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Beatlephobia

The Lives of John Lennon

by Albert Goldman
William Morrow, 719 pp., $22.95

John Lennon, My Brother

by Julia Baird, by Geoffrey Giuliano, foreword by Paul McCartney
Henry Holt, 156 pp., $18.95

Imagine: John Lennon

written and edited by Andrew Solt, by Sam Egan, foreword by Yoko Ono, preface by David L. Wolper
Macmillan/Sarah Lazin Books, 255 pp., $39.95

Imagine: John Lennon

a film directed by Andrew Solt

Yesterday: The Unauthorized Biography of Paul McCartney

by Chet Flippo
Doubleday, 400 pp., $18.95

The Lennon Companion: Twenty-five Years of Comment

edited by Elizabeth Thomson, edited by David Gutman
Schirmer Books, 273 pp., $19.95

Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary

by Tim Riley
Knopf, 423 pp., $19.95

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 Céline 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:

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.

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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