Milk and Honey
‘Happy Birthday, John. God bless our love.’
– Yoko Ono, 1984
A Heart Play by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Produced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Yoko says ‘Milk And Honey…John thought of the album title Double Fantasy. I thought of Milk And Honey for the next album. He liked that. People who wish to immigrate to USA, dream of America, “the land of milk and honey.” But also, in the Scripture, the land of milk and honey is where you go after you die, as a promised land. So it’s very strange that I thought of that title. Almost scary – like somebody up there told me to call the next album Milk And Honey.’
‘And what about John’s songs in it: ‘I’m Stepping Out’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Face It’, ‘Nobody Told Me’, ‘Borrowed Time’? John decided those titles. And the contents of the songs do not necessarily have to do with his passing. But still it’s eery. Even the message of ‘Grow Old With Me’ could be interpreted in many ways to be his final wish. However, our fate was hidden from us, totally.’
Its cover artwork suggests a sequel to Double Fantasy – their respective photographs of John and Yoko look separated by mere moments (as indeed they were). Yet, for us, the albums are divided by the widest gulf we could possibly imagine – the death of John, which occurred in between.
Maybe for this reason, Milk And Honey has always seemed an orphan among John Lennon’s recordings. It was the first posthumous release of unheard material, appearing some three years after his death. His own contributions to the album were never signed off by John himself. Like Double Fantasy, the record is structured as a “Heart Play”, or dialogue, of his songs and Yoko’s. But he was not there to help her assemble that particular conversation. With one or two notable exceptions, he was not familiar with Yoko’s tracks, at least not in their finished form.
And yet, Milk And Honey is a great John and Yoko record. It fully deserves its place in the tradition of Double Fantasy or their early avant-garde releases or any of the towering songs their names are jointly engraved upon, from ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ to ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’. We know that John was looking forward to a follow-up, to be called Milk And Honey, and that he believed he already had a lot of material. We can only speculate how closely it would have resembled the album we know, but there is not the slightest doubt that Milk And Honey is true to Lennon’s spirit. We should open our ears and welcome it.
For her part, his wife and artistic partner Yoko Ono has never regarded Milk And Honey as fundamentally separate from Double Fantasy: ‘We went into recording on August 4th 1980. We recorded all the basic tracks for Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey. John knew all my songs in Milk And Honey, except for ‘You’re The One’, which I wrote after John’s passing as a tribute to him. We tried ‘Sleepless Night’, ‘O Sanity’ and ‘Let Me Count The Ways’ at the Double Fantasy sessions. With ‘Let Me Count The Ways’, I played it first to him over the phone, when he was in Bermuda. Well, that’s another story.’
John and Sean on the ferry to Nine Dragon Island, Hong Kong, June 1977 Photo by Nishi F. Saimaru ©1977 Nishi F. Saimaru
John and Sean Lennon, Onioshidashi, Japan, Summer 1977 Photo by Nishi F. Saimaru ©1977 Nishi F. Saimaru
But was the “dialogue” of Milk And Honey a challenge to construct, given John’s absence?
‘I didn’t feel that way. Since, we both had a say in how the dialogue should be in Double Fantasy.’ says Yoko today, ‘And with Milk And Honey, the thing was already there.’
As well as comprising a clutch of first-rate songs, Milk And Honey is another compelling (and candid) narrative of the final five years in John’s life. Whatever else it may be, Milk And Honey is not a requiem album. In ‘I’m Stepping Out’ we hear the same mischievous John we might recognise from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, revelling in a night of escapist fun. (And in Yoko’s fiercely physical ‘Sleepless Night’ we hear a kindred spirit.) His ‘I Don’t Wanna Face It’ is a wittily unsparing exercise in self-criticism (gently countered by Yoko’s song of reassurance, ‘Don’t Be Scared’). And ‘Nobody Told Me’ is a glimpse into the occasional frustrations of his existence.
John & Yoko, in fancy dress, 1977 Photo by Nishi F. Saimaru ©1977 Nishi F. Saimaru
Milk and Honey rear album cover original photograph Photos by Kishin Shinoyama - ©1980 Yoko Ono
John & Yoko, eating breakfast, 1980 Photo by Nishi F. Saimaru ©1980 Nishi F. Saimaru
Not for the first time in his work, John owns up to his own shortcomings as a husband, this time in ‘(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess’, But the tropically mellow ‘Borrowed Time’ suggest a man who is, in the last analysis, at peace with himself and enjoying his maturity. For her part, Yoko complements his self-portraits beautifully, with reflections on doubt (‘O Sanity’), eroticism (‘Your Hands’) and the poignantly romantic ‘You’re The One’.
At the very heart of Milk And Honey, however, are two extraordinary songs. Yoko’s ‘Let Me Count The Ways’ and John’s ‘Grow Old With Me’ were inspired by the Victorian poets Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with whom the Lennons felt a deep affinity. These numbers were written for Double Fantasy, when John was on holiday in Bermuda and Yoko was in New York, recorded onto cassette, but then set aside for the next album. Now they sit together in the closing stages of Milk And Honey, perfect companion pieces. They hold the record in some place out of chronological time, eternally hopeful.
The sad irony of ‘Grow Old With Me’ need not be laboured. John wished, says Yoko, that the song might one day be a standard – performed, perhaps, at weddings. It deserves no less. As with John’s other cuts on Milk And Honey, the fact that he could not re-visit his original version of Grow Old With Me is really no problem at all. As matters stand, his vocal has the natural intimacy that further studio treatment might have obscured.
Though Milk And Honey was, of necessity, a posthumous album, it is not a memorial. Its tone is only momentarily elegiac. Several songs are by turns rowdy, optimistic, comic and frankly sensual. To Yoko Ono fell the task of presenting John’s final work in a properly coherent setting, in line with the plans they had already made for the record after Double Fantasy, and his complex personality is superbly captured. Decades have now passed since Milk And Honey was conceived, but our fascination with this extraordinary man has not diminished. His songs do not lose their power to move, excite or enlighten us.