Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lennon: The Definitive Biography

by Ray Coleman

Updated With A New Introduction

"The definitive work - a fine biography." - Boston Globe

Completely revised and updated, this new edition of Lennon stands as the definitive life of the most complex and fascinating of the Beatles.

Ray Coleman, former editor-in-chief of England's Melody Maker magazine and a friend of the Beatles since their early days, has drawn on previously unmined family papers, photographs, and extensive interviews to create the most balanced and comprehensive biography of this influential musician.

"Important.... Coleman was the first music journalist introduced to the Beatles by their manager Brian Epstein.... It's good to see Lennon as a human being for a change, warts and all."
- Saturday Review

"Once in a great while a book will appear that is written with the heart as well as the head.... Coleman's straightforward and sensitive approach to the complex man that was John Lennon could not have been written by an outsider.... The ultimate biography of John Lennon."
- Milwaukee Sentinel

"Coleman delves into the uncongenial aspects of John's personality - the lad's early penchant for fistfights, his vicious public attacks on Paul McCartney, and his tendency to use and discard women. But overall he celebrates Lennon as the genius-artist with a razor wit and a heart of gold."
- People

"What's hot? Ray Coleman's intimate biography of John Lennon.... John and Ray were close friends right up to Lennon's tragic death in 1980, and the easy familiarity with which this book is written is one of the things that make it special."
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"The best biography that's ever been written about him. It is one of the most thorough works ever written about anyone in pop music."
- Goldmine

Ray Coleman is the author of The Man Who Made the Beatles about Brian Epstein, Clapton! about Eric Clapton, and the coauthor with Bill Wyman of Stone Alone. He lives in London.



'Oh God, Buddy Holly's dead'

She loved him, but the smell of scallops in his hair and on his body drove her crazy. Liverpool scallops were slices of potato surrounded by a greasy, thick batter, dipped into fat, and deep-fried. John Lennon was addicted to them. Most lunchtimes, as a student at Liverpool College of Art, he crossed the road to the chip shop in Falkner Street and piled himself up with a bag of chips and a bag of scallops. He would take them back to one of the classrooms, perhaps play the guitar while eating, and enthral a few students. The gentleness of his playing contrasted vividly with his hell-raising personality. To many students, this reprobate seventeen-year-old was absolutely magnetic.

But he stank. 'It permeated from his head, through his clothes, and his entire body reeked of greasy scallops,' recalls Helen Anderson, one of the students who adored the 'lovable swine' who dressed like a teddy boy. She nagged him to wash the grease out of his hair and get rid of the DA ('duck's arse') style at the back. 'Get lost,' Lennon would snap. The greased-back hair, DA at the rear, sideburns, drape jackets, crepe-soled shoes, tatty checked shirt, and drainpipe trousers, all based on Elvis Presley whom he regarded as the king, were central to Lennon's personality. For they made him stand out from the rest of the students. Nothing was more important to him than individuality.

Helen Anderson had a unique, direct line to John Lennon's thoughts: he would confide in her about his love affairs. She was a patient listener and admirer of his wit, and since there was never any suggestion that they would become lovers she became a platonic friend and confidante.

She possessed a major attraction for John Lennon. At sixteen, she had actually met a pop star of the day. Lonnie Donegan, whom she had painted in oils for the astronomical fee of $40. There had been stories in the newspapers about her artistic talent. 'Hey, are you that bird who painted Lonnie Donegan?' John asked her on her first day at art school. He was impressed.

As John's undisciplined, hilarious behaviour made more of an impact on her, Helen would go home and tell her mother every day about John's crazy antics that had broken up the class. She demonstrates how John crept up behind people and suddenly boomed one of his favourite songs into their ear. It was Screaming Jay Hawkins's hit, 'I Put A Spell On You'. Helen and John's special friendship was sealed when he regularly gave her his trousers to narrow the legs into drainpipe style. 'Take these in for me, would you, Heloon, they're too bloody wide.' (Heloon was his nickname for her because she always laughed uproariously at his outrageous behaviour.) Dutifully, she often took John's black trousers home and returned them next morning tapered. The 'drainies' were worn underneath his 'regulation shape' trousers until he reached the bus stop on his way to college, where he slipped them off. That way, his Aunt Mimi would not see over breakfast that he was a latent 'ted'. He had to find many similar methods of fending off her wrath about his untidy appearance.

Those who were at art college with John Lennon are unanimous: he was destined to be a great public figure, a triumphant star with unique gifts, or else he would be a layabout, a burden on society who achieved nothing. There would be no halfway for this extraordinary teenager who roared through Liverpool, making an impact on everybody who was willing to be touched by him.

'Even at sixteen I knew he was destined to some sort of grandeur and greatness,' says Helen Anderson. 'In his first six months at college, his paintings were very wild and aggressive. Every one he did incorporated the interior of a night club and they were very strongly drawn, very dark, and there was always a blonde girl sitting at the bar looking like Brigitte Bardot. There were always musicians in John's early drawings, a band on a bandstand, dim lights, something sleazy. I always liked them. But very few people noticed his work in his early days at college.'

To the teachers Lennon was a pest, a danger. His work, erratically presented, was the last thing they worried about. It was his behaviour as a catalyst for trouble in every classroom that they outlawed in unison. Eventually, Lennon and the masters became polarized, just as they had done at his previous school, Quarry Bank High School, Woolton. The more they bored him with their orthodox, predictable, unyielding methods of education which he abhorred, the more he would seek his own route. 'The masters were not interested in him,' says Helen Anderson. 'He was a nuisance to the entire college, distracting everybody else who wanted to learn.'

Lennon didn't care. He had his gang, camp followers like the laconically funny Geoff Mohammed, who was a perfect foil for John's pungent humour. There was Tony Carricker, who joined in the crowd who laughed almost non-stop at John's ribaldry. And there was even June Furlong, the twenty-seven-year-old model who was the subject of the life class in which they would all have to draw her body. Even she became convulsed with laughter on many days when she was supposed to be a serious art subject. Lennon discovered early in his teen years what was to be one of his most endearing characteristics when he was in deep trouble: he could always make people laugh with his very distinctive, cruel, exploitative sense of humour.

In the very warm life class of room 71 at the college, fifteen students were set their weekly task of drawing June. Some would doze off when the teacher left the room. Suddenly Lennon would give out a little giggle. Nobody would take much notice. Two or three minutes later, his giggle would be louder. That would disturb people, especially those trying to concentrate on drawing. A real laugh followed, and a few minutes later his loud, hyena-like cackle totally broke up the class. By then everyone was hysterical at John's calculated disruption. To top it off, Lennon then jumped out from behind his easel, ran into the middle of the room where June was sitting, naked, rocking with laughter and trying to stop her body from shaking for the benefit of the students who wanted to continue to draw it. Finally, for his pièce de résistance, Lennon brought laughter to the entire class by leaping around the room where silence and decorum were the rule.

During another life class session, the whole class produced proper drawings of the model which were soberly dissected by the teacher, Teddy Griffiths. When John came to hand in his effort, he had perversely drawn nothing of June. He produced a drawing of the only item on June's body - her wristwatch. Students were aghast at his nerve - and originality.

While John's eccentric behaviour, non-conformist dress, and swearing in front of the teachers were enough to make him prominent, a less rational, disturbing side to his character emerged soon after he joined the art college. He quickly developed a bizarre obsession for cripples, spastics, any human deformities, and people on crutches. He had a particular fascination for warts. It was a subject that was to manifest itself throughout John Lennon's years of fame. It took root, firmly and with a gaggle of students embarrassed at their own sick sense of humour in laughing at him, here at art college.

Deformities cropped up in his drawings all the time. So did his dry wit, the quality that dominated his personality. For a seventeen-year-old he had a subtle sense of humour way ahead of his time. There was always life and movement in his drawings, to redeem that streak of cruelty. Every person he portrayed had a physical affliction, usually a wart sticking out of the side of the head. Asked why, John would shrug it off, with the implication that if you had to ask, you weren't on his wavelength, so there was no point in discussing it.

By 1958, in his eighteenth year, with all the guns blazing at the art college which bestowed upon him lots of freedom in dress and demeanour, but which was unsuccessfully grappling on all fronts with his wildness, John Lennon could not be missed. He was desperately short-sighted, which somehow added to his mystique among the girls. He wore teddy boy clothes, and his black horn-rimmed spectacles, worn only under the greatest pressure, for he had an ego, were held together at the joints by Elastoplast. He rarely had any money and borrowed it permanently from his gang. He scrounged cigarettes all the time, somehow managing to get through between ten and twenty Woodbines a day. He drank too many pints, usually black velvets, in Ye Cracke, the sudents' pub in Rice Street near the college, and since he could not take much beer without feeling its effects, he frequently behaved either obnoxiously or violently. He kept losing his artist's materials and would constantly ask his Aunt Mimi for more money on the pretext of neednig a new pen or other equipment.

He was a startlingly talented, non-conforming artist, but so lazy that even his close college friend, the serious intellectual Stuart Sutcliffe, could not drag John's attributes into line and get him properly on course. Music, rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard - it was all too much of a pull for Lennon, who would stalk the college with a guitar strapped to his back, ready for the lunchtime sessions over scallops and chips in Arthur Ballard's classroom with two other kids from the more academic Liverpool Institute next door. Their names were Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

On 4 February 1959 John walked solemnly into the classroom, visibly shaken. It was not often that students saw Lennon vulnerable, broken, unhappy. 'Oh God. Buddy Holly's dead,' he muttered. Holly, a vital pioneer of early rock 'n' roll, a singer of plaintive love songs wedded to jerky, haunting melodies, was one of John's idols. He had died in a plane crash in America. Unlike many of the students, John did not cry over the news, but went silent for the day and took some time to snap out of the shock. Lennon always buried his feelings deeply.

It was the third great emotional death to mark John's life, and he was still only eighteen. Seven months before Buddy Holly's death John's mother, Julia Lennon, had died instantly at the age of forty-four after being knocked down by a car when leaving the home of John's Aunt Mimi, with whom John was living. The death of Uncle George, Mimi's husband, who doted on John and had bathed him, protected him, and been a warm and loving father-figure during his childhood, had rocked John at the age of fourteen. And now, just as John was getting inspiration from Buddy Holly, and totally absorbing the wonderful, embryonic sounds of American rock 'n' roll music, it was like another death in the family.

For the teenager who had come from a broken home, despite all his natural inner orthodoxy, respect, and sentimentality, there seemed only one way to get through his early life after eighteen years punctuated by physical fights and emotional scars. That was to erect a cocoon of belligerence, aggression, sick or vicious wit, and castigation. The real John Lennon, from his birth until his death, was a vastly misunderstood man. His drawings and his spoken word may have injured or hurt, and he was capable of wounding with pertinent jibes that shot straight through the heart of the victim. But he always aimed his arrows at people he could not respect, and beneath that abrasive exterior beat a heart of pure gold.

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