Imagining that Kenneth Womack’s new book, John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life, is merely about one year in Lennon’s life is akin to thinking that an exotic coral atoll is the intriguing ring-shaped reef above warm, cerulean waters. In reality, what one doesn’t see, beneath the surface — an extinct volcano, a network of intricate subterranean coral creations — is larger and just as lovely. And thus it is with Womack’s book. Readers will, most certainly, experience the important events of Lennon’s life in 1980 (almost day-by-day), but John Lennon, 1980 is so much more than that. It is the complete history of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, explaining in detail how these two unique artists arrived at the place where we meet them in January 1980, purchase our “ticket to ride,” and travel with them to the end.
Womack’s history begins with John and Yoko’s first encounter and continues through their early peace events, their struggles as a couple, their separation during the so-called “Lost Weekend” (with an explanation for that misnomer), and John’s tender relationship with May Pang. It directs us through John’s solo music in the Seventies, his reunion with Yoko, his bitter battle for an American green card, and John’s many-faceted “search for himself” in the mid-to-late Seventies. You are “there” for his miraculous adventure on the high seas, his inspirational time in Bermuda, and at last, John’s happy and victorious return to music. In John Lennon, 1980, Womack — employing an exquisite economy of language coupled with the storyteller’s gift for transforming facts into prose — fully prepares his reader for all that is to transpire in the final year of Lennon’s life.
Anyone who has read Womack’s Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of The Beatles appreciates the author’s in-depth knowledge of Beatles music. And here, in John Lennon, 1980, Womack demonstrates his extensive command of the Lennon catalog as well. Tracing John’s songs on Double Fantasy from their infancy through (in some cases, years of) extensive alteration, Womack reveals Lennon’s complex creative journey. The history of “Emotional Wreck,” for example, as it slowly evolves into “Watching the Wheels,” is fascinating. And so are the inside stories of John (in his “space suit”) writing “I’m Stepping Out,” Jack Douglas’s comment that led to “Clean Up Time,” and John’s soft spot for “Girls and Boys,” which made its way into the touching song, “Real Love.” Womack shares little-known, behind-the-scenes stories — both in and out of the studio — stories that gave us “Walking on Thin Ice,” “Woman,” “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” and “(Just Like) Starting Over.“ Truly, music aficionados will not feel short-changed in this book.
Neither will Lennon devotees who yearn for fresh details. In John Lennon, 1980, you will discover what John’s “superkitchen” looked like (even what John could see from that Dakota window!). You’ll find out which guitar John used to compose each song, and you’ll meet all of his favorites: his chosen barber, pharmacist, and dentist…his favorite walking paths, cars, foods, and hit songs. You’ll see the softer side of Lennon as he sends a lovely gift to an unseen Bermuda bagpiper. You’ll enjoy the witty John bantering with a shy, young Baltimore photographer. And if you’ve ever wished that you could have been inside the Hit Factory as John and Yoko compiled Double Fantasy, long no more. In John Lennon, 1980, your wish is Kenneth Womack’s command.
As the leaves in Central Park yellowed, and John and son Sean celebrated their twin birthdays at Tavern on the Green, I turned the pages more slowly toward the back of the book. I couldn’t help thinking, as the Lennons were being photographed by Jack Mitchell, “Oh no, it’s already 2 November.” And as John and Yoko laughed and cavorted while making a video for “(Just Like) Starting Over,” I thought, “Ugh, now it’s November 26th!” I dreaded the bitter conclusion of this work.
But Womack’s words are as gentle in conveying the events of 8 December as they are strong in recreating John’s happier days. Moreover, what John Lennon, 1980 tells us is this: There were many happy days.
It was a landmark year in which John’s muse returned in full flower, a year in which he wrote some of his most touching and memorable songs and a year in which John’s enthusiasm for writing, recording, touring, and being himself returned. Kenneth Womack tells each of these stories with a grace that focuses not on the tragedy ahead, but on the joy of the moment…and more importantly, on the genius that forever remains behind.
In John Lennon, 1980, we stand in awe — all over again — of the mastermind who could write myriad #1 hits, raise a child, find inspiration in the delicate beauty of a flower, quote the world’s greatest writers, handle great fame while remaining consistently humble, and treat a street dulcimer musician with as much respect as a famous studio guitarist. In 236-concise-pages, we find we have come to know John.
Anyone can write a book about a year in the life of a celebrity and list their accomplishments so that readers walk away feeling well-informed. Very few writers can intimately reveal the life of an individual so that you feel as if you know and understand that person better than ever before. Womack’s understanding of his subject enhances ours. He writes, “…John was of two minds about things. Indeed, his endlessly fecund, always vacillating mind may have been his most salient personality trait. Not only was he an inveterate contrarian, but he was also forever in a state of flux regarding virtually anything or anyone — including, perhaps most of all, himself.” (p. 43) And this high bar of understanding of John’s dichotomous opinions on everything, John’s complex nature, and his highly-charged personality is the golden thread that runs throughout the entire book. In John Lennon, 1980, Kenneth Womack lets us walk with John Lennon throughout much of his 39th year and the beginning of his 40th. And for the time that we spend immersed in this excellent work, we are John’s companion and his friend.
This is a trek you will not want to miss.
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photo: John Lennon (Getty)