LENNON. By Ray Coleman. McGraw-Hill. 640 pp. $19.95.
THIS IS A BOOK of such staggering badness it can be said to have detached itself from its ostensible subject: John Lennon, born in Liverpool in 1940, from 1963 world-famous as a Beatle, from 1970 a solo performer, shot to death by a fan in New York in 1980. Though the facts are straight here, the quotes more or less believable, the photos interesting and rare, the book has nothing to tell us about its subject. In the act of reading, the badness of the book becomes its own subject. What first appear as weaknesses turn into defining characteristics. Flaws become strengths. Initial disbelief is suspended. Yes, it is that bad -- and suspense enters the picture. Can it possibly get worse? Yes, it can.
One is confronted early on with a putatively "bad" sentence: "He kept losing his artist's materials and would constantly ask his Aunt Mimi, with whom he lived, for more money on the pretext of needing a new pen or other equipment." Pretext? one wonders; the end of this sentence does not know its beginning. But on the next page one finds something even more amazing: "magical, influential names like Elvis Presley ('Jailhouse Rock') . . . were forging a vital new impact for popular music fans who listened to it." Monographs could be written about these lines. The "it," one cries out -- what is the "it"? Great social movements have been launched, lives have been sacrificed, whole cultures have been built on the wish to eradicate the need for sentences such as this.
Still, something is happening. Even in these first pages, one begins to get a feel for the sole real question Coleman's book raises: why is it so long? In Shout!, Philip Norman completed a lucid, pointed, exciting, moving account of the whole Beatles' story in 397 pages; ignoring the lives of everyone around Lennon save for Yoko Ono, his second wife and his sometime collaborator, Coleman needs 596 pages of narrative.
It is so long because Coleman, for many years an editor of the U.K. pop music weekly Melody Maker, and an acquaintance of Lennon from 1962, has no idea of what he is talking about, and thus, as if to keep the story straight (or for lack of anything else to say), repeats almost every fact, every incident, every assertion, every judgment, every specially hammered line of prose ("He had a heart of gold"), over and over.
Again and again. Then here, and then there. Lots of times. Sometimes more times than I wanted to count, though I tried.
For example: "It took even longer for (people) to accept that the tough, loud- mouthed Lennon was, underneath, exactly the opposite." Omitting one sentence: "One of the popular myths about John Lennon has been that he was tough, hard-hearted, vicious, and unsentimental. . . . The reverse is true." That this is perhaps the 50th time the reader has been told this pales against the -- as it were -- internal repetition: that is a thing for the ages.
BUT PERHAPS this is unfair. Consider Coleman's report on the Double Fantasy LP, their first release in five years, issued just before Lennon was murdered: "there was no alcohol but Yoko arranged for the musicians to have a plate of sushi and fruit in front of them when they arrived." Then examine Lennon/Ono associate Elliot Mintz's version on the following page: " 'Yoko made it clear to everyone that there was to be no alcohol or drugs of any kind during the making of that album. When it was time to break for dinner she had exquisite servings of fresh sushi delivered to the studio for the musicians and crew."
Now, this may be mindless repetition -- but it may be something more. It may be a careful, dramatic reconstruction, indeed, a mise-en-scecond version follows the first we learn new facts, carefully added to the establishing foundation: not only was alcohol banned, but drugs, too. We learn that the sushi in question was "exquiste," and "fresh." (A bit late we learn what the fruit was: raisins and sesame seeds.) There is even a breach, a contradiction, a sort of epistemological void: was the sushi already there when the musicians arrived, as Coleman argues, or was it, as Mintz's more focused rendering has it, brought in while the sessions were actually underway? Is Coleman leaving himself room for another book?
John Lennon's life as a Beatle, as a singer under his own name, as the poorly educated husband of avant-gardist Ono, as a megalomaniac, as a sometime heroin addict, as an apostle of universal humanism, as a seeming anti-Semite, as an artist, as a fool, raises interesting questions -- questions that remain alive in the terms of his attempts to solve them. Many of these questions come up in Coleman's book. Megalomania: "I'd like everyone to remember us with a smile," John is quoted as saying, "But if possible, just as John and Yoko who created world peace for ever." Anti-Semitism: to the query "Where's Brian?", a reference to Brian Epstein, the Jewish manager of the Beatles from 1962 until his death in 1967, "Oh, he's in America signing up a new rhythm-and- Jews group." All are disposed of. (Underneath, he had a heart of gold.) The anti-Semitic crack, we're told, is an example of John's "quick wit."
It should go without saying that Coleman's book is entirely sanitized; that it avoids the territory covered in Norman's Shout!, first Beatles manager Alan Williams' The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away, May Pang and Henry Edwards' Loving John (mid-'70's crack-up), Jon Wiener's Come Together (Lennon as political artist), Mark Shipper's Paperback Writer (fantasy Beatles bioraphy), or even Eric Idle's All You Need Is Cash (TV Beatles parody about the "Rutles"); that it follows the Yoko Ono/professional widow/keeper of the flame party line on every issue. Coleman does step out to insist that John was "a man's man," "immensely heterosexual," "fully heterosexual," "overwhelmingly heterosexual," and (among other things), "solidly heterosexual" -- likely in response to rumors that Albert Goldman, a notorious rock-hater now carrying a $1 million advance for a Lennon bio, will, since Lennon spoke forthrightly about his every failing in hundreds of interviews (I was a drunk, I was a junkie, I was a fool), seek to discredit this particular rock-and-roller on the only believable grounds available, as a closet faggot, as if those were grounds for discreditation.
There will be occasions to take up what John Lennon's life was about, what it was for, what it was worth; to consider his fully realized affirmations and his pathetic betrayals of himself and his audience. This is not the time. There are other books to read. Given the opportunity of reading Coleman's book, the most bored and dissolute among us have better things to do.