We already know the story. A lad from Liverpool seized black rhythm and blues and transformed it. The sound that white America found too funky for its clean earlobes was re-synthesised by the Beatles and ricocheted out of Matthew Street and the Reeperbahn to recapture Teensville USA. J.W. Lennon, grammar-school dissident and art-school yobbo, used the idiom of rock and roll to charm London into cultural submission, drive Britain half-crazy with excitement and enchant the world. But then saw through the corporate pantomime and, with Yoko Ono, turned the tables on his prodigious fame, discovered Art and Politics and mixed them with feminism to become, in a swift series of transmogrifications, a cynic who spoke for Utopian socialism, a roughneck who pleaded for peace, an anti-sexist sex symbol and an advocate of the one male role never mentioned in rock and roll – that of father. Self-exiled in a country which idolised him without beginning to understand his talent, he was treated to that great nation’s highest reward for achievement – assassination. Sic transit gloria mundi. Or, as the motto of the Quarry Bank Boys Grammar School put it, ‘Out of this rock, you will find truth.’
But what truth does such a cruelly truncated life tell? If judged artistically – which is what he always wanted but seldom got – it is clear that Lennon and the Beatles transformed the face of post-war popular music, establishing a new sort of audience, pioneering the stereo LP as a new form, and introducing avant-garde material into the mainstream of what had been a limited and conservative genre. If Lennon had done nothing after Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band he could still be compared, without facetiousness, to Bob Marley or Duke Ellington as a popular musician who was able to transform his own music from within. But what of the work he was planning in what he called, in an interview shortly before his murder, ‘another forty years of productivity’?
For the musical purist, Lennon’s music had been declining for years, its rock and roll well-spring poisoned by an excess of conceptual art. For the Beatle fan, still longing for a miraculous reunion, the fall from grace had been the break with Paul McCartney engineered by the wily Oriental Ono – dislike of whom was powered by racism as well as philistinism and envy. For the socialist, Lennon was irredeemably disorientated by his isolation from the realities of working-class life. For the aesthete, he was stultified by the permanent juvenility of the rock world. For the moralist, a man who could never be forgiven for ditching his wife. For the sociologist, an example of the perils of vertical social mobility. And for the numerologist, proof of the malevolence of the number 9. But had he lived, would he have entered 1985 rocking around the pit villages of Wales and South Yorkshire – or making a repentant celebrity appearance on Stars on Sunday?
It cannot be said that the volumes under review offer much aid to understanding what was happening inside John Lennon’s mind. Of those people who should not attempt to write biographies of Lennon, Ray Coleman heads the list. A trade editor who might as well have been writing about agricultural machinery as music, he embodies everything Lennon had to fight: social conservatism, intellectual shallowness, gravestone prose, and the sheer boredom of the showbiz mentality. Coleman clearly admires Lennon and has conducted some routine interviews with him (in which Lennon’s animosity is sometimes ill-concealed). He has the confidence of Cynthia Lennon, the first wife, and has spoken to Yoko Lennon after the murder. Indeed, this is a concise and accurate account of a complicated life, a workmanlike job. But when Coleman attempts to understand the conflicts within Lennon, and their relationship to political and social events in the outside world, he flounders rapidly into nervous platitudes. ‘What Beatlemania had brought John, above all, was freedom. Or so he thought.’ Ironically, Coleman’s ostentatious deference to the authority figures in Lennon’s life – William Ernest Pobjoy, the luckless headmaster of Quarry Bank Grammar School, once tannoyed at Goodison Park to deal with an outbreak of Lennonist insurbordination, Aunt Mimi (‘the guitar’s alright as a hobby, but you’ll never make a living’), and the teachers at Liverpool College of Art – draws inadvertent attention to the conflicts with authority that honed Lennon’s famous ‘edge’.
In some of the Summer of 1980 photos, Lennon wears an interesting clue round his neck: it is nothing less than his old school tie. For one is forced by reading this book to concede that Lennon’s particular talent is as much a tribute to the post-war grammar school as it is to the wonders of Little Richard. Brought up by the bookish and financially comfortable Aunt Mimi, Lennon was shaped by the conflicts of the bright working-class kid in the grammar crammer. Selected to make social progress and clearly intellectually able, he instead devoted almost his entire talent to indiscipline – notably ‘answering back’ and the production of the Daily Howl, a fantasy satirical newspaper. It was exactly the people like Lennon who ought to have been grateful, working for good references and university entrance, who remained tenaciously loyal to their real class identities but expressed that loyalty in intricate ‘apolitical’ sarcasm and satire: inventive, intelligent indiscipline being the most comprehensive response to a system which ‘hates you if you are clever and despises a fool’. In the course of his engagements with sabre-toothed schoolmasters, Lennon polished the anarchic, ‘sarky’ wit which made In his Own Write such a genuine, if overpraised linguistic pleasure, and bowled over the American news reporters.
Lennon himself sidestepped neatly into Liverpool Art School: in 1967 he sent a hallo ‘even to Pobjoy who got me into art school so I could fail there as well’. Coleman does give a sense of the contradictions at this stage in his account: mini-skirts, but weeping in the ladies over missed periods, ‘drainies’ carefully tightened by girlfriends, hungover mornings in a coffee-bar called the Jacaranda, the whole mixture of fierce ambition, drunken sarcasm, pretentiousness and authenticity lived to the point of self-laceration. Lennon humps his way into lettering classes, guitar over his shoulder, no doubt muttering fiercely to himself: ‘No one I think is in my tree.’ And this experience of growing up artistically is set, not in Jagger’s Dartford or Bowie’s Bromley, but in the heart of Liverpool, still an Atlantic port, still a centre of syndicalist militancy, and, after the ’56 split in the Communist Party, a base of the Socialist Labour League rather than the university-based New Left, home of Jerry Dawson’s Merseyside Unity Theatre, where the classics were translated into Scouse, seedbed of poetry and stronghold of music hall as well as of the high culture of the Walker Gallery and the orchestras. Arthur Ballard, one of Lennon’s teachers at the art school, has rightly said that it took twenty years’ work to create the culture which produced John Lennon. A deeper study of this period would show Lennon systematically accumulating subversive influences and then sealing them in the irresistible sound of black American music, as translated into Scouse.
For, in an almost exact reversal of the golden triangle of the slavers, the Liverpool rebels in the age of affluence took from the black musicians of proletarian North America exactly those songs which, under nonsense codicils like ‘Be Bop a Lula’ or ‘Bonie Maronie’, most urgently reflected the rhythmic intensity and emotional drama of the music of Africa. In a curious way, the experience of belonging to a subordinate culture was a common element.
Lennon certainly rejected the dominant art-school affection for ‘trad’, a jazz which had mysteriously removed blackness and which Lennon associated with ‘all those bloody musicians and their GCEs’. In a 1982 interview with David Scheff, he insists again that although rock and roll first came into his consciousness through white singers like Bill Hayley, Elvis Presley and the most marked white influence on the Beatles, Buddy Holly, it was the original black music which ‘changed our lives when we heard it’ and knew ‘it was something strong and powerful and beautiful.’ And the particular R and B Lennon favoured went unreported in the Melody Maker and unplayed on the BBC (although with luck available on Radio Luxembourg’s uncertain airways), and was obtained, not in record stores, but in the quayside pubs from visiting seamen. Just as dub was a sine qua non for punks in the halcyon days of ‘Louise’s’ and ‘The Roxy’, and the sound of bebop storming the Winter Palace of jazz is once again the badge of dance-floor radicalism, so Lennon’s adoption of the R and B originals was a statement of defiance – part of the process of putting imperialism into reverse which was later to produce the black-led uprisings in the great slave ports of Liverpool and Bristol in 1980 and 1981.
But it was in the port of Hamburg that Lennon says he finally grew up. There the band worked out their combination of R and B roots, rocker swagger and art-school chic. They were still kids, and exploited kids at that. Their promoter, Bruno Koschminder, forced them to live in three filthy rooms behind the Star Club’s cinema screen, and to play six forty-five-minute sets each night, exhorting them with the vehemence of an ex-Panzer trooper to ‘Mak show! Mak show!’ and getting them deported for unauthorised jamming. Here Coleman busily defends the Beatles against claims of debauchery but is tantalisingly brief about their contact with their first intellectual fans, the group of Hamburg bohemian radicals around Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann whom Lennon called ‘the exis’. Stuart Sutcliffe, the painter whom Lennon had recruited to play bass, fell in love with Kirchherr, a fashion designer and photographer.
In most cases, the pop star’s rebel pose is laughable hypocrisy: successes in the pop world are egocentric, ignorant and conformist. Lennon’s radicalism had more tenacious roots: in the particularities of Liverpudlian class-consciousness, in the authentic music of the North American ghettos that he sought out and refashioned, and in the ironies and ambiguities of a European existential attitude. These influences explain his otherwise inexplicable dissatisfaction with what the Beatles became, and they explain his love affair and artistic collaboration with Yoko Ono, which both saved his life and, by Americanising it, brought to an end what was most durable and important in his artistic make-up.
The meeting with Ono which begins Coleman’s second volume is legend. Whacked out on psychedelics and lack of sleep, Lennon succumbs to a piece of cutesy-pie conceptualism by Ono in the dreaded Indica Gallery, headquarters of druggy pretension. And the glimpses Coleman gives us of this period are a nasty mixture of the pseud and the ruthless, with the Beatles giggling at their toes while George Martin organises the aural shifts of Sergeant Pepper, and with Lennon first ignoring his first wife and then citing her non-existent infidelity to get custody of his son Julian. It would have taken a Manhattan avant-gardist brought up as a scion of the Bank of Tokyo and educated at Sarah Lawrence to cut through this bedraggled but corrupt crew. But what Ono seems to have told Lennon is only another version of the sort of advice Arthur Ballard seems to have already given him. Ono insisted that he was an artist and ought to be proud of it, that his bewildered aggression unsuccessfully concealed a wounded soul, and that the voracious masculinity of rock and roll would kill him. She also told him that she loved him as a brave, hurt, talented, confused human being and not as that most witless of people, a pop star. Whatever one feels about her art and her political philosophy (and I loathe them both), her intelligence and bravery are not in doubt, and she more than anyone prevented Lennon from making the traditional rock star exit as either a bloated drug-raddled corpse or a bloated Tory.
Rather than some dreadful deviation, his creative relationship with Ono was a return: a new equivalent to the camaraderie of the Quarrymen, Liverpool School of Art and the Exis and a relationship with a woman who could collaborate with him artistically. Lennon and Ono succeeded in creating music which was at the same time popular and avant-garde, stylised and expressive, candid and artful. In Plastic Ono Band and Imagine he at last reveals the full scope of his voice – alternatively raucous, tender and disturbing – using language and ideas which are precise and harrowing. And in the socialist stompers and revolutionary anthems of Some Time in New York City, he brilliantly brought his rock-and-roll method of composition – ‘Say what you mean, make it rhyme and put a backbeat to it’ – to a political subject-matter. Agitprop dates quickly, but Lennon’s subjects were well chosen and of real importance to the insurgent American Left in the early Seventies: the massacre at Attica State Prison, Angela Davis’s persecution, the punishment of the radical leader John Sinclair with a ten-year sentence for possessing marijuana, and the Bloody Sunday shootings by the British Army which had brought the situation in Derry to international attention. The personal monologues like ‘Crippled Inside’, ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Working-Class Hero’ – which has been brilliantly re-recorded by Marianne Faithful, one of the very few singers who persists with Lennon’s range of emotional and sexual-political reference – permanently expanded the range of the pop song. And the other statements – the bed-in, the films on rape and on James Hanratty, the solidarity with Oz magazine, the stunning performance, at twenty-four hours’ notice, by the Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Peace Festival – added up to a remarkable, if uneven achievement.
But this collaboration had a price, and that price was the permanent and, one must conclude, highly damaging exile. Although ostentatiously draped in the colours of Manhattan (‘New York,’ he said quite wrongly, ‘is like a Liverpool that has got it together’), Some Time in New York City is in spirit the most Liverpudlian record he ever made, with its promiscuous allegiances, its poetic-political passion, its sheer jauntiness. But that section of the American Left which they encountered in New York was heading for catastrophe, making their stoned plans for cultural insurrection as SDS splintered into Stalinist sects and the Black Panther Party was systematically gunned down. Partly in reaction to the Yippy fiasco, and after a series of reproductive disasters, Lennon steered himself into a well-upholstered isolation which he devoted to bringing up his second son, Sean, while Yoko moved from performance art to the administration of Lennon’s business empire, plotting – to great effect, apparently – the purchase of breeding heifers by means of the horoscope. The man who had looked for a moment like the Lenin of the Rock and Roll Party seemed to have succumbed to the rock star grandiosity which the punks were, by 1977, so effectively denouncing.
Coleman’s chronology increasingly features whinge-worthy entries about birthday presents of vintage Rolls-Royces, diamond hearts and mounds of fresh gardinias. The remnants of radical conceptualism consisted of having love messages sky-written over Central Park. If Ono rescued him from one kind of disaster, he appeared to have landed in another: the uncritical admiration of an entire generation of Americans – photographers oozing unction, self-promoting interviewers, minor pop stars with alcohol problems, and the battery of servants who showed the depth of their devotion by filching and flogging off Lennon memorabilia and memoirs after his death. In Lennon’s circumstances, flattery is as dangerous as heroin, and Coleman’s account of his circle shows him as almost wholly lacking contact with any intellectual or artistic equals. Almost all the photos in Yoko Ono’s sad assemblage give the impression that he doesn’t really know where he is.
It is remarkable that white rock musicians who play exaggerated homage to the roots of their black musical heroes are so offhand about their own. Lennon’s music was successful internationally, but what gave it its originality was his response to very specific origins: the Anglicised R and B, the intensities of the grammar and art schools of the time, the insurbordinate popular culture of the North of England. Detached from its source-materials, and never relocated culturally, his work was eventually to turn into the vacuous soup of Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey, albums recorded just before his murder. There is an insistent sense that, against one’s hopes, corporate America had killed Lennon long before Mark Chapman got to him.