by Geoffrey Giuliano
"He was a macho pig in a lot of ways and he knew it. The only thing that made it okay was that he could admit it. That was his saving grace. He tried to overcome it." - SEAN LENNON
"I probably knew him as much as you. That's how warm it was! Dad could talk about peace and love to the world, but could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him. . . . How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces, no communication, adultery, divorce?" - JULIAN LENNON
"John was a great guy, but part of his greatness was that he wasn't a saint." - PAUL McCARTNEY
Beyond the carefully cultivated image of John Lennon (1940-1980) as a loving husband, father, composer, and dedicated peace activist, what do we really know about him? In this first-ever in-depth look at his milestone years in America, where he spent a quarter of his brief life, the myth of Lennon as the swaggering, tough-talking, working-class hero is forever shattered.
Lennon in America is based on more than sixteen years of exhaustive research, utilizing exclusive interviews with Beatles insiders and family members, private letters, and most notably, the explosive contents of Lennon's written and taped diaries in which he recorded his most private, uncensored thoughts. Beatles authority Geoffrey Giuliano has taken these raw materials and, with his incisive perspective, expertly transformed them into an unforgettable biography. The result is a candid, no-holds-barred look at the troubled interior life of a brilliantly gifted artist and enduring cultural icon.
Here is John Lennon as both the devoted husband and thoughtless adulterer; the doting dad and absentee father; a macrobiotic health enthusiast who wrestled with alcoholism, heroin addiction, and bulimia; a pitchman for world peace unable to control his volcanic temper; a vocal feminist and recalcitrant chauvinist; an innovative and influential songwriter who renounced music for years; a lonely Liverpool superstar whose wealth and power allowed him to act with impunity.
Also revealed are Lennon's intimate opinions on the heretofore unchallenged hierarchy of rock 'n' roll, including Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Elton John, David Bowie, Paul Simon, James Taylor, and countless others. John Lennon was essentially tragically lonely, a lost and unfulfilled man longing for the freedom of his youth and ever-reeling from the reality of his sophomoric, sex-obsessed, drug-induced isolation and near-perpetual uneasiness.
As this work makes abundantly clear, Lennon was painfully conscious of his personal excesses and failings. To his credit, however, he spent a lifetime struggling to understand himself and reconcile the conflicts within him, a journey that ended with his assassination in New York City in 1980. Filled with countless revelations, rare previously unseen photographs, and never-before-told anecdotes, Lennon in America offers a revolutionary and all-too-human view of the twentieth century's most legendary rock 'n' roll philosopher and pop prophet.
Geoffrey Giuliano is the author of numerous bestselling books on the Beatles and popular culture, including The Lost Beatles Interviews, The Lost Lennon Interviews, Things We Said Today: Conversations with the Beatles, Blackbird: The Life and Times of Paul McCartney, and Dark Horse: The Life and Art of George Harrison.
WHO LOVES A KING
Revolution For The Hell Of It
There was something oddly portentous about the way John Lennon departed England for the last time. His rambling 74-acre Ascot estate, Tittenhurst Park, lay in shambles. The white Georgian mansion resembled a crumbling mausoleum. When he all but gave it to Ringo in 1973 for payment of back taxes and the sizable repair tab, the formerly easygoing drummer-turned-lord-of-the-manor suddenly became a changed man: now volatile and moody, a heavy drinker and unfeeling womanizer. Unceremoniously dumping his loyal wife Maureen, Starr fled abruptly to Los Angeles. It seemed as if Tittenhurst had a negative influence on those who lived there.
In reality the internal, bookish Beatle was not at all made for America. Arriving in the United States, Lennon wasted no time choosing a new home. As he later recalled, "It was Yoko who sold me on New York. She'd been poor here and knew every inch. She made me walk around the streets, parks, squares, and examine every nook and cranny. In fact, you could say I fell in love with New York on a street corner. . . . Not only was Yoko educated here, but she spent fifteen years living in New York, so, as far as I was concerned, it was just like returning to your wife's hometown."
John's departure from England was given a significant push from Yoko. While Lennon loved the old estate and had for a time considered it his final home, the place was a constant reminder to Ono of how irrevocably tied she was to her husband's overwhelming success. While she had hoped to springboard her own dubious "career" on John's popularity, it hadn't quite worked out that way. Frankly, Yoko's mile-high ambitions could not be satisfied by hiding out in rural Berkshire. So she set to work convincing John to emigrate, goading him with her tales of glory as the "Queen of the Happening," hoping to retrace her early steps in New York's burgeoning avant-garde. There are certainly mixed views as to how influential an artist she was in those days. Lauded by some, condemned by others, Ono's enduring legacy as a conceptual artist depends on to whom you speak.
Furthermore, in England, Yoko was also faced with the issue of access to her husband. Their lavish and spacious Ascot showplace gave family and friends an ample excuse to visit. There was John's faithful cousin Leila, whose close kinship with the eccentric Beatle proved difficult to undermine. George Harrison and Ringo Starr also enjoyed hanging out at Tittenhurst, and thus came around frequently. Most problematic, of course, was the reintroduction of John's estranged son Julian, at six years old no longer a baby to be shunted out of mind. Yoko was secretly worried that any close contact with the boy might bring her new spouse closer to Cynthia, whom she despised.
In luring John to America, Yoko utilized two major factors to her advantage. The first was his vulnerability to heroin, which Yoko admittedly introduced to his life. She encouraged the move by pointing out that they could both escape the long shadow of John's 1968 drug conviction and enjoy greater freedom to experiment with various pharmaceuticals. Besides, the drugs were purported to be much more potent in America. Overnight, John's eagerness to depart for the "Promised Land" increased significantly.
The second draw was the recently completed Imagine album and its documentary companion (both produced at Tittenhurst), which required active promotion in the States. "Imagine is a bit hit almost everywhere," said John at the time. "An anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic song, but because it's sugar-coated, it's accepted. Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey. This is what we do, Jerry [Rubin], Yoko, and the others, to try to change the apathy of young people. The apathy which exists in America (but which is infiltrating everywhere because everyone follows the American pattern), above all because of the music. The lifestyle of this century has been fashioned by America. Young people are so apathetic. They think there is nothing worthwhile to do and everything is finished. They want to take refuge in drugs and destroy themselves. Our work is to tell them there is still hope and still a lot to do. We have to change their minds; we have to tell them it's okay. Things can change and just because flower-power didn't work, it doesn't mean everything is finished. It is only the beginning. The revolution has only just begun. It is just the beginning of big changes!"
Drummer Alan White remembers the "Imagine" sessions at Tittenhurst: "I spent about ten days down there. We all slept in the house, which was being heavily remodeled. John wanted to watch a particular program and the only telly was up in one of the bedrooms. I remember Clapton, John, Yoko, and myself all lying on the bed watching the telly after a session!
"George Harrison kept poppin' in, different people were coming in from town, and we'd all sit around a big oak table in the kitchen with the builders working around us. It was very close. Being around John and George, having a couple of Beatles in the room, is very hard as they're the axis of everything that goes on. Especially a person as strong-willed as John, who always knew exactly what he wanted. He had that sound in his head. John played us 'Imagine' before we started the album. He gave us a set of lyrics for every song and said, 'This is what you're about to be saying to the world.'"
According to photographer Kieron Murphy, also on hand for the sessions, Phil Spector garnered the most respect, especially from John, who treated the legendary producer like royalty. Their collaboration had begun with Lennon's infectious 1970 hit, "Instant Karma," and continued with the Plastic Ono Band. "It was almost as if he'd come out of the floor in a puff of smoke," said Murphy of Spector. "He had a very strong presence. Phil seemed to arrive without even coming into the room. Lennon was almost as in awe of Spector as I was of John. He leapt up to give him his chair, fussed around him, and got him tea. Everybody else was being a bunch of boisterous lads, swapping football stories, but Spector just sat there. Then Phil says to him very quietly, 'John, I think we should make a start.' Whereupon Lennon leapt to his feet and literally took the cups of tea out of the people's hands, frog marching them into the studio: 'Phil wants us now!' I was amazed to see that John Lennon was willing to obey anybody!"
Lennon offered rare insights into the recording of Imagine via an only recently discovered unpublished overview he wrote in 1971. The blistering "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier," for example, hailed from his "Working Class Hero" period. John praised its odd beat, but poined out that many of the final lyrics were either lost or wrong. His wandering off-key vocals, reminiscent of Yoko's quirky deliveries, drew high praise from his wife.
Lennon's moody treatise on self-doubt, "How," was George Harrison's favorite. While the verses were penned in 1970, the middle-eight - George's favorite part - was knocked off during the session, Lennon conceded the vocal could have been better, but was pleased overall with the number. He also noted that the guitar breaks were a challenge.
The lengthy piece went on to discuss "How Do You Sleep?" - his stinging telegram launched at McCartney in response to Paul's cutting volleys on his Ram LP. John deemed it Harrison's finest guitar work and was especially proud of his own searing guitar riffs, although Lennon was critical of his rather strident vocals.
Murphy recalls John writing the tune with Yoko at his feet taking down the lyrics. "He was literally making the album up as he went along and was teaching it to them. I thought at first it was a slag off to the fans because the first line is, 'so Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise.' But it began to click when he sang 'The only thing you done was "Yesterday" and so on.'"
Artistically, when Lennon left his homeland for America, he was at the top of his game. Following the stark emotional purge of his complex Plastic Ono period, he now returned to more familiar poetic musings with the just completed Imagine (released in October 1971), his most successful solo work. The bittersweet holiday single "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" would became a perennial holiday favorite. Lennon was also on the verge of making important social and political contributions, speaking out on leftist issues in venues such as Tariq Ali's Marxist popular manifesto, Red, and supporting the landmark British miners' strike. But in his private life Lennon desperately sought an escape from fame and its oppressive trappings. He had also grown angry and weary of the media's relentless assaults upon Yoko. Thus, America afforded a real solution on several fronts. Wild and woolly, open-all-night America, the birthplace of rock and a haven for the downtrodden. But America was also the place where everything was for sale, including innocence and the very fame from which he had fled. As John's tragic karma rolled on, America would play a major part in his undoing. Still, John was very optimistic upon his arrival, as he noted, "I know there are rough areas in New York, but I don't visit them often. The district can change abruptly within one block, but I find I can walk the streets quite freely. People recognize me, but they don't trouble me too much. Sometimes they want to audition right there on the street, which can be a bit embarrassing. But they don't recognize me as much since I shaved my beard off. I shaved it off because I was finding it difficult to eat.
"The cab drivers treat me almost as one of the locals. The younger, hippie types still regard me as a rock superstar; they're always turning right round to ask questions and terrifying me.
"I like New Yorkers because they have no time for the niceties of life. They're like me in this regard. They're naturally aggressive, they don't believe in wasting time."
During this period Yoko initiated an extended custody battle for her daughter Kyoko. It was an abrupt change of attitude considering her previous indifference to her daughter. Yoko, who had once referred to her pregnancy as a "tumor," had a history of dumping her child on anyone willing to take her. At one point she left her one-year-old daughter in Tokyo with her husband Tony Cox to travel to New York to pursue her "art." When Cox finally joined her, Ono left the toddler with Tony's relatives for some nine months, even arranging an adoption with Tony's aunt before her husband put a last-minute stop to it. When she migrated to London in 1966, she virtually abandoned Kyoko to pursue her affair with Lennon, only rarely spending time with her daughter. As longtime associate Jon Hendricks once put it, "Yoko never put her child before her career."
In the wake of the Lennon's Primal Therapy, Yoko's third miscarriage, and the awareness that John's son Julian was growing up, Ono had a change of heart and decided in April 1971 that she wanted her daughter back. The resulting custody battle was so tenacious, acrimonious, and confusing that at one point both Tony and Yoko had legal custody in several different jurisdictions.
For John the battle was particularly wrenching. Lennon's hot and cold relationship with Cox was revealed in a letter "welcoming" Tony to London: After telling Yoko's ex that Kyoko wanted her dad to visit, John none too tactfully exposed his jealous insecurity. Yoko was the only woman for him, he stressed, and he didn't want anything or anyone, particularly her former hubby, to rock the boat. John begged Cox to make his excuses that he couldn't get away and come see them after all. John made it clear he could hardly even abide speaking with Tony on the telephone.
The court fight quickly became intensely personal when a judge asked Kyoko to choose between her parents. It brought back anguished memories of the day John was confronted with a similar choice: "I remember when it was happening to me. I was shattered." In Lennon's turbulent life everything seemed framed by the torment of his own fragmented childhood.
Eventually, Lennon enlisted a regiment of top detectives, headed by a $50,000 Pinkerton investigator, in a full-blown, two-year search that ranged over the Virgin Islands, Texas, and California. Lennon gave Jon Hendricks some money to snoop around Houston and Sausalito, where Cox had been sighted, and Hendricks often had to jump into action at a moment's notice whenever a frazzled Yoko swore she'd seen her daughter.
Another key figure in these activities was Ken Dewey, a talented performance artist from the wealthy New York Dewey family, and a former intimate of Ono, who had been tapped to become director of the New York Art Council. Tragically, while searching for Kyoko, he died in a small plane crash in Connecticut in August 1971. A memorial service was held at the family's estate in Sommerville, New York. Dressed entirely in black, a pale-faced Lennon appeared sombre and agitated as he and Yoko gave a silent concert, with John playing air guitar and Yoko an imaginary piano. When a photographer snapped a photo during the proceedings, Lennon exploded. He grabbed the camera, confiscated the film, and tossed the photographer a wad of money, screaming "I don't want you taking pictures!" After the service, Lennon hosted an exhibit of his drawings and writings in the Deweys' barn. The tribute further included an embarrassing John-and-Yoko blood-brothers ritual. Those close to the rocker say guilt over the young man's death eventually convinced John to call off the worldwide search.