November 30, 2012

“In a hundred years from now,” John Lennon sang in a satirical home demo he recorded in New York in 1978, “they’re going to be selling my socks, like Judy Garland! And I hope they get a good price!” So the founder of the Beatles predicted this day would come — and as editor Hunter Davies makes clear in his prefatory remarks to “The John Lennon Letters,” even the ex-Beatle’s unsigned grocery lists and skimpiest doodles now command five figures at Sotheby’s.

A massive deposit of freshly excavated notes, screeds, asides and howls, each lavishly reproduced and carefully annotated, “Letters” is the most intimate book ever published about Lennon. In its revelation of the man’s psychology, it far surpasses all previous accounts by wives, lovers, half-siblings, ex-aides and even the best biographers. This is Lennon unfiltered and characteristically defiant, scrawling ferociously across lined paper, homemade Christmas cards, Indian novelties, fading Apple Corp. letterheads. Fans of the Beatles and Lennon, students of popular culture, armchair lovers of English and Irish wit, and anyone fascinated by the inner workings of the creative mind: All will find Davies’s book essential.

Those partial to the Beatles’ early Motown covers may be pained to read Lennon’s casual dismissal of them, on American Airlines stationery, in September 1971: “ ‘Money’, ‘Twist ’n’ Shout’, ‘You really got a hold on me’ etc. . . . I always wished we could have done them even closer to the original.”

“Letters” also delivers the earliest known explanation of why Lennon left his wife and son for Yoko Ono. “She’s as intelligent as me (you can take that any way!),” he writes about Ono to his Aunt Harriet, his mother’s sister, in 1968. “She’s also very beautiful — in spite of reports in the press to the contrary — she looks like a cross between me and my mother — has the same sense of humour too!”

Captured here, too, are Lennon’s views on creativity, as set forth in a 1967 letter to a cheeky student from Quarry Bank High School, the prototypical dehumanizing British institution where Lennon, a decade earlier, had honed his rebel persona. “All my writing,” Lennon says, “I do it for me first — whatever people make of it afterwards is valid, but it doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to my thoughts about it, OK? This goes for anybody’s books, ‘creations,’ art, poetry, etc. — the mystery and [expletive] that is built around all forms of art needs smashing, anyway.”


’The John Lennon Letters’ by John Lennon (Little, Brown)

The present owner of that two-page gem is a dentist in Arkansas. Davies’s detective work in uncovering the book’s 286 entries and tracing their complicated provenance makes for an entertaining divertissement. No one is more qualified. Two of the letters reprinted herein were addressed to Davies himself. To research “The Beatles,” the acclaimed authorized biography he published in 1968, he spent the years 1966-68 hanging out with the band — in their homes, at Abbey Road studios, around Swinging London.

Of that book, still an indispensable work, Davies writes here that despite urgent pleas from Mimi Smith — the stern-faced Liverpool aunt who raised Lennon and demanded the excision of all references to his youthful swearing and thievery — he “changed nothing.” This conflicts with Lennon’s 1970 Rolling Stone interview, in which he trashed “The Beatles” and added: “It was written in this sort of Sunday Times [style]. . . . No truth was written, and my auntie knocked all the truth bits out about my childhood and me mother and I allowed her.”

Davies also proves surprisingly error-prone. He guesses 1970 as the year Lennon sent to Melody Maker’s Ray Coleman an undated postcard that was signed “Them Beatles.” Davies should have known better. By 1970, Lennon wasn’t signing anything in the name of the Beatles. Indeed, only 23 pages earlier, Davies reprints Lennon’s angry instruction to a lawyer in 1969: “I don’t want to read about ‘Beatles’ as if they’re still alive — OK?” What’s more, in the photographs section of “Lennon,” Coleman’s excellent 1984 biography, well known to all Beatles scholars, Coleman reproduced the “Them Beatles” postcard and correctly dated it from the group’s 1965 European tour.

Other problems include a tantalizingly incomplete poem that Lennon scribbled on a Japanese postcard circa 1965 or ’66 (“When a girl begins to be a problem/ Pretty soon the girl must go”) that Davies heralds here as previously unpublished. But surely he saw this item reproduced just last year, in “Beatles Memorabilia: The Julian Lennon Collection,” a handsome coffee table volume that elsewhere in “Letters” he cites by name. Most egregious is the 1971 date assigned to a postcard that Lennon sent to Julian and signed “love/Dad Yoko Sean.” Sean Lennon was born in 1975. There are also sins of omission, as Davies’s selections from Lennon’s Hamburg and Cavern Club days appear tamer than other letters from the same period.

Our view of Lennon isn’t changed by his letters, but sharpened. He emerges here a whimsical and irrepressible soul — undeniably a multifaceted genius — and a formidable scold. He appears to have nurtured a lifelong love-hate relationship with Christianity, a dynamic that, when fully exposed here, makes the furor he provoked in the summer of 1966, with his comments about the relative popularity of the Beatles and Christ, seem less inadvertent than inevitable.

However, Lennon also betrays the touching desire to end even his angriest exchanges on a conciliatory note. At Christmas 1971, after spending the year hurling profane thunderbolts at Paul and Linda McCartney in public and private, he sends them a short note. It accompanies what Lennon believes to be a bootleg copy of the Beatles’ first — and unsuccessful — tryout for a major British label, recorded on Jan. 1, 1962. “Dear Paul Linda et al, this is THE DECCA AUDITION!!” he writes, with a fan’s enthusiasm. “They were a good group/ fancy turning THIS down! Love John & Yoko.”

bookworld@washpost.com

James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News. He is at work on a book about the Beatles.

THE JOHN LENNON LETTERS

Edited by Hunter Davies

Little, Brown. 392 pp. $29.99