Legacy of Lennon
A writer who knew John Lennon in his prime reflects on Lennon’s enduring importance.
POOR John. He’s got old Macca on one side, fruitlessly trying to reverse the hallowed songwriting credits to make it clear, in case there were any doubt, that he wrote Eleanor Rigby and forever claiming (with some justification) that, of the two creative pillars of the Fab Four, he was the one who was really interested in the avant garde. On the other, there’s old Yoko, flogging off his image to motor manufacturers and fountainpen makers and adding ludicrous credits to his albums (on my CD of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the oldies album John recorded in 1973, with and without Phil Spector, it actually says: “Production personally supervised by Yoko Ono”).
And in the middle there’s Julian, his son by his first wife, already – can you believe this? – older by seven years than John was when Mark Chapman fired the fatal shots, emerging to complain about the cost of collecting memorabilia connected with a father for whose prolonged absences during his childhood a legacy reputed to be £20mil (RM98.3mil) appears to be, understandably enough, scant compensation.
Tomorrow John would have been 70. On Dec 8, it will have been 30 years since his death. The remains of the record industry he helped create, its pistons still warm from the fevered launch of the Beatles Remasters series and the Beatles: Rock Band video game a year ago, is cranking itself up again.
This week, the troubled EMI Music will put on a happy face, and issue not just remastered versions of eight existing Lennon solo albums but a bunch of new compilations and boxes, squeezing yet more blood from the carcass of the group whose phenomenal success brought it the prosperity that has subsequently been frittered away.
Everything is negotiable?
Yoko has been heavily involved in all this activity. How could she not be when a line on the cover of all the reissues of her late husband’s work states: “The copyright in these sound recordings is owned by Yoko Ono Lennon/EMI Records Ltd”? Much more satisfactory, of course, to have it owned by the widow and the original record company than by some bunch of hustlers to whom the Rat Pack represented the pinnacle of 20th-century popular culture, which is what happened to the Rolling Stones’ early recordings. If barrelscrapingscraping has to be done, then better that the royalty cheques should be paid into a bank account bearing the name Lennon.
It was Yoko, however, who agreed to let an advertising agency working for the PSA Peugeot Citroën group buy the rights to a clip from an interview given by John in 1968, for use in a television commercial earlier this year. “Once a thing’s been done, it’s been done,” the long-haired Lennon is saying. “So why all this nostalgia? I mean, for the 1960s and 70s, you know, looking backwards for inspiration, copying the past. How’s that rock’n’roll? Do something of your own. Start something new. Live your own life.” The message: buy our “anti-retro” car, the Citroën DS3.
Except he was actually saying something else. A YouTube detective posted the original footage, shot by the BBC, in which John is actually talking about reading Sherlock Holmes in Tahiti before writing his own book, A Spaniard In The Works. The new words are from a different source and to anyone familiar with Lennon’s speaking voice, it seems that they have been slightly slowed down to create an approximate match with the film.
Sean Lennon, his younger son, apologised for that one. Well, sort of. He tweeted in
John Lennon at 70. His birthday on Oct 9 brings with it a raft of special commemorations, recordings, films, books and live performances that indicate Lennon’s hold on the world’s imagination is as strong as ever. – Picture taken in New York City on Aug 28, 1974. defence of his mother: “She did not do it for money. Has to do w hoping to keep dad in public consciousness. No new LPs, so TV ad is exposure to young. Having just seen ad I realise why people are mad. But intention was not financial, was simply wanting to keep him out there in the world.”
Pull the other one, Sean. This is a man, your father, whose Wedgwood-style lavatory, orig- Lennon, giving the peace sign, and his wife, Yoko Ono, arriving for a hearing on their deportation case at the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service office in lower Manhattan, on May 12, 1972. The ex-Beatle’s celebrated battle with the feds is chronicled in a documentary tracing how he went from rock star to fierce anti-war protester to ‘undesirable alien’. inally installed at Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, his last home in Britain, was auctioned for £9,500 (RM46,711) last month.
The last album he autographed – Double Fantasy, inscribed at the request of Mark Chapman a couple of hours before the 25year-old returned to the Dakota building to make himself famous – went for US$525,000 (RM1.6mil) seven years ago. One of last year’s most successful British films was Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s scrupulous and sensitive account of his early days. John Lennon’s name is hardly one that needs to be artificially hoisted into the public gaze.
But that hasn’t stopped his widow exploiting it in fields that have nothing to do with music. In the last couple of weeks, the Montblanc company has been promoting a John Lennon special-edition fountain pen, with a clip shaped like a guitar fretboard. The newspaper ad has a CND symbol in the background and a slogan: “To John, with love.” An earlier pen was dedicated to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, with a picture of the spiritual leader engraved on its 16-carat gold nib.
John would have laughed at that, wouldn’t he? Perhaps with scorn, certainly with amusement at the incongruity of the project. But only diehard Beatles fans seem to be upset. The rest of the world accepts it as part of a new culture in which everything – particularly if it evokes a set of desirable values – is for sale, everything is negotiable, everything is there to be sampled and remixed and put to some new purpose.
Here is one of the many aspects of life that has changed since Lennon celebrated his 40th and final birthday. And here are some of the other things he missed. Madonna. Mike Tyson. Princess Diana, more or less from start to finish. Beverly Hills Cop I, II and III. The flowering of Thatcherism. The Internet. The second summer of love. The Blair Witch Project. Grunge. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Nice girls wearing tattoos. Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig as 007. David Beckham. Gangsta rap. There’s Something About Mary.
Dunblane and Columbine. World music. Tim Henman. The Oklahoma bombing and 9/11. The neocons and New Labour. Radiohead. The Asian tsunami. The iPod. Rom-coms and reality TV. Mamma Mia!. Auto-Tuning.
And Twitter, of course, to bring it right up to date. He would have loved Twitter. He was an inveterate sender of postcards, often decorated with doodled self-portraits, and he wasn’t the sort of person to write a letter and then put it away in a desk drawer overnight before inspecting it the next morning and removing anything that might have been set down in haste. His generosity and his venom were equally impulsive in their nature and second thoughts didn’t really interest him.
I happened to be there when he was learning to type, in the suite he and Yoko occupied in the St Regis hotel in New York as a temporary accommodation after making the move to the United States in the autumn of 1971. He was sitting on their bed with a small portable machine on his lap, tapping away. One of the things he wanted to be able to do was type letters to newspapers.
My paper, the Melody Maker, subsequently became the recipient of several lengthy broadsides, usually disputing assertions made in interviews by Paul McCartney or George Martin. He saw everything and let nothing go without comment. Twitter’s immediacy, and its encouragement of the urge to respond, would have suited him down to the ground. Once Sean had shown him how, you wouldn’t have been able to get him off it.
But in what other ways would he have adapted to a changing world, had he not turned in response to Chapman’s call that night on the corner of West 72nd Street and Central Park West, after being driven home from the Record Plant with a set of cassettes containing the fruits of that evening’s work, his life about to come to an end only months after his re-emergence from half a decade of reclusion?
Back into the groove
He was making music again, and although the songs on Double Fantasy could not match the riveting originality of Norwegian Wood, Strawberry Fields Forever, Happiness Is A Warm