Last word on Len­non

Mahir Ali

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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