EVERYTHING was crazy," John Lennon said, looking back recently on the reasons for his going into virtual pop hibernation five years ago.
I realized that I wasn't making records for me anymore, but because people and record companies expected me to," continued the man who was the intellectual center of the most influential musical force of the 1960s.
"Still it was hard for me to admit that I was allowing some illusion to control me. After all, wasn't I the great pop seer? Hadn't I written 'The Dream Is Over'? Was I not the great John Lennon who could see through all the world's hypocrisy?
The truth was I couldn't see through my own. It's easy to see thy neighbor and say, 'You and your phoniness.' The trick is to see your own. Finally, Yoko [Ono] said, 'You don't have to do it anymore.' I was shocked. I had never thought of that: Could the world get along without another John Lennon album? Could I get along without it? I finally realized that the answer to both questions was yes."
From the living room of Lennon and Ono's elegant seventh-floor apartment in New York City's famed Dakota, you can see accross Central Park and much of the city's spectacular skyline. For the past five years that scene has been Lennon's primary view of the world -- a world that toasted him, dressed like him, and sang along in the 1960s, and still seems to flutter anew at the thought of his getting back on stage with Paul, George and Ringo.
Lennon turned his back on that idolatry in 1975 to be with his son, Sean, and to rebuild his strained marriage to Yoko. He also wanted to escape the artistic shadow of the Beatles. Despite highly acclaimed solo works in the early 1970s, the former Beatle found it difficult in later LPs to deal with the ghost of his Fab Four association.
"When I wrote "The Dream Is Over' [in 1970], I was trying to say to the Beatles thing, 'Get off my back.' I was also trying to tell other people to stop looking at me because I wasn't going to do it for them anymore because I didn't even know what the hell I was doing in my own life.
"What I realized during the five years away was that when I said the dream is over. I had made the physical break from the Beatles, but mentally there was still this big thing on my back about what people expected of me. It was like this invisible ghost. During the five years, it sort of went away.
"I finally started writing like I was even before the Beatles were the Beatles. I got rid of all that self-consciousness about telling myself. 'You can't do that. That song's not good enough. Remember, you're the guy who wrote "A Day in the Life." Try again.'"
Lennon wasn't a recluse for the last five years. He and the family traveled to Japan and elsewhere. He also went out regularly. But he stayed away from the music business and the media. He began writing again last summer during a vacation with Sean in Bermuda. Excited by the new material, he called Ono and played her a tape on the phone. She responded by writing reply songs of her own, which she would then play back to him a few days later.
With the songs forming a man-and-woman dialogue, the Lennons went into a recording studio in August to record the album. Titled "Double Fantasy," the 14-song LP will be released next month on Geffen Records. The first single, just out, is a '50s-style mid-tempo rocker appropriately titled "Starting Over." Though the title could symbolize Lennon's return to music, the tune is mainly a love song to Yoko -- an admission of past neglects and a pledge for more sensitivity.
The flip side of the single is "Kiss, Kiss, Kiss," an Ono composition that has the percolating rhythm of the B-52s. Before anyone accuses her of jumping on a New-Wave bandwagon, however, they'd better check Ono's early LPs, many of which demonstrated a rock radicalism that remains as adventurous -- if erratic -- as today's newest sounds.
Other songs on the album -- half of which were written and sung by Lennon, and half by Ono -- range from the primal intensity of Lennon's "Losing You" to the vaudevillain bounce of Ono's "Yes, I'm Your Angel" to the dramatic grace of Lennon's "Watching the Wheels."
Despite the variety of styles, the songs are linked to reflect the tensions and joys of a modern relationship. As suggested by Ono's gospelish "Hard Times Are Over," the message is essentially optimistic.
Lennon's attitudes on the album were shaped during the five-year break when he became a "househusband," assuming the traditional mother role in the family. The rock star stayed home, taking primary responsibility for the rearing of Sean, now 59 With a nanny and cook, his duties were not all-encompassing, but he did subjugate his career to domestic concerns. Ono, meanwhile, took over management of the couple's financial affairs, which presumably include millions of dollars in holdings.
Sitting at a wooden table in the Dakota apartment kitchen, Lennon reflected on the album, the new single, and his education as a househusband. "I wrote 'Starting Over' for Yoko, but afterwards I realized it's a message to all women, a plea for all of us -- men and women -- to start over. Sexism is such a big issue, and we haven't even begun to deal with it.
There are all kinds of inequities in the world -- this race versus that race, this country versus that country -- but it's always women at the bottom." r
The album isn't the first time the Lennons have touched on the subject of sexism. They caused a stir in 1972 with "Woman Is Nigger of the World," a single that most radio stations refused to play because of its title. Sample lyric:
We made her paint her face and dance
If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us.
The irony, Lennon now admits, is that he was as much a sexist in 1972 as the people he was writing about. "I accepted intellectually what we were saying in the song, but I hadn't really accepted it in my heart. It wasn't a matter of whether I accepted Yoko's opinions -- or any woman's -- I didn't even consider them.
"In some ways, the last five years were almost like a penance, a way to say, 'I understand completely and I'm willing to put my life on the line for this belief.' I didn't just intellectualize about it or go to a group meeting or write a song. I shut up and learned how to cook and with the baby and allow the feminine side of myself to exist rather than crush it out in fear or insecurity that I wasn't manly enough. I cut through all that macho ritualism that we all go through."
It's impossible to talk about Lennon without acknowledging the role of Yoko Ono. Bad news for those who hold her somehow responsible for the breakup of the Beatles and suspect that she interferes rather than helps in the recording studio: Her contributions in the studios at one recent session were right on the mark, suggesting more dynamic use of echo on one track, less cluttered effects on another.
Even more than musically, however, she serves as an artistic catalyst for Lennon, questioning, discussing, challenging. When the couple split up for 18 months in the early '70s, Lennon reacted with a drunken and depressed "long weekend" in Los Angeles. One of his discoveries was that he needed her as much as he needed his music.
Shy but tough, she is aware of her controversial role. "I have two concerns in this album," Ono said during a break in the recording session. "First, I hope that it reminds people of John's talent. Second, I hope the fact that I am working with him enhances the man-woman dialogue.
"At the same time, I don't want the situation to become negative because my songs are too far out or anything. That's hurting the chances of the album reaching as many people as possible. That wouldn't be fair to John.
"So, in selecting my songs, I was conscious about the ones that are not too -- shall we say -- offbeat. This album is like our first hello. When you say hello, you don't want to complicate things. Maybe in the second or third album, we can experiment more."