Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman: Controversial Book Stands the Test of Time

The Lives of John Lennon
If John Lennon had lived, October 9th, 2020 would have been his 80th birthday. December 8th, 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of his murder in front of the Dakota building in New York. He has now been dead as long as he was alive. How time flies. I still remember that day in 1980 when the report came over the radio in the kitchen of my childhood home. 

John Lennon is one one of the most written about rock stars of the 20th century, and even the most ass-licking, sycophantic biographies paint him as a nasty piece of work. Violence against women was probably his worst sin. He assaulted most, if not all, of the women he was involved with during his life. He spoke openly about this fact.

And most people who've read even a modest amount about Lennon's life would classify him as a weakling when it came to his relationship with Yoko Ono. He seemed to accept the complete hold the fame-hungry Japanese woman held over him. 

While all serious books about Lennon touch on those aspects of his life to some degree, no other book has raised the ire of the Beatles' franchise and the band's legions of followers more than The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman. When released in 1988, it was immediately attacked as a complete fabrication. Paul McCartney, Ono and the rest of the heavy hitters tasked with keeping their own and Lennon's reputation as mythical and unsullied as possible railed against the book in uncommonly harsh terms.

The claim disputed the most in articles that followed the book's release was the suggestion by Goldman that Lennon had a homosexual affair with the Beatles' first manager, Brian Epstein. Rumours had long circulated about the two, and Lennon had made numerous cryptic comments over the years. But Goldman comes out and states it directly based on interviews with some people who had been close to the Beatles at the time. 

Goldman holds no punches and goes into the intimate details, claiming that the height of their intimacy was when Epstein "had given John a blow job." Goldman also claims that Lennon tried to rape Epstein and was only stopped when Epstein's mother walked in the room and then phoned the police. However, that episode rings less believable than the other details about Lennon and Epstein's involvement. Goldman repeats the claim about their affair as fact throughout the book.

Most biographers use all sorts of qualifying statements when writing about their subjects: "possible" "seems likely" "hard to confirm for certain." Writers straddle the line between rumour, speculation and fact under the guise of due diligence and being charitable. The more likely reason is to avoid lawsuits. Goldman doesn't waste time with such niceties. With six years of research and 1200 interviews (many done by his assistants), he puts together narratives about Lennon, makes bold claims and then hammers the points home repeatedly.

Another claim by Goldman: Lennon kicked original Beatles' bass player Stuart Sutcliffe in the head during a fight, and the kick may have led to Sutcliffe's death. Goldman states that Lennon continued for the rest of his life to blame himself for Sutcliffe's death. 

Many of the other facts included in the book have been written about by others. But Goldman provides plenty of new details and fleshes out periods of Lennon's life that would have otherwise remained relatively unknown. Others have stated we probably know more about Yoko Ono from The Lives of John Lennon than from any other source. 

John Lennon 80 years old

And what readers learn about Ono isn't pretty. According to Goldman, her shamelessness knew no bounds. Among the claims that Goldman makes about Yoko Ono: she was/is a talent-less hack whose only skill was conning people; she was a negligent mother, both abandoning her first child Kyoko, and leaving the raising of Sean Lennon to others; at various times in her life she seemed to prefer living in squalid conditions no matter how much money she had; before she was married (Lennon was her third) she had numerous abortions, essentially using the procedure as birth control; she suffered very little because of John Lennon's death and instead used it to profit; within six months or so of Lennon's death she remarried and had her new husband dress in Lennon's old clothes. Many of those claims have subsequently been corroborated over the years by other sources. But never recounted in such harsh terms.

And I suppose that's what really enrages so many fans and critics: the tone of Goldman's book. When he really gets going, you can't help but feel that he had a deep-seated, neurotic loathing of Lennon. He previously wrote a number of other biographies, including one of Elvis Presley and another of Lenny Bruce. The Elvis biography is considered by many to be the most comprehensive to this day. 

Goldman claimed that, just like the apparent viciousness in the Elvis bio, he never set out to do a hatchet-job on John Lennon. The interviews and other research simply led him to unavoidable conclusions. And so he runs with it, gleefully carving up Lennon at every turn.

Sometimes the claims are ludicrous and just plain mean-spirited, such as when Goldman speculates about what Lennon might have done on a supposed trip to Bangkok in October, 1976 (part of a 'mysterious' trip to Asia that Goldman writes about):

John's girls would be reluctant to do anything kinky but would be eager to whack him off, blow him, or have intercourse. The cost of the toss was about the price of a movie ticket. John might have also indulged himself with a Thai boy, who enjoys precisely the same reputation among sophisticated homosexuals as do the girls with straight men.

Not only is there no evidence for these specific suggestions (or fantasies on Goldman's part), but I can find no other indication that Lennon even set foot in Thailand (though it does seem likely that he travelled to Asia alone in 1976). An infamous massacre took place in Bangkok in October, 1976. I find it improbable that Lennon would have been there at exactly that time (or very close to it) and never have subsequently spoken of it. Not only that, but could a visit by someone like him have gone unreported in Bangkok (or indeed, could it have been kept secret)? Probably not. Though stranger things have happened.

But the book does not only assault Lennon's character. In numerous passages, Goldman also praises Lennon for his talent and hard work in the early years when the Beatles were playing clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. Goldman also attempts to understand Lennon, and he often slips into lengthy passages of fawning empathy. For example, Goldman paints Lennon as a tortured soul who could never embrace his true self. But the sympathetic treatment rarely lasts for longer than a few pages at a time.

Perhaps most people are so used to the sycophantic style evident in a lot of music journalism that this type of biography rattles them. Just like mainstream media, those other, more polite books create an alternative reality absent the nastiness and harshness most people have experienced in their own lives. For many people, it seems, unpleasant things just aren't supposed to be talked or written about that way. So the 'public face' of the gritty side of life is often favoured by most writers and readers. Especially ones who like to elevate exceptional people to god-like status.

Regardless of Goldman's editorializing and tendency to be blunt, can his account of Lennon be believed? One fact weighs heavily in his favour. Despite the onslaught of criticism at the time of the book's release, no one sued him for libel. The excuse offered by Yoko Ono at the time—that her lawyers advised her not to sue because it would simply attract more attention— rings false. It's a corollary of the "I'm stepping aside to spend more time with my family" nugget of horse-shit offered up by every creep fleeing to the hills for all sorts of nefarious reasons. 

Instead of challenging the claims made by Goldman, Ono and all the remaining Beatles chose to let this massive volume stand for all time. A book they said was a complete fabrication. McCartney told people to boycott it. But no legal challenge was ever made. And so it remains, much of it unrefuted in any detailed or meaningful way. Some of the people interviewed for the book came out and tried to backtrack after the outrage exploded. But none of them launched a legal challenge either. Perhaps the interviewees were leaned on (or offered incentives) by the other side in exchange for their reversals.

The naysayers offer other arguments against many of the claims made by Goldman. One argument is the fact that some of the interviewees had previously fallen out with Lennon and therefore had reason to lie. This is a very flimsy argument. If accepted, it would cast doubt on the believability of anyone interviewed for any biography. Wouldn't someone who still had a strong relationship with Lennon have greater reason to lie with the intent of burying unpleasant truths? Perhaps someone with no ties left to a biographer's subject is the most believable of all.

Finally, the inevitable parsing of the facts and minutiae in any lengthy biography was undertaken by fans and critics. And yes, there are numerous factual errors; as many as a few dozen. These are mainly regarding mistaken names and dates. Any biography of any length will have such errors. They're impossible to avoid. People's memories are fallible and the writer will unintentionally insert errors by mixing up names and faces. All non-fiction writers strive for accuracy. But whether Lennon was wearing a plaid shirt or a black shirt on a particular day in 1969 doesn't cast doubt on every other, often well substantiated, claim.

Since the book's release in 1988, societal views have progressed a great deal. What about that rabid insistence that Lennon did most certainly not have an affair with Brian Epstein? The upstanding, honourable Yoko Ono, who would never shamelessly try to attract attention, came out in 2015 and said that Lennon indeed had a "desire to sleep with men." Isn't that interesting? Of course, she could hardly contradict her past denials and endorse the claims made by Goldman about Epstein. Even shamelessness, apparently, has its limits.

Many of the other claims in the book are irrefutably true, and Goldman simply provides more details, often from people who were directly involved. Lennon and Ono were indeed arrested for kidnapping Ono's daughter, Kyoko. Lennon and Ono were both junkies at various times, though Goldman suggests they were both hooked for much longer than has been reported elsewhere. 

Perhaps the willingness of a reader to entertain the claims or simply to enjoy The Lives of John Lennon is dependent on his view of the world. Some people embrace the hard, unflinching truth and see beauty in ugliness. Some are even willing to apply the same standards when thinking and writing about themselves. Others can't give credence to harsh claims about someone whose music may have been an important part of their lives for many years.

What about Goldman's writing style? He goes out of his way to choose unique phrasing over cliches. Invariably, writers who strive for a memorable writing style won't always hit the mark. Many claim he veered into purple prose in The Lives of John Lennon. I maintain a lot of so-called purple prose has its place and can often be entertaining. Perhaps some writers even write the occasional absurd sentence or two for effect. But then, the term "purple prose" is subjective. In my opinion, Goldman's writing works for the most part, and is even appropriate for the often freakish and voyeuristic subject matter.  

As the things Lennon admitted he did (such as violence against women) become more universally condemned, and the most neurotic and obsessed Beatles' fans slip into eternity, I believe Goldman's book may be one of the Lennon biographies that stands the test of time. When you near the end of The Lives of John Lennon, you're not even surprised when the chapter detailing Lennon's murder is entitled "Bang! Bang! You're Dead!" It's a long, informative, unsettling journey. And by the end, you feel just a tiny bit soiled and disenchanted about life, the world and John Lennon. 


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