For decades, John Lennon’s character has been filtered through competing biographies, exposés, critical arguments, interviews, FBI files, innuendo, novels and gossipy takedowns. He’s been accused of murder, wife beating, insanity and urinating on nuns. Finding the real Lennon — if that’s even possible — means sorting through this swamp of written information.
Reading about Lennon is to accept he is so huge, so compelling, and ultimately unknowable, that all writers, it seems, have found it difficult to resist taking liberties with his life story and character. For every salacious biography such as Albert Goldman’s “The Lives of John Lennon” (1988), a book one critic referred to as “a pathography,” there’s “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles” (1983), by former friend of the band, Peter Brown, and co-writer Steven Gaines, which, ugly as it is at times, is probably as close to the truth as we’ll come.
Or at least to a truth I can accept. Like anyone who loves a fictional character, the reader makes a bargain with the text, and often with her own standards, when it comes to loving the person she’s reading about.
Even critical writing focusing on Lennon’s music takes liberties. Tim Riley, especially, tends to psychoanalyze Lennon’s lyrics, claiming, in his 1988 book, “Tell Me Why,” the singer needs “absolution” or is “venting the hideously neurotic side of his sexual conditioning.” If writers assert such skewed interpretations, which verge on the imaginary, then it’s no surprise readers will as well. We’re all engaged in some private fiction about Lennon.
This week marks the 37th anniversary of Lennon’s murder. I was fortunate to have seen him play live on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I’ve adored him since I first heard his voice, which I’m happy to listen to on records and online. Reading about him brings me closer to what I consider a factual Lennon, one who holds out the possibility of knowing him in all of his conflicted humanity.
Reading about such a real man also has its pitfalls. The final paragraph of Cynthia Lennon’s memoir, “John,” where she states she wishes she’d never met him, shook me deeply. Unlike fictional characters who stay the same on the page, our real-life heroes require us to change with every new fact we learn about them. Our admiration survives by becoming selective.
In his 2017 memoir, “The Cake and the Rain” Jimmy Webb describes a sordid encounter between Lennon and an L.A. prostitute that (supposedly) took place during Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” in 1973. Though the encounter dismayed me, I chose to see it as Webb’s way of spicing up his own rather lackluster life’s story. Though I’ve not forgotten Webb’s description, there are other details from Lennon’s life that have greater significance for me. See how easy it is to be a selective reader?
One such detail concerns his return to Liverpool on the night of Dec. 8, 1960. The band had been kicked out of Hamburg, and after traveling alone by train across Germany and Holland, a hungry and dejected Lennon arrives at his Aunt Mimi’s house, where he throws pebbles at her bedroom window to wake her up and let him in. All he has is his guitar and amp, which he carried with him from Hamburg. True to her character, Aunt Mimi took her sweet time before opening the door and letting John in. Lennon’s story, not to mention the Beatles, could have ended right there, with what biographer Philip Norman calls John’s “nightmare ordeal,” but it didn’t. Three weeks later, the band regrouped and performed at Liverpool’s Litherland Town Hall, an event historians agree is the Beatles’ first significant leap into fame.
Twenty years later, on another Dec. 8 night, that hungry, frightened, pebble-throwing young man, now arguably the most famous man in the world, is shot to death in New York City.
I love the coinciding dates, the 20-year symmetry, the details of the pebbles and the ragged amp humped across northern Europe. This is my private John Lennon, a real figure poised on the verge of changing the world. I want that Dec. 8, 1960, to be a rainy Liverpool night, and I imagine it so. Every traumatic detail of Dec. 8, 1980, is so well-known it hurts to imagine more.
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a book of essays on how the Beatles have influenced her life.