Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, December 17, 2000

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Features | Previous | Next

Looking for Lennon

Twenty years after his death, John Lennon still attracts biographers, hagiographers and revisionists. It almost seems that he anticipated this, creating and cultivating a public persona so well defined and copiously documented, that it resists attempts to make him either a saint or, as the revisionists have it, a dysfunctional layabout. But what does it matter, asks ALLAN KOZINN, Lennon made a mark on popular culture and one cannot do better than that.

AS they have done with ritual devotion every December 8 for 20 years, admirers of John Lennon found ways to pass by the Dakota on that day. Lennon lived in that stately building at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West (his widow, Yoko Ono, still does), and it was in its entranceway that he was shot to death on December 8, 1980, as he returned from a recording session at nearly 11 p.m. Within an hour of the shooting, radio and television had spread the word that Lennon had been murdered, and hundreds of his dazed fans gathered at the building to try to come to terms with what had happened. By one a.m., about 1,000 people had arrived. For the rest of that week (the shooting was on a Monday), West 72nd Street outside the Dakota was clogged with mourners who knew Lennon only through his work but were driven to stand in the cold, singing Lennon and Beatles songs to the accompaniment of portable radios and tape players. It was not until Ono called for a silent vigil in Central Park (and around the world), the following Sunday that the crowd finally dispersed.

In the 20 years since his death, Lennon has become one of popular culture's battlegrounds, like Elvis Presley before him or, for that matter, like anyone of sufficient historical interest to attract not only serious biographers, but hagiographers and revisionists as well. It almost seems as though Lennon anticipated this. During his life, that is during the tightly packed 18 years of his life when he was famous, Lennon created and cultivated a public persona that was so well defined and copiously documented that it resists attempts to make him either a saint or, as the revisionists have it, a dysfunctional layabout.

He began work on this persona in the early Beatles years, when he established a niche within the group for literate lyrics and cutting humour that was evident both at news conferences and in his books, In His Own Write in 1964 and A Spaniard in the Works in 1965 (and the posthumous Skywriting by Word of Mouth, 1986). Later, his literary flair and sense of the absurd animated songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am The Walrus", in which arcane wordplay was matched by musical experimentation.

His writing colleagues, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, each had distinctive compositional personalities, but only Lennon could have written songs that were off the edge in exactly that way.

But there were other undercurrents in Lennon's middle-period Beatles songs. "In My Life", one of the best tracks on the "Rubber Soul" album, was overtly autobiographical, and "The Word", on the same disc, introduced a utopian philosophy that would find clearer expression two years later in "All You Need Is Love" and a few years after that in "Imagine". That twin focus autobiography and utopianism characterised virtually all of his post-Beatles work as well, and it helped define who he was, or at least who he wanted us to believe he was.

Just about the last thing he wanted was for anyone to make him out as a saint. That much is clear from the lengthy confessional interviews he gave between 1969 and 1980. Two of the most comprehensive have just been reissued in book form as Lennon Remembers (Verso), a 1970 interview with Jann S. Wenner, for Rolling Stone, and All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview With John Lennon and Yoko Ono (St. Martin's Press), a 1980 interview with David Sheff for Playboy.

In these conversations and others, he is hardly evasive about his personal difficulties: between typically wide-ranging discussions of his projects and views, political and otherwise, he acknowledges his failings as a father and husband, his temper and a tendency toward violence, his periods of drug addiction and even his doubts about the value of his music.

Yet for all his personal rumination, Lennon understood the power of his position completely. He had transcended his job as a pop singer and songwriter, an entertainer, as the job was more conventionally defined and had become a spokesman and motivating force for his generation. Fame had given him a forum for ideas about life and the world that he began developing in his mid- 1920s, and used for all it was worth.

It was not lost on him that some of his utopian notions were naive. He said as much in "Imagine," but added that if he was a dreamer, others were too and, slipping quickly back into the utopian voice, if enough dreamers banded together the world could be changed. Often he wedded his big dreams to an amusingly practical opportunism. When he and Ono spent their honeymoon staging a weeklong "Bed-In for Peace" in Amsterdam in March 1969 (with a reprise in Montreal two months later), he told reporters that his marriage was bound to make headlines anyway, so why not turn the occasion into what he called "an advertisement for peace"?

He had a point: if nothing else, the bed-ins got people talking. His voice and the sense of humor that he and Ono brought to their events caught the spirit of the time. Lennon was particularly proud, for example, that "Give Peace a Chance," recorded at the Montreal bed-in, became the anthem of the big peace protests that gave focus to the American public's opposition to the Vietnam War.

Lennon was also keenly aware that the spotlight made him vulnerable. He discovered as much during the Beatles' 1966 American tour, when his comments about the relative popularity of the Beatles and Christianity led to record burnings in the South and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. He recognised a more insidious threat as well: that fans could be dangerous.

Lennon's vulnerability took a different form after his murder, as dozens of biographers sought new angles from which to show a life that, with the exception of a five-year retirement from 1975 to 1980, was lived loudly and in public. A handful of Lennon retainers (and a former girlfriend who had started out as a retainer) published memoirs in which he was depicted with varying degrees of sympathy, but mostly as weak-willed and dominated by Ono.

Other writers magnified the insecurities Lennon disclosed in songs and interviews. Those thematic currents converged in 1988, when Albert Goldman took both a scalpel and a cudgel to him in The Lives of John Lennon, in which Lennon is portrayed as a semi- comatose, possibly psychotic wastrel.

There have been seriously researched, responsibly balanced books as well, of course. Ray Coleman, a British journalist who knew Lennon in the Beatles years, drew on letters and other materials provided by both Ono and Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, for his 768-page Lennon in 1985 (reissued in 1992 by HarperCollins). And there are specialised studies like Jon Wiener's Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (University of Illinois Press, 1984), an examination Lennon's political involvements, and its recently published companion volume, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon F.B.I. Files (University of California Press, 1999), which shows the degree to which the government kept tabs on Lennon during the Nixon era (and the degree to which it resisted releasing its files).

There are even sociological analyses of Lennon's life and death, one of which, The Mourning of John Lennon (University of California Press, 1999) by Anthony Elliott, takes a sharply critical look at the revisionist biographies and memoirs.

But Lennon needs no special pleading. Given his penchant for public gesture - holding bed-ins, planting acorns for peace, making a media event of returning his Member of the British Empire medal, staging avant-garde art and film exhibitions, not to mention filming and recording virtually everything he did - one can regard Lennon's life as another of his creative projects, both as controlled and as random as his "White Album" tape collage, "Revolution 9".

So even if, against all odds, the revisionist view were proved correct and aspects of Lennon's biography were shown to be a myth, composed by Lennon and maintained by Ono, what of it?

The essentials are undeniable: you can come from a suburb of a moribund industrial city, develop a talent that captures the imagination of the world, use your success to raise issues of transcendent importance and make a lasting mark on the culture. Apart from this one's tragic ending, 20 years ago tomorrow, myths do not get better than that.

(c) The New York Times

Send this article to Friends by E-Mail


Section  : Features
Previous : Negotiating change
Next     : A picture of Dorian Wilde

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Copyrights © 2000 The Hindu

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu