Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Lives Of John Lennon

The Lives Of John Lennon, by Albert Goldman
July, 1989  Bantam Books
(Original hardcover edition November 1988)

Well friends, here’s the book that brought the blog to a standstill. Actually to tell the truth, this book alone didn’t bring the blog to a standstill; the Thanksgiving holiday also contributed, as I didn’t get a chance to go online at all last week. But also, this book is nearly 900 pages long, which really throws a kink in a two-reviews-a-week review schedule. I have to say, though, despite the stigma associated with it, I found myself very caught up in Albert Goldman’s notorious The Lives Of John Lennon, often putting aside stuff just to keep reading it. Time’s cover blurb “Compulsively readable” aptly sums it up. The question of course is how trustworthy the book is. 

First of all, a big thanks to a commenter named “Intrigued,” who recently left a comment on my review of Dakota Days suggesting that I read this book. It had been a few years since I’d read any books about John Lennon, and to be honest I wasn’t thinking about reading another, but Intrigued’s comment hit me at the right time and I found myself starting The Lives Of John Lennon a day or two after they left their comment. It’s a book I have thought about reading for many years. As I mentioned in my reply to Intrigued, I first heard of Albert Goldman’s book thanks to a 1988 skit on Saturday Night Live, aired when the original hardcover edition was published; it featured Phil Hartman as Goldman, who had an axe to grind with John Lennon because Goldman had originally been a Beatle – one who played the trombone – and Lennon pushed to have him kicked out of the band. I only saw that skit that one time (and it’s never on Youtube due to NBC’s lawyers), but it must’ve made an impression on me (I was 13 when it aired), as I’ve always remembered it. 

That a biography was actually the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit (with Jon Lovitz as Ringo!!) should be indication of how much of a ripple The Lives Of John Lennon made when it was published. It was quite the news item for a while, mostly because it was condemned as a savage attack on John Lennon, who was no longer around to defend himself from Goldman’s allegations. That was the impression I got, going into the book. But as it turns out, I didn’t think John Lennon came off too badly in Goldman’s book…I mean sure, other than the insinuation that he might’ve accidentally murdered Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe, or that he might’ve also murdered some random British sailor during a mugging going wild in Hamburg…or even that he had a latent homosexuality (indeed, that he was “mostly bisexual”), and not only had a relationship with Beatles manager Brian Epstein but once attempted to rape him. Or hell, how he even would often “rape” female fans who were yanked willy-nilly from the audience for John to slam up against the wall and have his way with to get rid of his pre-stage jitters. Or how he’d kick around his little kid Sean, or claim his other son Julian was gay (while ignoring him most of his life), or how he’d beat on his girlfriend May Pang…or tons of other similar allegations in the book. 

Despite all that (and more!), I don’t think John Lennon came off to poorly in this book. Indeed it is a testament to his character – his true character, I’d say – that you still don’t want to finish this never-ending book because you know that when you do finish it, John Lennon will be dead. But it’s hard to take all of Goldman’s allegations without a big heaping grain of salt; he lists hundreds of sources at the end of the book, people who knew Lennon with whom Goldman (or his “researchers”) talked, but it soon becomes clear that Goldman has parsed the bad stuff and expanded on it. There’s no way in hell those hundreds of sources all said negative things about John Lennon. But then, Goldman had already proved this was his m.o., with the earlier Elvis, which so “displeased” Paul McCartney that he turned down Goldman’s request to be intereviewed for The Lives Of John Lennon

That said, Goldman is one helluva good writer. I personally loved his narrative style, alternately informative and bitchy, with a snobbery that comes off as wonderfully un-PC in today’s emasculated world. Minor asides, like calling out the “black bullshit” Lennon spoofs in the lyrics to “Come Together,” or the random, super-incidental note that the written Japanese word (ie, kanji) looks like “chicken scratches.” There’s another part that made me laugh out loud, where Goldman mocks the Black Panther party’s message – certainly dangerous ground for a mainstream writer to approach these days – and follows up a quote of a Black Power speech with, “Can you dig it, man?” And of course, we’re frequently informed of Yoko’s “chattering” in Japanese. 

Otherwise Goldman keeps the story moving; even when John Lennon friggin’ disappears from the narrative for like a hundred-page stretch toward the end, and Yoko becomes the star. In many regards this book could’ve just as easily been titled The Lives Of Yoko Ono, as John Lennon’s story, from roughly 1970 to 1980, is also Yoko Ono’s story. Even when John is off on his so-called “Lost Weekend,” Yoko is still there. In many ways the book is almost an extension of Fred Seaman’s later The Last Days Of John Lennon; Goldman actually makes much use of Seaman’s yet-published book here, with the caveat that Yoko doesn’t come off quite as malicious and malevolent as she does in Seaman’s account. At the same time, she isn’t the easily-confused housewife seen in John Green’s Dakota Days – another source Goldman leans on in The Lives Of John Lennon, though the Green stuff here is better; as Intrigued mentioned in their comment, we actually learn all the stuff about Green’s tarot-reading that Green himself didn’t tell us in Dakota Days

Like a fool, I failed to keep notes as I read this 877-page book of small, dense print; I just wanted to get caught up in Goldman’s mad tale, but now the whole thing is a damn blur and I’m having a hard time remembering a lot of it. But I tell you, I enjoyed the hell out of it while I was reading it! For the first 500 or so pages, at least. A couple hundred pages could’ve been easily cut, particularly the section covering the mid-late ‘70s, when John (as Goldman most often refers to Lennon…and I’ll follow suit) disappears. The book is nothing if not exhaustive…though “exhausting” might be the more accurate term. As mentioned Goldman lists a ton of sources at the end of the book, meaning that he could’ve given us the definitive bio of John Lennon, but instead he chose the low road and focused solely on the bad stuff, with the end result that the John Lennon seen here is alternately a self-destructive monster or a self-obsessed narcissist, one who jumps from one “mommy figure” to another without once displaying any backbone. 

Actually the book isn’t that comprehensive in one key area – humorously, we are told hardly anything about the main thing John Lennon is even known for: his music. Goldman brushes off entire albums with acidic wit – actually venomous wit – and even ignores lots of stuff. I mean let alone minor stuff, like the self-titled album by the group Elephant’s Memory that John and Yoko produced (and provided backup vocals on) in 1972, or even bigger stuff, like Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band, on which John played some serious psych-fuzz experimental guitar. (Say what you will about Yoko’s music, but she sure as hell had a knack for getting Lennon to play some serious rock guitar – just check out his last-ever recording, Yoko’s incredible 1980 disco-rock single “Walking On Thin Ice;” it was years before I learned the guitar on it was played by John.) 

But even Beatles albums are dismissed with a sentence or two. Now this I could kind of understand; doubtless Albert Goldman realized that a study of Beatles music was outside the realm of his book, and indeed “only” the first 400 pages of the book are devoted to the Beatles era. But when Goldman does write about John Lennon’s music, often times he proves a very compelling case: like for example how the musical theme of the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” so often appears in John’s songs. But this book is not music criticism at all; more critical, really, as Goldman certainly isn’t a believer in Grandma’s rule (“if you can’t say anything nice…”). When he mentions a song, it’s usually to piss on it. That said, he does seem to like “I Am The Walrus,” and he also ranks John’s Plastic Ono Band as his best solo LP – but on the other hand, Goldman also dismisses “Imagine” as a shitty song. (Personally I’m not crazy about it either.) 

But even I, definitely no Beatles scholar, could see that much of what Goldberg writes simply is incorrect. For one, he has it that John was suffering heroin withdrawl during the recording of Get Back, making him even worse of a guitar player (Goldman really hammers it in that John Lennon has no talent with the guitar, btw); indeed, so disassociated from the sessions that he might as well not have been there. But reading The Lives Of John Lennon inspired me to finally check out Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary…8 friggin’ hours of the Beatles recording Get Back (don’t get me wrong – it’s awesome, one of the best things I’ve seen in years), and while John does seem a little out of it in Part 1, he’s truly on form in Part 2, once they’ve moved into the new Apple Studios. Five minutes of Get Back is enough to disprove practically everything Goldman claims; John’s rockin’ on the guitar, he’s creating and changing songs on the fly, he’s John Lennon

Well anyway. The Lives Of John Lennon starts with this excellently-handled opening sequence of New Journalism (ie nonfiction written as fiction) that takes us into “a day in the life” of John Lennon, circa 1979. He’s in his “tomb” of a room in the Dakota, coming out to enjoy “his favorite time of the day” (breakfast), and soon he’s declaiming on the topic of assassination to Marnie Hair, a Dakota neighbor whose daughter is roughly the same age as John and Yoko’s son Sean – and Marnie Hair was one of Goldman’s main sources for the latter half of the book. But this opening is not picked up on again in the book, sort of existing on its own, and indeed it presents a different, more relatable John Lennon than Goldman will give us in the actual narrative. 

The only problem is, this intro ultimately will undermine Goldman’s dark exegesis that follows. John is not presented as the heroin-ravaged, weak-willed, Yoko-controlled pawn as he will be, later in the book; nor is he shown to be the vindictive, hate-filled prick Goldman will strive to present him as. He’s just a world-famous guy enjoying some down time. Yoko also comes across slightly better here than she will later on; sure, in her intro she’s making her heroin contact and then “retching” in the bathroom after snorting some, but shorly after this there’s a cute bit (sorry, but there’s no other word for it) where she and Marnie Hair are sitting there and patitently listening to John expound on his assassination subject, and Yoko impishly keeps pushing John’s ashtray farther out of his reach, without his noticing. 

So what are we to take from this opening? It’s never picked up on in the ensuing narrative, never mentioned again. When we do get to the shut-in years, hundred and hundreds of pages later, there’s none of this “cute” stuff. What’s funny is, this opening is actually more in-line with what Robert Rosen presented in Nowhere Man – published later, but supposedly written earlier than Goldman’s book, and based directly off of John Lennon’s personal journals. For once again Rosen’s book can be seen as an alternate image to Goldman’s portrait of Lennon, same as it could be for Frederic Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon – but then, Seaman was one of Goldman’s sources. Where Goldman and Seaman present Yoko as this controlling force who is alternately bored with John or trying to cause him trouble, Rosen presents an altogether different side of her. But which one is real? 

Does it really matter? John Lennon has been gone now for longer than he was here. All of this was so long ago, and it’s clear that John Lennon’s legend will persist. People born decades after his death are still listening to his music. My six-year-old was born 37 years after John Lennon’s death; the other day, no doubt inspired by this book, I was playing The White Album for the first time in years, and my kid was playing with his toys and not paying attention, but when “I’m So Tired” came on he got quiet, sat and watched the stereo while the song played, and then finally announced, “I like that song.” Thus it seems clear that Albert Goldman’s attempt to cut John Lennon down could never succeed; his music will always prevail. Now I’ll admit, I did get kind of sick of John and Yoko and their unceasing tide of one obsession after another – the entire middle and latter part of the book becomes, to use the word again, exhausting. I mean these two are like a pair of social influencers before there was any such thing…a reality TV couple before there was reality TV. 

And really, the ‘70s stuff is what Goldman focuses on most in the book…likely because this is when John went out of the public eye, thus Goldman was able to go into a little more shall we say speculative fiction. I mean folks there’s a part, late in the book, where John has to go through Southeast Asia, all as part of Yoko’s latest obsession (traveling westward from the east so as to purify yourself or some other such money-wasting pursuit), and John, travelling on his own, has to stop in Bangkok. Here Goldman cattily informs us that John no doubt enjoyed himself some young boys there, because it’s legal and all; I mean the entire sequence is written as straight-up fiction narrative, John going to cathouses and whatnot. I actually laughed out loud at how brazen it all was. 

For it’s Goldman’s assertion from the start that John Lennon is deeply troubled: filled with rage and hostility, perhaps due to his refusal to accept that he’s “basically bisexual.” To Goldman’s credit, this is a full, comprehensive bio, starting with how John’s parents met, on to how John was troubled even as a toddler, getting kicked out of kindergarten at one point. There’s a heartbreaking scene where he’s forced to choose between living with his mom or living with his dad. His childhood was not pleasant, certainly, but again here one cannot help but feel sorry for little John Lennon, which again makes it odd that Goldman will go on to present the man as a monster – of sorts. I mean like I said before, despite Goldman’s best efforts he still can’t make John Lennon hateable. It’s my understanding that Goldman went into this book as a “fan” of Lennon’s, but then that doesn’t count for much. The guy who killed Lennon was also a “fan.” But it was Goldman’s claim that when he saw the true man behind the music, he lost his fandom. 

But it’s hard to tell Goldman ever was a fan in the first place; reading the book, you get the impression John Lennon was a barely talented twit who only managed to get a few good songs because other people pushed him to it. And also the guy who did all the peace rallies was only doing so to hide his penchant for beating up women. This is another of Goldman’s conceits; that John Lennon was a violent man, headed for a violent end, and his huge fame was only a brief detour before he headed for his inevitable fate. But the thing is, the book is just so well written I couldn’t stop reading it! Goldman doesn’t litter the book with footnotes or asides; it’s written in a gossipy tabloid manner, but with a definite comedic touch. As mentioned a dark one; another goofy conceit Goldman does throughout the book is “subtly” foreshadow John’s violent end, with sentences comparing John’s voice to a “fired bullet” and the like. Or even darker, a bit where psychedelic ’60s-era John has a trick car that plays random messages in the front seat, surprising people John’s asked to sit up there, and he’ll sit in the back and “die” laughing – or, as Goldman puts it, “John died in the back seat.” (John actually died in the back seat of a police car that was speeding him to the hospital.) 

I’m jumping all over the place in my review, no doubt due to not taking any notes as I read this behemoth of a book. Goldman makes the earlies days of the Beatles a more interesting topic than I thought it would be; his theme has it that John is an antisocial punk who finds only brief solace in rock music, soon putting together his own group. Paul McCartney then enters the narrative – and Paul is not as big a presence in the book as you might expect. It’s clear though that Goldman actually respects McCartney, casting him and his actions in good light throughout the book. Even with offhand minor mentions like how Paul will be the only Beatle who reaches out to John’s ex-wife Cynthia after the divorce. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Paul, even though barely into his teens, is already eager to show off his guitar-playing and singing skills, and soon wins his way onto the older Lennon’s group. 

Goldman, doubtless realizing tons of books have been written on this very subject, doesn’t get much into the nitty gritty of the Beatles. His forte is the realm of supposition; it’s the grayer areas he clings to, as he is free to fill in the gaps with his imagination. So we have it that John Lennon himself might have caused the death of original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe, kicking him in the head after one of John’s frequent rages – an admission John supposedly made, himself, to Dakota neighbor Marnie Hair many years later. Then later we have the aforementioned note that John would often “rape” girls moments before going on stage for those big Beatles concerts, to calm his nerves, and also that he likely had a fling going with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. 

The actual music of the Beatles isn’t much dwelt upon, though I have to say I agree with Goldman when he considers Sgt. Pepper’s a little overrated, particularly when compared to Revolver. The former, as Goldman argues (and which is clear from the aural evidence), is mostly the work of Paul, and has his whimsy in full force. But then, Goldman also argues how Lennon and McCartney were such a strong team, one that Lennon turned his back on for no other reason than ego; Goldman also notes how Paul “pursued” John even up until the end of John’s life, trying to write with him again. I found this note particularly resonate, given how even today, over four decades after John Lennon died, Paul is still taking John on tour:

Where The Lives Of John Lennon really comes into its own is in the post-Beatles era. Here is where John’s life became even more hectic and surreal…and, not so coincidentally, this is when Yoko Ono became the main part of his life, instead of the Beatles. It’s essentially one madcap bit after another, and indeed John and Yoko in the ‘70s almost come off like the Rolling Stones in how they corrupt and cast aside anyone who comes into their orbit. It’s chapter after chapter of some new acquaintance or guru or assistant or lawyer or musician or whatever who becomes the greatest friend ever of the Lennons, before ultimately being dismissed for some infraction or other. But it’s all here: the Primal Scream era, the flirtation with radical leftist politics (though as Goldman notes, neither John nor Yoko were very political, given that neither of them had ever bothered to even vote in an election!), the so-called “Lost Weekend” in which John was separated from Yoko, and finally the reconcilliation, followed by five years of being a “recluse” (though as I said before, John Lennon sure as hell traveled a lot for a recluse). 

It's those last five years that Goldman focuses on the most – again, because this is the most shadowy era of John Lennon’s life. What Goldman enthuses in doing is gutting the official narrative and twisting the knife; if the official story is that Yoko “asked” John to leave, the real story is that Yoko kicked him out because she wanted to be “royally laid” by a studio guitarist named Dave Spinoza. If the official story is that Yoko “just happened” to be at Elton John’s big NYC concert a few years later – the concert in which John made a surprise appearance – the real story is that Yoko called John beforehand and demanded specific seats. It’s like this on and on…John’s trip to Bermuda in the late ‘70s was, again, so Yoko could get him out of the Dakota so she could have some adulterous fun…or that “John’s idea” for he and Yoko to trade songs on Double Fantasy was really Yoko’s idea (an idea taken from Seaman’s book, where a lot of the later material here is sourced from). 

The thing is, it’s all gripping reading, despite how self-involved and annoying John and Yoko increasingly become as the book progresses: John losing more and more of his spine, Yoko becoming more of a junk-snorting harpie. There is as ever an element of dark comedy to it all, particularly when John is sent off on global jaunts to appease Yoko’s latest metaphysical obsession. We get the story, recounted in Dakota Days, where Yoko visits a witch in South America, as well as the big family trips to Japan. One that was new to me was that John and Yoko went to Egypt in the late ‘70s, with John walking around the pyramids and claiming he’d “been here before.” Again, there’s just a surreal, almost Spinal Tap vibe to the whole thing…with the caveat that there’s no rock anymore, by this point. Goldman focuses so little on John’s music in The Lives Of John Lennon that you could often forget you’re reading the bio of one of the greatest – if not the greatest – rocker of all time. 

This music blindness is just one of Goldman’s many misses. For example, he tells us unequivocably that John didn’t write any songs once he’d locked himself up in the Dakota. This of course is incorrect; John was always writing and recording stuff on tape. This is how the recent “last Beatles song” even came to be, same as the earlier “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love.” Goldman also misses out on a big, if relatively obscure, moment in the John and Paul story; in Goldman’s book, John and Paul basically don’t see each other again after the split of the Beatles. However they did see each other from time to time, even meeting up in the studio one night, during the recordings for John’s Rock & Roll album; back in the ‘90s there was a bootleg Beatles CD with the unforgettable title A Toot And A Snore In ‘74, documenting this (coke-fueled) recording session (if I’m not mistaken, Stevie Wonder was also present), which was the first and last time John and Paul were in the studio together since the Beatles breakup. Goldman doesn’t mention it. 

Actually, I found the stuff from this period the most interesting in the book otherwise. John’s life becomes even more crazed with the intro of Phil Spector, who “produces” John’s roots-rock album, but meanwhile John and cohorts just become increasingly drunk and stoned in the studio. Goldman has it, though, that the drugs bring out Lennon’s sadistic side, thus there’s lots of stuff about him treating girlfriend May Pang like a sex toy or beating her up and choking her. John Lennon certainly comes off poorly in this regard, and these sections would trigger the sensitive readers of today – and I haven’t even mentioned John’s frequent usage of the n-word. John Lennon’s basically a racist and sexist progenitor of the entire “#metoo” movement – but then, in Goldman’s confused narrative, he’s also kind of a loser, unable to muster the courage to ask women out and thus resorting to brutish means. Or, in one of the book’s more humorous bits, John has no idea what to do around women: there’s a part where his childhood obsession Brigitte Bardot invites him to her hotel room, and an anxious John drops a ton of acid beforehand (this is during the psychedelic Beatles era) and pretends to “meditate” the entire time, not saying a word to the sex goddess. 

To continue with my Stones analogy, of John and Yoko using and casting aside a revolving cast of innocents, May Pang would have to be the biggest victim here. One can’t help but feel sorry for her; young and somewhat innocent, she was essentially “set up” to be John’s mistress (by Yoko herself!), but the affair became more serious than anyone could realize. Indeed, John clearly seemed to fall in love with May, and here in The Lives Of John Lennon we get to see stuff that Rosen (I believe) only alluded to in Nowhere Man; that John continued to carry a torch for May even after returning to Yoko, and would come up with elaborate schemes to be with her while Yoko was out of the city. This is a nice antidote to Seaman’s The Last Days Of John Lennon, which presented John as a cuckolded nitwit, his wife carrying on two affairs and John obvlious to it all. At least in Goldman’s account, John is getting his own side action. It’s also revealed here that the whole May Pang thing was concocted by Yoko because she’d set her sights on that aforementioned guitarist Dave Spinoza, and went to her own elaborate ends to ensnare him, complete with planning a big tour of Japan – which Spinoza backed out of at the last minute! 

One of Goldman’s main conceits is that John Lennon suffered from rage incidents throughout his life, going into fits and swinging and punching at anyone in his path, particularly women. There’s a lot of stuff about people treading on eggshells in his presence and whatnot. Judging from the greasy-haired, rail-thin weakling presented in the Get Back documentary, I personally doubt how much damage Lennon could do (and Goldman makes a huge production over John’s poor physical condition), but then that’s another thing from Seaman’s book I recall – that John was insanely jealous of muscular, fit men and had an irrational hatred of them. This irrational rage, Goldman argues, is why John became such a peace advocate; here Goldman uses John’s own words, from a late interview, of something to the effect that the most violent people are the ones who ultimately go for peace. 

Speaking of John and Yoko’s peace bed-in movement, one source I was bummed Goldman didn’t get in touch with was Len Levinson; as recounted in In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, Len handled the PR for the Toronto bed-in, and became friendly with John – to the point that John even gave Len a sort of impromptu performance on acoustic guitar. John Lennon comes more to life in Len’s short essay than he does in the entirety of Albert Goldman’s book. But then, even if Len had spoken with Goldman, it’s debatable how much of Len’s words would have been accurately used. This contemporary rebuttal by Rolling Stone really lays bare much of Goldman’s truth-stretching; the Rolling Stone piece even puts the majority of Fred Seaman’s book in question, and that book hadn’t even been published yet; particularly telling is Seaman’s uncle – who got Fred Seaman the job with John and Yoko – stating that his nephew hardly had much interraction with John. 

Again, it’s all so hard to tell what is true and what is fiction. Compounding the issue, here is an interview with Seaman, May Pang, and Yoko’s “archivist,” from when Seaman’s book was published; it’s from Joan Rivers’s short-lived show. These are people who served as Goldman’s key sources for the latter days of John Lennon, and it seems clear that in a way all three of them are disgruntled ex-employees. I especially love how Seaman keeps hammering home that he was beaten up by an off-duty cop who was on Yoko’s payroll, and Joan Rivers keeps refusing to pick up on this comment – probably hoping herself to evade any “litigious” action on Yoko’s part! But as mentioned in my review of The Last Days Of John Lennon, Seaman was ultimately sued by Yoko for that book. Albert Goldman, as his supporters often state, was not sued for his book – but then, in that Rolling Stone rebuttal I linked to above, Yoko herself says that she doubts she will sue Goldman. 

At any rate, Albert Goldman died in 1994 – while working on a bio of Jim Morrison, no less – so it’s debatable whether Yoko would’ve indeed taken him to court at some point. After all, she’d waited some years to sue Fred Seaman. What’s interesting is that Goldman seems to support Yoko throughout the book – she was her own creative person (seriously, a lot of the book is about her artwork and performance pieces), but after meeting John she was hated by all Beatledom for “breaking up” the band. But then as the book goes on, Goldman turns Yoko into this heroin-sniffing shrew from hell, sending John and Sean around the world on metaphysical jaunts not so much for spiritual cleansing but to get them out of the house so she can snort more heroin and shack up with two guys who are both, confusingly enough, named “Sam.” I mean it becomes so crazy, with John increasingly so spineless – even giving Yoko full legal authority for him – that it’s almost as if John is being put out of his misery at book’s end. 

That’s another thing. Goldman focuses on John’s killer for a few chapters, giving his history and what he did on the day of the killing. Beatles fans like to purge this guy’s name from the history books, which of course is a futile gesture – he will of course only and ever be remembered for this – but just a word of warning that you have to spend a lot of time in his shoes at the end. Goldman does not try to make him relatable, or to engender any sort of reader sympathy for him; he’s bound and determined to kill someone famous, and John Lennon just happens to be the target he finally settles on. 

No matter what book on John Lennon you read, his last day just comes as a shock. It’s just so senseless and comes out of nowhere, even though you know it’s going to happen; check the Joan Rivers interview above, and you’ll see the three interviewees claim that John himself knew it was going to happen. Goldman of course uses this idea as the impetus for the flurry of work John suddenly did in the studio in a few short months in late 1980 – and also, I’ve forgotten to mention that Goldman is very critical of John’s solo work (that is, when he bothers to mention it), claiming the piano melody of “Imagine” is hamfisted and childish and also noting that John’s solo albums did not sell in the expected numbers. He is of course especially critical of Double Fantasy, but also notes how the album was savaged by critics when first released. 

I’ve kind of just rambled all over the place in this review, but at nearly 900 pages there was a lot to digest in The Lives Of John Lennon. I can only say again that, for most of the book, I was greatly entertained – the writing was good, it was often funny, and I enjoyed the snobby vibe of Goldman’s narrative. The truth of it all I cannot say, but for the most part I treated it like a novel; I mean I didn’t go into the book expecting the real true picture of John Lennon. So for the entertainment value alone I’d say this book was a success. Until around a third of the way through, when as mentioned John sort of disappeared and Yoko and her various schemes and obsessions took center stage. This material just came off as too much and could’ve been cut – and speaking of which, supposedly Albert Goldman had a lot of positive things to say about John Lennon in his original draft, but the publisher cut it out so that the book would maintain the same mean-spirited critical tone throughout. I’m not even sure if that is true, but I recall reading it somewhere. 

I realize now that I am posting a review of a John Lennon book around Thanksgiving, which is fitting on a personal level. (BTW this review was supposed to post last Wednesday, but I wasn’t able to get it up in time due to vacation.) Back in Thanksgiving of 1997 I had one of the very few times in my life when I was depressed – I was 23, relatively new to Dallas, and had no family here, and it was the first Thanksgiving that I’d never gone home. So I went over to the North Dallas Half Price Books the day before Thanksgiving and bought a vinyl copy of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, the original US Apple pressing, for like two bucks. (They were basically giving away records back then – and yes, I still have my copy!) I played that record over and over that Thanksgiving day. It was just one of those albums that resonated so perfectly with how I was feeling at the time…and a record that helped me feel better. It’s also one of those records that when I hear it now, on the rare occasion I play it, it takes me right back to that first time I heard it. So this is just another indication that the true testament of who John Lennon was cannot be found in any book that is written about him – it is in the music he left behind.


Numa Pass said...

I think Goldman's "schtick" worked much better in his Lenny Bruce book. He wrote a convincing picture of a comedian who identified with that cool, druggy and black jazz scene in the 50s and 60s - Lenny was doing a kind of verbal jazz.
My problem with this book when I read it way back is the authors obvious dislike of pop and rock music as cheap, trashy and not as artistic and original as jazz. It was there in the Elvis book and I'm sure it would have been in the Jim Morrison one as well. It is then a short hop to write a book about what, in his mind, would have been the cheap, trashy and overrated people who are part of that world. Had Goldman lived, I'll bet Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and others would have been in his crosshairs.
Great review by the way, as always

Janko said...

Off-topic, but wanted to comment here: I am currently in exactly your hippie literature obsession and I want to thank you for all the great work you have done for people like me, delving through the Rolling Stone archive.

If I may suggest one glorious trash you haven't read: "Oedipus in Disneyland" by Herculus Molloy.