essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I watched a documentary on John Lennon recently. It was called The Real John Lennon, and it was my original intention to review it here. I do so below. But in the process of noting data about the film for reference (IMDB was no help) I found there is an enormous amount of both negative and positive opinion on Lennon. He is apparently seen by many as a devil, and by many as a saint. Even though the man died 35 years ago. This I found fascinating, so I investigated further.
My own opinion on Lennon is that he was possibly one of rock and roll’s greatest singers, and as well wrote some good music. None of it profound, but pop music isn’t supposed to be good (as I heard Tom Petty say in an interview. It’s an act of rebellion, not a business or an art form). When I was a teenager I identified with Lennon as a rebel, and I was deeply hurt and shocked when he was murdered. But I never knew much about him.
Much later I read Albert Goldman’s biography, The Lives of John Lennon. I thought it was striking, even better than Grossman’s previous book on Elvis. True, it recounted many discreditable stories about Lennon, but it redressed the balance for his image, which had become somewhat chocolate box with the 1988 film Imagine, and Ono’s efforts to sanctify him.
Goldman of course was a scandalmonger. His previous work included a book on De Quincey (The Mine and the Mint 1965) research for which also earned him a PhD at Columbia, where he later taught; a best seller on Lenny Bruce in 1975; another one on Elvis Presley in 1981; and then the book on Lennon of 1988. All these books are pretty similar, written to a formula. There is much prominence given to sources, usually of interviewees, and allegations of plagiarism, dishonesty, drug addiction, violence and homosexuality about each book’s subject. Goldman wrote in a recognised genre, the celebrity disclosure, a popular 20th century form, especially in America, where people have so many celebrities. His research was spurious, answers to leading questions, and his facts were often not verified. But why bother, when you were making money retailing scandal. Similar hatchet jobs have been done on film stars like Jean Harlow and Cary Grant. Despite Goldman’s lack of credibility as an academic and as a researcher and author, his shock horror anecdotes are still being repeated by some as fact, by naïve readers who think his accounts are detached and scholarly, not cynically exploiting a market. While his book added a dash of reality to the accounts of Lennon, it is not to be taken seriously. Goldman has as much credibility as Joe McCarthy or the Millennium Bug.
A sad fact of human nature. If I praise you, many will be sceptical; if I mention casually you murder and eat young children, the story will be repeated with bated breath all over the place.
What I liked about The Real John Lennon was that it didn’t adopt either the devil or the saint approach, but actually tried to understand some of the contradictions that made up Lennon’s character, as they do within us all. The film was directed by Richard Denton in 2000. Denton is a British TV director and producer, and in 2003 made a film of a similar nature about Cilla Black. His film about Lennon uses interviews with Lennon’s first wife Cynthia, and ones with family members, school friends, and other musicians such as Pete Best. Not as compleat as The Compleat Beatles of 1982, nor focused on the NY days and the role of Yoko Ono as The Day John Lennon Died of 2010. It is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSTQGv7QxpY.
As an example of the film’s approach to often covered material, it explores the unusually close relationship Lennon had with his mother Julia, explains how this came about, described by one of Lennon’s step sisters, and then has one of Lennon’s cousins, who was with Julia, describe her killing by a drunken driver as she crossed a road. It was 1958, Lennon was 18, a college misfit with an exaggerated sense of the grotesque expressed through his art, and a fledgling band called the Quarrymen (who were of course men who extracted rock from a deep pit).
After a stint in Hamburg’s red light district, which formed John’s band, the Beatles, into a tight five piece combo, the group returned to England where they performed at Liverpool’s Cavern Club. Stuart Sutcliffe, who was the nominal bassist, eventually stayed behind to study art in Hamburg. Stuart’s relationship with Lennon was very close. In the film it is described by Stuart’s sister Pauline. He supplied the fostering encouragement that Julia had provided and that apparently Lennon needed. In 1962 he died suddenly of a brain aneurism. Friends suggested this might have been caused during a fight outside the Cavern when the group were attacked by a gang of roughs. Lennon went as far as fearing the fatal kick in the scuffle was his. Nobody could tell; many have felt that nagging guilt after the death of a loved one, telling themselves, maybe it was my fault.
At the Cavern the Beatles met Brian Epstein, who formed the band into a commercial entity and introduced them to George Martin at Parlophone, where they secured a record deal, and soon were making hit records. Epstein was not a manager: he learnt the game with the Beatles, in the process acting as a kind of father figure to the group. He was homosexual, and made advances to both Pete Best and to Lennon. Both declined the offer. Eventually Epstein’s closet life became too much, and he died as a result of an overdose accidentally on purpose in 1967. The film shows the shocked reaction of all four Beatles, who now included Ringo Starr, Pete Best’s replacement. All four felt bereft, not really knowing how to continue without Epstein’s guidance.
The following year, 1967, Lennon met an artist, Yoko Ono, born Tokyo 1933 and resident in USA since 1953. He was immediately attracted to the older woman, and in 1968 divorced his first wife Cynthia and married Ono, who insisted on a complete severance from Cynthia and his son Julian. Friends reported the couple as apparently deeply in love, but this lasted only till 1973, when Lennon separated from Ono and started a relationship with May Pang, which is revealingly described by May in the film. After 18 months, despite friends and colleagues feeling that Lennon was happier than he had been for years, Lennon returned to Ono. They had a child, Sean, in 1975. Five years later Lennon was murdered by a gun toting citizen outside his apartment in New York.
The film has an intriguing section towards its close where friends recount what appear to be premonitions Lennon had that he was about to die.
The film draws these events together, happening within a four or five year interval and all serving to shatter Lennon’s emotional equilibrium. Unlike other accounts of Lennon’s life I’ve read or seen, these events are seen as inter relating. Yoko Ono was in some way another Julia. Lennon called her ‘mother’. After the separation of 1975 Lennon sunk into the heroin stupor described by Goldman: could he have been depressed at the end of his affair with May Pang? Did Epstein replace in some way Lennon’s missing father? Did Lennon feel anger and resentment at these malevolent blows of fate?
There’s a lot of time given to Cynthia Lennon, who expresses both her continuing love for Lennon, her resentment of Ono, and an in depth understanding of John Lennon. It details how badly Julian was treated by Ono and Lennon. And it expresses the resentment many felt at Ono. At the same time it makes clear these are resentments, not facts. And quite understandable ones.
No interview of Yoko Ono is contained in the film, one of its shortcomings. Many resented her, and this may have fostered some of Lennon’s attachment. In fact not at any time has space been devoted to Ono’s Japanese origins, the differing traditions she has been bought up in, her disorientation with American culture, and her insecurities as a stranger in a strange land.
The overall effect of the film was that of a portrait of a complex human being, with many problems and many gifts, and whose work can be seen as emerging from the traumatic events of his life. The final impression I got was that despite his problems and errant behaviour, Lennon was a man whom many loved: Cynthia, May Pang, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Pete Best, his family, Ono, and Brian, Stuart and Julia. He probably needed them all, despite the tough stuff.
But turning to opinions. Some seem to resent Lennon’s canonisation as a fighter for world peace (and it is a little ridiculous: Ono went over the top there) and deliberately falsify the record discreditably. They have a problem: it’s overkill to do that. For example, Lennon once admitted losing his temper and hitting Cynthia. That has been falsified into an accusation that Lennon was a habitual woman beater who hated the female sex.
Lennon was married in 1963, because Cynthia was pregnant with Julian. It has been alleged he was trapped into marriage, and resented having a son. In the film I watched Cynthia said the marriage was Lennon’s idea, and that there was no pressure from her or his or her parents to marry. It has been stated also that John virtually abandoned his family for a life of self indulgence. Not admitted is that he was pursuing his career by playing six hour gigs in Hamburg to promote his career and his band’s.
Rather than quote what is a nasty smear attempt made by someone who has obviously read the Goldman book and believed every word, here it is: http://listverse.com/2012/05/12/top-10-unpleasant-facts-about-john-lennon/. The article quotes no sources but it is extremely unjust. I think if you are going to smear someone’s reputation you need to quote your sources and reveal your reasoning. Otherwise it’s just mindless abuse, the Goldman or Chapman approach.
And the saint or sinner approach reveals a mindless, clueless attitude which totally ignores the fact that the Beatles were human beings. I repeat, I am not a Beatles fan. I just don’t like unfairness, and that’s sadly what famous people get from non famous (and rather stupid) people. Is Paul McCartney really dead? Was John Lennon really controlled in some way by Ono? Was Lennon (or McCartney) homosexual/a drug addict/psychotic? Were they ETs? Should Lennon be shot down because he had disappointed people? That’s what one fan thought, a fan with a gun. Apparently lots of people have them in America, and so celebrity is a dangerous acquisition there.
It’s even more ridiculous than the idea that a man who used his position and prestige to say, “peace would be a good idea” is a kind of Gandhi figure, a holy man who died when he was doing so much good in the world. One fan on YouTube calls Lennon the greatest man who ever lived!
So much better to see the man in context. A man emotionally dependant, because of his upbringing, on others, and liable to go off the rails when abandoned; a great singer and charismatic figure of pop culture, probably the greatest of his time, the 60s; a good pop composer, though only while Paul McCartney was around to compete with; basically a kind man who helped many and was loved by those who knew him, though responsible for anarchic outbreaks of violence, which was also the source of his wit and iconoclasm. Neither sinner, nor saint.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.