B y G r e g o r y M c N a m e e
JOHN WINSTON LENNON, assassinated 15 years ago by an odd young man with shadowy connections to the intelligence community, was no stranger to literature. A gifted poet, he charted some of the most lyrically powerful music of our time; go back and listen to "I'm a Loser," "Norwegian Wood," and "A Day in the Life" for just a few examples of his smart wordplay. In defiance of the rough teddy-boy culture of his early years, John Lennon also read books--piles and piles of books--and he even wrote a few himself: In His Own Write (1964), A Spaniard in the Works (1965), and the posthumously published Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986).
In the 15 years since his murder, a minor Lennon publishing industry has emerged. Fine-press editions of Lennon's erotic lithographs have been released, and several discographies have appeared, few of them as useful as Lennon's own analysis of his records in the April 1981 issue of Playboy magazine. A notable exception is Mark Lewisohn's Beatles: Recording Sessions, 1962-1970, published in 1988, a note-by-note explication of every song Lennon and mates recorded at Abbey Road Studios, and a mine of trivia. (Lewisohn tells us it took 14 takes to get the opening twang of "Baby's in Black" down right, for instance.)
Even the scholars have been busily turning Lennon over in such books as Wayne Hampton's Guerrilla Minstrels (1986), in which the Liverpudlian scamp is equated with Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill, two heroes of American labor radicalism. An endless stream of print about Lennon flows, published by large and small presses alike, parallel to the streams of records and videos featuring the fallen hero, most recently the Beatles Anthology.
That stream is spoiled by twin pollutants: on the one hand, the urge to deify Lennon, and on the other, the sick wish to discredit him as both musician and man. Two books represent these extremes, and it is hard to imagine related titles more dissimilar in intent than Andrew Solt and Sam Egan's Imagine: John Lennon and Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon, both published in 1988.
The first aims to canonize its subject. Yoko Ono, in her foreword to Solt and Egan's book, sets the tone by saying, "His voice was loved because it was the voice of truth," as though John Lennon were the Jesus he once claimed to outstrip in popularity rather than an unusually talented musician, not to mention a mortal being. Lennon's vitriolic temper and inconstant politics escape mention in this expensive scrapbook, the heavily illustrated companion to a movie of the same name. Strangely, Solt and Egan overlook Lennon's musical genius in the rush to complete his elevation to godhood, and a future reader with only this book as a guide might well wonder what all the fuss was about.
Goldman's biography, on the other hand, is a nasty tome that, like his previous biographies of Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce, recognizes no worth in its subject whatever. (Goldman, now dead himself, wisely picked only the dead for his experiments in character assassination. The dead cannot speak in their own defense nor sue for libel.) Goldman's Lennon is hopelessly addicted to drugs from the time he's old enough to strum a guitar, psychopathically violent, musically inept, vulgar, schizophrenic, authoritarian, a Howard Hughes for the now generation. Goldman's Yoko is likewise addicted to drugs and necromancy, vicious and treacherous; she's the Dragon Lady incarnate.
Goldman has difficulty getting his facts straight--especially about the music, the names and contents of famous albums by Lennon and The Beatles, for example, which suggests he didn't waste time listening to any of it before presuming to write.
Paul McCartney, the supposed victim of John and Yoko's intrigues, urged readers to boycott this vile book when it first appeared, but it remains in print. Hands down the worst entry in the Lennon library, it sets new lows in checkbook journalism and commits in words what Mark David Chapman committed in deed a decade and a half ago.
These are extremes. A few other books, such as Ray Coleman's Lennon (1984) and Jon Wiener's thoughtful Come Together (1984), strike a more balanced tone, if they err in shunning mention of Lennon's dark side. Consider that the disc that contains Lennon's hymn "Imagine" also contains a brutal slap at Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep," or that the author of "Working Class Hero" lived in mansions and could never quite decide whether to be counted in or out of what was once fondly called The Revolution, and it becomes clear Lennon was neither saint nor devil, but a man.
Now if only a good writer would set to work on a real biography, 15 years overdue, and put an end to the myth of dear John Lennon.
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