womack traces the powerful, life-affirming story of Lennon’s remarkable comeback after five years of self-imposed retirement. With wife Yoko Ono by his side, Lennon’s final pivotal year would climax in unforgettable moments of creative triumph as he rediscovered his artistic self in dramatic fashion. Lennon was looking ahead to an even brighter future, only to have his life tragically cut short as a victim of gun violence.
Through new interviews with those who knew him best, gain an informative and engaging portrayal of the final chapter in John Lennon’s remarkable life. It isn’t a story about how the gifted songwriter and musician died, but rather, about how he lived.
John Lennon 1980 – The Last Days in the Life