Thursday, December 8, 2005
For the iPod generation, the musical and cultural revolution fomented by the Beatles and their counterparts must seem at least as moldy as the Big Band craze did to those who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For millions of Baby Boomers, though, the Beatles remain the gold standard against which all other pop artists must be judged, and, further, Lennon and McCartney stand as two of the most significant composers of the 20th Century.
So it’s comforting to realize that, for the above reasons and others, 2005 has turned out to be another Year of the Beatles. Ringo turned 65 in July, and Lennon would have celebrated as many candles on Oct. 9. And another, far more grim anniversary, is upon us: Dec. 8 marks the 20th anniversary of the awful night that a deranged Beatles fan shot Lennon to death on the sidewalk in front of the Dakota building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Proof that Beatlemania still thrives: At least five books on John, Paul, George and Ringo have been published this year, including The Beatles: The Biography, a voluminous, well-reviewed tome by music writer Bob Spitz, and Lewis Lapham’s With the Beatles.
Lennon is the subject of three of the books—two biographies, Larry Kane’s Lennon Revealed and Cynthia Lennon’s John, and Bob Gruen’s coffee-table photo essay with scattered text.
Not surprisingly, given the mountains of writing on the subject, little in the way of revolution or revelation is offered by the trio of new Lennon volumes. Even worse, for students of Beatles music, is the complete lack of musical or social analysis: How, exactly, did Lennon and his bandmates go about writing and structuring their music, and what, aside from the general mania associated with the Beatles, accounted for their songs’ resonance with audiences worldwide?
The biographies are readily categorized and might be thought of as two sides of the same coin. John, written by Lennon’s first wife, the mother of his elder son, Julian, is a portrait of the artist as a real bastard with some redeeming qualities, most of which, according to Cynthia, were squeezed out by a certain avant-garde artist from New York, by way of Tokyo. Lennon Revealed, by the author of 2003’s Ticket to Ride, is a collection of often overheated word pictures designed to heap praise on a brilliant, troubled man.
The difference between the motivations behind the two is underscored in passages on Lennon’s role as a father. Kane, writing about Lennon’s purportedly close relationship with Sean, his child with second wife Yoko Ono, turns in typically grandiose prose: “As he had in so many other aspects of life, John pioneered a new definition of fatherhood.” The first Mrs. Lennon, while certainly having cause to grind an axe or two, simply lets the facts do their work: Julian didn’t hear a word from his father for a three-year period beginning in 1971.
John, which proceeds in mostly chronological fashion, is by far the more readable and diverting of the two biographies. The author handily captures the headiness and exuberance she experienced during the late 1950s as a young student at the Liverpool College of Art, where she fell headlong for a brash guy with a “teddy-boy look.” She covers all the familiar signposts—Cavern Club success, the rise of “She Loves You” and other early singles, the frenzy of Beatlemania, Lennon’s controversial statements about Christianity, the band’s trip to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat in India, the group’s decision to discontinue live performances, Lennon’s inability to please his strict Aunt Mimi—from a point of view that’s refreshing if not quite illuminating.
Cynthia, clearly trying to re-establish her place in Beatles history, attempts to set the record straight on several issues. John’s daily use of LSD, she writes, was a major factor in the dissolution of their marriage. She contends that Ono aggressively pursued John, only slowing down when she had gained control over every aspect of his art and life, and ultimately brought on the breakup of the Beatles. Ono, as might be expected, wasn’t invited to participate in Cynthia’s book. But the former did agree to be interviewed for Lennon Revealed. Kane, who accompanied the Beatles on their 1964-65 tours of North America, arranges things thematically, giving chapters such titles as “The Man, the Myth, the Truth.” He fills in a gap or two regarding the John and Yoko romance, and the Beatle’s “lost weekend” with May Pang. But his book largely reads like a fan boy’s scrapbook. It’s a loose string of alternately underwritten and overblown anecdotes designed in part to demonstrate the author’s closeness to his subject.
Gruen, a noted rock and roll photographer, doesn’t need words to demonstrate the emotional intimacy he experienced with John. His photos in John Lennon: The New York Years, including several iconic images of John with and without Yoko, Sean, the Elephant’s Memory band, Mick Jagger, Elton John and others, capture a musician who appears to be far more content, in his element and in control of his life and artistic vision than, say, his ex-wife would argue. Gruen’s photos almost manage to pull back the curtain on an earthshaking artist likely to remain an enigma, even to his wives, lovers and friends.