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Beatlephobia

Goldman enjoys building tall structures of supposition in any case. The two highly questionable accusations of murder (a drunken sailor in Hamburg, and Lennon’s best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, who died of a brain tumor some months after John supposedly kicked him in the head) are exhumed again and again to account for a guilt that is itself merely Goldman’s say-so. He has fun describing a trip that Lennon took by himself to Asia in 1976, during which Lennon may have gone to Bangkok (“his stay in Bangkok was concealed from everyone save Yoko”). Goldman gives a detailed account of Lennon’s adventures in whorehouses, buying drugs, and, since the author now supposes him to be a lifelong homosexual, procuring young boys. The passage is couched in the conditional tense, but unless one reads carefully, one could assume it to be a factual account. (Whether fictitious gay-baiting is any worse than gay-baiting tout court is another question, of course.)

G. Guilt by Association. Everyone is guilty, according to Goldman, especially everyone in the vague circles of art, popular culture, and radical politics, and all those individual guilts are transferred to the debit of John Lennon because he happened to travel in those circles: Eric Burdon (of the Animals) purportedly broke eggs on the bodies of women with whom he was copulating; George Maciunas (the founder of Fluxus and an acquaintance of Ono’s) allegedly wore women’s clothes; Alan Freed (the pioneer rock ‘n’ roll deejay, who never met the Beatles and who died in 1965) supposedly wore women’s clothes; Allen Ginsberg is said to have once stood naked in the middle of a London party, wearing his underpants on his head. In each case the intended deprecation is about as much information as the reader is ever given about the person in question, so that its only purpose can be to fertilize a stain of decadence with which to infect Lennon.

H. Judging the Subject’s Qualifications. When it comes to Lennon’s music, Goldman is on even shakier ground, since his readers will likely know at least as much about the subject as he does. Therefore, his gambit is to introduce inapplicable standards. Goldman cites Lonnie Donegan, the English skiffle king of the 1950s and an early influence on the future Beatles, as “more professional” than Elvis Presley, because “he could cite chapter and verse for every move he made on the pop checkerboard” (even though his biggest hit is characterized a paragraph later as “an emasculation…of ‘Rock Island Line’ “). From there it is a short step to saying that “the Beatles would have had far greater strength and freedom if they had known more about music,” a donnish judgment that is never examined and reflects no particular musical knowledge or interest on the part of the author, but is merely brought in as another piece of artillery. This leads to

I. Minimizing the Subject’s Achievements. Since Goldman (sometimes) considers that the Beatles “sold out,” he sounds a frequent note of disappointment: if only the Beatles had achieved success.

This was the John Lennon who could have led the Beatles forward to become the first great hard rock band of the Sixties. They might have rocked with the tough working-class belligerence of the Who, becoming a group whose musical gestures, seconded by corresponding stage gestures, would have created a rock theater that could have enabled John Lennon to enact the psychodrama seething inside his soul.

They might, for that matter, have taken up flutes and Elizabethan costumes and made Jethro Tull look really small. They might also have been better, avers Goldman, if their work had been of professionally high quality. Had the Beatles “boarded a plane for New York, or, better, Los Angeles, and enjoyed the finest recording equipment in the world,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might have been a slick piece of product. Goldman sees fit to berate the four for the ingenuity with which they improvised lowtech solutions to problems beyond the technical capacity of their antiquated studio, seeing it as a characteristic act of sheeplike submission. Likewise, he seizes on the rumor of a disagreement between Lennon and producer George Martin during the recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” arguably Lennon’s best work, and concocts from it a story that has Lennon being duped by the conniving producer into fatally transforming his “gentle” ballad into “a phantasmagoric jumble of incomprehensible images and bizarrely recorded sounds.” Now and then Goldman can’t avoid admitting that Lennon’s music and that of his band might have possessed some merit, and then his acknowledgement is phrased in lifeless superlatives, poking out strangely from the sea of contempt that surrounds them. Goldman’s occasional attempts at critical exegesis are seldom short of ludicrous. Taking the proverbial cake is his reading of “I Am the Walrus”:

Unconsciously, John may have been thinking of another big, fat, black, seafood-gobbling creature with great white tusks—Lennon’s lifelong favorite Fats Waller (i.e., “Walrus”), author of that cunnilinguistic classic, “I Want Some Seafood, Mama!” [sic].

There may be some shard of previously undocumented fact embedded in The Lives of John Lennon, but it would be a virtually impossible task to extract it from the book’s mire of postures, rumors, falsehoods, red herrings, internal contradictions, and groundless rhetoric. Why the book exists at all is another matter. Besides the obvious reasons of the author’s individual pathology and of his $800,000 advance, The Lives of John Lennon springs from the appeal of the notion that (to paraphrase Balzac) behind every achievement of great fame there lies a great crime. This idea is a byproduct of the present crisis in the economy of fame, with rampant celebrity inflation and a concurrent drop in its purchasing power. Even as the ranks of the famous swell daily, they must also be thinned, and television and the popular press, which have assisted in making the crisis, attempt to meet it by exposing the well known, or at least by crowding them, poking into their bathrooms and under their rugs. Nevertheless, artists are not politicians or entrepreneurs, and unmasking them can achieve nothing more than to make their works temporarily unfashionable. After a while, work of merit ceases to belong to its maker, who is finally no more than its agent, and it becomes the property of anyone who appreciates it. The assemblage of artists past and present contains a large number of knaves, fools, and weaklings, irrespective of the value of their achievements.

But most artists, like most people, cannot be typed so easily. It testifies to the complexity of John Lennon’s character and life that Goldman had to resort to so many different strategies to attack him, and that he chose as his central motif the diagnosis of multiple personality. Certainly John Lennon possessed the usual human average of weaknesses and blind spots, although his public life made these seem larger. It does not help, either, that even the praising words that have been written about him tend to concentrate on Lennon as a memorial to misty ideals rather than on the substance of what he accomplished. He and his fellow Beatles somehow became symbolic representatives of an entire generation, which is something of a poisoned gift. How they got to be that way and why is a question that no one has ever really taken on.

Their music is hard enough to explain. Not only were the Beatles struck by lightning, but they were struck collectively. The mystery of collaboration, of the “third mind,” as William Burroughs called it, has been undervalued because it so little accords with the myth of singular genius. Lennon and McCartney both contained and challenged each other as a team, and even though relatively few of the songs attributed to them were actually written collaboratively, each profited by the presence of the other to curb personal excesses and defy personal restraints. George Harrison and even the underappreciated Ringo Starr enter the equation too; something happened in the recording studio that allowed all four to lock into place as if they had been born to do so.

The sources of the Beatles’ music may be obvious—black American rhythm and blues with English folk elements, mostly, with important lessons learned from Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers in particular—but they transformed their sources very quickly into a style that, for all their legions of imitators, was theirs alone. It is telling that the songs of theirs most often covered by other artists are the oddities, the pastiches, the solo showcases and ballads. The songs most possessing their distinctive use of harmonies and timing—“I Want to Tell You,” say, or “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”—cannot be imagined in any voices but theirs. They were not primarily songwriters in the mode of Cole Porter or Harold Arlen, but neither were they at their best as improvisers on the stage; theirs was an art that depended on writing and performance in equal measure. The speed with which they grasped musical principles, the agility with which they defied formulas and made intuitive leaps of the sort that look complex on paper but sound perfectly natural on record, the consistency with which they appealed to an ever-widening audience while constantly shifting and broadening their stylistic territory—none of these things can be accounted for in an examination of their individual lives.*

The reader will learn from the biographies that while these songs were being written and recorded the four lived in a parallel world of constant hectic confusion: tours, girls, drugs, tours, girls, drugs. They were being swindled by all sorts of people, from publishers to merchandisers, and their manager was as naive as they were, so that they went largely unprotected both from exploitation and from the press. In this last regard they did lead a charmed life for years, although a fairly hubristic if understandable offhand remark of Lennon’s (“We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity”) provoked a hate campaign and record-burning rallies in the Bible Belt. They then became afraid of being killed by some vision-addled member of the public, which led to their ceasing live performances after the 1966 American tour. Their extracurricular activities brought them more and bigger drugs and their native straightforwardness, not unmixed with a certain arrogance, led them to public admission of the use of those drugs, which would get them into trouble later on. They briefly flirted with a fishy swami, but their disappointment with him did not prevent them from continuing their quest for the inner light. Meanwhile their whims were being studied and followed by millions, although the Beatles were not exactly inventing anything in these divagations, which followed venerable bohemian patterns.

By and by the long binge of collective creativity and frenetic public and private behavior began to wear thin. Internal fissures wracked the group, and they slowly broke apart. Lennon had left his first wife and taken up with Ono by then, and the two got busy with a variety of life-as-art actions, most of them rather idle. Most famously, they holed up in bed in a Toronto hotel room for a week and announced that they were doing it for peace. The Lennon-Ono program and its mystique are pretty well summed up by this stunt, which was at once presumptuous, well-meaning, self-important, irrelevant, humorous, embarrassing, lax, wan, dopey, and oddly sweet.

Lennon went in and out of drug problems and psychic cure-alls. He produced one good single (“Instant Karma”) and a powerful if erratic album (Plastic Ono Band) that managed to combine therapeutic catharsis with a strong musical backbone. He then recorded “Imagine,” which has become the theme song of his posthumous devotion. It is presumptuous, well-meaning, etc., although decidedly not humorous, and he had the questionable taste to stage the video of a song that features the line, “Imagine no possessions,” with him dressed in a white suit and playing a white piano in a white room that is obviously on the ground floor of a mansion. He made some records that were less successful, both financially and artistically, and then separated from Ono and engaged in a lengthy West Coast spree of drinking and carrying-on that is referred to in most of the books as the Lost Weekend, as if it were a bar in Mineola or an era in Roman history. He reunited with Ono and stayed out of the public eye for a while. He had collaborated on a record with her and was planning a comeback when he was shot and killed by a vision-addled member of the public.

Without the Beatles, Lennon was a mere mortal, often floundering, even abject. He did possess a considerable talent for verbal humor, a melodic gift to which he did not always attend, and an extraordinary voice, a head voice, hectoring, almost metallic, and often sounding cannier than the words it was shaping. He took too many drugs, too often and too earnestly, and these may have caused some damage upstairs, although there is no real evidence they did. He was already hung over from a monstrous fame and lack of privacy, and stuck in a life where everything was permitted him except fallibility, so that some part of him must have wanted more than anything to flop around and make a mess. Unlike the other Beatles, he also relished being a font of wisdom, and he reached for the oracular word and the dramatic gesture often enough, but even though a certain portion of the audience always hungered for such portents, they did not really suit him. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney, ever yin to Lennon’s yang, or vice versa, played the conservative inside straight, lived privately, wrote and recorded slick product, and made wise investments. Lennon’s ambitions were on a vastly larger scale, and they were his undoing. He was better at being a source of energy, a provocateur and mischief-maker. After his death, during the many hours of solemn clichés on the television news, the moment that best conveyed what had died came during a clip of a press conference at Kennedy Airport in 1964. A reporter asked, “How did you find America?” Lennon instantly replied, “We turned left at Greenland.”

Letters

The Lives of John Lennon’ March 2, 1989

  1. *

    Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why is an approach to the Beatles’ music that dispenses with all the trivia of their fame, and its function is much like one of those headphone lecture guides that museums rent out, directing the auditor to this transition or that filigree. Unfortunately, while the intention is noble the execution is flat footed, and, being neither musical analysis of any special sophistication nor a substitute for careful listening to the songs themselves, it is finally rather pointless.

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