Nowhere Man: The Final Days Of John Lennon, by Robert Rosen
June, 2000 Soft Skull Press
As mentioned in my review last week of The Last Days Of John Lennon, this is sort of the other half of the story, in two aspects – one, author Robert Rosen was privy to why John Lennon did certain things in the last few years of his life, things which caused Frederic Seaman much confusion in his book. And two, because Rosen, though not named, was accused in the final pages of Seaman’s book of holding Lennon’s journals hostage in order to get a book deal, only stopped by a convoluted scheme Seaman claimed to have cooked up, like a poor man’s version of Ocean’s Eleven or something. So here Rosen gets the opportunity to show his own side of the story.
Nowhere Man is much shorter than Seaman’s book, and much more literary to boot. Whereas Seaman’s book almost comes off like a piece of tabloid journalism, Rosen’s is more akin to a cogent, literary look at the dangers of fame. The closest comparison I can think of would be The Tao Of Bruce Lee, Davis Miller’s slim-but-heavy study of “The Man, The Myth” himself. And just like Miller, Rosen attempts to deconstruct his subject, showing the man behind the myth; as in Seaman’s book, John Lennon here is a shell of his former self, so to speak, “trapped in a gilded cage” of his own making. But whereas he comes off as pathetic in The Last Days Of John Lennon, here he comes off more like a guy taking a well-deserved break from what has been a hectic life.
What sets Nowhere Man apart from all the other Lennon books is that this one makes use of his never-published journals, which Rosen temporarily had possession of in the very early 1980s, immediately after Lennon’s murder. What happened, per Rosen, is that Fred Seaman, who acted as John’s personal assistant in the last year and a half-plus of John’s life, promptly called old college pal Rosen promptly upon getting the gig and told him that they needed to collaborate on a book about the ex-Beatle. Rosen, who further claims that Seaman called him several times a day with gossipy updates from the Lennon home in the Dakota, began keeping a detailed journal of his own. Curiously (note sarcasm), Seaman makes no mention of any of this in his own book.
When John was murdered on December 8, 1980, Seaman didn’t seem to waste much time taking a lof of his stuff out of the Dakota and stashing it in Rosen’s apartment. Again per Seaman, this was all due to a secret promise he’d made John the year before – that he’d give John’s journals to his estranged teenaged son, Julian. As I noted in my review of Seaman’s book, this sounds rather fishy…John and Julian were never very close, and if any son were to get those journals it would more than likely be Sean, only five when John was killed but admittedly John’s favored son, per comments John himself made in multiple interviews. But anyway Seaman claims these journals all fit in a single attache case, so he doesn’t elaborate why he needed someone else’s place to stash it.
Rosen spent some time studying the journals, several hours a day. They ranged from 1975 to 1980, and Rosen was the only person outside of John who’d ever read them. Then, after Seaman pushed him to take a Caribbean vacation, Rosen returned to discover that all of the John Lennon material had been taken from his apartment; for some reason, Seaman also had a key to the place. Anyway Seaman presumably took everything, but Rosen realized that he’d spent so much time with the journals that he’d committed them to memory. Thus he began typing them out while they were still fresh in his memory. After this he contacted various people to get a book deal – and why exactly Seaman screwed him over isn’t really explored, or if it was I must’ve missed it. My assumption was Seaman found out he was in deep shit and tried to get rid of all the incriminating evidence.
Anyway after contacting Rolling Stone head honcho Jann Wenner, Rosen was put in contact with Yoko Ono – who offered Rosen a job. He turned over his own journals, the ones he’d started when Seaman went to work for John, and Yoko used the material recorded therein to burn Seaman. That being said, Yoko was rather lenient to Seaman in the punishment he was given; it wasn’t until 2002, after he’d made a fortune off dragging her name through the mud in The Last Days Of John Lennon, that she finally took him to court and got him ordered to stop. As Sean Lennon was reported to state at the time, “I just wonder why it took this long.”
But it gets even screwier; Yoko refrained from giving Rosen his own journals back, and apparently they didn’t return to his possession until after this original hardcover edition of Nowhere Man was published. The softcover version and the recent eBook all make use of these original notes, meaning there’s more material in these later editions, which is a shame – I got this first edition via Interlibrary Loan, so it’s the only one I’ve read. So long story short, this book offers a unique view into the mind of John Lennon – or does it? I have to admit I was confused here, because Rosen claims he was unable to actually quote from John’s journals, due to copyright infringement, and so could only write about stuff that he could find mentioned elsewhere.
So by way of example – Nowhere Man details one of John’s many sex dreams in which he gets lucky with an unnamed Asian actress. Rosen revealed in an interview that he’d made the “Asian” part up when he wrote the book, as actually it was Barbara Walters John dreamed about(!), but since Rosen couldn’t find any mention of this dream elsewhere, he couldn’t state who starred in John’s dream. So he just made it a random Asian gal because, as we all know, John liked Asian gals. Then, after the book was published, Rosen saw that knowledge of this dream had filtered out via other sources, so in the softcover edition of the book he changed it to “Barbara Walters.”
Anyway what I’m getting at is this…while I appreciate that John’s journals were used as the basis for the book, is the reality that Nowhere Man is actually like a “greatest hits” of info we can find out about John from other sources? As mentioned, I’m confused as hell by all this, and no doubt due to the various cold medicines I’ve been on recently. What I think Rosen is trying to say is that he is referring often to John’s journals, but paraphrasing them in a way that will keep him out of court.
Rosen further states that it took 18 years for Nowhere Man to be published, likely due to the stigma it had acquired with the whole Frederic Seaman connection. But it looks like Rosen wrote the majority of it in 1982, based off his memories of the journals he no longer owned but had memorized, and then tinkered with it until Soft Skull Press published it in 2000. Now it has become a veritable cult classic, and doesn’t seem to have the bad vibes Seaman’s book has acquired. But really it’s a very different book, more of a novel than a bio – Rosen also got some flak for claiming at the outset that Nowhere Man is sort of a combo of fact and imagination, which no doubt turned off people looking for “the real thing.” But then it seems clear that a lot of these Lennon books are mostly fabrication anyway.
The book opens and ends with this “fiction” approach in full swing, as Rosen imagines John in Jerusalem to carry out a Jesus-style “feet washing” ritual. After that we open up on a seemingly random day in January 1980; the book ends on this same day, and Rosen uses it as a framing device, the about-to-be-creatively-reborn John Lennon roaming around the Dakota and musing on this or that. We see straightaway one of those glaring misses from Seaman’s book: John’s love for his son, Sean. An early riser, John stops outside Sean’s room and looks in on him: “Sometimes tears well in his eyes.” Whereas Seaman had it that John mostly kept Sean at bay with expensive toys, Rosen presents a proud, loving father – indeed Sean is considered special, voicing profound witticisms well beyond his years.
That being said, we learn that John’s not so crazy about being a dad when Sean acts up, so there are times when he leaves a lot of the parenting to Sean’s “governness,” Helen Seaman. Seaman had it that father and son were constantly fighting in his book. I think here we get a better indication of how John really felt about his son; John stated in 1980 interviews that he pasted a photo of Sean in the studio, and it’s a little known fact that on the night John was killed, he was heading back to the Dakota shortly before 11PM so he could look in on Sean while he was sleeping. If John had gone for a burger instead, as he’d considered doing, the possibility exists that he might’ve lived at least another day, as after 11PM the front entrance of the Dakota was closed and John would’ve had to go in via the more-secure rear entry. However the murder probably would’ve still happened – the killer himself stated years ago, in an interview with Larry King, that he wouldn’t have left New York until John Lennon was dead.
As expected, Yoko comes off a lot better here. In Seaman’s book she’s a straight-up bitch, toying with John’s emotions and rarely speaking to him, indeed pushing him to leave the Dakota and then coming up with countless excuses why she can’t go with him. Seaman also has it that Yoko’s carrying on affairs with two guys named “Sam,” and also she’s back to snorting heroin, and she couldn’t care less about little Sean. But of course Seaman has an axe to grind, and also there was a lot he wasn’t seeing – he wasn’t there all day, every day. Here we learn that Yoko’s more superstitious than cruel; most of the time she’s afraid to leave the Dakota due to “Mercury Retrograde” or bad tarot card readings or whatever. And as for those two Sams, John understands something Seaman fails to grasp – they’re both gay. That one of them’s an interior designer and the other’s an art store owner should’ve been Seaman’s first clue...
John and Yoko were pretty much obsessed with the occult, and while I too have always found that stuff interesting, I think there comes a point where you can become too mired in it. Robert Anton Wilson had a saying to the effect of, “If you look at the Universe, the Universe eventually looks back at you.” I believe he was using this to illustrate Jung’s concept of synchronicity, aka a “meaningful coincidence,” and RAW no doubt meant this in a positive light. But I also think there’s a negative side. If you know Mercury’s going in Retrograde, or that the numerological significance of today’s date or such and such a person’s name is “bad,” or that a tarot reading on some event shows negative repercussions if you take certain actions – well, sooner or later you’re basically chained to that sort of shit. Kind of like the man and woman on the tarot “Devil” card, in fact – if you note, at least in the Rider-Waite deck, they could easily slip out of the shackles that bind them to the Devil. Meaning they are there by their own volition.
And John and Yoko are certainly shackled, Yoko in particular; she doesn’t go with John on his occasional trips and takes forever to visit him when he goes to Bermuda in 1980 due to all the bad astrological vibes and whatnot. Or so she says, at least. John does occasionally worry Yoko might be up to something, but here it’s revealed that John himself is fond of visiting massage parlors and the like. In fact Rosen delivers some actual sleaze with John getting handjobs from the occasional masseuse, and we also learn that one afternoon he slips away for some quickie sex with May Pang in a hospital bed(!). There’s also a part, not even mentioned in Seaman’s book, where John takes an impromptu trip, all by himself, to South Africa, staying only a few days, and visiting a few local massage parlors.
One of the things I appreciate about Nowhere Man is that it provides explanations, sort of, behind the insanity in The Last Days Of John Lennon. For example, anyone who’s read Seaman’s book will recall the bizarre part where John, apropos of nothing, takes an abrupt vow of silence for like two weeks or something. No reason is given and it nearly drives everyone crazy, especially Sean, who has no idea why his dad can no longer talk to him (of course, Yoko isn’t there – this all occurs at their lakehouse mansion on Long Island). It’s implied Yoko’s making him do it. But here we see it’s John’s idea, sort of a ritual to strenghten his resolve or something, and we also see that Yoko’s quite proud of him for achieving it. Regardless, it still comes off like more narcissistic shit on John’s part – personally I’d rather spend the two weeks playing with my kid.
We’re also privy to John’s dreams, and learn that he was into lucid dreaming, which I think is pretty cool. But it appears for the most part his “programmed dreams” were sex dreams about May. Actually this is a good segue into something I almost forgot to mention – what I think elevates Nowhere Man above the norm is that Rosen has studied the various occult topics John was interested in. Whereas Seaman constantly discounted all of John’s occult interests in an altogether condescending manner, Rosen seems to have read up on them to try to understand how they appealed to John. In fact there is almost a sort of occult or perhaps esoteric vibe to Nowhere Man, one of those books where you suspect there might be a “deeper meaning” to the text.
There are some details here I wish Rosen had given more info on, though, like the interesting revelation that in 1977, “with Yoko’s blessing,” John spent a week in South America with a native witch! If that doesn’t have the makings of a potential book, I don’t know what does, but unfortunately Rosen doesn’t elaborate and I can’t find anymore info about this anywhere. Speaking of Yoko, she also comes off much better in this book when it comes to the recording sessions that led to Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey; Rosen has it that it was John’s idea for them to record together, which is in accord with John’s own statements to the press. Seaman has it that Yoko badgered him into the idea.
In the last quarter of Nowhere Man Rosen makes a curious authorial decision: he takes us into the mind of John Lennon’s killer. Personally I could’ve done without this, as the last thing I want to read about is this guy. Rosen doesn’t try to make excuses for him; he presents a chubby freak who is well beyond insane, but again it has the vibe of literary fiction, as we’re actually taken into Chapman’s thoughts – we feel his outrage to discover that “Imagine no possessions” John Lennon is filthy rich and owns practically everything. This literary ring is effective in playing up the synchronicities that occurred as Chapman planned the murder – like the fact that the last name of the guy who sold him his gun was “Ono.”
Rosen also repeats the mistake that Chapman called out “Mr. Lennon!” before firing the gun, something I believe is generally discredited now. Chapman didn’t say anything, just waited till John walked by, went into a combat crouch, and opened fire. From there the book details more needless stuff about Chapman, how he appeared in court, the whole “Little People” nonsense, all that. We finally get back to John Lennon on that early January 1980 day, as he ponders again the “gilded cage” his fame has put him in, and here Nowhere Man comes to a close.
On a writing level, I think this one is much better than Seaman’s book, but whereas that one’s a quick, trashy read that makes you feel like you are right there alongside Seaman while he deals with the latest John & Yoko insanity, Rosen’s book is a slower read, with more of an insightful and probing nature. Honestly I think it’s best read along with The Last Days Of John Lennon, with the caveat that I suspect Rosen’s book is closer to the truth, at least in so far as the stuff with Yoko is concerned.
Next week I wrap up my “Lennon trilogy” thing with John Green’s Dakota Days, a goofy 1983 book by John and Yoko’s tarot reader!