Tuesday, December 08, 2015

It Was Thirty-Five Years Ago Today.

[For obvious reasons, here's my review of John and Yoko's DOUBLE FANTASY, from the March 1981 issue of the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review (AKA Sound and Vision). This was the most difficult thing I ever wrote, so I was actually rather pleased to find upon re-reading it a few years ago that the only thing that embarrassed me were some dire predictions that (mercifully) didn't come true.

Two historical notes: At the time of the Smithereens reference, they were strictly a local NYC band; they wouldn't get a record deal or a hit for another four or five years. And that terribly sad photo of John and Yoko outside the Dakota is the same one that originally ran with the review.

I should also add that a few weeks after the piece appeared I got a very nice note from a woman (the now famous Freda Kelly) who had worked as a personal assistant to Brian Epstein at the height of Beatlemania. She told me that of all the reviews of the album she had seen, it was the one that most resonated for her. That meant a lot to me.]


A few days after the murder of John Lennon, I was at a Village club listening to a wonderful Sixties-influenced power-pop band called the Smithereens. After the second set, the group came back for an encore and suddenly got very serious. "When I was a kid," the drummer announced to the crowd, "there were certain things that were cool. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was cool. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were cool. But Johnny Lennon...he was very cool."

As I write, it has been a week since Lennon was killed; by the time you read this, chances are that, unless we're really lucky, there will have been a commercial-cash-in rock circus on a scale that will make the Elvis Boom look like a P.T.A. bake sale. As a media event, his death has been unprecedented. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the upheaval in Poland and Iran, inflation, Reagan's election...who cares? They all pale into insignificance. 1980 will be remembered as the year a "wacko" (the word the police used) pulled off the first rock-and-roll assassination. And the tributes will continue. Endlessly. They will range from the genuinely moving to the merely fatuous and self-serving to the downright disgusting, but the end result will be the same: canonization. No matter how many sensationalist details emerge, no matter how many of John's old drug connections sell their memoirs to the newspapers, the last fall-out of Beatlemania will ensure that he's elevated to secular sainthood.

Well, John was a lot of things, but a saint he was not. By his own admission he was a bit of a bastard, and he well may have been; nobody gets to be one of the biggest phenomena in the history of show biz by being Mister Rogers. But I liked what the Smithereens drummer said about him because it's a perception that separates those of us who were there at the time (when he was, in Murray the K.'s immortal phrase, "what's happening, baby") from the younger fans who now haunt Beatles conventions and patronize Beatlemania touring companies. Those kids can't possibly understand that John Lennon was the coolest guy in the universe. Cooler than Elvis (dumb greaser!), cooler than Brando or James Dean or Lord Byron or Willie Sutton or Muhammad Ali or Cary Grant or Robert DeNiro or Bruce Springsteen. Cooler than Elvis Costello, even. Not to mention Travolta and the Fonz.

Understandably, this is an aspect of the man that has gotten lost in the shuffle. Right now, in the face of the pointless loss many of us feel, he's being painted as the most wonderful, warm, caring human being who ever wore shoe leather. But cool is closer to what he was. He had wit, style and songwriting genius. He invented the world's most exclusive men's club and made millions of dollars thumbing his nose at the Establishment. He gave countless people joy and in the process changed the world a couple of times, substantial achievements whatever your background might be. I can't think of a neater role model for a teenager and I can't think of my own adolescence except in terms that he defined.

HIS musical accomplishments will probably be debated endlessly. The lingering, mindless fan clamor of the last ten years has done a great deal to cheapen his reputation, and there has been the inevitable critical backlash (ironic when you consider that all us rock critics owe our very jobs to him, for there wasn't any such occupation to speak of before the Beatles). The punks, by and large, have no use for him, though I was delighted to find out that John, for his part, got off on the Pretenders and the B-52s. My guess is that in the long run it's his early stuff -- through, say, Beatles VI -- that will hold up best; in fact, my personal tribute, in response to the gentle homilies of "Imagine" that saturated the airwaves in the wake of the tragedy, was to blast the teenage lust of "Anytime At All" and "You Can't Do That" as loud as I could, and to hell with the neighbors. But his finest work, I think, which includes the first two solo albums and the 1975 Rock and Roll set, constitutes an achievement as personal and innovative and moving as can be found in the history of the music he helped shape. If it takes a senseless crime to make people remember what John accomplished, well, that's unfortunate, but it's also the way of the world.

As for Double Fantasy, the comeback record that now becomes his artistic farewell: in honesty, I hated it before he died, and now that he's gone I find listening to it all but unbearable. The simplistic celebrations of the the love that he and Yoko felt for each other and for their son seem, in retrospect, too painfully sincere to take: the cruelty of his ending intrudes too much. Musically, it shows that he hadn't completely lost his touch. The voice was still thrillingly intact; it's worth mentioning that John Lennon had perhaps the most hauntingly expressive voice in all of rock-and-roll. At least two of the songs -- "Watching the Wheels" and "Woman" -- are, on a melodic level, as fetching as some of his lesser Beatles efforts. Yoko's stuff strikes me as precious. The vaguely trendy "Kiss, Kiss, Kiss" could pass for a minor British New Wave pop hit, and whether time has vindicated her earlier avant-gardisms (as John was convinced it would) I will not venture to guess. The kindest thing to say about Double Fantasy, all in all, is that it wasn't designed as a rock record and shouldn't be judged as one. Its music is what the industry calls Adult Contemporary; I don't think it's successful even within the confines of that bland genre, but I can see that some kind of case could be made for it.

ROCK-AND-ROLL deaths tend to turn quickly into shopworn metaphors of one kind or another -- think of Altamont or Janis Joplin -- and there will doubtless be attempts to grasp some "larger" meaning behind the sad events of December 8. There has already been a spate of "The Sixties are finally over" pronouncements; John, of course, tried to point that out to people ten years ago, but then artists are always ahead of the crowd. Beyond that, what can one say? That we should boyott those who would turn his death into a commercial venture? We're all of us ghouls to some degree; being fans, how could we be otherwise? The Lennon Industry will continute to alternately fascinate and repel us; there will be dignified historical retrospectives and shameless mawkish reminiscences, scholarly rummaging through the tape vaults and flagrant rip-off repackagings. The well-meaning and the jackals will together compete for our attention as long as people remember. There's not much that can be done about that. As for the pain we feel right now...well, Pete Townshend once said that rock won't help you forget your problems, but it will let you dance all over them. That advice seems worth remembering. — Steve Simels

GEFFEN GHS 2001 $7.98.


Anonymous said...

This piece blew me away the first time I read it. I can understand why Good Ol' Freda said what she did. Write that damn book, already!

Anonymous said...

Nice to read again, good stuff, Simels.

Alzo said...

Thanks for reminding us that John Lennon arrived in our culture as an electrifying reviver of ROCK-AND-ROLL.

Sal Nunziato said...

Just great, Steve.

Billy B said...

Excellent, Stevie.

On the way to work this morning, I was listening to John DeBella on WMGK out of Phillie. He recounted when Lennon was murdered - he was doing the early morning show the next morning. He said he heard a knock at the door. When he opened it, Billy Joel was standing there, disheveled, reeking of booze. DeBella asked him what he was doing there and Joel replied he didn't know where else to go. Joel came in and the two played a bunch of Lennon's tunes on the radio.

steve simels said...

Billy B -- wow.

Mark said...

A flat-out great piece. That's why people read you then and follow you now. There are more insights, phrase turns, summary statements and yes, predictions in each paragraph than other contemporary music critics could conceive of dropping on any topic of their choosing.

In the end, you make me consider John Lennon's music and meaning anew. And yes, the piece does gold up well. Much much better than well, actually.

Blue Ash Fan said...

“For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”

Had he never said another cool thing, his portrait would still be hanging in a prominent spot in the Coolness Hall of Fame.

And may I add that Billy B's comment only proves that Billy Joel is unfairly maligned?

Anonymous said...

What Mark said. Stands the test of time. Be proud, Steve. Very proud.

I remember that night vividly. Just like everyone remembers where they were when JFK got assassinated. My boyfriend and I had just done our regular deal outside of Camarillo in a car switch. We continued northward to Santa Barbara in the rented Town Car because we were gonna see Frank Zappa there. Just before the show started, word spread among the crowd that Lennon had been killed. There was a slight delay.

Rumor had it that Frank was considering canceling the show. But the band did go on. He only referred to the events surrounding Lennon obliquely since everyone already knew. We taped the show on a TCD-5. But it was very difficult to listen to songs like Broken Hearts Are For Assholes under the circumstances. Quite frankly, we went to the show more out of habit than anything else. It was my last Zappa show. I really didn't like much of his stuff from 1978 onward.

It was a horrible 24 hours. Earlier in the day, we got word that Vicky Vinyl lost in court and was fined $1.5 million dollars and court costs by Bruce Springsteen and his CBS lawyers. This was for putting out the wonderful Live In the Promised Land and Piece De Resistance. They shoulda thanked her. Plus, even though I didn't care about him much, Darby Crash checked out. Under the circumstances, the Zappa show turned out to be a fucking nightmare from hell.

We just had to get a room and fuck our brains out. After one particularly strenuous and passionate session, my boyfriend thought I had fucked him to death. He couldn't catch his breath, was sweating profusely and had gone into some kind of tachycardia/a-fib situation. It freaked me out. I stroked him and calmly talked him down from his anxiety. Then I turned on the shower and put him under the ice cold water. The arrhythmia stopped. I dried him off, put him back to bed and sent him off with some pacifying oral sex. Thank god I didn't lose him. That would have been too much to handle.


Anonymous said...

Dear Vicki:

Couldn't you do us a huge favor and fuck Donald Trump to death?

You'd be my hero forever!

Capt. Al

Anonymous said...

Take my life, please!

Rim Job, Badda Boom!

Capt. Al

Anonymous said...

"Dear Vicki:

Couldn't you do us a huge favor and fuck Donald Trump to death?"

but just do it; don't go on about it at tedious length and with a surfeit of detail.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Steve. Every December 8th still hurts. I still remember watching Monday Night Football when the news broke and I was seven. His music, either with the Beatles or solo, hits or misses or leaves us sometimes and yet when it comes back to what "rock and roll" was, only so many people embodied its spirit, whether it be Bruce, Little Richard or all that John Lennon was. Life certainly is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans and yet his musical life is one that has profoundly changed mine. And for the better.


Anonymous said...

but just do it; don't go on about it at tedious length and with a surfeit of detail.

I really don't understand why she thinks we give a shit about her sex life.

buzzbabyjesus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
buzzbabyjesus said...

Nice piece, and I agree it holds up well.

I remember how excited I was that he was coming out with a new album, and how disapointed I was when I first heard "Starting Over". I couldn't believe how lame it was/is. It hasn't improved.

Too bad he didn't work more with Cheap Trick.

I was watching Monday Night Football when the broadcast was interrupted, Howard Cosell first saying he'd been shot and then a minute or two later confirming his death.

I played "Cry Baby Cry". I forget what songs my roomates played.

Anonymous said...

Bun E. Carlos said Yoko didn't trust them because she thought they were riding John's coattails, unaware they were in the middle of a multiple-album gold record streak.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. I remember this piece almost verbatim from the day as I followed your writings and discoveries religiously. A chunk of my personal hall of fame includes folks you sent my way.

I'm a Philly kid at the Spectrum in a moment of joy with Bruce Springsteen on the night in question. It's the River tour and the band is at their absolute peak (I have a bootleg of the show and I know I'm not exaggerating). Anyway, I walk out of the show in a state of bliss and get into a car, turn on the radio to WMMR (back in the day, the radio stations would be all-Bruce-all-the-time when the band was in town, covering it like a state visit) and all I hear is Beatles music until the DJ (Jonathan Takiff I think) finally comes on in grief and I learn what has happened. I was unable to sleep the entire night after drinking and watching endless TV coverage. It feels like yesterday.

big bad wolf said...


this review, which i remember upon reading, but could not have placed, is wonderful. I appreciate how you handled the big stuff, but this far on what i love is that in singling out woman and watching the wheels you exactly got what lasted from an album that became overrated because of the tragedy.

salhepatica said...

The Bun E Carlos remark is mostly accurate but incomplete; the real reason Yoko was down on Cheap Trick is because she believed (incorrectly, of course), that because Cheap Trick were CBS artists that Columbia would try to claim Lennon's entire album.