Taken Away . . . David Bowie missed John Lennon. As with millions of others, he felt the emptiness brought on by Lennon’s death, saying, “A whole piece of my life seemed to have been taken away; a whole reason for being a singer and a songwriter seemed to be removed from me.” A friend and collaborator was gone.
In September ’75, Bowie secured his first U.S. number one single, “Fame,” which he co-wrote with Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar. Lennon also provided rhythm guitar and background vocals on the pervasive hit. In fact, for more than a year, beginning in the late summer of ’74, Lennon himself pervaded the airwaves and charts with his own recordings while contributing to those of his friends.
He produced Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats album, a work that, in true Lennon style, enticed and perplexed its listeners. Lennon biographer Tim Riley made a spot-on assessment of Pussycats, saying it was “neither a failure, nor a triumph, with just enough swagger to keep you interested and exactly zero production pretensions.” The album also had zero chance of matching the chart succcess Nilsson had experienced less than three years earlier. Hard living (with Lennon assisting there too) and a ruptured vocal cord had taken a considerable toll on Nilsson’s lovely voice. As Riley noted, Pussycats stiffed, making it seem Lennon’s career was in limbo, with “greatness frozen in place, stuck between purpose and viability.” Still, Nilsson and Lennon pulled off an intriguing work, one that’s reflective of what Lennon called his “Lost Weekend,” lasting the better part of a year when he lived, separated from Yoko Ono, in Los Angeles.
Another Lennon studio partner, however, climbed the charts with ease. When Elton John recorded a version of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” there was Lennon providing reggae-flavored guitar licks. John’s rendition made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in early January ’75, less than two months after “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” with Elton John on piano and harmony vocals, became Lennon’s first number one single in America since the break-up of the Beatles.
The hits kept coming. Walls and Bridges, the album kicked off by “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” made it to number one on the Billboard charts in mid-November ’74 and a month later yielded a second hit single, “#9 Dream.” In February of the next year, Lennon released his much-anticipated oldies album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, which peaked at number 6 on the U.S. charts. Rock ‘n’ Roll proved a thoughtful and inspired accomplishment with Lennon paying tribute to the material that fueled his artistic development. He sang with love and gusto, especially on “Stand By Me,” which would be Lennon’s last hit single for the next five and a half years. So to speak, Lennon unplugged, devoting his time and energy to his and Yoko’s newborn son, Sean.
Serving as Sean’s godfather was Elton John, an honor bestowed him due to his close friendship with John Lennon. The two guys hit it off big-time on their first meeting. In the November 21, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, John told Ben Fong-Torres that Lennon was “so easy to get on with.” John was great company for Lennon during his separation from Ono and proved very supportive of the estranged couple when they began to reconcile.
A significant step in the Lennon-Ono reconciliation took place after the Thanksgiving ’74 Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden. As a pay-off for “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” hitting the top of the charts, Lennon performed three songs with John that evening. Talk about thrilling a crowd. There was Elton John, perhaps at the peak of his career, providing the assembled in New York with a dynamic show, and then two thirds into the concert, have his legendary friend join him for the most famous walk-on in rock and roll history. After the concert, Ono greeted Lennon backstage. They happily talked and, obviously, kept talking. Not too long after, reunited with Ono, Lennon told the world “our separation was a failure.”
Lennon was nervous about taking the New York stage that Thanksgiving evening. Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, remembers Lennon saying, “I’m not going on unless you go on with me.” That was fine with Taupin, who recalls, “I just went a little way with him, then he sort of hugged me and I said, ‘You’re on your own.'”
I’ve Been Calling ‘Hey Hey Johnny’ . . . A little more than six years later, Bernie Taupin was dealing with a different type of evening for John Lennon- and the world at large- in New York City. Lennon’s death hit Taupin hard, and true to his calling, he had to write about it. The day after the Lennon murder, Taupin shut out the tumult. As millions coped with their grief by listening to the Beatles’ music or following the wall to wall televised coverage of Lennon’s death, Taupin, the door shut behind him, gathered his thoughts and crafted a remarkable tribute to his friend.
Taupin presented Lennon as a gardener “who cared a lot, who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop.” He then reflected on the little patch of green his friend-as-gardener labored upon, where “nothing grows no more.” His friend is no longer around to grow flowers from the cracks in the pavement. His friend is gone. Taupin surveys the impact of a heavy loss while referring to humble and compassionate attributes.
Taupin’s words, coupled with Elton John’s music, come across vividly in “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny).” Recorded in early ’82, the song features a commanding yet understated performances by John. It still ranks as one of his career-best, even when considering the wealth of material he presented throughout much of the ’70s. John and Taupin bring to mind Lennon’s own plea in The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” with calls to the departed Johnny to “come out to play.” With Prudence, the choice was hers to stay inside. Johnny, as the sad futility expressed in the John-Taupin composition makes clear, had the choice made for him. The pleas continued as he knocked on his friend’s door.
And I’ve been knocking but no one answers
And I’ve been knocking most all the day
“Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” doesn’t have the power of Paul Simon’s Lennon tribute, “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” but that hardly dimishes the John-Taupin effort. “The Late Great Johnny Ace” reflects on a protagonist’s life from boyhood to near middle-age, all the while appraising much of what the Western world experienced, all the way to how the evening of December 8, 1980 felt as the bad news was absorbed. “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)” is ultimately a personal remembrance, but one shared and understood by millions.
Recommended reading: Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Music – The Definitive Life by Tim Riley, as well as John Lennon, The Life by Philip Norman and Lennon by Ray Coleman.