I’ve been thinking a lot about the Beatles lately. Perhaps it’s because I started off the New Year by reading Mark Lewisohn’s masterful Tune In (2013), the first book in his proposed Beatles’ trilogy. It’s long and exhaustive, but you can feel him working up to something great. It covers their pre-Hamburg years, Hamburg, Stu’s death, and the arrival in their lives of Brian Epstein in late 1961, ending on a high note just as they got their deal with EMI.
Coincidentally, this week German photographer Astrid Kirchherr died at the age of 81. Lewisohn tweeted: Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to the Beatles was immeasurable. She had become an interior decorator, I discovered, and married a British drummer, the man who replaced Ringo in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. She was born on May 20, 1938, a day before my own birthday. It seems fitting that Astrid, a powerful, independent woman with her own story, would be one of the last Beatles figures to survive. (Pete Best is another survivor, and he gave her a loving tribute.)
I turned to Tom Doyle‘s book, Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s (2014) without many preconceptions, but ended up loving it. It is an underrated book. I’ve come to appreciate and respect Paul McCartney more and more, and his odd eccentricities and quirks seem lovable here. I think the ’70s may have been Paul’s best time: he launched out on his own, devoted wife at his side, post-Beatles, almost as an “indie artist,” and ended the decade successful and “on top.” Then there was the rude awakening of John’s murder. And the 1980s seemed hard for him. Ironically, I only “knew” Paul McCartney in the ’80s, in the wake of Lennon’s traumatic end, and it was hard to get a fix on him then, especially since the literature on the Beatles was so superficial at the time. But this book helps enormously.
Although there is no fanfare about it, a careful reader will learn quite a lot about the Lennon-McCartney relationship. No one has covered Paul’s intense grief and anger after John’s death better than Doyle. His pain was almost comically misconstrued at the time. Now it all makes sense. One sees the glimmers of a much deeper story here, one that was cut short. Above all, and this is hard to put into words, it’s clear that Lennon and McCartney never stopped spurring each other on and emotionally reacting to each other, just as they had in the Beatles, but in a more cloaked and secretive way, while the press simply fixated on, and fed off, their animosity to each other.
I was left with a feeling of admiration for Paul, though. He kept trying to mend things with Lennon, and it seemed like by the end of the decade, he was getting somewhere. I think he had a vision of what he wanted (since he had had it before) and that makes what transpired all the more tragic. “I felt robbed,” he admits to Doyle, among other things.
As for Linda, I never doubted her strength, but the book confirms it. Her early promise to Paul, “I can make you a nice home,” seems quite poignant. She made huge sacrifices to keep her marriage strong, which included roughing it in Scotland with a depressed, self-medicating ex-Beatle, then going on the road with a band for ten years. But as an artist herself, though one with no need to hog the spotlight, she must have felt creatively fulfilled as well.
Doyle covers the decade of music carefully, throwing out insights and clues. I have only ever owned one Paul McCartney album, and that was Tug of War, from 1982, which I was mostly too young to understand at the time. Now I think I will buy Ram, and appreciate it all the more, knowing what lead up to it, and what came after.
One of the songs Doyle writes about is “Coming Up,” which became a huge solo hit for Paul the year that John died. John heard it in the spring of 1980 when he was driving with his assistant Fred Seaman and it challenged him to start writing again—even though he’d told Paul on the phone that all of that was over for him.
I had never heard “Coming Up,” so I listened to it. To my amazement, it seemed full of coded messages to Lennon. There was a covert promise in there that interested me. And it seemed obvious from all I knew of Lennon’s last years that he would not have been able to respond directly. He would have had to do it in a song as well.
The iconic cover of Double Fantasy (1980), an album John considered mediocre.
There’s only one song on Double Fantasy that fits the bill, and it’s “Starting Over.” Thinking back on that album—the first one I ever bought for myself!—the lyric that grabs my attention is the very deliberate line, “Let’s spread our wings and fly, my love… it’ll be just like starting over.” Would John have thrown the loaded word “wings” into a song about Yoko? The word “darling” jumps out as well, echoing Paul’s insanely intense “Oh! Darling,” from Abbey Road (1969), which screams futilely for attention. Anyway, Paul’s insistent lyric “Coming up like a flower” may well have been in John’s mind when he stood in the Bermuda botanical gardens and spied the freesia called Double Fantasy that he said gave him the title of the album. Sean was with him, but Yoko wasn’t—she had stayed behind in New York, leaving him free to write songs for the upcoming record and think about his future.
But what future would he have had? We know how it ended on December 8, 1980, of course. A book that tries to show where John’s head was at in the last couple years of his life paints a grim picture of a man who wasn’t going anywhere. The ominously titled Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (Kindle edition, 2015) by Robert Rosen is nothing like the careful, nuanced journalism of Tom Doyle. Rosen was a New York pal of Fred Seaman’s and had clearly listened avidly to Seaman’s tales of his boss over the years, as well as smoking John’s Thai weed, as he boasts on more than one occasion. To his shock, Seaman arrived at his place with John’s diaries a few months after the murder and asked Rosen to transcribe them. They would work on a book about John together, Seaman said, tell the full story. Yoko fired Fred shortly after. Then at the beginning of 1982 Seaman changed his mind and seized the diaries and Rosen’s transcriptions while he was away on vacation. Or so goes the murky story. But Rosen was sufficiently irked and obsessed to write a book based on what he had gleaned from the diaries and Fred’s descriptions of working for the couple. Nobody would publish said book for a very long time. (Yoko, meanwhile, sued Fred for grand larceny and got the diaries back.)
This was a dismaying read. People have said that it’s not harsh on Yoko. I think it’s very damning. The suffocating life that the Lennons were leading in the Dakota Building, surrounded by hired enablers who stole from them, is a complete turn-off. They literally had a psychic on retainer, a man whom Yoko called up at all hours and whom John dubbed “the big O.” I liked the numerology chapter best, as it showed, albeit in a weird way, that John was thinking about the people nearest and dearest to him and their places in his life. But could he have possibly answered Paul’s call, boxed in as he was by Yoko? Reading Nowhere Man, it’s clear that he couldn’t. (Nor does Rosen see John and Paul’s relationship in those years as anything but an intense rivalry.)
“Their lives had become an endless shopping spree,” Rosen writes of John and Yoko. “Yet no amount of money was ever enough for the Lennons, because they were bound together by a gnawing emptiness that money could never fill. The root of John’s pain was his father’s desertion when he was five years old and his mother’s death when he was 17—experiences so traumatic he’d never fully recovered. Once he had believed that unlimited doses of money and fame would stop the pain. By the time he had discovered that money and fame actually exacerbated it, leaving him addicted to more money and more fame, he was too far gone to ever be helped.”
In damning lines, Rosen writes about the attention-starved couple taking out full-page newspaper ads in May 1979 to publicize their “Love Letter to the People”:
They weren’t lying. The Myth of John and Yoko was real, but only in brief, ecstatic flashes. And those flashes had been growing progressively more infrequent. Like moments of a dream, when they ended, it was as if they’d never happened. Only when John wrote about them did the moments become real to him. Words were reality, and John’s reality was boredom and pain punctuated by microseconds of ecstasy. Buried alive in a high-rent purgatory of superstition and fear, he often wondered if something good was ever going to happen to him again, or if it was just going to go on like this till the day he died. John and Yoko shared a mutual dread of the world learning how bad it had become for them.
This effectively destroys the myth of John and Yoko’s supposedly happy, gender-equal marriage; but then, one wonders, what’s left of the legacy? The songs, I suppose… Lennon does not come off as innocent, more as a man who needed to be led by the nose by someone—first Paul, then Yoko. (Now it becomes clearer why he reacted so violently to the cover of Ram.) Perhaps his dominant aunt Mimi, his only effective parent, left her mark in this way.
Rosen‘s drive to get his unauthorized story out is both admirable and a bit dubious. Still, I’m glad I read it. The contrast between Paul’s “healthy” post-Beatles life with Linda and John’s “crazy” life with Yoko was quite painful. As a vulnerable adolescent, someone who wore the iconic badge of John and Yoko kissing on her jacket, I couldn’t have borne to know the truth.
Coda: I just stumbled on Michael Bleicher’s interesting review of Rosen’s friend Fred Seaman’s book The Last Days of John Lennon on HeyDullblog.com. “Seaman, John’s personal assistant for the last two or so years [of his life], depicts a rock star in his late thirties who may as well be in his late eighties for the way in which his happiness seems to be confined to rare moments when he reminisces about something he did in his early twenties.” Read the review here. The comments that follow make worthwhile, even addictive, reading as well.