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.
This notion of the rock and roll performer going back to what he knows best is opposed to what the made-over Lennon describes as ‘that sort of dead Beatles sound or dead recording sound’, a multitude of tracks laid down under the supervision of George Martin and Paul McCartney. And not long after the old production values have come under fire, so has the material itself. Again, the issue is mediation, a lack of feeling or veracity in the fanciful little narratives – ‘Eleanor Rigby’ comes to mind – that stormed up the charts but had nothing to do with the business of speaking one’s mind and singing one’s soul. From this morass of trivia, apparently, the new, discerning Lennon rescues his best songs, his ‘me’ songs: ‘In My Life’, ‘I’m a Loser’, ‘Help!’, ‘Strawberry Fields’ (‘all personal records’). ‘They were the ones that I really wrote from experience and not projecting myself into a situation and writing a nice story about it, which I always found phony’ – ‘third-person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things’. The emphasis now is on a music that comes from the inside, no virtuosity, none of the courtesies of ‘projection’, no more correlative niceties. Instead, a ‘first-person music’, bubbling forth from the self in anguish, revealed at last, like a run of leaking pipes with the lagging triumphantly torn away.
It’s stretching it a bit to describe ‘In My Life’ or ‘Strawberry Fields’ as rock and roll, but perhaps it’s a manner of speaking as well as an expression of narrow allegiance. What matters is how to be John Lennon with a minimum of interference and rock and roll does a lot of work on this front. It also puts everyone in their place.
What do your personal tastes run to?
‘Wop bop a loo bop.’ You know? . . . I don’t like much else.
Why rock and roll?
That’s the music that inspired me to play . . . There’s nothing conceptually better than rock and roll. No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones, has ever improved on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on’ for my money.
Rock and roll sorts you out, then; like a therapy, it helps to distinguish the real you from the specious ones. And, of course, it’s by means of this distinction that you’re able to identify the good songs you wrote and the not-so-good songs, which is how you elect a song like ‘Strawberry Fields’ to the canon. It is by you and about you and about what you felt. What it has in common with ‘Money’ or ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’ (there are good renditions of both these standards on Live Peace in Toronto) is lack of adornment, and the quality of something properly authentic, an encounter in which the material has come readily to the composer, presenting itself in the form of an abundant natural resource: the opposite of the synthetic rummage-and-collage process that begins in 1967 with ‘A Day in the Life’ on Sgt Pepper and goes on through the ‘White Album’ to Abbey Road (1969). ‘Real’, ‘true’ and ‘simple’ are Lennon’s catch-all descriptions of what he’s after. On rock and roll again: ‘You recognise something in it that is true, like all true art. Whatever art is, readers. Okay? It’s that. If it’s real, it’s simple usually. And if it’s simple, it’s true. Something like that.’
These remarks are by way of priming – maybe bracing – both himself and his fans for the forthcoming album. And in December 1970, with the record finished but not yet released, it’s as though everything will stand or fall on this piece of work. The ground needs preparing for its reception – ‘people have to be hyped in a way, they’ve got to have it presented to them in all the best ways possible’ – and a certain amount needs to be said about the real and the unreal, about the unpacking of the self and the recovery of the authentic John Lennon. Fans must also be readied for the album’s hair-raising combination of fury and defencelessness – and for my money (as Lennon liked to say), ‘Look at Me’ is as good as any other song he elects to the party of simplicity, reality and truth. Much of the interview, then, is about the distresses and rewards of his self-revelation, under the tutelage of Yoko Ono and – from April 1970, when he embarked on primal therapy – Arthur Janov, author of The Primal Scream. These are the new and more helpful Maharishis chaperoning John towards his irreducible core of Lennonness.
The old mentor is reviled. So is the stab at self-abandon, in the form of meditation, a natural place to have gone with LSD, hard on the heels of Brian Epstein’s death in 1967 (‘I thought: “We’ve fuckin’ had it”’), but it didn’t work out. It was a fraud masterminded by an earthly purveyor of cosmic wisdom who splashed his transcendental pheromones around the ashram, or whatever it was, every time he set eyes on Mia Farrow or her sister Prudence, all the while raking it in, courtesy of John, the three siblings and their girls. On the double album, the Maharishi becomes ‘Sexy Sadie’ – ‘You made a fool of everyone’ – and here, in one of several parting shots, Lennon describes how the news of Epstein’s death reached the Beatles as they were set to attend a lecture by the Maharishi in Bangor. It was probably the moment that propelled Lennon to India, and it’s revisited in that faintly hysterical, yet deeply economical style that reduces the world to a three-way contest between pain, intelligence and cant. The press said: ‘“Brian’s dead.” I was stunned. We all were. And the Maharishi – we went into him, “He’s dead,” and all that. And he was sort of saying: “Oh, forget it, be happy.” Fucking idiot.’
Arthur Janov was a huge improvement. Sadie had shed no light, after all, on Lennon’s feelings for his first family, the real disaster waiting to happen on the steps of Mount Pleasant Register Office, Liverpool, in December 1938, two years before he was born. The album proved that Janov could help him feel his way around the business of Freddy, the absconded father (‘I wanted you but you didn’t want me’), and Julia, the dead mother (‘you had me but I never had you’). Janov also seems to have come up with a cure for the cure (screaming as the remedy for meditation), which must have posed a serious challenge. The most pressing issue was surely that Lennon had been boxed into a world of fantastic disproportion. With millions of people doting on your songs – the ones you like and the others you don’t – you could be forgiven for thinking your difficulties were more than merely personal. Inasmuch as the real you was being consumed, understood or misunderstood across about a quarter of the earth’s non-marine surface (plus a few bobbing pirate radio stations), your problems could be said to have a global dimension. And with the teachings of the Maharishi kicking in, and then out, it would all have taken on another dimension still. You may not have remained at one with the universe, but somehow the erstwhile notion that you became it by being part of it, then all of it, and that it became you in microcosm, would have left you feeling that immense forces were in play when you tried to figure out who you were.
Janov was more usefully parochial. The thing to do with the ‘self’ was to shuck it, like something on a seafood platter, get ‘in touch’ with the injured child and redeem that injury with a primal enactment of pain. Lennon took to Janov, and after the embarrassing remark, ‘We primal almost daily,’ he disposes of the therapy quite honourably, refusing to betray it or allow it to betray him. In explaining what it was and how it worked, he contrives to strip it of babble, i.e. to Lennonise it. ‘Primal therapy allowed us to feel feelings continually, and those feelings usually make you cry. That’s all.’ Whatever the vices of simplicity, they’re hard to finger here.
Lennon had called John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band ‘the first primal album’, but screaming and wailing were already modes that he knew well before his sessions with Janov. For years, the fans had been screaming and wailing and fainting wherever the Beatles went, and like spent witchfinders huddling in their cowls, the band would beat a retreat from this Devils of Loudun sound-effect to their blowsy cars and hotel suites. (I saw them at the Hammersmith Odeon around the time they released Beatles for Sale – 1964, I suppose. The screaming was so wild that my 12-year-old soulmate removed his shoe and threatened the girls in front, but they were intent on burning at the stake.) Screaming, too, was part of the band’s act. ‘Pain and screaming was before Janov,’ Lennon says. ‘Listen to “Twist and Shout”’ – an Isley Brothers cover – ‘I couldn’t sing the damn thing. I was just screaming. Listen to “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom”’ – a Little Richard vocal line (garbled) from ‘Tutti Frutti’. ‘Don’t get the therapy confused with the music.’ And what’s true (and ‘simple’ and ‘real’) of the voice is also true of the instrument:
How do you rate yourself as a guitarist?
Well, it depends what kind of guitarist . . .
Rock and roll.
I’m okay. I’m not technically very good, but I can make it fucking howl and move.
Janov, then, is a way station – a ‘mirror’, as the unexpurgated Yoko now interjects – like all Lennon’s ‘phases’. Matters are reassessed; there’s a pause from the general exhaustion, perhaps the first real pause since Hamburg, and a retrospective. A narrative order is impressed on the junkheap of fame and talent; John learns how to get ‘centred’; scores are settled, good jokes are made; ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.
Without Yoko Ono there would have been no Janov. She was the guiding force from about 1968 onwards. In agreeing to primal therapy, Lennon became the groom stripped bare by his suitor: it was Yoko who saw that he would have to stand naked before he could choose how he wanted to appear, to himself and others. It was also Yoko who spurred his interest in what used to be called avant-gardism. From the outset he was taken by the fact that she was a bona fide ‘artist’ in the sense that a rock and roll man is not. She had exhibition credits to her name and an eye for attractive ironies, drawn from Zen Buddhism and other oblique descriptive habits, whose origins lay well to the east of Maharishi country, and she could recast them as clever forms of New York minimalism. Her irony was evidence of something real, simple and true. She could stick an apple in an exhibition and ask for £200 to watch it decompose, somehow saying all that needed to be said about . . . what? The consumer society? The transience of matter? The Beatles? ‘Here was someone,’ Lennon remarks, ‘that could turn me on to a million things.’ He’d believed as much about the Maharishi, but he was in love with Yoko, and she with him.
He was also in a fix about her work. It got up his nose and then he adored it and then again he didn’t, but really he did. She was ‘avant-garde’ and she was ‘underground’, and these were conditions to which he aspired. Very admirable models in those days, and a fulcrum of sorts on which the hippy thing, and the rock and roll thing, could turn fitfully towards an education in history. By 1966, when he saw her work at the Indica Gallery in Mason’s Yard, only Russ Conway and Mrs Mills were less underground than the Beatles; only Herman’s Hermits and the Way In boutique at Harrods were less avant-garde. The exhibition appealed to the Lennon of In Your Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works (and to the Lennon of ‘Don’t Let Me down’ waiting in the wings):
There was . . . a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder. You look through the spyglass and in tiny letters it says ‘yes’. So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes’.
He continued to be impressed and, in these interviews, he describes Yoko Ono as ‘an intellectual’, as though this was the source of his passion. But her case is more complex, as we can tell from a cursory glance at her CV. Zen Buddhism in postwar Japan was an anti-intellectual vogue and Yoko was very much a postwar person. Before the war, her father had worked overseas for the Yokohama Specie Bank and her early years were spent in San Francisco. She returned to Japan in 1937 at the age of five. Her mother took her back to San Francisco in 1940 and they went home in 1941. In March 1945, she survived the fire raid on Tokyo in the family bunker; her mother subsequently moved the children to a small village. After the war Yoko returned to school in Tokyo. All this is carefully explained by Murray Sayle in the catalogue of the Yes Yoko Ono exhibition in New York. ‘When Yoko and her classmates looked outside the school’s high walls in the spring of 1946,’ Sayle writes, ‘they saw a city all but returned, as General Curtis LeMay had promised, to the Stone Age. Whole districts were sterile wastelands of twisted iron and blackened stones. People lived in holes clawed in the ground, roofed with stray sheets of metal . . . To sharpen the misery, American soldiers tootled around the ruins in jeeps.’
John and Yoko’s infatuation with ‘peace’ turns out to have particular origins, while ‘bed’ – the peace bed – can now be seen as a kind of body-polemic not just against Vietnam, but against two strange and distressing pasts. Hers the turmoil of Japanese war-mongering and American occupation. His, more personally, the austere milieu of peacetime reconstruction, in Liverpool especially, followed by the dizzying propulsion out of that world during the economic boom of the early 1960s and onto the Lennon-McCartney treadmill.
It was a roundabout case of West meets West. For, as Sayle points out, Zen Buddhism wasn’t the only fashion in Japan during the brief cultural renaissance that followed defeat. There was also Dada, which had first reached Tokyo in the 1920s. The Dada of Hugo Ball and the Cabaret Voltaire had derived its health from the sickness of the Great War, but in Japan a few years later, it was simply a modish pudding in search of a proof. By the end of the Second World War, however, that was no longer the case and by the early 1960s, when Yoko returned to Tokyo after a decade in New York, she was exhibiting as part of a busy avant-garde which included a contingent of artists who thought of themselves as ‘neo-Dadaists’.
All this has a bearing on the revised John Lennon. For if any member of the Beatles had a hidden affinity with Yoko – in terms of a taste for odd little juxtapositions, contrived production values, associative leaps and natty bricolage, it was surely Paul McCartney, who powered the band through its two triumphant perversities, the ‘White Album’ and Abbey Road. He liked to dub and mix and fiddle about and counterpoint one song against the other. Lennon may have seemed more outré and inquisitive, and of course he wasn’t averse to montage – ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ was one of his favourite tracks – but if both men were intrigued by the tricks of the late Modernist trade, McCartney (who met Yoko before Lennon did) found them easier to transpose to pop music, while Lennon remained a little in awe of them, preferring them in galleries and books, including his own, with their cheery, paronomastic homage to the late Joyce. On the factory floor, so to speak, he hadn’t the magpie instinct or the flair for asymmetry that went with the pop experiments of the period. In falling in love with Yoko, he fell for a more illustrious, less irritating version of McCartney.
Yet on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the great John Lennon album – and on much of what followed – the drift was emphatically unexperimental, autobiographical and expressive of John Himself. There simply was no interest in form as anything other than a means to that end. Fury about the death of Mama and the absence of Father (‘Mother’); disdain transposed as funeral oration (‘God’), thoroughgoing helplessness in love (‘Look at Me’), likely-lad ressentiment (‘Working-Class Hero’) and so on. There’s no arguing with the power of all these modes, the appeal to sympathy or the paradoxical achievement: the child’s view of the world, so cherished in the 1960s, seems both to be recovered and irretrievably lost – Infant Joy flings all its toys out of the cot and goes into mourning, with one eye on survival and the clear space opening up ahead. There’s nothing like it for another ten years, when Marianne Faithfull records Broken English.
‘I’m not just talking about the Beatles is over,’ Lennon said of ‘God’: ‘I’m talking about the generation thing. The dream’s over, and I have personally got to get down to so-called reality.’ But there was no great awakening in the 1970s, only a recasting of earlier enthusiasms. And though Lennon talked more openly about politics and hitched his wagon more conspicuously to causes, he was strangely wide of the mark. He believed, as only a millionaire could, that ‘Working-Class Hero’ was ‘a revolutionary song’ (true, inasmuch as it forecast the Thatcher revolution); he had half a mind to idolise Mao (a lot of people did, from Richard Nixon to Julia Kristeva). At the same time, by putting his name to the idea of peace, he became an asset to the anti-war movement in the US. But ‘me’ remained uppermost, as he felt it should for an artist – to that extent he was a slave of convention – and, in the end, ‘me’ was him all over, the best place he could have ended up.
But, whoever one had become, being ‘me’ in the 1970s was no longer what it had been. By now, the pop-intellectual ideas of the self were at odds with one another and they’d grown more sophisticated. Feminism and ‘men’s groups’ required a thorough remapping of ‘me’, and other pronouns. So did the sharp turn into the royal road of ‘language’ – with ‘desire’ bringing up the rear – which promised the revolution of the subject, and then a transformation of the world, almost by dint of radical representation alone. Language was the avant-garde’s last big idea and Yoko Ono understood it better than Lennon. But ever since his exasperation with the Beatles, Lennon had kept a weather eye on what poets, artists, film-makers and other musicians were doing. He studied the form. Whence his best remark of the interview – ‘I’m a cinéma-vérité guitarist-musician’ – which suggests that he saw the point of all this disparate and opaque activity, even if he thought that lowly, ragged rock and roll did something just as drastic and engaging.
Elsewhere during the 1970s, older pop versions of ‘me’ seemed to consolidate. Not the extremist accounts of the damaged, beatific self in R.D. Laing and David Cooper, but a running tally of private hurt combined with an inventory of (equally private) need that thrived on a domestication of the visionary beliefs which gained currency in the 1960s. ‘Alienation’ was still being claimed as a negative human right and the celebration of the Hermann Hesse-like outsider – a wide-eyed, fragile soul, bullied into inconsequence by a brutish world – was common enough. It was okay to think of oneself as a china doll in Sparta. But the less Spartan the world became for the many prosperous survivors of the 1960s, the more insistent they seemed to be that the doll was traduced. Thirty years later, we have the four-wheel drive, assertiveness training and much else with which to pamper our dolls – and it’s still possible to turn them into proto-radicals by clinging to the superstition that their every wish is by definition ‘subversive’.
To hold John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band accountable for this would be to ‘get the therapy confused with the music’. The music is about the pain of John Winston Lennon, as described by the new John Ono Lennon, ex-sibling of the Beatles, also orphaned by his first family which, for the purposes of this record, is the one that mattered: child of the absent and the dead. The new screaming and wailing, by the pain-artist, is a stoical performance. Indeed, it could hardly be further from the anti-stoicism of the 1960s, which was based on pleasure and dissent. At the same time it’s a milestone on the winding road towards a degraded anti-stoicism in which nothing is more interesting than injury, or puts us more at ease.
As a loyal member of the multi-million artificial family that kept up an interest in black sheep, I still love John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and almost all the Beatles music, but it always puts me in mind of the many goings-on in the great concourse, as it was in the 1960s, with everyone swanning around under marshmallow skies – and of the ways people had of thinking they were all up to much the same thing. The openness of that great domain began to close around the time that Lennon discovered self-discovery in earnest. Structural cracks appeared in the façades and these became fissures; screens went up, partitions were built, it suddenly felt like an enormous flat-conversion. ‘Personal space’ began to matter. Meanwhile, some kinds of politics, with which the hippy thing and the rock and roll thing could muddle along, began to achieve a healthy momentum that was too much for the freaks. They followed behind as best they could – especially in the US, largely because of the anti-war movement. But Haskell Wexler’s movie, Medium Cool, set – and shot – at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and released the following year, explains how fast things were changing, with five years of Vietnam to run. In Europe, it was La Chinoise and Weekend that infiltrated the land of magic mushrooms and patchouli. And before long the alliance of utopians, hedonists, anarchists and very satisfied music promoters that was tenuous enough at Woodstock seemed to come apart, with one tribe holding their copies of Steppenwolf and the other . . . I don’t know, the new Penguin edition of The Wretched of the Earth or Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.
Yet at the time of Lennon’s murder in 1980, the concourse was under reconstruction. Everyone basked in the same life-giving warmth of market forces. In the Beatles generation, we could almost hear the strains of ‘Good Day Sunshine’ – very Paul McCartney – as we were decorously informed that the value of our share portfolios could go up as well as up. Some big ambitions had been reconfigured, the best things in life were undoubtedly for birds and bees, and cynicism, once a useful antidote to the old fantasies, was suddenly a badge of mediocrity. Lennon had a disagreeable wise guy side, but he was scarcely a cynic.
Everyone knows where John Lennon died – the Dakota Apartments, a morose cultural march stolen on Walt Disney in 1884, half a century before Snow White or Dumbo, by the architect Henry Hardenberg. I was living quite close at the time. Someone rang in what seemed like the middle of the night and I lay awake with the light on, intent on proving that I really couldn’t care less. Pretty much like the Maharishi in fact – ‘fucking idiot.’ The following morning I bought some roses on Broadway and trudged towards the scene, taking my place by the police barriers with the weeping crowds. It was a mortified version of that screaming and wailing again, painfully frank and, by now, rather subdued. No need to threaten anyone with a shoe. The longer I stayed, the stronger my dislike of the Dakota became. Even the flowers at its sinister gates took on the air of a tribute not to Lennon but to the building itself, which would sport this murder as a nasty feather in its cap, along with Rosemary’s Baby and everything else. And it looked now as it was meant to look, scornfully unreal (un-simple, far from ‘true’). You could imagine the fake thunderheads massing behind its towers as lightning rippled over Central Park. And all the while it lowered, like a cartoon palace in an out-take from Fantasia. Pepperland had finally been swallowed up by Disney and the man who wrote ‘Strawberry Fields’ had been claimed by America, the most voracious place on earth.