THE STORM OVER JOHN LENNON
A BATTLE IS RAGING TO CONTROL THE LEGEND OF THE LATE VISIONARY AND FORMER BEATLE
For more than 20 years, Julia Baird remained discreet about her relationship with John Lennon. As a schoolgirl growing up in Liverpool, she recalls, she enjoyed having a popular musician for an older brother. But she feared that her friends would think her unusual if they discovered the complicated nature of her family—that while she and John shared the same mother, they had different fathers, and John lived with one of their aunts. As a young woman out on a date in 1964,
Baird went to see A Hard, Day’s Night, The Beatles’ first film. But she worried about how her boyfriend would react if he realized that one of the Fab Four up on the screen was her half brother. Eventually, she married the man, had three children and settled in quiet Cheshire, where she has worked as a French teacher. When Lennon was killed in 1980, says Baird, now 41, she was besieged with offers to “write your own story, name your own price,” but preferred to keep her memories private. Now she has gone public. With her modest but emotional book, John Lennon, My Brother, she says that she hopes to correct falsehoods about her famous sibling and their loving mother. Added Baird: “I’m on a mission.”
Silence: What has compelled Baird to break her silence is the noisy war of words being waged over the image of the former Beatle, who, like Elvis, has become a kind of rock V roll deity. Before his murder eight years ago, Lennon had achieved mythic status as the visionary creator of some of the most passionate, ambitious songs in rock. And perhaps because he died so tragically, shot by a deranged fan outside his New York City highrise home, the Lennon cult has scarcely abated in his absence—just as The Beatles continue to be a major pop phenomenon almost 20 years after they disbanded (page 44). It is no surprise, then, that attempts to tamper with the Lennon legend attract intense interest.
In fact, Baird’s book is one of three current releases about the musician, including a scathing biography by New York City-based Albert Goldman, that are currently battling it out in the marketplace— and in the hearts and minds of Lennon fans. Another is the lavish companion book to a new full-length documentary that has also joined the fray.
Those portraits of the artist are as distinct as the kaleidoscopic chapters in Lennon’s own life. Baird’s is a warm, deeply personal account of his “formative years,” while Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon is a coldly critical examination that focuses largely on his adult life—and that has led some fans to call for a boycott of the already bestselling book. Meanwhile, the documentary, Imagine-. John Lennon, is a
balanced but celebratory film that, in using Lennon home movies and excerpts from interviews with the artist, verges on autobiography. Said producer-director Andrew Soit: “As a film-maker and a Lennon fan, I felt his story deserved to be told in a way that did him justice.”
As the witty, literary Beatle, the quirky, intelligent songwriter, the outrageous peace crusader and the unapologetic house-husband, Lennon—who would have turned 48 this week—offered artistic, political and personal challenges to at least two generations of listeners. His murder by former security guard Mark David Chapman—an event that rivalled the political assassinations of the 1960s for the flood of emotion it set off in millions of people— revived the dialogue between Lennon and his fans. It sparked at least a dozen books and, in 1985, an NBC television movie, John and Yoko. After 1980, his wife, Yoko Ono, compiled three discs of his music: Milk and Honey, John Lennon Live in New York City and Menlove Avenue feature some songs that had never before been released. And there have been several art shows and auctions featuring Lennon’s drawings. But the current struggle for control of the artist’s image has reached new levels of fervor, proving that the popular obses-
sion with Lennon is undiminished.
Indeed, last week, the $7-million documentary Imagine opened in 523 theatres across North America, accompanied by a sound-track album, as well as the companion book. And, clearly, the New York City-based publisher William Morrow and Co., Inc. expects to do well with Goldman’s book: the publisher paid a $750,000 advance to the author, whose previous best-selling work, Elvis, savaged the socalled King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Although Goldman’s Lennon biography has received almost universally negative reviews since its lateAugust release, the book’s contents—particularly its details of Lennon’s violence and drug abuse and its allegations of his bisexuality— and excerpts in such high-profile publications as People magazine have attracted enormous attention.
Trash: The 719-page book has been denounced by Paul McCartney, who called it “nothing more than a piece of trash,” and a distraught Ono, who declared that it was “totally fiction.” In fact, Ono contemplated suicide when she discovered its content. “When this whole thing started,” Ono said, “I kept thinking of Picasso’s wife and how she finally killed herself.” Philip Norman, the British author of Shout: The True Story of The Beatles and a
leading Beatles authority, described Goldman’s book as “700 brutishly ill-written, illresearched, pretentious but soggily ignorant pages.” The book has even inspired a tribute to Lennon on Rattle and Hum, the new album from the hugely popular Irish pop group U2. The song is called God Part //, and in it, band member Bono sings: “I don’t believe in Goldman, his type like a curse/Instant karma’s gonna get him if I don’t get him first.”
Amid charges from critics about dubious sources and factual inaccuracies in Goldman’s book, Julia Baird’s 156page volume, which insists that her brother was sweet and generous as a boy, could easily be overlooked. But the book, written with Beatles chronicler and collector Geoffrey Giuliano, adds an element that was missing to the Lennon story: the extent of his relationship with his mother, also named Julia, who died in a car accident in 1958.
8 Rage: Some portraits of § Lennon, including Gold& man’s, claim that he had a § barren, loveless childhood, 8 which fostered chronic rage w in his adult life and a number of angry songs. Baird’s and Lennon’s mother did send him to live with his Aunt Mimi after Lennon’s seaman father, Alfred, deserted the family. But Baird says in John Lennon, My Brother that Lennon spent many happy hours at his mother’s nearby house. Baird recalls that her mother was deeply affectionate with all three of her children—there is another daughter, Lennon’s half sister Jacqui Dykins, a hairdresser and mother in London. And she credits her banjo-playing mother with creating Lennon’s love of music. Writes Baird: “She was an ardent Elvis fan. Sometimes we saw Mummy and John as they jived around the lounge to Elvis hits.” As well, she quotes McCartney, who wrote the foreword to her book, as saying that he and Lennon often held jam sessions in her mother’s tiny bathroom, where they found the best acoustics in the house.
Baird says that, in a fit of anger, she began to write down those memories after seeing a 1985 British television documentary, John Lennon: A Journey in the Life, that depicted her mother as an uncaring woman who heartlessly abandoned John. Recalled Baird: “John had often told me to ignore the press, saying, ‘They’ll write what they like.’ But I was totally devastated. I had to do something.” Together with family photos, and with help from a friend who was a printer, she published her handwritten account and circulated it among
A NOISY WAR OF WORDS IS RAGING OVER THE FORMER BEATLE’S IMAGE
Beatles fan clubs. Then, Giuliano encountered Baird and her booklet at a Beatles fan convention and encouraged her to consider developing it into a book. Said Baird, who will promote her work in Canada this week: “Maybe my book will offer some positive aspects about John and his family to balance with the negative account that’s out there.”
In fact, Goldman’s biography is negative in the extreme. The book paints Lennon’s life as a series of unsavory episodes. According to Goldman, Lennon started out as a brain-damaged, desperately unhappy boy and grew into a cruel and violent young man, who possibly killed a sailor in Hamburg—as well as his friend and fellow-Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, who died in
1961 from a cerebral hemorrhage, several years after Lennon kicked him in the head during a scuffle in Germany. Then, writes Goldman, Lennon became a hypocritical adult who preached love and peace but practised intolerance toward children and Jews. He adds that the singer was a wimpish, insecure man who allowed Ono to completely dominate him as both a dragon lady and a mother figure. Goldman also claims that Lennon was cool and unaffectionate with his second son, Sean, now 13. By the end of his life, according to the author, Lennon had degenerated into a paranoid, emaciated drug addict and an eccentric recluse who resembled Howard Hughes.
Contempt: Throughout the book, Goldman barely conceals his contempt for Lennon—and for rock music itself. In one passage, the author describes Lennon’s debauched state following the first flush of Beatlemania. “John’s craving for somnolence,” he writes, “testifies to the terrible depletion of his vital energies wrought by years of rockin’ round the clock, going for days without sleeping, driven by Prelhes and Dexies, travel jitters and stage fright, to say nothing of the long-term effects of chronic rage, paranoia and nightly hotel-room orgies.”
^ Goldman claims to have started out as a Í Lennon fan himself, becoming disillusioned § only when he began to learn about the artist’s ° darker side. But there is little in The Lives of John Lennon to convince the reader that Goldman has much respect for Lennon’s music—or that of The Beatles. He wrongly credits McCartney with writing Lennon’s first song, Hello Little Girl, and refers to Lennon’s tranquil 1970 ballad Across the Universe as “hard rock.” He describes The Beatles’ sprightly pop song I Wanna Hold Your Hand as “jaunty, snappy British quick march, with its boomboom-boom-boom oompah echo,” as if it were a
cross between military and polka music. More serious, Goldman attempts to dismiss Lennon as a plagiarist with such backhanded compliments as “John’s songs are original—save for the part that everybody whistles.”
At the same time, he uses material of questionable accuracy to attack Lennon’s personality. Goldman was denied interviews with McCartney,
Ono and Lennon’s first wife,
Cynthia, and he did not approach the other surviving Beatles. Although the book lists Lennon’s half sisters as sources (even misspelling Julia Baird’s name), they, too, claim not to have talked to him. The author, apparently, relied heavily on previously published material and interviews with former Lennon associates, including a hairdresser, a tarot-card reader and a chauffeur.
Charges: Bill King, publisher of Beatlefan, a bimonthly U.S. magazine—and one of the leading authorities on The Beatles—said that his own research into Goldman’s book and its sources led him to conclude that the author relied on two people in particular, Fred Seaman and Marnie Hair, to substantiate his sensational charges about Lennon’s New York years.
Seaman, a former assistant in -
the Ono-Lennon office, and Hair, a onetime neighbor in the couple’s Dakota apartment building, are quoted as sources on everything from Lennon’s supposed bisexuality to the extent of his drug abuse.
Indeed, Seaman was convicted in 1983, after leaving Ono’s employ, for stealing Lennon’s
diaries and tapes (the court ordered Seaman not to reveal the contents of the diaries under threat of a seven-year jail sentence). And Hair had unsuccessfully tried to sue Ono the previous year for $1.5 million after Hair's daughter was injured while playing with Sean at the Lennon-Ono retreat at Cold Spring Harbor on
Long Island, N.Y. Said King: “Here are two primary sources of Goldman’s who clearly have axes to grind.” For his part, Goldman dismissed his book’s inaccuracies in one interview as “minor flaws in a major undertaking.”
Last week, the author refused to talk to Maclean ’s about the reaction to his book and he
appeared to be in hiding in Italy, perhaps because of death threats. His editor, Jean Bumcoff, said that she has no idea why Baird was credited as a source when, she claims, Lennon’s half sister declined to be interviewed. And she denied that Seaman’s legal problems call into question his credibility as a source. While Bumcoff would not discuss the book’s fact-checking procedure, she did explain why footnotes were not used. Said Bumcoff: “Footnotes clutter up a book, and this was meant to be a book for the general public.” She added: “If this book had been about Howard Hughes, there would have been no such criticism. John Lennon was and is a sacred cow.”
Certainly, Lennon spoke directly to rock ’n’ roll fans and formed a deep emotional bond with them. In addition to such Lennon compositions as Imagine and Give Peace a Chance, which are still anthems for the peace movement, some Lennon songs—including Mother and Jealous Guy—were deeply confessional and gave the rock icon a vulnerable human dimension.
Complexity: One of the strengths of the new Lennon documentary, Imagine, is that it uses those songs to explore its subject, along with rare interview footage, Lennon-Ono home m movies and performance clips. Imagine ex| poses the former Beatle in all his complexity.
0 On camera, he discusses his anger from the 2 upheaval of his childhood, his failure as a father g to Julian, his marital difficulties and his drug
1 problems. Solt and producer David Wolper, ï best known as producer of the TV mini-series
Roots, balance those darker facets of Lennon with his humor, sensitivity and idealism, setting it all intelligently to his music.
The movie Imagine and Baird’s My Brother offer fresh insights into the artist and flesh out his legend. Goldman’s book is mostly a rehash that attempts to shatter the Lennon myth. Ironically, Goldman apparently has begun to resemble the paranoid millionaire recluse he claims Lennon became in his last years. According to CBC TV’S David Gilmour, who interviewed Goldman in Rome on Sept. 27, the biographer was under armed guard in a hotel room.
On Oct. 6, The Journal showed clips of a visibly shaking Goldman, who told Gilmour: “There is an element among this peace-loving, violence-hating rock ’n’ roll leadership that would very much like to see my ass kicked or just wiped off this planet. And they are inciting day by day the lunatic fringe to take a shot at me. So, consequently, I have to cover my ass.” On the other hand, Baird says that she is feeling a sense of reconciliation, and plans to return to her quiet life with her family and her high-school students. “I’m not going to do any more,” she said. “I’ve done my bit for taking this weight off my family.” But, despite Baird’s intention to rest, it is clear that John Lennon will continue to capture the public imagination. He will be revered by many—and reviled by some—as long as his music still touches people.