The John Lennon song he called “Elvis Orbison”

In April 1970, The Beatles finally split up, leaving the music world to mourn the divorce of rock music’s most influential group. This news came as a shock for some fans, but for many, including the members and their close friends and family, it was an inevitability. In retrospect, we know tensions were reaching a boiling point in the late 1960s, but at the time, public word of such friction was limited and subject to conjecture. Over the years since, some fans blamed the all-consuming nature of the relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono, while others blamed overcrowding of talent and a battle of the ego.

As Paul McCartney claimed in a recent interview with Conan O’Brien at the Tribeca Festival, Lennon “had a really tragic life” and cited a number of extremely personal events that shaped the budding musician’s own personality traits.

“As a kid, his mother was decreed to not be good enough to bring him up…His father had left the home when John was three,” McCartney continued. “So that’s not too wonderful. John grew up with these sort of little minor tragedies through his life… It made me realise why he had that vulnerability. I always admired the way he dealt with it because I’m not sure I would deal with the stuff he went through that well.”

Patently heard on Lennon’s first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, was a keenness to address more personal problems. ‘Mother’ heard Lennon using Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy to lament his case of parental separation. Further to the sexual side of Lennon’s relationship with Ono, she served as a mother figure, a headstrong presence he could confide in.

Despite this strong familial bond, Lennon entered what would become known as his ‘Lost Weekend’ in 1973: 18 months marked by a romantic affair with May Pang, a production coordinator who worked on his and Ono’s music. Following a significant spell of marital issues, Ono and Lennon separated as Lennon embarked on a short-lived relationship with Pang. Lennon would later return to Ono, deeply regretting this period.

Contrary to expectation, Ono was fully aware of Lennon’s affair and understood it as a transient fling. She welcomed Lennon back with open arms as he expressed public regret for his infidelity.

However, in an interview with Larry Kane in the late ’70s, Lennon admitted that it had been love. “You know Larry, I may have been the happiest I’ve ever been… I loved this woman [Pang], I made some beautiful music, and I got so fucked up with booze and shit and whatever,” he said.

In 1975, Lennon put his music career on ice for a few years to focus on raising his second son, Sean. He wouldn’t return to the studio until 1980, when he recorded Double Fantasy. Sadly, the album would be the former Beatle’s last, released just three weeks before his murder on December 8th, 1980.

Had Lennon survived, the album would have marked the beginning of a new chapter in his career as he returned to his art with renewed confidence. ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’, the album’s first track, could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of this page turn, but upon closer inspection, it more accurately refers to his relationship with Ono.

“It was kinda obvious what ‘Starting Over’ was about,” David Sheff, the Playboy writer who conducted the last major interview with Lennon, once told Mojo. “He’d been untrusting of Yoko, she’d been untrusting of him, all that kind of stuff. But in that one song was this incredible optimism and joy.”

Discussing the song in his last interview with Rolling Stone in 1980, Lennon said: “All through the taping of ‘Starting Over,’ I was calling what I was doing ‘Elvis Orbison.’ It’s like Dylan doing Nashville Skyline, except I don’t have any Nashville, being from Liverpool. So I go back to the records I know – Elvis and Roy Orbison and Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Listen to the tragically optimistic ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ below.

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