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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Gimme Some Truth...

Two memories centring around John Lennon...

1) It's summer, 1978. A holiday cottage in a tiny Welsh hamlet, smelling of cold stone and the smoke from damp woodblocks - (the cottage that is, we were still only kids so probably smelt of bad breath and marmite. And pooh.) Cas puts the copy of The Beatles Early Years he's just picked up on the journey from Woolies in Carmarthen (?) onto the little box record player - we may even have brought this up with us from London, perhaps? It's a cheapo jobby - £1.99? Not much more than that at any rate. On Contour records, a budget subsidiary of RCA. Cheap and cheerful as it may be, 'Ain't she sweet' starts up and the unmistakable Lennon rasp sings out into the chilly room. It sounds eye-twinklingly good to us, undiscriminating and callow as we are. But then Cas's Dad, Bill, joins us and his eyes are twinkling too. "That's Lennon? - my God, he sounds young...and blardy good." (He was Australian, hence the uplift.) We sit together, six eyes twinkling, until the song ends. Then we go back to being kids, and Bill goes back to being Bill - at least, for a few more months.

2) It's thirty years ago today. I slouch into school where I'm met by another of Bill's sons, Rufus. "Did you hear? John Lennon died...?" (He's not Australian - he's just asking a question that he can't believe he's having to ask, hence the uplift...) I'm going through that hideous teenage phase where the shortest of conversations feels like an entirely unreasonable demand upon my time and resources and I have an unjustifiable and inexplicable hatred of the world. I'm shocked, but I'm not going to let anybody know that."So what?", I sneeringly reply. Later I rationalise this to myself and to others by explaining that I was merely reacting the way that Lennon would have at the same age. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, by 7pm that evening I'd played through most of the Lennon Beatles songs and what I had of the solo stuff and was as damp eyed as the rest of the nation as the sombre strains of 'In my life' accompanied the closing credits to Not the Nine O'clock News.

I have a far less uncomplicated love for John Lennon than I did when I was a kid. For all its many flaws - 'Drive my Car' is one of Paul's, isn't it? Weybridge is in Surrey, not in Sussex, and the feeling it gives you at times that it should really have beeen called The Lives of Yoko Ono - Albert Goldman's 1988 biography has more than compensated for the tendency that arose in the aftermath of Lennon's assassination to canonise him. The problem with The Lives of John Lennon is not so much the attempt to paint Lennon as a weak, easily manipulated dilletante, prone to violence - especially towards women - who would urge his listeners to 'imagine no possessions' in one breath then sign a cheque for a collection of fur coats before taking his next; all of these are valid criticisms of the man, and there are many, many more with which I would concur. The love may be tempered now by a fuller knowledge of the failings of the loved, but it's no less real.

No, the problem with Goldman's book is the way it deliberately sets out to conflate the faults of Lennon the man with those of the Sixties idealism of which he was and is regarded, rightly or wrongly, as being emblematic. It's a yobbish form of flattery, I suppose, that a former yob like Lennon would probably have appreciated. If you're taking on a gang, always go for the biggest and toughest one and take him out. The others will be so astounded by your nerve that they'll run off. And this appears to have been how things have panned out; by at the very least discrediting (if not actually eliminating) Lennon, neo-Conservatism has put one over on the progressives collectively. There are contemporary echoes here, perhaps, with the recent treatment of Julian Assange who I'm sure would identify with the Lennon whose protracted bid for US citizenship was held up thanks to trifling drug convictions completely dwarfed by the cultural significance of his work.

I read a recent piece by Richard Williams in which he imagined how Lennon might have been had he been alive today. Sure, he would have been a prodigious tweeter and he wouldn't have had much time for modern pop music. But I think he'd also have been very out of step with the prevailing air of caution in the area of public discourse. Watch those early home movie clips of the Beatles goofing around and Lennon's default position when confronted by a camera is to pull a 'spazz' face. He was deeply irreverent throughout and I've a feeling that this anti-authoritarian streak might have acquired a bizarrely fogeyish quality in the current context where people are more concerned with not offending others than discovering what it is that they actually find offensive themselves. Lennon probably had the best bullshit detector going and added to that he was the sort of person who would not hide behind the excuse of a spoonerism if he wanted to call someone like Jeremy Hunt a cunt - do the math...

The Goldman book attempts to portray Lennon as a conflicted and hypocritical character and it would be possible to recognise the hefty tome as the vital act of iconoclasm its author no doubt believed he'd presented to the world were it not for one thing: Lennon's own music. Whether through possessing tin ears, or being too much of a jazzer - or, more likely, because he was in such a rush falling over himself to find the meanest qualities in Lennon and all he said and did that he didn't really listen to the music that Lennon actually produced to find enough self-excoriation for several biographies. Goldman had no need to rifle through their trash to discover that, for instance, the Dakota Building was not the land of milk and honey for its most famous residents that their PR machine would have had the world believe. Double Fantasy may not be Lennon's best work - to the extent that the most exciting music on it is that produced by his wife - but you only have to listen to songs like 'Losing you' and 'Clean up time' to find that Goldman's muck raking as to their drug habits and marital disharmony is otiose.

Lennon may have learned in later life, as we all do at one time or another, the necessity of appearing to stand shoulder to shoulder with one's loved ones and that in order to do so, one needs occasionally to be less than frank for the sake of diplomacy. But Lennon was uniquely talented in (or afflicted by, perhaps, in the solo years) his inablity to edit the candour of the moment from the work. There's a lot - his attacks in song on McCartney, Allen Klein, 99 per cent of his contribution to Some Time in New York City one would hope - that he probably regretted and which others would have dithered over releasing in the first place and finally pulled back from unleashing at the last moment. Lennon just put it out and worried later. Whatever other qualities you could question it for lacking - wisdom, polish, generosity and, in the case of Some Time in New York City, a strip of gaffer tape over his wife's mouth - Lennon's solo work always tells you where he was at at the time he made it. If only for that, with such honesty and self-exploration in such short supply, we could do with him around today.

...and you can listen to the man himself right here...



  1. Neither Lennon on his own, nor the Beatles, ever did much for me.

  2. I feel exactly the same about Clegg and Cameron, Dave.



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