During a 1980 Los Angeles Times interview with Robert Hilburn, John Lennon discussed his newfound happiness and sobriety. “Tennessee Williams said he slept through the sixties. Well, I didn’t sleep through the seventies, but I certainly had blinders on. It’s good to be wide awake again.”
Lennon’s positive outlook and excitement at returning to music is at the center of Ken Sharp’s book Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. Sharp closely examines the recording of the album through the eyes of people who were there — producer Jack Douglas, the studio musicians, recording engineers, Ono, and Lennon (drawing from interviews the couple gave promoting the album, such as that previously mentioned). What results is a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall experience where readers can effectively listen to friends and family reminisce about this special, if brief, period in Lennon’s life.
Tracing the Double Fantasy creation process from the first day of recording until the debut of “(Just Like) Starting Over” on the radio, Sharp reveals how Lennon and Ono composed their songs, how Lennon collaborated with top-notch musicians, and how the engineers achieved certain sounds on the album. Other books such as Fred Seaman’s Last Days of John Lennon paint a picture of Lennon as unhealthy, unhappy, and completely dominated by Ono. Instead, Douglas and the band describe Lennon as someone in the prime of his life, in love with his wife and adoring fatherhood. Rather than remaining isolated due to his celebrity, he frequently socialized with studio employees, musicians, journalists, and photographers. Often he dined with co-workers in local New York City restaurants, and would strike up conversations even with the man delivering food to the studio.
Obviously, this portrait also makes for a deeply sad reading experience. According to Sharp’s interviews, Lennon planned to mount a tour after finishing what would become Milk and Honey. Invigorated, he wrote songs more frequently, and seemed to have reconciled with his Beatle past. Sober except for the occasional joint and extremely strong Brazilian coffee (drummer Andy Newmark recalls the drink resembling “rocket fuel”), he celebrated his contentment and maturity. All of these revelations make the event of December 8, 1980 even more tragic, the ultimate example of a life cut short.
In addition to extensive research, Starting Over includes rare photographs by David M. Spindel and Roger Farrington. Both were permitted to take pictures of their subjects in the studio, and seeing a clearly happy Lennon recording his vocals is a delight. Some of the last autographs he signed are also displayed, including some accompanied by his typical humorous drawings. The book reveals some unexpected revelations — who would have guessed that Lennon liked Christopher Cross? Engineer Lee DeCarlo recalls Lennon telling him that he based one of his songs off Cross’ hit “Sailing.” Stan Vincent, Douglas’ business partner, states that Lennon was writing a Broadway show before his death. Lennon seemed excited to tour, drawing plans for the stage set and discussing how he would update classic Beatles songs, incorporating Ono’s unique singing style. Ono admits telling him that “this is not gonna work!”
Hardcore fans may find some elements controversial, particularly the section concerning the “Cheap Trick sessions.” Douglas asked band members Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos to play on two songs, “I’m Losing You” and “I’m Moving On.” These versions never made the final album, although “I’m Losing You” finally saw the light of day as part of 1998′s Anthology box set. Double Fantasy bassist Tony Levin and producer Douglas express regret that the Cheap Trick versions were omitted from the album. Why this occurred remains a mystery, and Sharp’s book does not answer any questions with certainty. All parties involved disagree on the reasons, ranging from Ono feeling that Cheap Trick was riding on Lennon’s coattails to the belief that the cuts were too rough in contrast to the rest of the album. Fans will probably never know the real story, but Sharp deserves credit for tackling this delicate issue.
Starting Over is an essential addition to any Beatles and John Lennon fan’s bookshelf, as it provides a rare, intimate look at the last days of his life. Audiophiles will also appreciate the technical details of recording, as the engineers describe how they achieved certain sound effects. Chances are even the most devoted fans will be surprised by little-known facts about Lennon, provided by friends and family who hold obvious affection for the legend. The book demonstrates how “(Just Like) Starting Over” became a metaphor for Lennon in 1980, as he felt creatively rejuvenated and planned some intriguing projects. Unfortunately, as he famously sang in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”?