Last word on Lennon
HAD he still been around, it is unlikely a 68-year-old John Lennon would have heaved a sigh of relief at being forgiven by Rome — at long last — for having said in 1966 that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. He may, however, have been piqued by the continued misinterpretation of what was, to him, a throwaway remark.
Last month the semi-official Vatican organ L’Osservatore Romano, in an article marking the 40th anniversary of the White Album, dismissed the comment as a youthful joke, a showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock ’ n’ roll and had enjoyed unexpected success.
In fact, the only Beatle with genuinely working-class origins was Ringo Starr. And although Lennon’s comparison between the Beatles and Christ was off the cuff, it was neither a joke nor an attempt to big-note his band. Rather, it was part of a perfectly serious discussion on the state of Western civilisation. He was talking to Maureen Cleave, a journalist who enjoyed privileged access to the Beatles, and when her interview appeared in London’s Evening Standard , that quote occasioned no backlash. It was only when, a few months later, an American magazine reproduced the article and decided to highlight the sacrilege that all hell broke loose on the eve of what turned out to be the Beatles’ last tour of the US, a tour that was peppered with death threats.
The bonfires of Beatles records contrasted starkly with the euphoric welcome on their first visit to the US just two years earlier. Many years later, a seemingly unrepentant Lennon noted: ‘‘ I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days; if I hadn’t said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas. God bless America. Thank you, Jesus.’’
That 1966 tour concluded with a concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the quartet’s final live performance bar one. Less than three years later, on a blustery winter’s day, they congregated on the rooftop of the Apple building in central London, letting rip with gusto to provide an uplifting finale for the documentary Let It Be . The scene forms a counterpoint to the film’s broader theme of a band in the final stages of acrimoniously falling apart.
That is the image with which Philip Norman wrapped up Shout! The True Story of the Beatles , published in 1981. ‘‘ It was,’’ he writes, ‘‘ four musicians playing together as no four musicians ever could or ever would again.’’
The hyperbole was excusable, coming as it did at the tail end of a thoroughly researched and extremely well-written account of a remarkable cultural phenomenon. It was far more readable and informative than Hunter Davies’s authorised biography of the band. Although Shout! is a reasonably balanced narrative, subtle Lennonist leanings are discernible. It is not surprising therefore that a decade later he came up with Days in the Life: John Lennon Remembered .
He has returned again to the subject. In his view, neither of the two existing full-scale biographies of the man did him justice: Ray Coleman’s Lennon was ‘‘ an honourable attempt but . . . never quite brought John alive on the page’’, while Albert Goldman’s malevolent, risibly ignorant The Lives of John Lennon could be totally discounted.
Of course innumerable other books about Lennon have appeared in the 28 years since his assassination, but all of them focus on particular phases of his life or aspects of his artistry. In The Life , Norman goes for the big picture.
In 800-plus pages, there is obviously plenty of scope for such detail. The author goes into nooks and crannies that have eluded previous chroniclers, conjuring up curious vignettes to embellish his canvas. Take, for instance, the following illustration of the teenage John’s proclivities: He became a dedicated wanker, undeterred by any fear of heavenly retribution and, as always, in company with his archcrony Pete Shotton. It was a further symbol of their closeness, without any suggestion of the homoerotic; they wanked together as an act of ShennonLotton rebellion, defiance and mutual showing off. John proved to have a particular aptitude and near-inexhaustible stamina . . . The wider circle of Lennon followers would also sociably wank all together, stimulating themselves and their neighbours by shouting out the names of sex goddesses like Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida. Sometimes at the critical moment, John would call out ‘‘ Winston Churchill’’ or ‘‘ Frank Sinatra’’, and the onanists would collapse in giggles.
Norman doesn’t suggest it, but it’s possible that such experiences provided the inspiration for Come Together . Just as his revelations about 14-year-old John’s moment of incestuous longings towards Julia Lennon add a layer of meaning to the lyric, ‘‘ Mother, you had me but I never had you . . .’’
Lennon evidently wondered until the end of his days whether his mother would have reciprocated had he pursued the matter further. Prurient revelations of this nature inevitably made it into print as a part of pre-publication publicity for Norman’s book, including a passing reference to Lennon’s fantasies about experimenting sexually with Paul McCartney.
The latter dismisses this notion out of hand, citing the millions of times they literally slept together out of necessity in the days when they were just another Liverpudlian band on the make. Norman also reveals the identity of the conquest Lennon refers to in Norwegian Wood ( and no, it isn’t Cleave).
Norman bears more than a passing resemblance to McCartney, but the two of them don’t get along too well, partly because McCartney probably hasn’t forgotten Norman’s attack on him, in verse, in The Sunday Times many years ago: ‘‘ O deified Scouse with unmusical spouse / For the cliches and cloy you unload, / To an anodyne tune they may bury you soon / In the middlemost midst of the road.’’
He nonetheless agreed to answer Norman’s questions by email. The biographer was also able to interview a variety of Lennon’s relatives and early friends. He’s particularly impressive in filling in the blanks about John’s missing father, and equally good at encapsulating his relationship with Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
He had access to Yoko Ono as well, but the image of Lennon in the final phase of his life — the five years of supposed househusbandry in New York’s Dakota building — is relatively unevocative.
The rebellious youngster comes alive on the page, as does the progressively unhappy Beatle, and even the ex-Beatle who struggles successfully against deportation from the US. Beyond that, however, it’s a bit of a blur.
Ono refused to endorse the book on the grounds that it is too mean to Lennon. That’s as mistaken a judgment as her faith in psychics and numerologists. It is in fact a thoroughly engaging, largely fair portrait of an extraordinarily talented artist who could be tender as well as vicious, profound as well as hilariously flippant, and whose finest endeavours will resonate for a long time to come.
So will Norman’s doorstopper. For a decade or three it is likely to remain the last word in Lennonography.
Mahir Ali is a journalist on The Australian.
Comes alive: John Lennon— The Thinker by Tom Hanley, part of an exhibition titled John Lennon Imagine! at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria