Monday, October 1, 2018

The Last Days Of John Lennon

The Last Days Of John Lennon, by Frederic Seaman
December, 1992  Dell Books
(original hardcover edition 1991)

This is actually the second time I’ve read this book, the notorious “personal memoir” of Frederic Seaman, who served as John Lennon’s assistant in the final two years of Lennon’s life. The first time I read it was around 1997, when I was on a Beatles kick. I can’t remember the last time I actually listened to a Beatles album, let alone a John Lennon solo album, but this book stuck with me and somehow I’ve ended up reading it again.

Seaman’s book was always notorious, given that he’d been sued by former employer Yoko Ono and admitted to thieving all kinds of stuff from her, including most famously John Lennon’s diaries. These days his book is perhaps even more notorious, as due to a 2002 lawsuit Seaman is forbidden to financially benefit in any way from his time serving the Lennons, and thus The Last Days Of John Lennon is never to be reprinted. (Let’s pause a moment while online sellers jack up their prices accordingly.) This same lawsuit saw Seaman apologizing to Yoko in court for all the lies he spread about her, which casts even more doubt on the contents of this book.

Clearly I never knew John Lennon, so I can’t say what’s truth or what’s lies in this book, but I’d bet the majority of the Yoko stuff is a little shall we say embellished. In Seaman’s book, John Lennon in the late ’70s is an emaciated shut-in with pasty skin, stringy long hair and beard, and is totally under the witchy spell of Yoko, who controls everything he does down to the smallest detail. Plus she’s having affairs with two different men (confusingly both named Sam) right under John’s nose, and besides that she’s constantly on the phone talking to her retinue of psychics, tarot card readers, mystics, business partners, what have you.

We already know we’re in for an anti-Yoko book from the start, as the book opens in 1982 and Seaman’s in the process of being beaten up by two off-duty cops who moonlight for Yoko; they want back the still-missing John Lennon diary for 1980, but Seaman swears he doesn’t have it. From there we flash back to how Seaman came to be in this predicament. He got the assistant job through his uncle, an art-world guy who produced some of Yoko’s happenings and also testified on behalf of John when he was struggling for an American citizenship. Seaman had recently graduated college – having studied journalism – and was looking for work. One day in February 1979 he got a call asking if he’d consider being John Lennon’s personal assistant; Seaman had met the famous couple a few years before, at some shindig of his uncle’s, and John remembered him favorably.

Seaman does a great job of bringing us into the fold, which is super crazy. I’ll say one thing: despite any questions on the honesty of his recountings, Seaman’s writing skills are top-notch. He might overuse dialog modifiers a bit (I lost track of the number of times Seaman “gaped” at some mystical profundity John had just dropped on him), but otherwise he really keeps it moving, sticking to a theme that might or might not reflect reality: John when Seaman meets him is a recluse and borderline nutcase, his muse long ago lost, content to take drugs in his bedroom, stare at TV, and simmer in his own hostilities. But after a cathartic trip to Bermuda in 1980 John is reborn, rushing to the studio to complete his comeback album, Seaman subtly implying that John was also about to free himself from the yoke of Yoko.

The official story for those who forget is that Lennon, after living it up in a “lost weekend” (which actually lasted like two years) with the sexy May Pang, returned to Yoko when, despite all the odds, she discovered she was pregnant in early 1975. The two had tried many times for a child but Yoko was “old” in her early 40s and all that friggin’ heroin she took didn’t help matters much. But a Chinese doctor gave them a prescription (in full: stop taking drugs) and Yoko proved the western doctors wrong. Sean was born on Oct. 9th, same birthday as John, and the former Beatle ensconsced himself in the Dakota to become a full-time dad. He didn’t come back into the spotlight until late 1980, upon the release of Doube Fantasy.

Lennon’s post-retirement interviews, all given in the weeks before he was gunned down on December 8, 1980, feature the same story of his average day over the past five years – he baked bread, he was a “househusband,” he focused solely on Sean. He and Yoko were the picture of domestic bliss. According to Seaman, though, all that’s bullshit – John barely interracted with Sean (who was a spoiled little brat anyway), he and Yoko seldom saw one another, let alone spoke, and John didn’t “bake bread” once. It’s clear from the get-go that Seaman is stretching the truth, in particular when it comes to Yoko, our first clue to the author’s true feelings being when he uses the word “chattering” to describe how she talks in Japanese. (I once told my wife she was “chattering” in Cantonese and let me tell you folks, it didn’t go over very well.)

But this indicates how the author really feels, and as the book progresses Yoko is portrayed in full-on “Yellow Peril” proportions, occasionally coming out of her Inner Sanctum in revealing clothes that show off her “ample cleavage” and alternating between a malevolent force of occult power and a person so clueless and meek that she’s terrified of a mere car ride. Seaman basically implies she has John hypnotized to her will; Seaman can’t undersand how a once-mighty rock star can’t make a single decision without checking with “mother” first, or how Yoko calls all the shots, with John constantly apologizing for being wrong and going out of his way to make her happy. So obviously Frederic Seaman has never been married…

It would appear though that the truth perhaps lies between the two – John was very close with Sean, and Seaman wasn’t in the Dakota 24/7 so surely there was a lot he didn’t see. (And John’s “Beautiful Boy” sure as hell comes straight from the heart and isn’t courtesy some disinterested dad who was just phoning it in.) But it’s also true there were a ton of assistants and gofers there, and a lot of Sean’s upbringing was courtesy his “governess,” Helen Seaman, aka Fred’s aunt. Yoko herself in those ’80 interviews stated that mothering really wasn’t her thing, so there’s that; both here and in Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man (to be reviewed next week, as part of a sort of “Lennon trilogy” I’m reading) we see that Helen is constantly with Sean, more so than either Yoko or John. But this too ultimately makes Fred Seaman look bad, as due to his illegal actions after John’s death, Helen had to quit and thus little Sean lost two parents back to back.

Seaman states that John told him he should keep a journal, as John himself did; Seaman includes a scan of a random journal page, and we see the detail he recorded each day of his time with the Lennons. So the book does have a ring of truth to it, particularly in Seaman’s interractions with John – the stuff John ate, the stuff he watched, the stuff he read. John we learn was fascinated by the occult, and there are many parts where he orders Seaman to buy the entire occult inventory of various bookstores. Even here Yoko is presented as a bitch; one part that stuck with me is where Seaman has an excited John running after Yoko to show her some book among the pile Seaman just delivered, eager to have her take a look, but Yoko just shrugs and keeps walking away.

Seaman takes us along on the frequent, months-long trips – for a recluse, John Lennon sure traveled a lot – and he continues to build on the theme of John slowly emerging from his shell. The funny thing is, I could almost see Seaman’s point; I happened to also get via Interlibrary Loan the book Instamatic Karma, by May Pang herself, a 2008 book filled with color photos May took of John with her Polaroid in ’73 and ’74. The differences between how John looks therein and in the photos Seaman includes here are striking; it’s as if John aged decades in just a few years. Whereas in May Pang’s book he’s healthy and fit, smiling and eating burgers and doing all sorts of rock star stuff, in the photos Seaman provides he’s a skinny wreck with hunched shoulders and a greasy beard and you can barely even tell it’s the same guy.

The book is never boring, and Seaman’s documentation of each day would be tedious if it wasn’t so fascinating, given the characters on display. John actually doesn’t even come off too bad; he doesn’t boss Seaman around and in fact makes jokes about his occasional goofs. John seems to save all his anger for Paul McCartney, whom he hates so much that, when Paul calls to say he’s about to stay in the same hotel suite in Tokyo that John and Yoko love so much, John freaks and tells “Mother” and soon Yoko’s consorting with her occult seers. The result, as all Beatles fans know: Paul was busted for marijuana possession upon his entry in Japan, and he went to jail instead of a luxury hotel. John claims Yoko’s magic was behind it and chortles over this “victory.”

Things pick up more when John takes up sailing, and soon embarks on his trip to Bermuda. Here Yoko again comes off as cruel, as she refuses to come visit John for like a couple months and he’s reduced to constantly calling her and being turned away – a recurring theme in the book. But Sean’s here, and Seaman finally has the father and son bonding. And meanwhile John’s creative instincts are spurred and he’s coming up with new material. Here Seaman states outright that Yoko “insists” she be part of John’s new album, even though John himself would prefer to do his album alone; John’s own comments in interviews would indicate otherwise, but we must not forget that Seaman’s goal throghout is to make Yoko look like a creature spawn from hell.

This is the highlight of the novel as Seaman shows John coming back to himself – that he’s lost his muse is only inferred, never outright stated, and as they go around Bermuda John’s coming up with song after song, recording demos on hastily-bought equipment. Speaking of which John and Yoko’s binge-spending is one of the more insane aspects of the book; I think they drop around a million or so bucks on anything that suits their fancy, and inevitably it’s hauled into one of their storage rooms in the Dakota and never looked at again. But back to the new music, Seaman makes it clear that Yoko’s own work is subpar, yet she has John so in her thrall that he too becomes excited at the idea of doing an album together with her.

When they get back to New York and begin recording the material that would eventually be released on Double Fantasy (1980) and Milk And Honey (1984), it’s as if a totally different John Lennon is the protagonist of the book; no more the recluse, brooding in his room and getting stoned, reading occult books, John’s now a man driven. It’s to Seaman’s credit that he doesn’t play up how John truly is living on “Borrowed Time,” as one of John’s new songs was titled. But then John Lennon clearly had some sort of premonition of his own death; you could lose count the number of times he refers to death or dying in his songs, even going back to the Beatles years, and his interviews, particularly those given shortly before his murder, are filled with ironic comments like “until the day I die” or about how he doesn’t want to be worshipped when he’s gone like Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious and all the other dead rockers.

The Last Days Of John Lennon has a trash fiction vibe throughout, but here in the homestretch it really reads like a rock thriller, filled with salacious details that are more goofy than anything, like Seaman’s report that Yoko snorts a line of coke “in front of everyone” in the studio before doing the vocals for one of her songs. Meanwhile, people have been doing drugs throughout the novel – including Seaman himself – so you wonder why he even bothered to mention this as if it were yet some other damning tidbit about Yoko. He also makes it clear that he considers her songs for the album to be terrible, and implies that John felt the same way.

It’s also to Seaman’s credit that, as we get to the inevitable, sad end, he doesn’t sap it up (“I woke up from a bad dream on the morning of Monday, December 8th,” or etc…). Indeed he barrels through these last days as if they were just any other day, and really they were – John Lennon’s murder is especially sad because it was so fucking pointless. However Seaman does have himself briefly interracting with the murderer just a few hours before he shot John, being introduced to him by Paul Goresh, the amateur photographer who snapped the infamous photo, earlier that day, of John signing Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy.

But after John’s murder is when The Last Days Of John Lennon becomes real questionable. As Seaman has it, only he, of all the people on the staff, is upset that John’s gone. And this includes Yoko! Per Seaman, she’s back to her old self in less than twenty-four hours, and Seaman also implies that Yoko’s so heartless she takes her time in telling Sean what happened to his dad. Yet we know from Sean Lennon himself that his mother told him the morning after, and he also states that as he walked into her room he had a premonition of what she was about to tell him. Actually, Sean is living proof that Seaman’s anti-Yoko stuff is bullshit – after John’s murder, he and his mother became, in Sean’s own words, inseperable, and she appears to have been a good mother to him. I mean the dude comes off as pretty level-headed and well-spoken, and has nothing but positive things to say about both his parents.

Also here’s where Seaman himself comes off as questionable. He’s already come up with the story that, the year before, John instructed Seaman that, “should anything happen to me,” Seaman was to give John’s diaries to his son, Julian. This is another sad part of the story, John basically having ignored the now-teenaged Julian his entire life, and while John did seem to want to reconcile, you have to wonder why he’d pick the kid he barely knew to be the holder of his journals, which apparently focus on how many times a day John took a dump, got high, or jerked off. “Hope you enjoy these, son!”

So anyway Seaman, seeing that heartless Yoko could care less, begins filtering out John’s journals, which per Seaman’s own statement fit in a single attache case. Yet despite this small size he somehow feels the need to stash the journals at the home of a friend, a journalist Seaman knew in college. In reality Seaman was taking tons of stuff from the Dakota, for which he’d later be arrested. And instead of taking the journals to give to Julian, it seems he planned to use them to write a book on John with his journalist friend, something Seaman had been planning all along. Of course the question here is why Seaman would even need any help with writing, as he proves in this book that he does fine on his own.

Seaman launches into a long-winded, convoluted explanation that comes off like a variation of “my dog ate the homework” taken to absurd proportions. Something about him stashing out the journals at the home of this friend, and then the friend deciding to keep them to work on a book, and holds them hostage, and Seaman goes to some psychiatrist he has been seeing (hmmm…) to ask for his help, because Seaman is too afraid to go to Yoko, and then the psychiatrist brings in another guy, who comes up with a scheme to fool Seaman’s friend into believing he is backing a book deal….anyway, it all ends with Seaman being punched in the face by an off-duty cop who moonlights for Yoko, then being taken to jail where he’s forced into signing a confession. And Yoko laughing spreads her wings…

Now this never-named “friend” of Seaman’s was actually Robert Rosen, who in 2000 published his own book, Nowhere Man: The Final Days Of John Lennon, which had been written in 1982 but not published for 18 years. There Rosen gives his own background on what happened here, claiming that he was the one swindled by Seaman, and to tell the truth Rosen’s explanation comes off as a little more believable. Particularly given his statement – in interviews, not in his book – that Seaman didn’t just take a suitcase from the Dakota and stash it at Rosen’s place. Rather, he took boxes and boxes of stuff – tapes and photos and videos and etc – to the extent that, again per Rosen, it almost went to the ceiling. That Seaman states in The Last Days Of John Lennon that he only took the journals “and a few things” John supposedly gave him really casts some serious doubt on his convoluted story of innoncence.

Regardless, Seaman does bring to life John Lennon here in this book; I get the hunch that the stuff that’s just Seaman and John is more than likely true, though I did read somewhere online the accusation that some of this stuff actually happened to another of the servants, and Seaman just took credit for it. Anyway it’s too confusing to think about. But Seaman makes John come across like a three-dimensional, flawed human being, one that might be fun to talk to – as long as you didn’t bug him about being a Beatle.

But as mentioned, Seaman was sued again in 2002, and this time he fessed up to having lied about Yoko in this book. However he still doesn’t come off as the sharpest tool in the shed, as the stories of the court appearance have it that Seaman gifted Sean, then 26, with a copy of this very book in Japanese(!). An incident which spurred the so-lame-it’s-actually-cool retort from Sean, “This is the nicest book I’ll ever burn.” One wonders what Sean’s dad would’ve said. Actually, if The Last Days Of John Lennon contains even a kernel of truth, John Lennon wouldn’t have said anything – he would’ve gotten Frederic Seaman to say it for him.

Next Monday I’ll have a review of Robert Rosen’s Nowhere Man, which not only provides the other side of the story on the journal-stealing fiasco, but also shows the stuff Seaman wasn’t privy to, most of which concerns Sean and Yoko.


Johny Malone said...

I like a villainous Ono.

Grant said...

I don't LIKE a villainous Ono, but it's such a TRADITION that it's hard to imagine not hearing about it.

Unknown said...

Nice Review Joe. I just read a copy of Seaman's "account" in German translation and was quite taken by this book. It's a page turner. But I totally had the same feeling that his explanation at the end seemed to lack any credibility. You can actually tell by the rhetoric used, that Seaman is, in best Poeian tradition, an unreliable narrator, who is trying to hide his own motives by sheding as little light as possible on his own doings and actions during the time he served as John Lennon's assistant. Only after I read the book I did some research on the author which only increased my initially mild skepticism. Your review confirmed it. One thing I'd like to add: Seaman implies that he was the one who triggered John Lennon to resume writing music. By disobeying an order presumably given by Yoko Ono, not to drive around with John in a car, listening to music. Unfortunately Mr. Seaman lacks any credibility here and everywhere, due to his unlawful and selfish actions after John's death. I'd like to see an unbiased account of John Lennon's life, written by outsiders, who would need to be experts in literary theory and textual analysis and who have access to all available sources.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks! And I agree, a definite page turner. Something I forgot to mention in my review...surely intentionally, Seaman has written exactly the kind of book Lennon himself would've loved to read. Per Seaman, Lennon was into tell-all trash as well as metaphysical stuff...and guess what, this book covers both areas. "Unreliable narrator" sums him up perfectly. That stuff of him driving John around in the car was very memorable -- and yeah, sneaking in music for John to listen to because Yoko wouldn't allow it. If you check out the other John Lennon reviews I posted after this one, they are of other books that give different views of his final years...I wonder if an accurate composite will ever be possible.

Tommi Lievemaa said...

It's bullshit that John "hated" Paul. All the Beatles loved each other and considered each other as brothers - and the surviving Beatles still do. John regarded Paul highly, just like Paul regarded John equally highly.