Legacy of Len­non

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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

Imag­ine ...

TheUSvsJohnLen­non,

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