Can you review a book you failed to finish? The tome that prompted this question in me being Ray Coleman’s biography of John Lennon, originally published in two volumes during 1984, but updated and expanded in the late 90s. It has sat, unmolested, on my groaning shelf of Beatles’ literature for a full 12 years – a birthday present from my sister. I decided to pick it up recently during one of my periodic Beatles binges, and I had fully intended to read the whole thing. That, though, was where the problems began – as we shall see. Coleman’s book carries with it the subtitle ‘The Definitive Biography’, a claim that comes across – at least in the light of the portions that I read – as less authoritative, and closer to arrogant and protective. If there’s one thing a biographer needs, it seems to me, it’s a sense of objectivity about his subject – which is why historians, being trained in the art of archival research, fact checking, and interpretive assessment, tend to write more reliable biographies than, say, pop journalists. A biographer may love his subject, but he shouldn’t be in love with his subject. Likewise, he may think his subject some kind of hero, but he oughtn’t to hero worship him.
Lennon begins with a short prologue before launching into a rambling and self-indulgent introduction called ‘Life After Death’ – a title which manages to be both portentous and clichéd. It is intended to take stock of the Lennon industry in the years between the book’s original publication and its revised edition, but actually just staggers around like a drunk in search of home for over 70 increasingly ridiculous pages. The problems begin from the very first page. “History,” Coleman declares without a scintilla of irony, “will record [Lennon] as one of the great peacemakers of the twentieth century” – a perfectly preposterous statement if ever there was one. One assumes Coleman is referring to the nostalgic received images of the Lennon of the late 60s; he of ‘All You Need Is Love’, bed-ins, and ‘Give Peace A Chance’; the Lennon who makes his ubiquitous appearance during those adoring, rose-tinted 60s reminiscences of which the media are so perpetually fond; the Lennon that his widow and executer has tried her level best to perpetuate in the years since his murder, with all the hegemonic legal and cultural ramifications that implies. The problem with nostalgia, though, is that it is by its very nature reductive: it has the unfortunate effect of flattening out the rough terrain of historical complexity by exorcising anything ironic, paradoxical, or ambiguous from its preordained and simplistic narrative. The same holds for a figure like Lennon. The ‘peace & love’ Lennon must be reconciled with the more unpleasantly paradoxical facets of his character. This great “peacemaker” was also a man entirely capable of fits of spasmodic violence. There is a reason, in other words, why the Rutles cinematic parody named its Lennon character ‘Dick Nasty’. While it is perfectly true that Lennon, for a period, espoused such peacenik platitudes, it is also true that during the same period and after he zigzagged erratically between the notions of peaceful insurrection and violent revolution, displaying the confused and incoherent political thinking that marked much of his adult life. (As well as, indeed, marking much of the counter-culture itself.) Martin Luther King, he was not.
During that year of social upheaval we know as 1968, Lennon and the rest of The Beatles entered Abbey Road to begin work on the record that eventually became known as the ‘White Album’, and the first song committed to tape perfectly illustrates the ambivalent and inconsistent nature of its author’s socio-political commitments. Intending to pour cold water on the left-led violence then erupting across campuses in France, Italy, Britain and America, Lennon lay on his back in the studio and cooed “don’t you know it’s gonna be alright” and warned his audience not to carry pictures of Chairman Mao because “you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”. However, when it came to calls to destroy the bourgeois capitalist society he had been rebelling against since birth, he wasn’t so sure: “when you talk about destruction,” he sang, “don’t you know that you can count me out…in.” When Lennon re-recorded ‘Revolution’ as a ramped up, fuzz-toned rocker some two months later, he had seemingly made up his mind, ruling himself out of the destruction, before embarking on a series of publicity stunts with Yoko aimed at highlighting the ’cause’ of peace.
Leaving aside (if you can) the question of exactly how much actual peace was made by the sight of Lennon and Yoko staying in bed for a week or sitting inside white linen sacks, it is telling to note that a mere 18 months later he had come full circle, and was sporting the Mao badge, red beret, and leather gloves that were the de rigueur uniform of the ultra-left radical faction. John and Yoko had, by this point, moved to New York and fallen under the spell of the clownish Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (two of the more ridiculous ideologues in an age of ridiculous ideologues), as well as Black Panther Bobby Seale. In 1972 they released Some Time In New York City, an album of protest songs espousing the revolutionary rhetoric of such peaceful causes as Irish republicanism (sample lyric: “If we could make chains with the morning dew/The world would be like Galway Bay/Let’s walk over rainbows like leprechauns/The world would be one big Blarney stone”). It was, according to Peter Doggett (one of the better chroniclers of the period), an “album full of…unthinking certainties,” and based on “borrowed rhetoric and second-hand emotions.” Needless to say, Lennon and Yoko dropped Hoffman and Rubin and their half-baked Jacobin romanticism as quickly as they had picked them up, though Lennon remained curiously proud of this aberrant collection of didactic revolutionary doggerel.
Such unpleasantries remain anathema to Coleman, for whom Lennon is a saintly figure whose image must be protected by – you guessed it – Ray Coleman. “Teddy boy, pop star, rebellious student, propagandist for peace, poet, artist, songwriter, musician, bandleader, sloganeer, philosopher, wit, loving husband, doting father – Lennon was all these things and more,” he gushes, without a hint of embarrassment. Lennon was “the founder, the powerhouse, the engine room of the Beatles,” who, “became a catalyst and a dream-weaver for a generation’s ideals.” (A sentence which actually made me physically squirm when I read it – we’re still on the first page here.)
Without Lennon, Coleman asserts, the Beatles would have had, “no cutting edge, conscience, or originality,” which is about as partial and blind-sighted a reading of the Beatles’ particular genius as it’s possible to get. While it might well be true that without Lennon the Beatles as we know and love them wouldn’t have existed, the same is equally true with regards to Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and even Ringo. The whole point about the Beatles is that they were – in refreshing contrast to the mannered and groomed English pop stars that immediately proceeded them – a group, who played all their own instruments and wrote their own songs, and whose contrasting personalities and musical input, as well as seemingly unaffected demeanour, gave them the dizzying dynamic that captured the hearts, minds, and feet of the post-war boomers. Similarly, the notion that Lennon, and Lennon alone, was responsible for the Beatles’ originality is a nonsense. In what way are ‘Yesterday’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and ‘Penny Lane’, for instance, any less original or cutting edge than ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’? What those who view the Beatles as some kind of Lennon verses McCartney dialectic fail to grasp is that their talents were complimentary as well as antagonistic, each acting as a catalyst for the other. (It’s no accident that their finest moment – ‘A Day In The Life’ – is a near perfect 50/50 collaboration.) Likewise, McCartney could rock just as wildly as Lennon (‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘I’m Down’, ‘Helter Skelter’) while Lennon was every bit as capable as McCartney of being winsomely sentimental (‘Goodnight’, ‘Love’, ‘Imagine’). In point of fact, it is well attested to that it was McCartney, rather than Lennon, who first developed an interest in the experimental and the avant-garde music and art of the mid-60s, an impulse not fully embraced by his partner until he had met Yoko Ono. It was McCartney, under the influence of Stockhausen’s Geseng Der Junglinge, who suggested the tape loops that make ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ the work of dazzlingly radical innovation it is, and if one compares the albums respectively released in year of Lennon’s murder – McCartney II and Double Fantasy – it is quite clear which of the two had continued to experiment, and which had retreated into the bland foothills of MOR. As for “conscience”, that accolade, if it has to go to any one member (and I don’t see why it should), surely has to go to Harrison, consistently the most thoughtful and spiritual of the group (as well as, paradoxically, the most sour).
Coleman is clearly too close to his subject (“I knew John Lennon for eighteen years,” he thunders defensively) and cannot bear any criticism that hasn’t been sanctioned by his approval. Within a couple of pages of his introduction he has gotten himself into an hilariously po-faced tizz about some – really rather mild – criticism of the 1994 Beatles Live At The BBC CD by David Sinclair of the Times:
Such a shameful diminution of standards, coming from the same paper whose classical music critic William Mann, had broken new ground by famously praising The Beatles in 1964, told more of the prejudices of modern rock critics than of the public reaction to the early work of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Every other art form cherishes its historic glories. Why then cannot popular music, which is now forty years old, have an honourable history with icons such as Lennon and the Beatles considered seriously?
Within a week, David Sinclair had his reply – from a public vote.
Such ill-humoured petulance becomes an ever more marked feature of Coleman’s prose, manifesting itself in a kind of “you didn’t know Lennon like I did” mentality that is a fatally embarrassing flaw in any biographer. Turning to the 1994 release of the frankly awful “reunion song” ‘Free As A Bird’, his defence of the indefensible is telling. In the face of some hostile words from Tony Parsons, he froths:
This invective came, of course, long before Parsons or anyone else in the media had even heard ‘Free As A Bird’, and his hypothesis on Lennon’s views was ill-judged. Having known Lennon and McCartney and watched their evolution since the Beatles, I would say that John would prefer that the custody of his music and the continuation of his integrity was safe in the hands of Yoko and Paul. We should trust their judgement rather than that of David Sinclair and Tony Parsons, who, having missed the party, imply that they know why the hosts threw it.
As well as breaking the first rule of journalism – don’t take anything Tony Parsons says seriously – this breathless little passage wears its implications as gracefully as a ballet dancer in lead boots: if you happen to have “missed the party” or didn’t happen to know Lennon personally – like Coleman – your opinion is axiomatically ruled invalid. Yet isn’t it often the case that those mired in the company and the milieu they seek to write about are often the least capable of writing about it successfully, whereas those not impinged by personal investment of the kind that Coleman unconsciously displays can sometimes achieve the level of distance needed to critically assess their subject with something at least approaching objectivity? Coleman’s remarks fail to convince for this reason, coming across not as authoritative – as one presumes he intended them – but as an empty boast concealing a sense of powerlessness about Lennon’s image and reputation which he, as Lennon’s self-appointed guardian, cannot tolerate.
Such time-bound defensive attitudes do, of course, mar writing on many periods, yet there is something about the 60s that seems to make them especially prevalent. When it comes to the – admittedly rather wonderful – music and musicians of the period, they nearly always carry with them a disparaging agenda aimed squarely at the music of other, less intensively romanticised, periods. Coleman is no different, and accuses those with the temerity to criticise ‘Free As A Bird’ and its (equally dreadful) follow-up ‘Real Love’ of simple jealousy: “Since Lennon and the Beatles and McCartney at their most mediocre produced music far superior to most of the new sounds of the 1980s and 1990s, fashion-conscious rock writers resort to cheap denigration that would be laughable if were not a sad commentary on the sounds they promote.” As a list of Lennon, the Beatles, and McCartney “at their most mediocre” would have to include such notable dross as ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, ‘Piggies’, the afore mentioned Some Time In New York City, and ‘Mull Of Kintire’, while a list of “the new sounds of the 1980s and 1990s” would have to include, at a minimum, such artists as Prince, Kate Bush, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips, and Björk, it ought to be plain that there is no way to even begin assessing the stupidity of such a statement.
One gets the distinct impression, reading Coleman, that he has struggled to come to terms with the fact that Lennon is – like all historical figures – essentially public property. His protectiveness spills over into uncontrolled fawning, veering between impotent hostility and blind adulation with all the self-respect of a tear-stained jilted wife. “Killed by a gun at the age of forty, Lennon made a profound impact on people of all generations, more as a philosopher than a rock star,” he somehow manages to write with a straight face, “When he moved from London to New York in 1971, never to return, he began a decade of activity that, upon his death, provided a feast for two distinct camps: sincere students – and vultures.” The ‘vultures’ in Coleman’s case being those who have sought to make money posthumously from Lennon: “Aside from John’s teenage hero Elvis Presley, no rock star has been so analysed in death, nor so tastelessly pillaged. Is it merely making money from his bones, or is it a natural extension of the legend? What would Lennon have said? And does ‘The Selling of John Lennon’ damage or cheapen his name?” The fact that Coleman can air such criticisms within the pages of a best-selling biography of John Lennon, while seemingly oblivious to the paradox of his being as much a part of the Lennon industry as the people he despises, goes some way to underlining the basic flaw with Coleman’s perspective: his utter lack of distance or self-awareness.
“Since his death, his legacy as a philosopher has been constantly explored and explained,” he writes, in a phrase that seems to me to have no basis in reality. This constant reference to Lennon as a philosopher is one of Coleman’s more irritating tics – he calls him this at least half a dozen times in the introduction. Yet in what way, exactly, is Lennon a philosopher? One might, at a push, describe some of his lyrics – such as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ – as ‘philosophical’. That, however, is patently not the same thing as being a philosopher – a title which must be earned, not awarded posthumously. Philosophy is a recognisable intellectual discipline with a long and important history. In this sense Lennon is no more a philosopher than David Bowie is an astronaut. Descartes, he was not.
Just when one thinks Coleman’s book can’t get anymore preposterous, he turns to the subject of Lennon’s murder and takes a nose-dive into the realms of the delusional and the paranoid. While most of those who write about Lennon are ‘vultures’ who ‘tastelessly pillage’ Lennon’s memory, dotty English barrister Fenton Bresler’s Who Killed John Lennon? – which alleges that Mark David Chapman was “’simply a cipher for the CIA who imagined that Lennon was a representative of dangerous political subversion’” – is, apparently, worthy of serious consideration! (You’ve got to love that innocent-looking ‘simply’ in the wild assertion above.) While it is now well known that when Lennon moved to New York and began his ‘political’ campaigning he came under intense scrutiny by the American government, who wanted him deported, by 1980 all that had changed. Lennon was, by this point, no more a ‘representative of dangerous political subversion’ than he was a representative of peace and love. Emerging, as he was, from a period of self-imposed exile, the only thing Lennon was a danger to in 1980 was his own reputation. Besides which, assuming the CIA had the means to somehow program Manchurian Candidates into carrying out suspiciously random-looking assassinations, why on earth would they elect to use such technology on John Lennon, as opposed to, say, Fidel Castro or Leonid Brezhnev? It was it this point I resolved to give up after the introduction.
“As we move towards the fifteenth year since John Lennon’s death, with millions of words written, spoken, and sung by him and for him, it became important that his memory should not be atrophied,” writes Coleman, “’dignity’ was never a word that never sounded quite right when applied to John, but it was a quality necessary among keepers of the flame. It was in short supply.” Be that as it may, it seems to me that dignity is the last word we can apply to Coleman’s fawning hagiography. Mentioning a remake of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ by Yoko, Sean, and (oh dear) Lenny Kravitz released around the time of the 1991 Gulf War, he even allows himself this guffaw-inducing statement: “Wars rage, thousands die and starve, but the statements of Lennon refuse to be silenced.” Trying to characterise John Lennon as a man “with unrepeatable flair in every facet of his life and work” who was a “philosopher” and “one of the great peacemakers of the twentieth century” seems to me to be doing a great disservice to his memory. I love John Lennon, but he could be, as he would undoubtedly say, ‘a git’. He was the “propagandist for peace” who also called for violent overthrow of the existing order; the “philosopher” who sang, rather honestly, “half of what I say is meaningless”; the multimillionaire rock star who sang “imagine no possessions”; the “loving husband” who both abandoned his first wife and, for a period, his second; the “doting father” who was largely absent from the life of his first child – it is these uncomfortable clashing contradictions which make Lennon such an interesting figure for biographical treatment. He was, in the words of Ian MacDonald, “the first genuine loose cannon in British popular culture.” To call his personality ‘conflicted’ is a woeful understatement. All of this complexity is lost in Coleman’s pseudo-religious gaze.
What Coleman ultimately fails to understand is that there is no need to elevate Lennon to the status of philosopher or peacemaker. He was, when all is said and done, a pop singer, and he should be judged as such. By the standards of an Aristotle or a Martin Luther King he falls, to say the least, some way short. By the standards of 20th century popular music, on the other hand, his genius can be seen in its proper light. He was one half of the most artistically and commercially successful song-writing partnership of the post-war era. Isn’t that enough? The fact that it isn’t – at least for figures like Coleman – goes some way, I think, to showing the current poverty of our contemporary celebrity-driven western imagination. Those who wish to explore the life of this icon free from such hyperbolic contortions should look elsewhere – to Philip Norman’s Shout: The True Story of The Beatles, Hunter Davis’ The Beatles: The Official Biography, or Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America. Those who wish to focus on the music should head straight to Ian MacDonald’s magisterial Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records and The Sixties.
So, can you review a book you failed to finish? How long does one stay in the cinema before deciding the film is trash? With apologies to my sister – life, as Lennon found out much to his cost, is too short.