There was a direct heart-to-heart line of communication between rock’s greatest stars because at heart they were the same human being. Both were lonely only children reared by overprotective matrons intent on binding them fast to home and mother for the rest of their lives. Both escaped from their throttling families by striking rebellious poses that made them generation heroes. At heart, though, both remained sad little blue boys, disposed to spend their lives in drugs and dreams, though sometimes roiled to passion they poured into their records. Hence, what “Heartbreak Hotel” did for John Lennon was give him a startling foreflash, a proleptic vision of his future life.
Goldman’s assertion of his disillusionment is a bit hard to credit, given that his book gives no indication of ever having been touched by respect or even sympathy, but perhaps one should allow for the conversion syndrome.
Joyce Carol Oates recently coined the term “pathography” for the current fashion for the study of a well-known person’s life that focuses on flaws, failures, and misdeeds. The Lives of John Lennon, however, almost deserves a category all its own, one that combines the attributes of pathography with those of the philippic and of black propaganda, such is the extraordinary variety of techniques of defamation employed in it. The most important of these are:
A. The Indelible Anecdote. If Goldman had not sufficiently appreciated the power of creative mise en scène before he wrote Elvis, he certainly did afterward, since the one thing about that book remembered by everyone, including a great many people who never read it, is that the King allegedly took pleasure in watching teen-age girls who wrestled wearing white cotton panties. That scene has entered folklore, and it scarcely matters whether it actually happened. The Lennon book has a similarly vivid if less spectacular vignette positioned near the beginning (although chronologically belonging near the end of Lennon’s life) that has already acquired currency: the resentful Yoko planting cat-turd land mines in John’s path as he vacantly wanders the halls of their flat in the Dakota.
There are those mornings, however, when Yoko is a bit too slow and John catches her in the act! Then there’s hell to pay. John seizes Yoko by her great mop of hair and hauls her, screaming and scratching, to the stove, where he threatens to set her hair afire! That’s why there’s never a match in this kitchen.
The grotesque squalor of the scene is hilariously memorable, but did it ever happen? This question leads naturally to
B. The Tainted Source. The above anecdote, like many of the book’s most sensational claims (inter alia, Lennon’s two alleged murders), is solely based on the recollections of Marlene (“Marnie”) Hair, whom Goldman characterizes as “Yoko’s only close friend and confidante.” It is, naturally, hazardous to base significant claims on hearsay, especially second-hand hearsay, but Hair is a particularly iffy witness. David Fricke and Jeffrey Ressner, who examined many of Goldman’s sources in Rolling Stone (October 20, 1988), point out that Hair hardly knew Lennon, and that her casual relationship with Ono came to an acrimonious end with a $1.5 million suit that Hair filed in 1982, claiming that her small daughter was injured while on an outing with the Lennons’ small son. This does not necessarily mean that all her testimony is fictitious, but it does make the notion of her being privy to Lennon’s most tortured and intimate confessions seem doubtful, to say the least.
Goldman draws from other poisoned wells: one is Fred Seaman, a sometime factotum for the Lennons and nephew of two of their employees, who was indicted in 1983 for the theft of Lennon’s personal diaries—which he was attempting to doctor, to bolster his claim that Lennon had appointed him as his biographer. Another is Allan Williams, a Liverpool promoter who tried and failed to become the Beatles’ manager in the early days, and has spent two decades attempting revenge by retailing bitter accounts of the events of that time. Goldman interviewed very few principals; both of Lennon’s widows declined to talk, and he did not even bother to approach the other Beatles. As a result, his research mostly consisted of interviews with single-incident witnesses and with former underlings and sometime pals with axes to grind, as well as of selected readings in and wholesale and uncredited derivations from previously published books by other hands. As Fricke and Ressner illustrate at length, Goldman embroidered upon and distorted the stories he heard to make them more scurrilous, and it is clear from the most general acquaintance with Beatle lore that when he had to choose between two or more versions of an incident, he invariably chose the one that showed his subject in the worse light. Since the book is not annotated, it is largely impossible to tell where given anecdotes or details originated.
Meanwhile, Goldman’s background research was either slovenly or nonexistent: on the subject of LSD, for example, an important subtheme, the only establishing quote is from a novel called Groupie (author unidentified). Goldman’s book does not appear to have been fact-checked by anyone, and it is so studded with minor errors (e.g., the name of the lower Manhattan neighborhood is given as Alphabetsville; Dave Dellinger is said to be the member of the Chicago Seven who later became a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji) that any reader would have doubts about the solidity of major assertions. It does not seem to have been checked for grammar, either, or even proofread: the name of Lennon’s half-sister, Julia, for example, is spelled two different ways within three paragraphs.
C. Set a Thief to Catch a Thief. Goldman is capable of temporarily sympathizing with anyone as long as he or she suits his purpose. What this means in practice is that he will accept a given party’s slurs against another as fact, while ridiculing statements made in defense of either of them. A case in point is his treatment of the relationship between Ono and her first husband, Tony Cox. Goldman portrays Cox through Ono’s (bitter, unforgiving) eyes: he is the devil incarnate, and she the victim of his violence and dishonesty. A bit later he presents Ono from Cox’s (bitter, unforgiving) viewpoint: she is a witch and a shrew, and he the family man she continues to persecute. Nowhere else in the book is either shown sympathetically. The process is repeated in lesser form elsewhere in the book, where acquaintances of Lennon’s that Goldman actually interviewed are first used for damaging purposes and then trashed themselves.
D. When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife? Goldman reverses gears in other ways. The Beatles in their early days were raucous and fairly belligerent, wore leather jackets and played loud, hard music; they were, in fact, a punk band. When Brian Epstein became their manager late in 1961, he insisted on polishing their act; a clean-cut look, a modest and studied demeanor onstage. On this subject Goldman first takes a time-honored line: the Beatles were emasculated by Epstein (“Nobody in the history of show business ever took such a screwing. As for John, he never got over the fact that he sold out”). A few pages later he states, “Though the press would long insist the Fab Four were puppets in the hands of a ‘pop Svengali,’ the reverse was the truth. Every identifiable feature of the Beatles’ fabled image…was the product of the boys’ own tastes and invention.” Hyperbole aside, the truth probably lies at a point midway between those two sets of statements; the Beatles conspired with their manager to broaden their appeal.
But Goldman’s volte-face has a point, beyond merely generating as many footpounds of negative impact as possible. Some pages earlier, he makes the assertion, based on bits of old gossip and on the word of the voluble Marnie Hair, that Lennon enjoyed a long-standing affair with Epstein, who was openly homosexual (“His passion…had long been focused on Brian Epstein, whom he confessed years later he had ‘loved more than a woman’ “). Therefore, Goldman’s point in crediting the Beatles with responsibility for such traits as “the way they shook their hair on a high falsetto note” is to make out that they were even faggier than their manager. Likewise, when he states that “the Beatles were created by John Lennon, who fashioned them in his own image,” and goes on to recite the most obvious characteristic of each of the four and show how every adjective applied equally well to Lennon alone, he is merely stressing his theory of Lennon’s multiple-personality disorder. After all, he has previously made Lennon out as the weakest and possibly the least talented of the four. Either way, he has sealed off the exits.
E. Damned and Double-Damned:
Lennon during the Summer of Love [possessed] a vastly different public image from any he had displayed in the past. Just a couple of years before…if anything happened to excite his ire, he would erupt in physical violence. Now he seemed a different man. Indeed, everybody commented on how much John had changed…. A childhood friend…observed: “Even a couple years ago the old animosities were still there: refusing to talk to anybody, being rude, slamming the door. Now he’s just as likely to say to people “Come in. Sit down.”… John himself ascribed his revolutionary change of character to acid…. Diurnal acid dropping produces an effect rather like XTC [sic], the “love drug.” Hence, instead of mental pinwheels, the tripper feels himself bound in affectionate communion with everything he sees, like Titania embracing an ass.
If affection and courtesy are sinister, imagine the darkness lurking behind apparent happiness:
Lennon began to suffer from a new fear: that people would suspect him of being a stoned freak. To conceal his mental derangement, he adopted a simple but effective disguise. When addressed by a stranger, John would smile. “If you look happy, nobody ever questions,” Lennon instructed….
Drug-induced paranoia, seen through Goldman’s pervasive suspiciousness, is like the image of one distorting mirror reflected in another.
F. The Gratuitous Slur. When the Beatles played the Royal Variety Show in 1963, to an audience that included the Queen, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret, Lennon famously quipped, “Will all the people in the cheap seats clap your hands? All the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” Goldman laboriously contrives another score against his subject:
The story of how John Lennon addressed the audience at the command performance is one of the most familiar of rock legends—and one of the least understood. The gag was carefully scripted…. In the original draft it read: “…if you’ll just rattle your fuckin‘ jewelry!”
Goldman uses this to make a semipoint about how Lennon wished to be a working-class rebel, but only a middle-class faker would think of cussing in front of the Queen. However, he never did say it, did he, and no source is given for the assertion that he had considered saying it, so that one can only surmise that the anecdote, like much of the book, was designed for skimmers who won’t read every word and will come away shocked that a Beatle dared talk French to Her Highness.