With Lennon, there is the dichotomy between the art and the artist, an understanding of the “London and New York John Lennons,” complete with the annoying contradictions and prickly outbursts that drove his persona. Finally we are left with a guess of what might have been as Lennon was emerging from a mid-decade sabbatical from recording and performing before he was killed outside his home in 1980.
Lennon’s early death meant that thirty years later, most of the primary sources are still alive and willing to share stories that would have kept to themselves. Now that some of the horrible biographies on Lennon–like Albert Goldman’s–have passed through our systems, perhaps it’s time for a reflective biography that covers the arc of his life. It take time and distance to make sense of life’s most complex subjects but Tim Riley brings it together in his well-regarded biography, “John Lennon, The Man, the Myth, The Music—The Definitive Life.”
Why the Beatles were different. Unlike Elvis or the pop stars of the early 1960’s, the Beatles wrote their own material; it wasn’t Lieber and Stoller but Lennon-McCartney. They made it mandatory for anybody who followed to do the same if they ever wanted to be taken seriously.
They were neatly packaged by Brian Epstein and blessed by Ed Sullivan in their televised American debut. They were nice working class boys with haircuts just long enough to be edgy and their two movies, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” stayed clear of the psychedelics and protest that drove youth culture in the second half of the decade.
More importantly, the Beatles got better because of the natural competition between Lennon and McCartney. While everything written was published as Lennon-McCartney, their competitive juices matured into who could build the better song. It is hard to believe that only five years passed between when “Love Me Do” hit the shelves and when “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” transformed the social landscape.
Other groups could not keep up or began hit the wall with drugs. Brian Wilson scored with “Pet Sounds” but later crashed under the pressure and the Beach Boys began to fracture artistically. The folkies who found gold were soon at in the remainder piles at record stores. However, it was different for the Beatles. When Lennon lost himself to a serious drug habit, McCartney picked up the slack. If Lennon had been the sole creative figure, the group would have been finished.
As creative as Lennon was, his personality could also infuriate. He was not afraid to take a person down a peg, even on national television. He could write about love but could also quickly abandon his first wife and son. His quote that the Beatles were bigger than God was meant to be ironic but many in the South took at face value. Records were burned and he had to apologize. After the break-up, London commentators savaged Lennon for leaving the UK and running off with his new Asian wife. New Yorkers seemed to be thrilled that a Beatle was living in their midst.
After Brian Epstein killed himself in 1967, the neat packaging that giftwrapped the four came undone. While George Martin remained instrumental in producing their music, each of the Beatles not only grew apart artistically, but also traveled into separate directions with their personal interests. They were one group that was becoming four very interesting people and it was only a matter of time before the relationships soured further. Yet somehow The Beatles went from album to album and improved with each outing, with the occasional misstep.
But it was always there. The dysfunction that would break up the Beatles was there long before Yoko Ono arrived on the scene. The competitive collaboration created an amazing catalog, but the spotlight, the expectations, the egos, and the demands soon undermined everything. Within a short time, all that remained was a public and painful divorce. In retrospect, it’s amazing The Beatles lasted as long as they did.
Lennon’s Post-Beatle decade came to an end in December 1980 when he was shot by a troubled young loner who, hours earlier, requested an autograph. During that period, Lennon was able to fend of the Nixon Administration’s attempt to deport him, spent a “lost year” in Los Angeles apart from Ono, but reunited to have a son and spent the better part of the next five years as a house husband in Manhattan. He put out several albums that showed his occasional brilliance even though he seemed ill-focused but Double Fantasy seemed to be a starting point for larger musical effort. However, events interceded.
Until Lennon died, there was always outside pressure for The Beatles to reunite, perhaps in a concert for charity. However Lennon felt that any reunion would amount to little more than a Beatles cover band. He was right. “Free as a Bird,” a magnificent video that captured the arc of the band, could not hide the fact that it was bootstrapped from a Lennon demo recorded three years before he was killed. The “reunion” walked a fine line.
In the end, long after the personalities have departed, it’s all about the music. When McCartney is on tour, there is an ample helping of Beatles music in his play list. When Ringo Starr is on the road with his “All Starr Band,” it is fun to watch others like Todd Rundgren, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, or Jack Bruce add their style to a Beatles classic. Perhaps “in the music” is where John Lennon will always be.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.