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John by Cynthia Lennon (2006)

johnFrom amazon.com

I’ve been a fan of the Beatles since the first night that they were on Ed Sullivan in 1964. I could not be more in the Beatles camp without needing medication.

Actually some people think I do need medication over my Beatles fixation, but never mind. The reason I say this is so that you’ll know whose “side” I’m on.

The most recent histories of the World’s Greatest Band (this one and “The Beatles: The Biography” by Bob Spitz) are more reliable as general retellings than most of the previous dreck we’ve gotten, with the possible exception of Phillip Norman’s, excellent “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation.” In fact, most of the previous general histories we’ve got on the Beatles have been garbage–being either authorized fan-club/teenie-bopper raves, or idiot kiss-and-tell scandal tomes (like “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles” which paints the Beatles as victims and jerks simultaneously).

In fact, even “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles” by the very odd Geoff Emerick (who, despite having been in on the most important of the Beatles recording sessions seems to have entirely missed the point) is pretty good.

So we’ve got an excellent crop of fairly recent Beatles books out now. So what? Well, I think that for those of you who want to understand the Beatles story on a gut level, this is one of the must-have volumes.

Cynthia Lennon is honest in this volume on the level that her famous ex-husband always claimed to be, and generally wasn’t. The feeling I get as I read this volume is that, for an autobiography, the book is unusually truthful. I suspect we’re getting about 75% of the truth, and 99% of the truth as Cynthia saw it (understanding the distinction in those two points is critical in reading autobiography). Her portrait of John is unflinching and to the point when she speaks of the events she witnesses. It is also solid from the standpoint that a lot of the action that occurred in and around the Beatles circle happened just off of Cynthia’s radar, and she tells us plainly when she was off stage. It is interesting that she seems honestly bemused by so many of the events that occurred in her own life.

The portrait of the “Cynthia Era” Lennon that emerges is the one we always suspected was the truth: that John was a funny, warm, intelligent person–usually. We also see the Post-Yoko John, and the bizarre head changes that Ono put John through.

Cynthia suggests that the changes in Lennon’s temperament were symptoms of drug abuse, and I’m certain that was a contributing factor, but she either doesn’t see or leaves us to read between the lines about the influence that Ono had over Lennon. I suspect that she’s being kind; the combination of Ono’s machinations, and Lennon’s emotional and intellectual vulnerability were a frightening force, and changed John completely. In fact, the immediate post-Ono Lennon seems more like a cult adherent than a drug casualty, and that was, the way it seemed to fans like me at the time.

Lennon switched from the affable (if temperamental) head Beatle to a surly, smug, unsmiling but silly media manipulator who was more than delighted to exchange creative credentials for media attention. As Cynthia points out, “He never smiled and he took himself so seriously.”

Best of all, Cynthia asks the ultimate question about Lennon, ‘How could he be so interested in world peace, and so uninterested in making peace with his own son?”

Cynthia also seems aware that McCartney, who has received bad press in the last few years for having the bad taste to remain (Quelle Horreur!) popular and mainstream, is a talent in his own right, and half of the Beatles songwriting legacy. Cynthia is also aware that the Beatles were a band, an organism of four men, not John Lennon and three other guys. It was nice to hear someone say this; the other Beatles have gotten short shrift since Lennon’s death.

Of course, a central part of the “Lennon Problem” is carefully discussed here; Lennon wanted a divorce from his wife. In the early 21st century that situation is considered sad, but with the current 50% divorce rate it might also seem unremarkable. In the late 1960’s it was scandalous, and the way Lennon dealt with his ex-wife and child we even worse.

You won’t learn a lot about how the Beatles music was made here, Cynthia wasn’t allowed in that part of her husband’s life (no big deal there, how many of you reading this take your spouse to work?), but you will learn a lot about who John Lennon was, and how he mutated into the media-hungry self-righteous maniac he became in the 1970’s. Best of all, Cynthia still loves John, and despite the degree that he wronged her, she leaves us room to do so as well.

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May 29, 2013 Posted by | Book John by Cynthia Lennon | , , | Leave a comment