YOKO ONO: “Kiss Kiss Kiss”
Geffen, 1980; A-Side: JOHN LENNON: “(Just Like) Starting Over”
Some called her a Dragon Lady. To John Lennon, she was probably the one true love of his life.
A lot of rock ‘n’ rollers never understood Yoko Ono, and likely never will. I don’t exempt myself from that; I’m not a fan of her music, either with John or the material she made after his murder. But I don’t think I ever fell into the trap of demonizing her, or wishing she were out of John’s life, or blaming her for The Beatles’ breakup. Honestly, I think Yoko saved John’s life; I have a hard time believing that the rudderless Lennon of the mid ’60s could have survived into the ’70s had he not met Ono. His 18-month “lost weekend” without her in 1973-75 could serve as evidence for or against that idea; he looked back on that time with regret, and he clearly drank and partied too much, but he also seemed happy in the moment with girlfriend May Pang, and he worked prolifically as a recording artist (three albums in that short span o’ months), producer, and musical collaborator. Still, ultimately John needed Yoko. The separation didn’t work out.
My respect for Yoko One as a person need not have any bearing on my appreciation of her work. In general, her music just isn’t for me. There was, however, one instance where I preferred Yoko’s music to a contemporaneous song by John. That was Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” the B-side of John’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” in 1980.
For me, the summer of 1980 marked three years since I’d first heard The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. I graduated from college in May of ’80, moved into an apartment with my girlfriend, and became a professional burger-flipper at the mighty Golden Arches. I still loved The Beatles, but felt punk and new wave pulling me away from most post-’67 Beatles–no power on Earth could ever hope to separate me from Beatles ’62-’66–and I was increasingly disinterested in contemporary releases by former Beatles. I thought George Harrison and Ringo Starr had become boring. I liked some of Paul McCartney‘s recent stuff, particularly “Coming Up” and 1979’s “Getting Closer,” but found him unreliable, and I actively disliked “Arrow Through Me” and “Goodnight Tonight.”
And John? John was MIA. After his lost weekend ran its course in ’75, he realized he needed to be with Yoko. Yoko wasn’t so sure. But when Lennon appeared as Elton John‘s special guest, singing a few songs with The Elton John Band at the conclusion of their 1975 Madison Square Garden show, Yoko met John backstage, and the reconciliation commenced. One wonders if John thought of the lyrics to the song he’d just performed–a song he introduced as “by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul,” a Beatles oldie John had never sung before, and the last song that John Lennon would ever sing in concert:
Well my heart went boom
When I crossed that room
And I held her hand in mine
Oh, we danced through the night
And we held each other tight
And before too long
I fell in love with her
Now I’ll never dance with another
Oh, when I saw her standing there
That’s the legend, anyway. Real life, real love, isn’t quite as simple or uncomplicated, but the end result was the same: John & Yoko. Together, man. They had a son, Sean, and John became a devoted father, retiring from public life for five years. He baked bread. He was Daddy. He was there.
I don’t remember how much of this I knew at the time. On the one hand, I saw a photo of Lennon in Rolling Stone, and he looked…old. On the other hand, in my punk-fueled mind, John had been the rocker in The Beatles, the fast ‘n’ loud balance to Paul’s silly love songs. It was a fiction I believed. As disconcerted as I was by the image of a grandfatherly ex-Beatle, I was convinced that Lennon could still return and show ’em all how it was s’posed to be done.
So I was delighted to hear that John Lennon was working on a new album in 1980. Early hype was encouraging; John & Yoko were working with producer Jack Douglas, and recording with a little help from new friends Cheap Trick, the one band–really, the only band–that every rock ‘n’ roll fan seemed to like at the end of the ’70s. The album was Double Fantasy, and its cover depicted John & Yoko sharing an affectionate little kiss. John had shaved his scraggly grandfather beard, and cut his hair to a properly fab mid ’60s love-me ‘do. The first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was released ahead of the LP, and I eagerly traded cash for vinyl at Brockport’s Main Street Records to own a copy of that 45.
And I was so disappointed with it.
My expectations were unfair. I wanted Revolver and Rocket To Russia and power pop and punk and new wave and jangle and buzz and harmonies and Rickenbackers and drums and yeah-yeah-YEAH! That wasn’t gonna happen, even if Cheap Trick had been involved; as it was, most of the Trick’s contributions were omitted from the official version of Double Fantasy. There was certainly no audible evidence of them on this single. Instead, “(Just Like) Starting Over” fell somewhere between pre-Beatles pop and Electric Light Orchestra, and I wasn’t at all impressed. It was…okay. That’s all. Okay.
John had the A-side; Yoko had the B-side. I surprised myself by liking “Kiss Kiss Kiss” immediately. It seemed an edgier track, its herky-jerky riddum reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull‘s Broken English, its vocal styling similar to what I heard on records by Public Image, Ltd. and avowed Yoko Ono acolytes The B-52’s. Plus, like, it sounded like the Lennons were shakin’ the sheets at the end of the song. “Kiss Kiss Kiss” popped for me in a way the A-Side couldn’t. Although I gradually developed some level of fondness for “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Kiss Kiss Kiss” was the side I played, and I played it often.
I held off on getting Double Fantasy. I heard another song or two on the radio, definitely the Beatley “Woman” (which I thought nicked its riff from Argent‘s “Hold Your Head Up,” but which I liked nonetheless), and probably “Watching The Wheels,” Lennon’s statement of defiant domesticity. On December 8th of 1980, a nobody with a gun decided his pitiful craving for attention was more important than John Lennon’s right to live, Yoko’s right to a husband, Sean’s right to a father. The killer’s name will never be mentioned in anything I write.
The events that followed the album’s release made it impossible to assess Double Fantasy on its own merit. I still can’t. There was a rumor (and I betcha it’s true) that Rolling Stone had a negative review of Double Fantasy all set to run, but pulled at the last minute in the wake of Lennon’s murder, with a glowing and reflective review run in its place. I can’t say if that was the right thing to do. Probably. Maybe. I kinda doubt that I would have ever really embraced the album, but who knows? I sure don’t know. I can’t separate the album from that lingering memory of how bad I felt on the evening of December 8th.
We can grieve for people we’ve never met, losses that may not seem personal to onlookers, but losses that hurt, that ache, as if a vital part of our lives has been ripped from us. We shouldn’t commit the sin of comparing our feelings in the wake of John Lennon’s murder to what Yoko felt, what Sean felt, to the anguish of older son Julian, ex-wife Cynthia, Aunt Mimi, or Paul, George, and Ringo, or May Pang. It’s not the same, not even close. Still hurts anyway, though.
On the evening of the murder, John and Yoko had been in the studio, working on a new Yoko single, “Walking On Thin Ice.” Can’t separate that one from its circumstances either, and I’ve never been able to enjoy it. An album called Milk And Honey was eventually assembled from unused Double Fantasy sessions, and I wound up digging its focus tracks “Nobody Told Me” and “Living On Borrowed Time” more than I liked most of Double Fantasy. Different circumstances. Different expectations.
Nowadays, I don’t often listen to “Kiss Kiss Kiss.” Among solo Beatles, I’m generally more likely to spin some McCartney than a Lennon, Harrison, or Starr record. I never listen to Yoko Ono at all. Yet I’m still fond of “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” and I still recall with vivid immediacy the rush of realizing I liked the Yoko track better than I liked the John track. Honestly, I think John Lennon would have forgiven me. Yoko saved his life, for a while anyway. She was the one true love of his life. He just wanted us to appreciate her, too.
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