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John Lennon: the first and last global icon

Forty years on from the death of John Lennon, Dominic Green recounts the tormented life of the last universal Western icon

What would have happened to John Lennon, had he not been murdered by Mark Chapman forty years ago this month? Would he still be with Yoko, his partner in the pioneering of celebrity nudity, or would he have traded her in for a younger model or two in the early Eighties? Would he have deformed his tremendous sneer with a triple facelift, trashed his songbook with cash-in tours and MTV Unplugged and then, like Ringo, whiled away his long Californian evening by tweeting peace-and-love emojis? Would he still be making music as Paul does, and would anyone below a certain age care? Or would Lennon, who would have been eighty last October, have fallen to “Instant Karma” some other way?

It’s not easy, even if you try. We must, though, ponder the historical significance of The Beatles if we wish to understand the history of the West between 1945 and 1980. The thought is shocking because it makes pop music more significant than politics; alarming because the balsa-thin tunes have got to carry that weight; and yet somehow obvious and undeniable. MLK, JFK, and Khrushchev are, like the rest of the dummies on the cover of Sgt Pepper, just the supporting cast.

It is four self-taught light entertainers from Liverpool who embody the deeper changes of the Sixties: the conversion of the climacteric of Romantic mass culture from politics and war at the Nuremberg rallies to entertainment and sex at Shea Stadium; the replacement of the written word by images and sounds; the passage from industrial society to consumer individualism; even the collapse of institutional Christianity and the rise of drug-enhanced, pop-Buddhist spiritual seeking.

None of this can be imagined without The Beatles. None of it can be explained without them. They became what Elias Canetti called in Crowds and Power a “crowd symbol”, the image around which a people’s identity coalesces, the icon that, so long as it retains its power, a people will follow to the ends of the earth. The Beatles were among the first truly global icons – Hitler would have been, had not much of the world been listening to the radio rather than watching the television when the Wehrmacht was on tour – and Lennon, though he was half the face and half the voice of the band, was the ideologist of the connected world for whose symbolic birth, the Our World global satellite broadcast of 25 June 1967, he wrote “All You Need is Love”.

Lennon’s personality remains fused with the events of the Sixties

It is a terrible song, asinine in sentiment and plodding in execution. As a historical document, however, it is instructive. The brass section parodies the crowd symbols of the age that was ending. Each time Lennon sings “All you need is love”, the horns play a smarmy, chromatic pastiche of a dance-band arrangement from the interwar era of radio. In case older listeners think it’s still possible to foxtrot through the youth revolt, the changes in the time signature wrongfoot them. On the fadeout, the horns even play the opening bars of the “La Marseillaise” – as though in overture to the événements of 1968, the coda of the European revolutionary tradition, as though bidding farewell to taking that sort of thing seriously. The global age is beginning: the second Apple, Steve Jobs’s one, will not fall far from the tree of the first Apple, the one The Beatles launched when they dissolve themselves into pure corporatism. “Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world.”

*

Musical changes predicting political ones as Plato said they would, more than a decade passed before politics caught up. Our current era didn’t quite begin around 1990 with the end of the Cold War. The hinge of history had already moved sharply in 1979 and 1980 with the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, the last throw of the Soviet Union with the invasion of Afghanistan, and, especially the Iranian Revolution, for revolution had until then belonged, as so much of the world recently had, to the West.

The Western revolutionary tradition was over: there would be no more working-class heroes, a “fine thing to be”, because soon there would be no more Western working class, only the underclass, the immigrants and the outsourced. Cue “Revolution”, the sound of hope dying in a heroin fog: “You say you want a revolution / Well, you know, we all want to change the world.”

Lennon was killed on the cusp of that change, as symbolic as only a crowd symbol can be. His killer, the thwarted fan Mark Chapman, disapproved of the comments that had contributed to the end of The Beatles’ touring career, Lennon’s musings of March 1966: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.”

The hysteria that followed the publication of Lennon’s claim supplies the central panel of the historical triptych. From the fascism of the European Thirties (stadium rallies, radio broadcasts, students burning books), to the mass entertainment of the American Sixties (stadium concerts, television broadcasts, young Christians burning Beatles albums), to the rise of globalized Islam in the Eighties (more stadium rallies, satellite television, young Islamists burning The Satanic Verses).

Lennon did not cross the historical frontier of 1980 along with the other three Beatles and his most ardent admirers, the Boomers. This prevented him from vitiating his appeal by ageing or making rubbish records in the decades of Rock music’s apparently interminable senescence. It could not prevent him turning into the horror that he had already become and could never escape: a modern celebrity.

Still, his personality remains fused with the events of the Sixties, a time when social changes in the West, and in America in particular, were inarguably world-historical, rather than being what they are now, second-order phenomena which might or might not have much to do with the revival of Asia. This is why John seems, if not bigger than Jesus, then certainly bigger than Paul, George and Ringo, and somehow much more resonant than Elvis. This, rather than fandom or nostalgia, is why his personality matters so much, and why the music alone, or even the PR stunts that occupied him in the early Seventies, are not enough.

Lennon, who was one-quarter of the first global icon, may well turn out to be the last global icon, and certainly the last universal Western icon.

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Nietzsche posited that those who came to venerate St. Simeon Stylites were so busy looking upwards at his stage that they failed to see the ordure he had tipped onto the ground around them. In which case, Lesley-Ann Jones’ The Search for John Lennon: The Life, Loves and Death of a Rock Star is a spectacular exercise in biographical turd-grubbing. It isn’t well-written, unless your idea of good writing is the alliterative, punning hip-talk of the Seventies’ music press, which is where Jones’ long career began, but it does the job quickly and effectively. If a pop biography might, like its real subject, be consumed in three minutes, so much the better. And what we want to consume are the biographical rosebuds.

While Paul was mingling with the avant-garde, Lennon was taking stupid quantities of drugs in a crass Surrey mansion

The real subject of the pop biography is not the music, but the man. Little can be said about the music in Lennon’s case, anyway. His voice was fantastic, but he had a very basic harmonic sense, and the two in combination made for the powerful, intense effects on bluesy songs like “Help!”. The complexity of sonic experiment in “She Said, She Said”, “Ticket to Ride”, and “Strawberry Fields” is much greater than the complexity of their chord sequences. Their melodies cling to the chords like life rafts and show none of McCartney’s Tin Pan Alley-like ability to slip onto the notes in between. It is Lennon’s emotional performance that makes them hypnotic, unmatched even, and Lennon’s ghost that hovers over them when they are covered.

The pop biography, a thoroughly conventional narrative of the life of a briefly unconventional subject, adheres to the conventions of another popular twentieth-century genre, Dr. Freud’s Playlist. Jones traces Lennon’s emotional performance – his distress and rage, palpable when you look at his photograph or hear his voice – to his miserable childhood: his alcoholic, absent father Fred, who went to sea as a ship’s barman and never returned; his flighty, absent mother Julia, who got pregnant in Fred’s absence; his snooty, cold aunt Mimi, on whom Julia dumped John.

One of the curios of Rock history is that the only artists the rhythm section of Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding recorded with were Jimi Hendrix and Fred Lennon. When John became famous, Fred turned up on John’s doorstep looking, John’s first wife Cynthia said, like a tramp. Fred recorded a mercenary single, “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home)” whose title must have seemed to his son like a cruel joke. Not as cruel a joke, though, as the one John played on Fred on his thirtieth birthday: inviting him over in order to scream abuse at him and kick him out. John later regretted the tone – he’d just done primal scream therapy with Arthur Janov, so was too much in touch with his inner swine – but he never spoke to his father again.

Previous biographers have established that Lennon more than merited the name his satirical double was given in The Rutles: Nasty. He enjoyed beating women. He enjoyed treating his wife Cynthia and their son Julian despicably; later, in his saintly house-husband phase, he allowed Yoko to cut Julian out of his life and, it seems, his estate. He enjoyed taunting Brian Epstein for being gay and Jewish. He doesn’t seem to have enjoyed much else after the initial burst of fame. While Paul was mingling with the avant-garde, George learning the sitar and Ringo setting up in a chain of hairdressers, Lennon was taking stupid quantities of drugs in a crass Surrey mansion: a real nowhere man.

By 1980, Lennon had nothing to offer musically and nothing to say lyrically

“He was extremely aggressive, angry and upset most of the time. He was very good indeed at disguising that some of the time,” Simon Napier-Bell tells Jones. Napier-Bell knew Lennon in the Sixties, and went on to manage Marc Bolan and George Michael, neither of whom made old bones. “He didn’t like himself, and he had a death wish.” Fortunately, Jones avoids technical analysis and concentrates on key questions, such as whether Lennon “batted and bowled” on holiday with Brian Epstein and on drugs with David Bowie (almost certainly and very much, she reckons). With a reckless mixing of metaphors, she concludes that “the bullets fired by [Lennon’s] assassin were only (so to speak) the final nail”.

The “real” John Lennon, Jones argues, was forever dying, and was played out by the time he went. He talked about saving mankind but treated the people around him like dirt. He talked about giving it all up to be a house-husband, but seems to have spent much of his bread-baking years zonked on heroin. He and Yoko told us to imagine having no possessions and to love everyone, but the pair of them were monstrously acquisitive and selfish. A culture that sets up John and Yoko as moral beacons is in serious trouble, if not in the last stages of nihilistic decay. But we already know that.

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In John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life, Kenneth Womack argues that Double Fantasy was a triumphal return to form, and that Mark Chapman deprived the world of what would surely have been 1981’s hottest ticket, Lennon’s return to live performance. I enjoyed Womack’s meticulous two-volume biography of George Martin, not least for the subtle iconoclasm with which it placed Martin, more pipe and slippers than a sex and drugs, at the centre of the Beatles’ sound and creative process. So, it gives me little pleasure to say that I found John Lennon 1980 implausible, though not as painful to read as John and Yoko’s solo albums are to hear.

By 1980, Lennon had nothing to offer musically and nothing to say lyrically. While McCartney had taken Wings on a decade-long victory tour around the stadiums of America, Lennon had given up playing live. He had lost his already limited chops as a guitarist. The Beatles had played short shows of two thirty-minute sets: it’s not clear whether his voice could have belted through the post-Beatles format, the two- or even three-hour show, with the energy he’d had at the Star Club or the Cavern.

The songs on Double Fantasy, the “comeback” album he had recorded that year, are pedestrian. The best are derivative, the rest massively self-absorbed. The performances are slick in the manner of what was then called Adult Oriented Rock, a musical oxymoron. The production is self-satisfied and cokey, entirely oblivious to the contemporary innovations of disco and punk. Jones cuts to the heart of the posthumous legend: “Double Fantasy has a few good tracks on it… but would the album have been a success had he lived?” Probably, but it would have exposed how little life he had left in him, musically at least.

Imagine if Lennon had lived and seen how Yoko had turned his tormented life into a parodic cash cow

The best bits in John Lennon 1980 are the Spinal Tap-like domestic details. Both John and Yoko – or “JohnandYoko” as they have rebranded themselves – are using heroin, but the couple who are all about honesty are both hiding their habits from each other. Someone else, presumably, is bringing up five-year-old Sean. John has returned from his two-year “lost weekend” bender in Los Angeles, and the affair with the young May Pang, which Yoko has creepily supervised at a distance, and John and Yoko are telling the papers that they’re in their “Just Like Starting Over” phase. Yoko won’t do anything without consulting astrologers, and she won’t let John do much, either. This seems to suit him, though he suffers when he realizes that he is wasting his time and gets depressed by his creative impotence.

To reinvigorate John, Yoko and the astrologers send him to South Africa. John the humanitarian meekly goes off to the land of apartheid and has a nice time before the local papers catch up with him. He doesn’t seem to notice or criticize the racist government’s treatment of black South Africans; a curious echo of the attitude of the celebrity moralist who prefigured Lennon, and who dwells with him in the pantheon of secular-left passive-aggression, Mohandas Gandhi.

Next, Yoko and the astrologers send Lennon on a yachting trip in the Bermuda Triangle. The yacht runs into a tropical storm. Lennon lashes himself to the wheel, hurling imprecations at the weather. He was lucky to survive.

Lesley-Anne Jones suggests that the reason Yoko was so keen to get John out of the Dakota was that she was having an affair with Sam Havadtoy, an interior designer who was twenty years her junior:

On the very night of John’s murder, it is alleged, Sam moved into the Dakota. For twenty years, he barely left Yoko’s side. He soon acquired a new image: the widow had her Havadtoy-boy dress up in what looked like her late husbands’ clothes and wear his hair long, just like John’s. The impersonation shocked and even embarrassed some of their neighbours, including ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, who commented on it … Yoko and Sam lasted way longer than Yoko and John.

Lennon escaped from one brand, but now he is more tightly imprisoned in Yoko’s franchise

Havadtoy now runs an art gallery in Budapest. He has never spoken about his twenty-year affair with Ono: “In return for his silence, a hefty settlement is reported to have been paid.” Jones does, however, interview the Radio One DJ Andy Peebles, who recorded what became Lennon’s last interview, made less than two days before he was shot. Peebles now suspects that the Double Fantasy image of John and Yoko as conscious couple was just that: a fantasy pitched to a credulous public. Peebles describes how Yoko cultivated him after Lennon’s death – “I found it hard to take her tears seriously. I knew she was already in a new relationship with Sam Havadtoy” – and how he slowly concluded that Lennon had been Rock’s number one cuckold:

“I started to question whether Yoko and Sam had been having a relationship for quite some time before John’s death. I began to wonder whether Yoko had encouraged John to go off and have his fling with May Pang so that she could explore her attraction to Havadtoy. My blood ran cold. Had the whole ‘Starting Over’ episode, the culmination of which was my interview with them, been nothing but a charade?”

Kenneth Womack doesn’t go into such tawdry and interesting matters. In turning Lennon into a franchise and herself into its sole proprietor – Julian Lennon is said to have been obliged to sue her to obtain a shred of his father’s billion-dollar estate – the widowed Yoko shows “the very same heroism and resourcefulness” with which she had “buttressed John’s spirit” when he had planned his comeback.

I suspect Andy Peebles is closer to the truth. Lennon’s “merry widow”, as Lesley-Anne Jones calls Yoko, “used his death to hype her own new record”. She “rushed to record a sentimental B-side compilation of bits of John talking, as a souvenir”. She launched what Peebles called “Brand Lennon”, and “started mounting exhibitions around the world, and expanding her own profile as a musician”. She persists in issuing patronizing platitudes in his name – though, given the way he was going, he wouldn’t object to the preaching, had he lived.

“The dream is over,” Lennon sang on “God” in 1970. “I don’t believe in Beatles.” But the copyrights live forever. Lennon escaped from one brand, the moptopped cartoon that were the early Beatles, but now he is more tightly imprisoned in Yoko’s franchise than he ever was in one of Brian Epstein’s suits.

This, to the evident and unending chagrin of Paul McCartney, is what Lennon now means, at least to those born after in the era when music was the dominant modern art form. He is the icon of a consumer substitute for religion and morality in the post-Christian West. This is everything he had attained by the time of that fateful interview in March 1966, and everything he tried to escape by breaking himself down in the following decade. Imagine if Lennon had lived, and seen how Yoko, his saviour and true love, his “Mother”, had turned his tormented life and great tunes into a parodic cash cow. It’s easy if you try.

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