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Friday, 13 April 2007

Albert Goldman's "The Lives of John Lennon"...

[For once, a tenuously topical post...]

I picked this up at the British Heart Foundation shop for four quid - a second print-run American edition hardback, barely marked, from 1988. I remember the ballyhoo surrounding the original publication and, perhaps unduly swayed by that hyperbole, have steered clear of it until now. Having been a Lennon fan since childbirth, I thought I'd breeze through it, but I'm just over halfway through what is a very dense read indeed - 700 plus pages of close print foolscap format text. In reading terms, if not in subject matter, it makes the 270 pages I've just read on Stalin's rule of terror - famine, torture, political murder, 20 million dead etc. - seem like a stroll in the park.

On the evidence of what I've read so far, despite some really well researched and evocative material (in particular that concerning the doomed marriage of Lennon's parents and their subsequent and highly traumatic tug of love over the young John), it's hard not to feel that Goldman's book does in large part live up (or down?) to the claims of its many detractors that it is little more than an ill-intentioned (malicious, even) hatchet job. At times, the author's glee *is* almost palpable as he winds up to unleash the coups de smear of his trump allegations - or maybe insinuations would be more accurate. For instance, he cites Stuart Sutcliffe's post-mortem which revealed a sharp indent on the deceased's skull consistent with being kicked by sharply pointed footwear. John Lennon often wore cowboy boots - draw your own conclusions...That sort of thing.

So, Lennon variously beats up Sutcliffe, German sailors in Hamburg, British sailors in Liverpool, Cavern Club DJ Bob Wooler at Paul's 21st Birthday bash (proposing a wife swap to Rory and Mrs. Storm almost as soon as his fists have ceased pummeling, if Mr. Goldman is to be believed - *some* party Macca!), Yoko (allegedly causing her at one stage to miscarry). In between the violence, he whacks Brian Epstein one off/gets mouth relief from B.E. in a Barca bedroom, gets Cynthia, German girlfriend Bettina and (one wouldn't be surprised, given that he seems to have shagged most of them) half of the civilised world up the duffer in between consuming almost every known chemical substances in elephant-felling quantities - oh, and in between the sex and drugs and violence he somehow contrives to co-write and record the greatest body of popular song in the canon and tour with the most famous pop group there has ever been. And we're only up to page 311...

But, if you can filter out the more blatant sensationalising, there's a lot of good stuff here too. Indeed, given the time that's elapsed since the original publication date (a mere 8 years after Lennon's sad and shocking death, but nearly twenty years since the book came out) one should perhaps sit back and relish rather than upbraid the skillful sophistry with which Goldman goes about his craft. Heaping supposition on top of innuendo upon wild speculation, Goldman establishes the tenuous conjecture that rather than the hand job Lennon freely admitted to bezzy mate Pete Shotton that he'd given Brian Epstein in that Barcelona hotel room, it's more likely that Eppy gave Johnny a blowy...

Also, as Goldman himself points out in a spirited defence of his extensively researched tome occasioned by a pummeling-in-print administered to it/its author in a Rolling Stone review, there's plenty of humour there too (the fact that Goldman was also the author of a positive and much-lauded biog. of comic legend Lenny Bruce has been somewhat overlooked in the wake of his exceedingly controversial books on Presley and Lennon). As would befit a book about the caustically witty Lennon, I've laughed out loud often and imagined Lennon doing likewise from the other side, particularly at one LSD-fuelled encounter with a member of the public. Lennon, who'd just left a hastily convened board meeting of the Beatles and their inner circle at which he'd announced his sincere belief that he was no less than the Second Coming of Christ incarnate - a fact his Beatle buddies took in their stride with admirable aplomb, incidentally - was recognised in a restaurant by a fellow diner. "'Ere, don't I know you?" asked the m. of the p., evidently furrowing a brow whilst trying to place this famous face. "I'm Jesus Christ" drawled the stoned and ego-fragmented Lennon, in deadly earnest. "Oh", said the other fellow, scales evidently having fallen, "I thought your last record was very nice". There's also a great description of John's indomitable Auntie Mimi's first meeting with Yoko - "who's the poison dwarf, John?"

But the overall problem with the book, especially given the anally retentive nature of many Beatlemaniacs and the much-trumpeted research undertaken by the author, is always going to be in the details. And here there are fatal flaws. Lennon bought a big mock-Tudor house, Kenwood, on the St. George's Hill Estate near Weybridge, Surrey because his "foolish finacial advisors" told him to buy a large house for tax purposes. They recommend Sussex. A typo, I thought, initially. But no, there it is again, a few hundred pages later - Lennon's Sussex mansion. There are silly, easily avoided goofs as well that would (and will) have even the most casual acquaintance of the Beatles' discography apoplectic. He refers to George Harrison's "four-record" All Things Must Pass LP. It was a triple album. This succession of minor but avoidable inaccuracies builds up and you begin to wonder - if he's wrong about stuff like that - exactly what *is* kosher.

And then there are the parts where Goldman, presumably tripping over himself to wield that hatchet, gets his vices all in a muddle. We're told (and Lennon himself attested to this, as do other witnesses) that between late 1965 and 1967 he took 'thousands' of LSD trips, virtually eating the stuff, to the extent that apparently Goldman couldn't get any technical info on what the effects of so prodigious an intake would be (you're meant to leave a few days between trips in order to get the hulucinatory effects, apparently). The effect of all this on his sex life, according to friend and fellow imbiber John* Dunbar was that Lennon became 'monastic'. Or, put crudely, impotent. And yet, so anxious is Goldman to utilise revelations from Lennon's chaufeur that had been at it in the back of the Roller a mere three weeks after they first met, thus skewering the romance of their "we made love at dawn after recording Two Virgins" schtick.

It is a nasty book in places, but with the increasing acceptance among all but the most one-eyed Beatle fanatics that Lennon really does firmly belong in the deeply flawed category of genius, perhaps that has to be the case. What is sad is that you can't help feeling that Goldman's book is, in its own way, just as distorting of the man as those accounts which would prefer not to dwell so long on the man's many and evident flaws. Still, if you watch and listen carefully, the man's own documentation of his life (not withstanding his Estate's ongoing attempts to massage and manipulate it for public consumption) tells pretty much the same story. Lennon may have been more dissembling and (as Goldman asserts) a fantasist in other areas of his life, but usually he was nothing if not honest in in his art. And soon, you'll be able to download it all.

L.U.V. on y'all,


* not Andrew Dunbar, as I initially posted. Many thanks to Dickster for the spot...

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  1. I suppose it's easy to get away with a hatchet job when the person your tearing apart is no longer around to dispute the facts. I always tend to take books like these with a large pinch of salt and make my own mind up about what I think is the truth and what's a total fabrication or and extension of the truth

    xx Baggie

    Ps.. Sorry I haven't been here in a while

  2. Septic you see Robert. Nobody should write in depth about Lennon without an understanding of the British education system, the Goon Show, skiffle or art schools in the fifties. And, a minor point, it's JOHN Dunbar...not Andrew.

  3. Have you read the bit that mentions John's fleet/squadron of tanks yet?

  4. Thanks BB - nice to have you back!

    Yes Dickster, he doesn't *get* a lot of that stuff does he? And he describes Hendrix as playing a "Stratocruiser".(...)

    Yes, I was just (er hem) testing on the Dunbar thing...

    I thought that was Ron, not John Istster. I'll read on. Just got to the bit about Yoko's big NYC exhibition that got trashed by "ver kids" who'd turned up en masse expecting beatles reunion...

    I may post up again when I finish it...

    Have a great weekend all,

    L.U.V. on ya,


  5. Shameless self publicising and all that but I've finally pulled my finger out and done another podcast! Luv on ya kidder x