John Len­non

John Len­non’s let­ters re­veal the or­di­nary man be­hind the ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­si­cian, and rarely to his ad­van­tage, writes David Free

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Free is a writer and critic.

FROM the out­side, The John Len­non Let­ters looks like a feast for Len­non buffs. The book is 400 pages long and as heavy as a paver. If Len­non re­ally wrote this many let­ters, this isn’t merely an ‘‘ in­ter­na­tional pub­lish­ing event’’, as the pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial prom­ises. It would also ap­pear to be a ma­jor book.

Un­for­tu­nately, the Let­ters is less full of let­ters than you may think. Ed­i­tor Hunter Davies ini­tially dreamed of dis­cov­er­ing ‘‘ large, hid­den-away caches’’ of un­known Len­non cor­re­spon­dence. In the event, he un­earthed only a hand­ful of sub­stan­tial let­ters. To fill the book up, Davies, by his own ad­mis­sion, has ‘‘ rather ex­panded the def­i­ni­tion of the word ‘ let­ter’ ’’. He has ex­panded it, ap­par­ently, to in­clude any piece of pa­per or card­board that bears Len­non’s sig­na­ture: shop­ping lists, memos to do­mes­tic staff, post­cards to fans (‘‘Dear Toli, Hi! Bye! Love, John’’).

So this isn’t a col­lec­tion of let­ters in the usual sense. To make up for that, the book is sump­tu­ously de­signed. It’s beau­ti­ful to hold and look at. It even smells good. With a few ex­cep­tions, each let­ter or note is pho­to­graph­i­cally re­pro­duced and flanked by a typed tran­scrip­tion of its con­tents. Davies pro­vides gen­er­ous chunks of back­ground in­for­ma­tion be­tween ex­hibits, so that the book al­most qual­i­fies as an il­lus­trated bi­og­ra­phy.

The more re­veal­ing let­ters raise the usual ques­tion. How much about the pri­vate lives of our favourite artists do we re­ally want to know? In Len­non’s case this ques­tion is es­pe­cially pointed.

With­out doubt the man wrote some of the most sublime songs in pop his­tory. But be­hind the scenes, the avatar of peace and love of­ten went out of his way to be ver­bally cruel. Read­ing his let­ters, you need to keep Len­non’s virtues as an artist firmly in mind, per­haps by play­ing his records in the back­ground. If you don’t, there’s a risk you’ll end up not lik­ing him at all.

Len­non had a flair for ran­cour. When the Bea­tles broke up, he and Paul McCart­ney had their bit­ter pub­lic feud. The Let­ters con­firm one’s im­pres­sion that the bit­ter­ness lay al­most en­tirely on John’s side.

When Paul re­leased his solo al­bum Ram, John thought he heard sly digs at him­self and Yoko in the lyrics. He re­tal­i­ated with the vi­ciously un­sub­tle How Do You Sleep? (‘‘Those freaks was right when they said you was dead . . .’’).

Af­ter Paul voiced some rel­a­tively mild ob­jec­tions to that song in Melody Maker, John replied with an open let­ter in which he pro­posed it was typ­i­cally dull of the ‘‘ con­ser­va­tive’’ McCart­ney to take the lyrics ‘‘ so lit­er­ally’’. Ap­par­ently they were meant to be funny. Peo­ple were of­ten mis­read­ing Len­non’s tone, but it never seemed to strike him that this might be his fault rather than theirs.

In his pri­vate let­ters to the McCart­neys, Len­non was even less in­clined to be nice. Linda, writ­ing to Len­non in 1971, up­braided him for quit­ting the Bea­tles with­out telling the press. John replied that oth­ers, in­clud­ing Paul, had per­suaded him to stay silent. ‘‘ So get that into your petty lit­tle per­ver­sion of a mind, Mrs

McCart­ney — the c . . ts asked me to keep quiet about it.’’

Adept at de­tect­ing in­sults, Len­non al­ways had an alarm­ingly deep well of bit­ter­ness to draw on in re­ply. In 1971, the Bea­tles’ ge­nial for­mer pro­ducer Ge­orge Martin made the mis­take of short-chang­ing John on some song­writ­ing cred­its dur­ing an in­ter­view. The man who urged the world to ‘‘ imag­ine no pos­ses­sions’’ wasn’t about to let that slide:

‘‘ When peo­ple ask me ques­tions about ‘ What did Ge­orge Martin re­ally do for you?’, Len­non wrote to Martin, ‘‘ I have only one an­swer, ‘ What does he do now?’ It’s not a put­down, it’s the truth.’’ For good mea­sure, Len­non took a swipe at the ob­scure band Martin was then pro­duc­ing. ‘‘ By the way, I hope Seatrain is a good sub­sti­tute for the Bea­tles.’’

Len­non knew how to wound. No doubt this tal­ent was linked to hav­ing been wounded him­self, in child­hood. Reared by his Aunt Mimi, John al­ways felt his bo­hemian mother, Ju­lia, had aban­doned him. He grew up thin­skinned but cock­sure: a good com­bi­na­tion for a rock ’ n’ roller but bad news for peo­ple who en­coun­tered him on an off day.

In 1971, a well-mean­ing fan sent him a pam­phlet about Chris­tian­ity. John shocked the poor guy by not only writ­ing back but giv­ing him both bar­rels:

Why don’t you Je­sus Freaks get off peo­ple’s backs . . . Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. Your peace of mind doesn’t show in your neu­rotic let­ter, son . . . Peace off!

It didn’t oc­cur to Len­non that the same cri­tique, mi­nus the word Je­sus, was un­can­nily ap­pli­ca­ble to his own spir­i­tual stances. Len­non loudly claimed to be in pos­ses­sion of life’s ul­ti­mate an­swer more than once. But if his rest­less leap­ing from fad to fad brought him peace of mind, it didn’t show.

In 1968, he de­clared the key to ‘‘ ab­so­lute bliss’’ lay in In­dia, at the ashram of the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi. When the Ma­har­ishi proved to be hu­man, Len­non took his re­venge with a song: the White Al­bum’s Sexy Sadie. ‘‘ You made a fool of ev­ery­one.’’ As usual, Len­non’s blame radar pointed strictly out­wards: he de­clined to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity that sub­mit­ting him­self to the bearded one had been fool­ish in the first place.

Af­ter that it was pri­mal scream ther­apy. (‘‘I think this is the last trip,’’ he wrote to Pete Town­shend.) This gave Len­non pseu­do­sci­en­tific li­cence to scream at his age­ing loved ones and then not quite apol­o­gise for it. ‘‘ I seem to re­mem­ber you be­ing up­set by my scream­ing at Mimi?’’ he wrote to a cousin in 1975. ‘‘ Well she and I are both well over that. I hope you are too.’’ Take it or leave it, mate.

On the artis­tic front, the scream­ing craze did give us the re­mark­able, howl-drenched Mother. But did med­i­ta­tion or pri­mal yo­delling change Len­non’s per­son­al­ity? By the mid-1970s he’d done a lot of both and he was still car­ry­ing a lot of rage. Es­tranged from Yoko, he dis­graced him­self in a Los Angeles night­club. When mu­si­cian Todd Rund­gren chipped him for that in an in­ter­view, Len­non proved him­self the mas­ter of the malev­o­lent pub­lic re­tort. ‘‘ Turd Runt­green ... I think that the real rea­son you’re mad at me is cause I didn’t know who you were at the Rain­bow.’’

Len­non fi­nally found con­tent­ment via the least rev­o­lu­tion­ary of paths. He be­came a house­hus­band in New York, with Yoko and their son Sean. At this point the let­ters mel­low. There are cosy do­mes­tic memos and notes for the maid. ‘‘ Milk (3 car­tons.) Or­anges. Grapenuts (not flakes)’’. On the page af­ter that, Len­non fires off a sear­ing plea for jus­tice — to his dry cleaner: ‘‘ What is your ex­cuse for turn­ing my brand new white shirt yel­low?’’

In 1980 Len­non, just turned 40, de­liv­ered the Dou­ble Fan­tasy al­bum. Start­ing Over, Beau­ti­ful Boy, Watch­ing the Wheels — the songs were mel­low­ing too. As an artist, he was far from fin­ished. Three weeks af­ter the al­bum’s re­lease, on De­cem­ber 8, 1980, he was shot dead out­side his apart­ment by ‘‘ crazed fan’’ Mark David Chap­man.

Len­non’s con­sid­er­able charms rarely come across in his let­ters. In mere prose, he lacked the tal­ent to ac­cess the less cranky as­pects of his per­son­al­ity. He needed melody and lyrics to do that. Len­non was only hu­man, but he was also the only hu­man who wrote Imag­ine. That’s the thing to re­mem­ber about him. Give him a gui­tar and he had the power to per­suade you, for the length of a song, that any­thing was pos­si­ble.

The Bea­tles and their wives and girl­friends with the Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi in 1967, above; and John Len­non and Yoko Ono, left, soon be­fore his death

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