I've read lots of books about John Lennon. Heck, I've read lots of books about John Lennon in 1980. (The most tawdry of which is Frederic Seaman's The Last Days of John Lennon: A Personal Memoir. Much classier is John Lennon: Summer Of 1980, a gorgeous book of black and white photographs and lyrics compiled by Yoko Ono herself.) However, one of the best of the bunch is Ken Sharp's Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy (MTV Books, 272 pages), an oral history of the making of Lennon's final album as related by musicians, studio personnel, photographers and others.
It's not a hagiography, and Sharp certainly doesn't leave out Lennon's many contradictions. (One minute he's described as insisting that his Brazilian coffee is the only drug he needs, the next he's smoking pot from an ancient opium pipe after a session ends or offering a joint to Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick.) But more than being a talented singer, songwriter and musician with an impressive work ethic, there is a consensus that he was also a really nice down-to-earth guy. Energized by his loving and communicative relationship with Yoko, his beaming 5-year-old son Sean and the rediscovery his musical muse, the John Lennon we read about in this book is responsible for countless acts of kindness, generosity and patience, traits that had often eluded Lennon, most notably in his Lost Weekend of the mid-seventies.
Emblematic of this newfound maturity is his comfort with the shadow of his history with The Beatles (or as he was wont to call them, "The B's"). Surrounded by musicians who grew up in the sixties, Lennon obliges by regaling them with Beatles stories, whipping out his old black Rickenbacker (with a fab setlist still taped to the side), suggesting microphone placement techniques from the Rubber Soul sessions, and even writing a chorus to a verse he wrote around that era (resulting in an unreleased, possibly unrecorded song called "Street of Dreams"). By contrast, in 1980, John's former bandmates were far less openly nostalgic: Paul McCartney was only playing an average of 5 Beatles songs per show, Ringo Starr was filming his role as Atouk in the prehistoric slapstick film Caveman, and George Harrison wrote a memoir that hardly mentioned John (much to his chagrin, according to one interviewee).
Of course, all these stories about John's confidence and energy are imbued with a tragic subtext. Sharp's introduction begins to-the-point by stating the facts of the events of December 8, 1980, and although it's rarely mentioned again until the book's end, even the most touching and optimistic anecdote is undercut by a dark specter that's impossible to ignore. (Thankfully, neither Sharp nor any of those interviewed pay Lennon's killer the attention he sought by mentioning his name.) This reader found it hard to stop from poignantly speculating on what might have been, particularly given the many recollections of John enthusiastically planning a tour in spring of 1981 (from choosing songs to sketching out an elaborate stage design to hinting that certain session musicians should keep their schedules free).
Even with the looming sadness, though, this book is a joy for Beatles or Lennon fans. It's illustrated by copious rare black and white photographs taken during the recording sessions, along with other images such as autographs and a witty self-portrait doodle of the artist as a hen-picked husband (rescued from the wastebasket of the Hit Factory, no less). It's an inspiring and remarkably unified account of a man learning to balance comfort with his artistic past, an intense focus on his artistic future, an even temper, and a commitment to being a good husband and father. John Lennon is depicted not as a living legend, but simply as a driven and creative spirit overjoyed to be back at work doing what he does best.