DOUBLE FANTASY AS TEACHING

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Every December is the end of another year. Every December 8th is another year that marks the date of murder of John Lennon and the date of publishing of his last album “Double Fantasy”. Or should I say – John’s and Yoko’s last album, because without Yoko Ono the “Double Fantasy” is more unimaginable than anything that John asked us to imagine in “Imagine”. This is the most important side of the “Double Fantasy” – it’s the mutual artwork of two equal authors, each of whom produced seven songs out of fourteen recorded on this LP.
The passing years had somehow erased from the public memory these three weeks between the launching of “Double Fantasy” (Nov.17, 1980) and the assassination of Lennon (Dec. 8, 1980) , filled with the cold indifference or skeptic ice of musical critics towards the comeback of John and Yoko after five years of silence. Lennon’s tragic death had skyrocketed their last creation to the top of all charts and sales but it’s worth to remind the early replies of influential show-biz voices like New Musical Express and Rolling Stone which were annoyed and disappointed to find out something absolutely new and challenging instead of the expected “late Beatles stuff”. What irritated them the most was “a family nature” of the Double Fantasy, half of which was baldly filled with “musical trash” by Yoko Ono. NME sarcastically advised Lennon to “keep his big happy trap shut until he had something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko’’. We shouldn’t forget that the three last weeks of John’s life were poisoned by this snobbish and nasty feedback, before all that rasp and scratch was shut by the shock and awe of December 8. The bitterness of this fact is only more vocal if we consider that “Double Fantasy” is the best and highest expression of John Lennon’s musical and human nature.
37 years – is a lifetime of many great poets, musicians and artists. Losing John 37 years ago many in my generation suddenly felt themselves like orphans, coming closer to understanding his gift and destiny. Nevertheless, I would dare to claim that quite paradoxically “Double Fantasy” still remains unappreciated and unheard, despite its world fame. Even the genre of this masterpiece remains uncertain, because its definition as an album describes only the habitual form and shape without consideration of its content and structure. Thus, such attributions as “the book” or “the film” or “the oil on canvas” do not make any difference between the Iliad of Homer, Ulysses of Joyce, Picasso’s Guernica or some comics. If the shape given to the “Double Fantasy” by John and Yoko could be defined as a dialogue in its best, Socratic meaning, then the genre attribution is much more difficult. From the musical point of view this is a revolutionary eclectics, that is so Lennon. The wonderful mix of early rock-n-roll with lip harmonica, fiddle and banjo in “Oh Yoko” goes next to grim Gothic style of “I’m Losing You”; the Carrollesque limerick style of the “Cleanup Time” and the “Beautiful Boy” echoing the Zen-like “Watching the Wheels”. And here comes the time for a statement that might be shocking for many: the most essential tracks of the “Double Fantasy” are the songs by Yoko Ono. We do not mean just her debut solo in “Kiss Kiss Kiss” with its frightening candor and defenseless openness as she claims her right to be heard in short and sharp musical phrases, mixing English words with Japanese whisper and frankly demonstrating orgasm in the end. I would dare to say that most important song of this album is not the great and already legendary “Woman” – one of the best love ballads in the history of the rock music, but rather less popular and almost unheard reply of Yoko – I mean her song “Beautiful Boys”. Being just one letter different from the John’s final song of the first side, this wise and beautiful monologue, a true woman manifest still remains in the shade of John’s quotes, the most popular of which comes from his “Beautiful Boy”: “Life is what happened to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Meanwhile, the spiritual center of the “Double Fantasy” seems to be the text of Yoko’s song with its simple melancholic melody and the chain of questions and answers about the meaning of life, asked perhaps for the first time in the history of the rock music. Frankly, I prefer not the final cut of the “Beautiful Boys” as it appeared at the album, but rather the studio take recorded at the alternative version of “Double Fantasy Stripped”, with Spanish guitar solo in the beginning. This song raises the monologues of two lovers to the level of philosophical dialogue with the whole human race; an unfinished conversation that still goes on for everyone who is listening to this song. 
Coming back to the definition of “Double Fantasy’s” genre I would use the word Teaching. Yes, the last album of John Lennon and Yoko Ono appears to be a teaching rather than an entertainment. It’s not a religious but rather philosophical manifestation of its authors’ faith in two absolute categories – human being and love. John Lennon was fond of this form of public relations for a long time. The musical and poetic nature of his talent led him to the specific genre of hymn-style songs. Generally speaking, the classic rock-n-roll was enrooted into the American tradition of the spirituals and soul, essential for the Afro-American church music. Should we remind that Elvis Presley’s early hits were just traditional soul blues sang two or three times faster than the original, like the classic “It’s All Right Mama…” Chuck Berry and Little Richard, two geniuses of the early rock-n-roll, remained the idols for The Beatles whose first steps were the covers of their masterpieces.
No wonder, Lennon’s last solo album before his five-year-long silence and before the Double Fantasy was 1975 “Rock’n’Roll”. That was a compilation of old classical hits and a dedication to the early rock’n’roll – John’s first love. Even in the “Double Fantasy” one could find a tribute to this period although in quite unusual way – John subdued the light musical stylization to the text about the love of his life in Oh Yoko. From the early days, Lennon’s texts used to be no less if not more important part of his songs than melody and rhythm. The “post-Beatles” Lennon openly preferred the genre of confessions and preaching – from the iconic “Give Peace a Chance” to “Imagine”, supposedly the most influential song of the XX century that currently became an unofficial anthem of the United Nations. Lennon himself pointed “In my Life” (Rubber Soul, 1965) as a first song where words had more meaning than the music, but one could argue that yet in “Hard Day’s Night”, 1964, rock’n’roll has discovered the topics of hard earned payment and fatigue, so common and close to the Beatles’ first fans in the ports of Liverpool and Hamburg. Since those years Lennon never hesitated to address the social issues from the “Help!” to the “Working Class Hero”. A child of war, born in 1940 and grown under the Nazi air raids, Lennon never forgot his roots. More he grew up, further he went away from the pop-culture’s common ways of vanity and success, sex and loneliness, drugs and death cult. He kept learning a lot about philosophy – from Lao Tsu to Sartre, from Zen to Maharishi, from Ghandi to Ginsberg and Kerouac. Having tasted all temptations of the century, reaching unprecedented fame and glory, he faced the emptiness and satiation that led so many in his generation to the crisis and suicide. His road could be in a way compared to the story of the prince Gautama who rejected all the gifts and temptations of the world for the sake of truth and enlightenment. But unlike the solitude of all the prophets and teachers, John Lennon was not alone in the most crucial moment of his life.
Yoko Ono, a Japanese artist suddenly became his Muse and friend, his lover and wife – even the mother, as he himself called her. She turned the former Beatle into John Lennon just like the caterpillar is turning into the butterfly. Yoko’s intellectual power and human wisdom have turned the life and art of John Lennon upside down. In his ballad-confession “God” (1970) he rejects with unprecedented openness all religions and idols of the XX century, coming in the end to the faith into his real self and Yoko who gave him this demanding and uplifting love. Since John met Yoko, his life philosophy had changed completely and his art reflected that immediately, although not everyone accepted it. From now on, the main theme of his post-Beatles songs becomes the thankfulness. It could seem strange if one judge Lennon by the standards of pop music and show-biz but this is completely understandable in criterions of art and poetry. Lennon’s lyrics in 70’s were the examples of the world-class poetry: “One Day (At a Time)” from the album “Mind Games” (1973) reminds the Medieval Oriental ballads and at the same time it is an allusion on his own surrealistic masterpiece, “A Day in The Life”, a final track of the “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Desperation and bitter humor, grim hallucinations and horrible prophecy of 1967 were replaced six years later by the tender hymn of love to Yoko. “Mind Games”, in general, is a treasury island: “Out the Blue”, “I Know” and “You Are Here” – all belong to the narrow circle of the best love songs in the history of music. We should take into consideration the fact that “Mind Games” was created in the atmosphere of loneliness and depression after John’s “Long Weekend” breakup with Yoko. Eventually, this album has been John’s one big pleading for reconciliation and forgiveness. His next work, “Walls and Bridges” sounded like the hymn of love and revival (Bless You, #9 Dream), the deliverance of nightmares (Scared, Steel and Glass, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out). These songs are the Saint Graal of the modern music, both precious and hidden. One could only wonder how little is known and heard John Lennon up to day, despite all his world fame and glory…
We can conclude that in 70’s Lennon explored a genre of hymns and blessing. His songs of this decade could be roughly divided in two categories: either fearless openness of confession (Mother, God, Scared, Nobody Loves You, Woman) or the flaming prayer (Power to the People, Give Peace a Chance, All You Need Is Love, Mind Games, Woman Is A Nigger of the World, So This is Christmas/War Is Over, Imagine). Immigration to New York, influence of Yoko, active participation to anti-war campaign, long confrontation with the US officials on the issue of citizenship had only reinforced the social dimension of his songs. Lennon started to write the hymns that sounded as if being specifically created had been broadcast for the mass chanting at the streets and barricades. His first attempt was incredibly successful when “All You Need Is Love” (1967) has been performed by The Beatles and seen by roughly half billion people during the first global live satellite TV show – “Our World”. What came next was more radical: “Power to the People”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “So This Is Christmas (War Is Over)”, “Instant Karma” and the iconic “Imagine”. In this sense the word teaching doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration, regarding Lennon’s heritage. Then what is the meaning and message of this teaching? One of the possible definitions could be the wide-known line from his song “Mind Games”: Love is the answer. However, this is not the allusion of the Christian common motto: God is love. In order to realize it we should recollect Lennon’s another famous line, twice repeated in the beginning of his credo song God: “God is the concept by which we measure our pain”.
Love in the philosophy of John Lennon as it was shaped by the mid of 70’s, is a painful but inspiring and exhilarating feeling of freedom and serving to the person you love. Love of man and woman, their common life and caring for a child, their physical passion and spiritual unity, the irreparable guilt of the man towards woman because of unfair nature of the men’s world – these are some points of this teaching. It had been shaped in the course of the years between the collapse of The Beatles and assassination of Lennon. The most complete and clear manifestation of that teaching we can find in “Double Fantasy”.
Let’s imagine the album as a three-dimension object and travel into this fairy-tale space from inside, watching and listening. The very first sound of the first song, “Just Like Starting Over”, begins from the tender ring of bells, inviting the listener into the magical mystery castle of childhood memories, into the space of fairy tale and wonders. John starts the trip from the love confession:
Our love together is so precious… Like a Christmas wish he says: Let’s take a chance and fly away somewhere alone…
The key word of these magical invocations is “together”, repeated frequently like mantra. Forty-years-old Lennon, the subversive rebel, an idol and a hero of his generation, – he didn’t feel shy to confess and announce his weakness, his childish insecurity and fears, asking for protection and comfort from woman he loves. This honesty and openness was one of the most important lessons he taught from Yoko. A little bit later, on the other side of the album she formulates three main covenants in her great song “Beautiful Boys”: Don’t ever be afraid to cry; Don’t ever be afraid to fly; Don’t be afraid to be afraid… It is the understanding of these simple truths that made John Lennon so mature and different in the vanity fair of show business where majority of his famous colleagues and friends stayed forever. He kind of pointing this issue in the lines he made the refrain of the song: It’s been so long since we took the time, No-one’s to blame, I know time flies so quickly… But he also takes the chance and promises: It’ ll be just like starting over.
Оn the eve of the 1980 Christmas this beginning seemed magic indeed for those who were waiting to meet him again after five long years. But comfortable routine is the last thing one should expect of the “Double Fantasy” and it makes the shock of the second song only stronger. “Kiss Kiss Kiss” sounds like a graphic love scene, performed by Yoko with the courage of samurai and the tenderness of geisha. In contradiction to the rules of dramaturgy, it is a culmination appeared in the beginning of the play, as if we entered the others’ house and abruptly found ourselves in the hosts’ bedroom amid the passionate love scene. But there is no mistake – we were invited indeed and we heard the door bell ringing. In the fever and thrill of passion Yoko reminds us this very first note of the album: It’s that faint, faint sound of the childhood bell Ringing in my soul…
This is just another proof of the absolutе integrity and interconnection of the album, where songs are echoing and reflecting each other like the sound of steps in a huge and empty house. Amid the moans, whispers and shouts, mixing the Japanese with the English, Yoko creates the picture of her inner world with two-three calligraphic touches: Why death Why Life Warm hearts Cold darts… Broken mirror, White terror.
This is Japanese traditional minimalism, close to the great Medieval poetry of haiku. For the uninitiated profanes Yoko adds: It’s a long, long story to tell And I can only show my hell…
The following orgasmic scene is more scandalous for the ears than for the eyes; it turns upside down the naïve longing for the Christmas carols and the illusion of the prodigal John’s return to the vanity fair of city life and show biz. Yoko not only slaps the door – she breaks it apart and let us face her bedroom with naked and bitter truth. We could hardly manage to take the breath and open our eyes, closed of confusion, when distant and distracted voice of John is appearing suddenly, without any pause or passage, as if all this time he was sitting next door. It is the next song, “Cleanup Time”.
“Cleanup Time” is one of the most conceptual songs of Lennon. The Beatles’ fans could easily recognize the familiar topics of Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” and “Mother Gooses’ limericks”, where The Queen is in the counting home, Counting out the money, The King is in the kitchen, Making bread and honey… This is almost a self-parody on the wonderful and underestimated “Cry Baby Cry” (1968) from the “White Album” and even on iconic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Twelve years later John makes a big cleaning and clearing of his illusions and memories. Now it’s not the card house of the Wonderland’s Queen anymore but his and Yoko’s home, the center of their Universe, with no friends but yet no enemies, with no rats aboard the magic ship, because it’s a Cleanup Time. But Queen doesn’t allow the King to relax – Yoko catches the ball and the bedroom scandal goes on at the kitchen: The food is cold, Your eyes are cold, The window’s cold, The bed is cold. Give me something that’s not cold, come on, come on…
It looks as if Yoko decides to even the score with her husband by getting even with all the men on behalf of all women. She keeps throwing the plates: The chairs hard, Your voice is hard, The moneys hard, The livings hard. Give me something that’s not Hard, come on, come on, come on! You asked what women want? Here is the list. It’s not really long. And you want to know what women give in exchange? Yoko says it, too: 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…
Sometimes it seems that John and Yoko perform not the human drama but rather some kind of La Divina Commedia, walking through the house of “Double Fantasy” step by step and room by room, via all circles and chambers of hell and paradise, of man’s and woman’s relationship. We see and hear them in all situations and conditions – from love to hatred, from sex to scandal, from loneliness to closeness. Fifth composition, “I’m Losing You”, one of John’s most profound songs is literally demonstrating the metaphor of album as the magical house: Here in some stranger’s room Late in the afternoon What am I doing here at all?
This song is enrooted in the breakdown of mid 70’s, when Yoko, sick of being haunted by media and society, decided to take a break and John failed to protect her and his own choice. The “long week-end” as they called it later, lasted a year and a half and only proved Yoko’s magic power to John. Two great albums – Mind Games and Walls and Bridges remained as majestic monuments to his solitude, regret and plea for forgiveness. The same desperation and lovesick could be heard in “I’m Losing You”: Somehow the wires have crossed, Communication’s lost. Can’t even get you on the telephone Just got to shout about it, I’m losing you I’m losing you… Well, here in the valley of indecision I don’t know what to do … So what the hell am I supposed to do? Just put a band-aid on it? And stop the bleeding now…
This tragic ballad is immediately followed by Yoko’s sharp reply – I’m Moving On: Save your sweet talk for when you score, Keep your Monday kisses for your glass lady, I want the truth and nothing more. I’m moving on, moving on you’re getting phony…
This is the single example in “Double Fantasy” when her melody reminds his song, the previous one, but this is the case when the fighting couple is imitating and mimicking each other in the quarrel. Yoko’s I’m Moving On is echoing and reflecting John’s I’m Losing You, both in terms of the rhythm and the music, as a reply. More than this – together with the next song “Give Me Something”, these three compositions create a triad, some separate integral space into the album, which is stressed by demonstrative interconnection of the tracks between each other. We kind of following the fighting lovers in their home: from the door into the bedroom, then into the living room and to the kitchen; we аre dodging and escaping the flying pillows and thrown plates of their family scandal. Suddenly, it’s all over. The quarrel is exhausted, the breakdown is finished, the pain is vanished and healed. Last song of the first side sounds as a cleaning catharsis and reward for all suffer – this is a John’s dedication to their four-years-old son, Beautiful Boy. Again, like in the very beginning of “Double Fantasy” we hear the ringing bells of the childhood, the tune of the fairy tale, the roaring of the ocean tide and father’s whisper to the ear of sleeping child. John wrote a real lullaby for Sean: Close your eyes, Have no fear. The monster’s gone, He’s on the run and your daddy’s here…
In some mystical way, John has made the “Double Fantasy” a summary of his entire life and poetry where “Beautiful Boy” resonates with long line of his “childish” songs – from Julia, Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds and Cry Baby Cry to Strawberry Fields Forever and Mother.
Before you cross the street, take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans… ”
This famous line became a motto for the whole generation. Lennon called himself a dreamer but he always rejected the halo of the prophet. One month before his death, he comforts Sean: Every day in every way it’s getting better and better.
You still can’t help crying when listening to his whisper in the very end: Good night, Sean. See you in the morning… 
Why am wasting your time by quoting the songs you could listen to yourself? I’m just trying to show that we deal with something more than a usual collection of different songs. This is a living object, a book rather than an album, a saga rather than a sound track, a teaching rather than rock music. I guess John and Yoko, having carefully orchestrated and completed Double Fantasy in the only possible sequence, were preparing our souls by pulling us through the hell and pain of the first side to the final illumination and catharsis. That’s why the second side or second volume of the Double Fantasy begins with “Watching the Wheels”, the Zen-style preaching about the karmic wheel of vanity, seen by John with irony and relaxation of the one who has broken through it. People say I’m crazy doing what I’m doing Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin When I say that I’m okay they look at me kind of strange Surely you’re not happy now you no longer play the game … People say I’m lazy dreaming my life away Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me When I tell that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall Don’t you miss the big time boy you’re no longer on the ball I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round I really love to watch them roll No longer riding on the merry-go-round I just had to let it go People asking questions lost in confusion Well I tell them there’s no problem Only solutions Well they shake their heads and they look at me As if I’ve lost my mind I tell them there’s no hurry I’m just sitting here doing time…
Without pathetic of the fake prophet Lennon simply and almost jokingly says the same what the greatest teachers told us – from Plato to Ecclesiast, from Buddha to Christ. But time and again – unlike the spiritual and existential loneliness of all these prophets, John Lennon is blessed with a love and support, with understanding and protection of a great little woman, Yoko Ono. As if protecting him from the temptation of playing a messiah, Yoko playfully takes her turn in her own fairy tale “I am Your Angel”. She continues the game started by John in “Just Like Starting Over” and “Cleanup Time”. This time Yoko sets the figures and casting the heroes herself: Yes, I’m your angel I’ll give you everything In my magic power So make a wish and I’ll let it come true for you You’re my fairy You give me everything I ever wanted from life Have I made a wish and is that why I have you? We believe in pumpkins that turn into princesses And frogs that turn into princes We believe in moons that smile to us When we hurry home before the midnight strikes Yes, I’m so pretty You’re so dizzy And were so happy everyday Let’s make a wish and let it come true for us I’m in your pocket You’re in my locket And were so lucky in every way We make a wish and let it come true for us We believe in houses built in the sky And love that lifts us high We believe in the sun that looks over our shoulders And brings our shadows together…
It sounds like a parody on the Hollywood-Broadway tales, on “American Dream”, but also on themselves, on their bed-in’s and former illusions. However, this is a true story as well, a story of what this incredible couple made to the world in their lifetime. No one else in that generation has succeeded to fulfill the idea of love and loyalty so profoundly and fully. John and Yoko made true all the magical dreams and the wishes any man and woman in love could have. John replies Yoko with the most profound and exciting of all his tributes to her. He doesn’t call her by a name, entitling her instead with the highest possible title on Earth – Woman.
Woman, I can hardly express, My mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness, After all I’m forever in your debt, And woman, I will try to express, My inner feelings and thankfulness, For showing me the meaning of success… Woman, I know you understand The little child inside the man, Please remember my life is in your hands…
I don’t know any other example of such sincere and exciting love confession of a man to his own wife in the world literature, let alone the modern popular culture… Now, when all the words were said and no secrets are left, Yoko speaks about the most important things. Beautiful Boys.
You’re a beautiful boy, With all your little toys, Your eyes have seen the world Though you’re only four years old. And your tears are streaming Even when you’re smiling, Please, never be afraid to cry. You’re a beautiful boy, With all your little ploys, Your mind has changed the world. And you’re now forty years old, You got all you can carry And still feel somehow empty. Don’t ever be afraid to fly. This is a Woman’s testament for all the men. This is a spiritual and intellectual center of “Double Fantasy” and of all creative collaboration of John and Yoko. This is a basic of their Teaching. To say nothing about the simple and wonderful melody that along with the great lyrics makes Beautiful Boys one of the best songs of our time. Now it’s John’s turn to release the tension with a joke. Dear Yoko. His last song on Double Fantasy turned to be his last love confession to Yoko. The last in a row of his great love songs which will become one day a subject of scholar research along with the Medieval bards and minstrels’ tributes to the Belle Dames. This song sounds a bit unusual with its merry dancing tune in the early beep bop style, with Irish fiddles and lip harmonica, which he liked to play himself in good old days. This is a carnival buff and prophetic return to the very beginning, to the Liverpudlian roots of their poor and merry youth, to the times of Cavern Club and The Quarrymen, to the sound of Good Golly Miss Molly and Dizzy Miss Lizzy. No wonder that Dear Yoko starts with the word: Even after all these years… Pay attention, this very idea is lacing the first song of “Double Fantasy”: It’s been so long since we took the time… It’ll be just like starting over … One month before his death, John had no other words for Yoko but the words of love. His love is deifying not only her, but all the women in this world. The last line of his last song reads: The goddess really smiled upon our love dear Yoko… He, who defined the God as “a pain”, in the end of his life took the bow before the smiling Goddess. Not the God.
Double Fantasy is closing with two songs of Yoko. I guess John chose them for the philosophical rather than musical reasons. Yoko followed here the way of John and wrote two hymns, two mantras, connecting her genuine Zen with their own new teaching, created for each other: Every man has a woman who loves him, In rain or shine or life and death, If he finds her in this lifetime, He will know when he presses his ear to her breast… Every woman has a man who loves her, Rise or fall of her life and death, If she finds him in this life time, She will know when she looks into his eyes…
If this world has missed anything that was a teaching created by the woman. Yoko Ono has bridged this gap of millennia. And the last one – “Hard Times Are Over”. I guess Yoko wrote the lyrics of this song after seeing the pictures made by Kishin Shinoyama for the cover of the “Double Fantasy”. You and I watching each 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 some time…
It may sound as a tragic premonition – now we know they had only three weeks to live together. Yoko wrote a love hymn that should have been sang by two of them. That turned to be their last song – a hymn of their love. This could be seen on their last black and white pictures made in front of the Central Park, near the place where John will be murdered soon. The cover of Double Fantasy is an icon of their love and their teaching. There is nothing special at the first sight: neither the cross, nor the crescent or star, no lonely Buddha. Just two of them. Just a kiss of a man and a woman. No gods – only people. No religion – only love. This is the essence of John and Yoko’s teaching – only love, if not the love towards an unknown stranger, then at least to the one and only man and the one and only woman whom we are able to make happy. And towards the children given to us as an award.

My youth came to the end on December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was murdered. It took me many years to understand – what really matters is not what he was killed for but what he was living for. This is what nobody can kill and what remains after his death – forever alive.

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Tigran Khzmalyan

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