Saturday, July 25, 2009

Through the Lives

I recently took a look at a copy of Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon for a few reasons. For over twenty years, it has stood as both a much maligned biography of a musical hero and a well-researched resource for other books that followed. Other Beatle books caveat that while the tone may be negative and the focus on salacious materials, there is still valuable information to be found here.

Though I picked up a library copy, it contains a written dedication inside indicating that at one point it had been a gift. "Dear Rob," it says, "I shopped around for a good non-fiction book for you. As you may have guessed, I couldn't find one.... this is a textbook. Learn what it teaches you, the subtleties, the tools, the method. And if I catch you using any of them, you're a dead man." If The Lives of John Lennon is indeed a textbook, surely none has been so thoroughly obsessed with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (in that order).

The book begins in typical biographical fashion with a section concerning a later portion of John's life (1979), as opposed to starting at the beginning. This is a device meant to draw the reader in, and Goldman begins firing on all cylinders, telling a story related to him by Kit Carter of Yoko buying heroin, Lennon's fraudulent househusband days (from Fred Seaman), and Lennon as the conpiracy-obsessed Naked Professor (as told my Marlene Hair). The latter two sources get brief and positive bios to boost their credibility, while their former friends (John and Yoko) get lambasted. It's hard to see the relevance of Yoko allegedly (and secretly) purchasing drugs to John's life -- it's even more difficult to see why this story should be placed front-and-center before all others. The answer is that sallaciousness sells copy, or so the theory goes. From reading the first 25 pages, it becomes clear that John and Yoko are both the protagonists and villains of the book -- miserable beings whose happiness was so fleeting it scarcely deserves a mention. Accuracy of the scandalous details aside, the focus offers up an unbalanced portrait. The premise that misery, drug addiction, and violence sells is ever-present, especially in the early pages. John's baking bread story gets a sentence, while pages are devoted to him walking around naked or screaming at children or barking out orders or... you get the idea. There are some insights in this prologue, such as how Lennon's views had progressed (or not) since Janov, but they are lost in a sea of National Enquirer gossip.

There are elements here that have a ring of truth and fit somewhat with other accounts. For other stories (namely, the more negative aspects), they have the problem of being verifiable by only one or two living when the book was published in 1988. On one side, the former employees, some with financial motives, and the other side, Yoko, who refused comment. Goldman defiantly said that Yoko could have sued if his account was inaccurate. She declined as she was advised it would only bring the book more attention. It would have been interesting to see how a battle like this of he said/she said would have turned out. When two people meet in a room and relay an account of what happened to someone years later -- who has the ownership of truth and how can the truth of such events be remotely established? This matters more, of course, when the tone is as negative as it is in the The Lives of John Lennon, and one form of "truth" is presented for mass consumption.

I think it was the tone and focus that led to such a violent reaction from Lennon fans at the time, some of which is viewable from a television appearance of Goldman with a live TV audience, posted here. Some of the criticism kept to things that were easily verifiable, such as facts that Goldman plainly got wrong: Philip Norman in the clip cites Goldman getting the record format of "Love Me Do" wrong -- others I quickly spotted in the early chapters included the backwards tape in "Rain" leading to the "Paul is Dead" rumors (it didn't) and attributing the "mockers" comment in A Hard Day's Night to John (instead of Ringo). But these are small points that any "Beatle expert" could have fixed in a matter of days, had the editors cared.

After first reading the book years ago, I remember flipping through The Complete Beatles Chronicle and seeing a photo of John with a wide grin after a concert in 1963 and thinking that this did not fit at all with Goldman's account of Lennon's life. In Lives all I found was depression, disappointment, and of course, sex. To get an idea of Goldman's focus, I'll leave you with a great quotation from Ray Manzarek, keyboardist of the Doors: "Albert had his own obsession. I talked with Albert Goldman about Morrison, the beginning in golden sands, meditation, and all Albert wanted to know about was if Jim had had sex with Jimi Hendrix."

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