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The Lives of John Lennon’

In response to:

Beatlephobia from the December 22, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

When Rolling Stone published a farrago of groundless or insignificant charges designed to discredit my biography of John Lennon, I decided against replying because shortly thereafter Newsweek disclosed the motive for the attack by describing the intimate, familial relationship that obtains between the magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, and Yoko Ono whose public relations staff I could see was the direct or indirect source for the most defamatory passages. Newsweek also offered some amusing examples of the stupidity of the magazine employees who were assigned the task of smearing me and my book, a biography based on six and a half year’s work entailing roughly 1200 interviews—in a word, the most exhaustively researched life of a pop star ever published. It was astonishing, therefore, to find this same rubbish raked into a nasty heap in The New York Review of Books [December 22, 1988] by one Luc Sante, a young man of no reputation in the field of popular culture. Even more remarkable than the appearance of fan-mag twaddle in the pages of a respected literary journal was the malignity displayed by the reviewer, who went far beyond the loose journalistic ethics of Rolling Stone by systematically misrepresenting not only my book but my entire career as well as my private character. As virtually every critical statement in the Sante review entails some falsification, it is impossible to offer a complete rebuttal within the limits of a letter. The following examples will have to serve.

Sante depicts me as claiming that John Lennon’s “successes in life were either the work of others or else canards fallen for by the public”. At another point, he states that I “made Lennon out as the weakest and possibly the least talented of the four [Beatles].” This is the technique of the Big Lie. The fact is that I characterize John Lennon as a “genius” and offer pages and pages of analysis of his best work in which I extol him for his originality and audacity, his unparalleled sense of where pop music was heading and where he stood in his own development, as well as for the great courage he displayed in cutting against the grain of popular music with its specious sentimentality and good cheer. Even the most careless reader of my book would see that I hold Lennon to be vastly superior to the other Beatles in talent, intellect, and daring, although I do justice to Paul McCartney, to whose energy and initiative the Beatles owed their survival in their later years. What is more, if I had entertained the view of Lennon attributed to me by Sante, I could not possibly have devoted so many years to unearthing his history. Sante finds it “hard to credit” that I embarked on my life of Lennon full of admiration for his character and then experienced a profound disillusionment as I uncovered his true nature, but the public record speaks loud and clear on this point.

My very first article on the new rock music, “The Emergence of Rock” (New American Review, Spring 1968), concluded with a comparison between John Lennon and John Cage that was not to the former’s disadvantage. Subsequently I interviewed Lennon and confirmed my high opinion of his intelligence and candor; then I testified on his behalf in court when his album Two Virgins was impounded and he was charged with obscenity; finally, on a CBS network tribute to Lennon broadcast on the night following his murder, I appeared praising him for all the generous impulses and domestic virtues with which his hardcore fans, like Luc Sante, still credit him. Only prolonged and careful study of Lennon’s entire life and circle, founded upon the testimony of hundreds of people who knew him in every sort of connection, persuaded me that Lennon was nothing like the man we had imagined him to be. Far from exulting in this discovery I was appalled by it, for it threatened serious consequences for my life and career, dangers that have materialized beyond even my darkest foreboding.

Not content to pervert the substance of my book and my motives in writing it, Sante wants to strike at everything within his reach and even beyond his reach. He complains bitterly about the documentation, writing: “it is largely impossible to tell where given anecdotes or details originated.” In fact the source for every anecdote or detail that I thought likely to be questioned is within the body of the text, side by side with the statement is supports. Furthermore, all the sources save the most trivial are enumerated in the apparatus at the end of the book.

Sante also condemns my scholarship, writing: “Goldman’s background research was either slovenly or nonexistent.” What is the basis for this sweeping and defamatory assertion? Absolutely nothing save for my quoting only one book about LSD. Yet if Sante knew anything about drugs, he would recognize that the only serious problem about Lennon’s consumption of LSD was one that has no literature; namely, the question of what effect this drug has upon a man who takes it every day, eating it “like candy.” Not even those with the greatest experience of LSD, like Timothy Leary, could help me with this because they had never encountered such a level of usage, acid being a drug that is normally taken at intervals of three or four days to allow the brain to recover. I had to search far and wide until I found a man, Peter Stafford (whose name and syllabus of LSD documents is cited in my apparatus), who explained that diurnal acid eating produces much the same effects as “ecstasy,” which he prefers to label in the style of the California drug experimenters who invented the drug “XTC.”

Sante’s misrepresentations are not simply matters of interpretation: they entail numerous factual errors. At one extreme lie his minor mistakes, as when he reports that I characterize Yoko Ono as a “lousy cook,” whereas I praise her cooking and describe it as “exquisite.” More serious is his treatment of Marnie Hair, one of my principal sources. First he impugns her credibility by repeating a false allegation in Rolling Stone to the effect that she hardly knew Lennon, a statement made by Yoko Ono’s one-time manager, Norman Seaman, whose wife has long received and probably still receives a pension from Ono; then he asserts that Hair was the source for my account of the two killings with which Lennon taxed himself. In fact I identify the source for the story about the English sailor whom Lennon mugged in Hamburg and left for dead not as Marnie Hair but as Lennon’s boon companion, the guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. The most serious of Sante’s errors is his assertion that I “did not even bother to approach the other Beatles.” This implies that I deliberately avoided the most authoritative sources in order to focus on the backstairs gossip provided by disaffected spongers and parasites. The truth is—as I have frequently explained—that I did make repeated attempts to gain the cooperation of the only Beatle whom I left was open to such an appeal (Ringo had a book contract and George had already published), Paul McCartney, using as my intermediary a mutual friend, the London art dealer Robert Fraser. McCartney’s response was that though he and Lennon had enjoyed my book on Lenny Bruce, my book on Elvis Presley had displeased him and hence he would not cooperate.

Misreadings abound in the Sante review: for example, the whole passage about “Strawberry Fields.” Sante reports that I seized on a “rumor of a disagreement between Lennon and producer George Martin” to concoct “a story that has Lennon being duped by the conniving producer into fatally transforming his ‘gentle’ ballad into ‘a phantasmagoric jumble.’ ” This is nonsense: there was no disagreement between Lennon and Martin and I did not characterize Martin as “conniving” but rather as disinterested and self-sacrificing. Martin reports in his book that Lennon was not satisfied with either the Beatles’ version of his song or with Martin’s subsequent orchestration; so Lennon ordered the producer to join together portions of each version, a makeshift measure that he later condemned as a stupid mistake, vowing to rerecord the song, according to his last producer, Jack Douglas. What my book says about this matter and what Luc Sante makes it say do not correspond in any way.

Sante reaches the climax of his denunciation by making the astonishing statement: “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.” The truth is that before my biography there were vast stretches of Lennon’s life that were virtually blank: we knew next to nothing about his mother and even less about his father, whom he family had defamed and consigned to oblivion; the relations between the young Lennon and his foster mother, Aunt Mimi, had been concealed because she had been given the opportunity to rip anything that displeased her out of the authorized biography by Hunter Davies; the darker side of the Beatle’s sojourn in Hamburg was never divulged; the astounding ineptitude of Brain Epstein and the whole fiasco of the Beatles’ business dealings had never been exposed; the long and interesting history of Yoko Ono before she met Lennon was largely unknown; the life of Ono and Lennon together before and after their marriage was seen only from the outside; Lennon’s adventures in the United States prior to and after the so-called Lost Weekend remained largely undisclosed; above all, his final years, when he was immured inside the Dakota, were so mysterious that they were referred to as “the missing years”—but they are missing no longer because they occupy fifteen chapters in my book. So much for Sante’s “shard.”

Sante has further contrived a false and tendentious account of my professional career designed to make me appear as a misanthrope whose always grim and censorious character has darkened over the years to the point of “pathology.” This is so preposterous that it would make anybody who knew me as a friend, teacher, or writer howl with laughter. The fact is that my whole career until Elvis was simply the record of my enthusiasms. What’s more, everything I have written has been leavened by my long apprenticeship to the New York Jewish humor that first found public expression in the comedy of Lenny Bruce. There are long stretches of his same comedy in the Lennon book but Sante is too outraged by the impiety of the humor to see the joke. Not only does he lack the detachment that would enable him to laugh at the absurd antics of Yoko Ono but he fails equally to grasp the character of the world about which he writes with such overweening confidence and authority.

He finds it incredible, for example, that most of the people I describe should be greedy and manipulative, violent or drug-sodden, intent on obtaining fame and power, yet these traits have always been typical of the rock world and of many others. He says I divide my characters into victims and victimizers, the latter often proving to be the former; but it was John Lennon who said “there are fuckers and fuckees.” And it is a cliche of the street that the biggest mark is another hustler. I could provide many other instances, but the point is that what Sante condemns as my “world view” is merely my view of the rock world, which he insists upon viewing as if it were a perfectly normal one. Thus he tells us that John Lennon was “a mere mortal,” and that he possessed the “usual human average of weaknesses and blind spots.” This is not a description of a tormented genius living in a licentious milieu, but simply a sum of commonplaces.

Albert Goldman
New York City

Luc Sante replies:

It will come as a relief to many readers to learn that Mr. Goldman’s biography of John Lennon is steeped in New York Jewish humor. The notion that the book might, indeed, be one vast put-on had crossed my mind once or twice while reading it, but the possibility of a joke that large being sustained over seven hundred pages seemed remote. Now Mr. Goldman himself, in his sly way, all but shows the tongue lodged in his cheek (to wit: “specious sentimentality and good cheer”; a comparison between John Lennon and John Cage that “was not to the former’s disadvantage”; “dangers that have materialized beyond even [his] darkest foreboding”). The adjectives “elfin” and “colossal” seldom keep company together, but this instance marks a grand exception; it is a monkeyshine of unprecedented scale.

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