The Groom Stripped Bare by His Suitor

Jeremy Harding

  • Lennon Remembers by Jann Wenner
    Verso, 151 pp, £20.00, October 2000, ISBN 1 85984 600 9

John Lennon gave his famous interview to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine at the end of 1970, a few days before the release of the most important solo-Beatle record, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Rolling Stone published the interview early the following year, with the album already in the shops. Between them, the record and the interview seemed to round off the 1960s nicely – or nastily, come to that. Many things seemed to do the same, of course, but in this case the dating was pretty precise. It was ten years since John, Paul, George and Ringo had recorded their first session together at the Akustik, a small studio in Hamburg (apparently a single 78 rpm copy of ‘Summertime’ still survives); and Lennon’s declaration that ‘the dream is over’ in ‘God’, track ten on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, felt like a speech from the heart at the last-ever anniversary party.

What makes the Lennon interview rewarding second time around is not that this is an interviewer’s cut, so to speak – very little of interest was excised for the magazine edition: it’s simply that the perplexing contradictions it revealed at the time seem easier to grasp in retrospect. They’re still interesting: rock and roll fundamentalism v. avant-gardism; therapy v. politics; and, above all for Lennon, John v. the Beatles and all they stood for. It’s also clear that this clever man profited from his relationship with Yoko Ono, who served his purposes in serving her own. Under her guidance, he became both a public solipsist and something of a radical – affirming the paramount value of being John before going on to adopt the campaigning postures of the 1970s: anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-Nixon, anti-clericalism, a brief bout of workerism, ‘power to the people’ and so on. It was rickety stuff, but for most of the time he meant it, and within a few years of his liaison with Yoko, he had graduated from the knowing boy of the 1960s to the naive man-child we associate with his last years. ‘Imagine’ – his transnational anthem of 1971 – is typical of the new universalist peering out through smoked-glass spectacles. Direct, fantastical, awash with grandeur and schmaltz, and apparently harmless, it might nowadays have been commissioned for a Vodafone ad. Even so, it must have had an edge to it when Lennon performed it at a benefit for the relatives of inmates killed by police after the Attica State Prison riot in 1971 and it was BBC policy, nearly twenty years later, to keep it off the air for the duration of the Gulf War.

For the rest, the John Lennon story is a tortuous family affair, in many intersecting senses of the term, and it’s remained so, largely because the heyday of his avatar, John Beatle, and of his three siblings, must for commercial reasons be extended for as long as possible. But early on, everyone sensed that there was something distinctive about Lennon. In my family and others I knew, the Beatles met with condescending parental approval, and so it was natural to view them with suspicion. In 1966, when the press got hold of Lennon’s ‘bigger than Jesus’ remark, he became a villain, at least where I grew up – one of a mixed bunch of Labour ministers, student revolutionaries and TV personalities (including, for some reason, the variety pianists Russ Conway and Mrs Mills). In the Home Counties, the maxim ‘Know your enemy’ was applied with latitude and as Lennon entered the pantheon of hate figures – a medium to al dente subversive whose name was reviled at gymkhanas and golf tournaments around the county – he rose in our esteem.

I find it odd, but not surprising, that he’s once again a family man – in my family at any rate. In the last two years I’ve reinvested in the productions of Mopheads Inc at the request of two boys under the age of six for whom the death of the person who didn’t ‘believe in Beatles’ is so significant that it determines most of what they know or think about music. (For example: ‘Who is this music by?’ ‘Johann Sebastian Bach.’ ‘Is he dead?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Was he shot?’) Striking, too, that in the run-and-run saga of the Beatles, we can’t get away from the band and they can’t get away from each other. It’s as though they’d been condemned to an eternity of group therapy without a counsellor, a slanging match between the living and the dead, while younger admirers, plunderers and acolytes-at-one-remove, like Blur and the Gallaghers, pin messages of sympathy to the door of the consulting room. And then, quite easily, that little room begins to expand in a dream-like distortion until it’s a vast concourse that appears to contain us all. Here, every thought or memory, however private, comes complete with a transfiguring riff by Lennon and McCartney. The stores are decorated with Pepperland hangings, the sun shines like a cartoon sun, the coffee machines play ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and mobile phones ring with a digitised version of ‘Penny Lane’. Another family affair, on a much larger scale. ‘Very strange.’

Not so strange, perhaps, is Lennon’s wish, from the late 1960s, to have done with this ever-extending artificial family. Neither is the fact that he failed to do so. On the face of it, the relationship with Yoko Ono was a more intimate venture, but it was also extraordinarily stagey and public. And ‘the public’ – that’s us – was part of the baggage Lennon carried with him. We went as an enormous cast of pseudo-cousins, adopted brothers and sisters. We didn’t have to concur with his snide (and amusing) remarks about the other Beatles: it was more a case of taking an interest in a new branch of the family, a divagation of an extreme kind that was sometimes hard to put up with.

There were memorable lows – among them, ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ and ‘John, John’, Yoko’s contributions to the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace in Toronto 1969 – but you could always spin back to Rubber Soul or Revolver for a big family get-together, repatriating Lennon to the land from which he’d done a very noisy runner. ‘That . . . album with the drawing by Klaus Voorman on it,’ he asks Jann Wenner apropos Revolver. ‘Was that before Rubber Soul or after?’ Nowadays, too, the happy family solution’s at hand, with both those albums somewhere in the upper layer of chaos spread around the tape deck of the car. But as younger consumers in the Beatles Emporium come ‘onstream’, lapping up the recordings of the mid-1960s and imagining that Bach was wasted on the way to choir practice, one longs for a break in the story and a breather from the Beatlish-Lennonish mixture of knowing chic and know-nothing bonhomie which little boys seem to find as seductive as their mothers and fathers did. But perhaps not their grandparents, in whose eyes Lennon had blown it by becoming the person he is in this interview: self-engrossed, witty, malicious, foolish – someone who is always ready to be disabused and reabused, obstinately drawn to contending kinds of ruin, aloft between frying pan and fire and flipping like a dervish pancake, yet equally convinced of a redemptive universe which has delivered him safe and sound into the arms of Yoko Ono (‘nothing works better than to have somebody you love hold you’). A confused figure waging several wars at once and taking no prisoners. An attractive figure, I find, and a model of frankness. This is a person gloriously incapable of circumspection.

Even so, he has a project, which comes into focus early on in the interview: the articulation of a revitalised John Lennon, a chip off the old block certainly, but a New Man, too, replenished with the old values of rock and roll; a pain-artist with a Promethean gift to offer (rock and roll again, in its raw form, without the dinky, mediating talents of the Beatles) and a Promethean sacrifice to make: this welcome ordeal is forecast in ‘Yer Blues’ on the ‘White Album’ (1968), where the liver’s left alone, but the eagle goes straight for the eyes – vision itself, a Lennonologist would tell you.

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