This past October 9, the world celebrated what would have been John Lennon’s 74th birthday. On that day, the Internet buzzed with its usual indefatigable hum of remembrances, best-of-lists, think pieces and social media posts in memoriam. We don’t need to discuss the importance of John Lennon or his impact on the collective cultural consciousness—it is there everyday. As I can attest, even three-year-olds know how to sing the tune to “Imagine.”
January of this year also marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s posthumous album Milk and Honey. Released in 1984, Milk and Honey is a collection of songs by both John and Yoko Ono. John’s songs were still in progress at the time of his assassination on December 8, 1980, while Yoko’s were finished in 1983. Traditionally, Milk and Honey is an album that is overlooked within Lennon’s catalogue; but, as I have recently discovered, it is a record with tremendous merit and insight into the aging process. Not just for an iconic rock star, but for any human being.
When John Lennon died, the entire world mourned. His death was announced on Monday Night Football, which, at the time—during cable’s nascence and with the lack of multimedia and social media oversaturation we have now—was an even a bigger deal than it would be today. There were candlelight vigils outside the Dakota. There was a public memorial service in Central Park where the Strawberry Fields Memorial still stands today.
The world mourned because John Lennon was an image of peace. He was a cultural figure whose music and presence had ushered countless men and women through important moments in their lives. In a more tangible sense, he had just released his well-received “comeback” album Double Fantasy. He seemed like a reinvigorated man, a man excited to be alive, a man who was starting a new chapter of his life.
That reinvigoration carries over, perhaps in an even greater dose, on Milk and Honey. It is this quality that makes the record fascinating. John’s tracks are very much works in progress, but after listening to the album incessantly for the past few weeks, the record, for me, coheres as a whole. And, yes, it is sad to think about how Lennon’s life was robbed from him, but there is also a certain solace one can take in the sentiments that John (and Yoko) sing about throughout the record. There are messages of looking forward to the last half of life, of the frustrations of domestic living, of being forty and still unfulfilled.
Milk and Honey starts off with the song “I’m Stepping Out.” There is a rapid spoken word intro by Lennon where he says, “This here is a story about a house husband, who, you know just has to get out of the house. He’s been, you know, looking at the kids on the day-to-day and washing the dishes and screwing around and watching Sesame Street until he just goes crazy!” Lennon famously “retired” from 1975-1980 to be a house-husband, and this type of verbal riffing certainly aligns with his mythology.
However, Lennon, always the populist in one way or another, manages to relate his message to the masses. What non-rock icon parent hasn’t felt this same sentiment? Having children can create a sort of self-imposed cabin fever. But this song’s greatness comes in the moment of self-doubt. When Lennon (or his narrator) hesitates about actually leaving the house he sings:
If it don’t feel right, you don’t have to do it
Just leave a message on the phone and tell them to screw it
After all is said and done, you can’t go pleasin’ everyone
So screw it…
The ability to accept that you can’t keep plans with everyone, that you have to let your friends down from time to time, is one of the hardest skills to acquire in life—and Lennon (more popular than you or I) acknowledges that. In the end, though, he’s weak and gives in to his desire for escape. As the track fades out with his jangly, reverbed guitar, and bright bass, Lennon scats, “Gotta step out, babe…just for awhile. Just for the night. I’ll be in before 1…or maybe 2.” A timeless moral conflict (and spousal plea) that any husband or wife will recognize.
“Nobody Told Me” is the best-known track on the album. It reached number five on the Billboard chart and is featured on many classic rock radio playlists. It is one my all-time favorite Lennon songs. The lyrics are cryptic and allusive, and the chorus of, “Nobody told there’d be days like these,” manages the very Lennonesque trick of being adaptable to a listener’s personal situation regardless of context. In the actual song, Lennon seems to be singing about the changing nature of the world, the increasing danger and despair at every corner of the globe, and how a person needs to remember to appreciate what they have. But who really knows? In any case, I’m sure every one of us has felt helpless and unsure in matters both big (um, Ebola and ISIS anyone?) and small (Where is my career going? Why won’t anyone love me? Why does keeping the house clean have to be so fucking hard?) and found some measure of comfort in a phrase like “Nobody told me there’d be days like these.” Life is confusing and smothering for the allotted time we’re given, and nobody—not even your parents—can prepare for that essential truth.
That leads us to “Borrowed Time.” This may be the best and most overlooked song in Lennon’s entire solo catalogue. In a less dramatic way, it is Lennon doing “God” all over again. That is, he is taking the mythology of his entire life to that point and putting it into perspective. The song starts off with laid-back, Caribbean, but melancholy melody (featuring excellent staccato electric guitar, slinky bass straight from McCartney, and easy acoustic strumming) while Lennon sings:
When I was younger
Living confusion and deep despair
When I was younger
Living illusion of freedom and power
When I was younger Full of ideas and broken dreams (my friend)
When I was younger
Everything simple but not so clear
Then he enters the chorus which repeats “Living on borrowed time / Without a thought for tomorrow.” Later in the song, Lennon describes some of the hard truths that he has won in his forty years: “Now I am older / The more that I see the less that I know for sure / Now I am older / The future is brighter and now is the hour” and “Good to be older / Would not exchange a single day or a year / Good to be older / Less complications everything clear.”
Some may categorize this kind of lyrical content as “armchair philosophy” or even the trademark signs of “dad rock.” However, to me, the writing and sentiment is clear, honest and true, which makes it essential and important. What Lennon is describing are the subtle mental victories that come with age, with continuing to strive forward in the world to have a “good” life. He can view the different stages in his life (“living confusion and deep despair” being his Beatles period; “living illusion of freedom power” being his activist early-70’s persona) as building blocks to the accumulated knowledge and sense of contentment he currently has, knowing that all life truly is, is borrowed time.
Perhaps the “less complications” line rings slightly false— certainly many things in life become more complicated as you get older—but based on the conviction in his voice, it appears to be how Lennon actually felt. But there is a profound grace (again, to me at least) in these direct admissions. It strikes me as something to aspire toward, as sentimental as that might be.
The last track I want to highlight is “Grow Old With Me.” This song, along with Yoko’s companion piece “Let Me Count The Ways,” is the most undeveloped track on the album. Yet, that doesn’t mean it lacks any kind of power. Though its chorus (“God bless our love”) veers into maudlin territory, the directness of its verses and the gorgeousness of its melody makes “Grow Old With Me” one of Lennon’s best ballads. It is difficult to listen to Lennon sing “the best is yet to come” without getting a little misty, but witnessing his engagement with life, with his love for Yoko, as he entered the second half of his life is inspiring—and I hate that word.
I don’t want to shortchange Yoko’s contributions either. Her songs on Milk and Honey are extremely forward-thinking and alive. The production and vocal delivery on songs like “You’re The One” and “Your Hands” are very much in line with what Kate Bush was doing at the same time. “Your Hands” is especially a standout. With heavy, haunting guitars and organ, the song immediately sets a unique mood. The production is clear and bright and surprisingly not dated. Yoko’s vocals, both spoken and sung, are not alienating (as she was at times on Double Fantasy); instead they are welcoming, thought-provoking and deeply affecting.
Perhaps her best song on the album is “Don’t Be Scared.” It is a loose, reggae-based melody where the narrator is urging someone (perhaps herself) not to be scared or shy to love again. With a chorus of background singers echoing the line “better to love than never love at all”, upon repeated listens the song becomes a powerful mantra for spurned lovers everywhere. And taken in light of Lennon’s death, it becomes a poignant personal meditation from a grieving widow looking to proceed forward with her life.
Posthumous releases are notoriously difficult to assess. Very often, the tracks are half-finished and would likely have been altered by different takes, overdubs, cuts, mixing and mastering. There is no true way to know how the material would have been delivered had the artist in question lived.
Milk and Honey is no different. Lennon may have discarded the generic rocker “I Don’t Want To Face It” (though, with a line like “You wanna save humanity / But it’s people that you just can’t stand” it still retains his trademark bite) or the fun, but perhaps inessential (though, I really like it!) “(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess.” But it is clear from the released product that Lennon was full of life and determined to make the best of whatever was to come. It is evident in his preamble on “Stepping Out” or his goofy outro on “Borrowed Time” when he practically croons, “Oh, yes, it all seemed so bloody easy then. You know like, what to wear, very serious-like, or how am I gonna get rid of the bloody pimples. Or, does she love me? And all that crap. But now I don’t worry about that shit no more—I know she loves me. All I gotta bother about is standing up.”
There is a distinct joy and playfulness throughout Milk and Honey in its released but technically “unfinished” form. Each of those virtues may very well have been lost in the advanced stages of production. As it stands, I prefer the album to Double Fantasy. Without the very produced sound of Double Fantasy, John’s songs are, ironically, more alive. Yoko’s contributions are organically progressive, rather than forcefully avant garde. Taken as a whole, it works as a document of a middle-aged couple taking stock of their lives, their love for each other and looking optimistically forward, despite the frustrations of family life and the changing world at large. Knowing that John was murdered makes that fact sad, but doesn’t rob the sentiment or stance of its importance.
One could write this entire essay off as just another think piece on a major artist’s minor work. And that’s fine. But, for me, listening to Double Fantasy is like riding the subway in New York City on a weekday after work. With my tired office eyes, I gaze around the car. My heart is full of longing for something more out of life. Sometimes I am nearly brought to tears thinking of all the things I want to accomplish but may never succeed in seeing through. And I look around at the men older than me, the ones with their wives, their kids, their strollers or soccer uniforms in tow; their slight paunches hidden by high-end button downs. As I look at these men, I wonder if they are happy with their lives, if they’ve let their desires or their unfulfilled dreams drag them down in some way.
And I pray to God that they haven’t. And I swear once more that I won’t allow myself if wallow in dissatisfaction; that I’ll find a way to always look forward to what comes next in life. Because like the man said, it’s all borrowed time anyway.