The Lives of John Lennon
John Lennon, My Brother
Imagine: John Lennon
Imagine: John Lennon
Yesterday: The Unauthorized Biography of Paul McCartney
The Lennon Companion: Twenty-five Years of Comment
Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary
Twenty-five years ago the Beatles were hardly more than a rumor in the United States; an album and two singles had been issued on the VeeJay label, but with little publicity and less effect. Twenty years ago, in spite of the impending release of their eponymous two-record set, a k a “The White Album,” the group had already begun proceedings in its protracted breakup. The period in between those points is currently being dissected, fictionalized, marketed under the trade name The Sixties, but the more it is invoked the fuzzier it becomes in memory and in representation. The Beatles, who now enjoy a free-associative link with that period as firm as that of the butter with the bread or the fly with the ointment, suffer from a similar prevailing loss of focus on the part of nearly everyone in the audience. They were either a lounge act or the Second Coming, no one is sure which.
The Beatles are mysterious in many ways, and they are even more so now than they were two decades ago. It is difficult to reconcile the brilliant records they turned out collectively with the mostly weak and sometimes frankly bad work they later produced as individual performers. It is hard to reconstruct the extraordinary impact their work had when it came out, partially because there have been so few examples since of pop songs that burst on the scene as news. It is virtually impossible to account for the freight train of hits, one after the other for five or six years, with the greatest concentration coming between 1964 and 1966, during which time they issued twenty singles, two EPs, and nine LPs in this country, at one point occupying numbers one through five on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the top two positions on the album chart. It is also difficult to measure their influence at this remove, their time being both too far away and not far enough.
There is a long-standing rumor that the crowd of girls who greeted the Beatles as they deplaned at Kennedy Airport in February 1964 were paid to be there by publicists. Even if the story has some basis in fact, though, the subsequent torrent of adulation directed at the four cannot possibly have been wrought by any trick of advertising. The sociological explanations are many, and they are all partly true: that American youths were bored with the prevailing blandness epitomized by all those Annettes and Fabians; that the country was seeking release from the gloom that set in after the Kennedy assassination; that the Beatles represented a combination of safety and rebellion, of sexuality and innocence, that managed to satisfy all parties at once; even, as Alix Kates Shulman has suggested, that they were a pretext for solidarity among girls. They were foreigners, which made them seem like a bolt from the blue, but they were English, meaning that they would be welcome for dinner. Their music was new, but familiar, as if the whole audience had just begun to imagine it before it was played.
What cannot adequately be explained sooner or later acquires the status of legend. The Beatles were already on their way there before they had cut a record, before the cataclysmic effect they could have on a female teen-age audience was even noted in the press. The reverberation of the legend merely grew from local to worldwide. The process has not stopped since, although it flagged a bit during the arid 1970s, when their individual efforts revealed them as modestly talented and quite fallible. The 1980 murder of John Lennon reinforced the legend, its burden now assumed by the dead man, who was the only one of the four to harbor the appropriate messianic ambitions. The industry of Beatles studies, tributes, and fetishes has been clicking along all the while, resulting in a staggering amount of printed matter as well as films, videos, waxworks, and passion plays, but the current crop of books is mostly the product of seeds planted in the wake of Lennon’s killing, and consequently they tend to focus on the most complex and most vulnerable of the Fab Four.
The most visible of these, of course, is The Lives of John Lennon, by Albert Goldman, a project that has generated much speculation, printed and otherwise, since its announcement some years ago. In the light of Goldman’s double-edged biography of Lenny Bruce (1974) and his lengthy assault on the life and career of Elvis Presley (1981), it could be strongly suspected that his treatment of Lennon would be no bouquet. However, word leaked out long before it appeared that the book would portray Lennon as a “homosexual junkie,” which left little room for doubt.
It may then seem less than coincidental that other, more laudatory works should come out around the same time, with the effect of acting as rejoinders. Unfortunately, these other books do not, for the most part, carry much punch. Julia Baird’s memoir, John Lennon, My Brother, is very slight and little more than a “collectible”; Imagine: John Lennon (book-of-the-film) is an attractive keepsake, welldesigned and with some memorable photos, but its text is fannishly vague; Imagine: John Lennon (film-of-the-book) contains some terrific concert footage and a few affecting scenes but is so clumsily portentous as to do more harm than good. Chet Flippo’s Yesterday is ostensibly a biography of Paul McCartney, but it is so preoccupied with Lennon and what Goldman will make of him that Flippo seems to have settled on his own subject only by default. It derives its most original insights from interviews the author held with Lennon a decade ago, and these are of some interest, but the book as a whole is so ill-written and so horrendously edited that it is hard labor to read.
The only item of real value in the crop is The Lennon Companion, an imaginatively assembled collection of opinions on the Beatles that includes such oddities as Soviet news reports, excerpts from Noel Coward’s diaries, and the letters to the Times from all those old soldiers who decided to turn in their MBEs when the moptops received theirs.
As for the Goldman book itself, now that it has finally been published it has provoked an angry broadcast response from Yoko Ono, calls for a boycott from her and from McCartney, and ever more column inches detailing the controversy in the press. Proving once again that there is no such thing as bad publicity, it has also acquired a berth on the best-seller list. It certainly does make good on its promise of scandal. There is nothing halfhearted about its indictment of its subject, whom it charges with two murders, wife abuse, secret homosexuality, plagiarism, and insanity. It asserts that Lennon was addicted to a variety of drugs in relays that covered the whole of his life from adolescence onward; that he was at once a dictatorial manipulator and an easily manipulated simpleton; that he was incompetent at most things, from music to driving to elementary household tasks, and that his successes in life were either the work of others or else canards fallen for by the public; and, uniting all the strands, as it were, that he possessed a multiple personality. The catalog of accusations and exposures is not restricted to Lennon himself. Nearly every figure glimpsed along its landscape is similarly stripped and searched.
Yoko Ono is subjected to a particularly harsh inquest: Goldman portrays her as a fraud, a shrew, a liar, and a sot crippled by superstition. He alleges that she arranged for Paul McCartney’s arrest on drug charges in Tokyo; that she wove a spell to keep Lennon married to her against his wish; that every thought, word, and deed of her life has been calculated with the sole aim of acquiring power; that she is a lousy cook and an indifferent mother. Goldman also reaches back to expose the self-indulgence and immaturity of Lennon’s dead parents, and the meanness and pretensions of Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him. The three other Beatles are brought in to receive their whacks, as are their various managers, their respective love interests, their rivals, their fans, their associates and confidantes. Even the most marginal figures, people who may indeed have never met Lennon and are briefly brought in as part of some ancillary development, are summarily exposed for their drug use or transvestism or fiduciary incompetence before being sent on their way.
The relentlessness with which Goldman pursues every shade and suspicion of vice, weakness, and neurosis goes well beyond mere sensationalism and takes on the contours of a world view. In Goldman’s universe every man and woman is a tyrant or a patsy (or, optimally, both), every closet is thick with skeletons, every eccentricity is a sickness, all creative work is a confidence game. His outlook has perhaps never been what might be called sunny, or generous (he made his earlier academic reputation by exposing De Quincey’s plagiarisms), but his work has been growing visibly more bitter over the years. As a rock critic he was cynical and rather smug, but he did find it in himself to scatter some appreciation here and there. His biography of Lenny Bruce reveled in the spectacle of Bruce’s self-destruction, and where the facts were not lurid enough he filled the gap with speculations and docudrama, but nevertheless a certain empathy came through. Meanwhile his prose, rife with the affectations thought by magazine writers of the 1960s to constitute hip style (comic-book sound effects, exclamatory asides, the present tense, the second person singular), was clearly that of someone trying hard to manufacture a tough false front.
Goldman’s Elvis book was similarly mannered, but his contempt for Elvis and all that he represented was so top-heavy that the book became a demonstration of Goldman’s envy and bewilderment as much as it was nominally a biography. Elvis was a tirade directed against its subject that spread out to include in its attack country music, rhythm and blues, rural life, the white working class, the South, and the very idea of sexual charisma, but the Lennon biography goes even farther. Here almost the whole world is subject to Goldman’s loathing, and he can scarcely write a line that is not in some way mocking or vituperative. The sweep of negativity is breathtaking, poised somewhere between comedy and the abyss, between CĂŠline and Daffy Duck.
If, per Goldman, the world is rotten, then its heroes and success stories are the worst of all, swindlers who attract a paying audience and then impose on it their monstrous moral failings. Goldman has claimed that he set out to write Lennon’s life because of his admiration for the former Beatle. “When I began to realize who John Lennon really was,” he told an interviewer, “I was horrified and dismayed for two very good reasons. First of all, it was very disillusioning and disheartening; secondly, I could see, ‘Uh-oh, here we go again.’ ” The second part of his claim is quite credible; Goldman, imagining Lennon’s first hearing of “Heartbreak Hotel,” writes: