Taming and Marketing John Lennon

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, October 18, 2005 

Who was John Lennon?

Member of the Beatles, accomplished solo artist, peace activist and, ultimately, tragic figure – we thought we knew John Lennon.

But nearly 25 years after his murder in New York City on Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon’s legacy has morphed. He has gradually become someone different from who he was when he was slain by deranged fan Mark David Chapman while returning home from a recording session.

With his longtime partner Paul McCartney now on tour, playing some of the songs he and Lennon wrote together – and with his widow, Yoko Ono, taking potshots at McCartney while reissuing yet another collection of Lennon’s hits – the legacy sometimes seems muddled and malleable.

That is, the answer to the question of Lennon’s legacy depends on whom you ask.

“I’ve given up on the whole notion of ‘definitive,’ ” says Gillian Gaar, who writes the monthly “Beatle Beat” column for the collectors magazine Goldmine and is the author of “She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

“As objective as people try to be, they’re still human and they still have an agenda,” she says. “Being in Seattle, I’ve watched the battles over the (Kurt) Cobain and (Jimi) Hendrix estates. It’s kind of the same old story.”

The Lennon tug of war got a public shot in the arm last week when Ono, a savvy publicity-seeker at the very least, drew international headlines at an awards show in London. In an acceptance speech just days after the release of a new Lennon best-of CD package, Ono said she once told Lennon, who expressed insecurity about his songwriting compared with McCartney’s, that, “It’s not June with spoon that you write.” The comment was widely seen as a shot at McCartney’s supposed penchant for facile lyrics.

Meanwhile, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, has just published her second book-length account of her life with Lennon, “John.” That’s one of a dozen new books on Lennon, including a new Time-Life coffee-table tome, “Remembering John Lennon 25 Years Later.” And a new Broadway musical based on his songs and life story, “Lennon,” recently closed after a brief run.

Clearly, the fascination with the former Beatle has survived the years. But his image has changed during that time, and, some say, forever – not for better.

Marty DeAnda falls into that camp. A huge Lennon fan since he discovered the Beatles in his youth, DeAnda, co-owner of the record label Dig Music and manager of local wunderkind Jackie Greene, says the Lennon he sees now isn’t the Lennon he loved growing up.

“Nowadays, when I hear the name John Lennon, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘limited edition,’ ” DeAnda says. “He’s been massaged and morphed and marketed into something different than what he was.”

DeAnda notes that Lennon was a real musical and cultural revolutionary, a controversial figure who was on CIA and FBI watch lists for his anti-war activities in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He was also an artist who, with Ono, posed nude on an album cover and challenged listeners with abrasive singles such as “Cold Turkey.”

While he made controversial headlines in 1966 with his offhand comment that the Beatles had more impact on American youth than Jesus Christ, and later complained in a song that “they’re gonna crucify me,” he has himself been turned into a soft-focus pop icon, a pinup for peace.

A driving force behind that, all agree, is Ono, who, as Lennon’s widow, creative partner, business partner and manager of his estate and legacy, has revised the man. Now, he comes across as a dreamy house husband, not as the firebrand who wrote the raw, violently emotional “Yer Blues” and “Working Class Hero.”

Instead, we get the Lennon of clouds and dreams and childish doodles, widely available as lithographs – “limited edition,” of course. Or, the idealistic Lennon caricature in the Broadway production “Lennon,” authorized by Ono but savaged by critics for its tendency to turn a complex man into “a one-size-fits-all alter ego to the world,” as the New York Times put it.

Lennon was a complex man, no doubt. In Cynthia Lennon’s book, she repeatedly writes of his abrupt changes from sensitive and kind to violent and even abusive – at least verbally.

Larry Kane’s new book “Lennon Revealed” features revelations about the rocker’s early days on the road, as well as his antics in the early ’70s, painting a complex picture of a difficult man who often is lost in Ono’s simplified marketing campaigns.

Lennon himself was very upfront about his shortcomings – at least some of them. This was in contrast to McCartney, who was always the diplomat.

But Cynthia Lennon’s and Kane’s books explore new areas of Lennon’s life. Cynthia goes into more depth on her late ex-husband’s stormy relationship with his Aunt Mimi, who raised him, than anyone has before. Mimi comes across as a much less admirable character than Lennon himself painted her.

Likewise, Kane reports that Lennon’s infidelities occurred not only during his first marriage – Cynthia found out her husband was having an affair with Ono when she came home one morning and found them sitting together in white bathrobes – but also during his marriage with Ono, says Kane.

Kane had long, frank conversations with both Ono and Lennon’s lover May Pang, who rarely has been interviewed. According to Kane’s account of these interviews, Pang said she and Lennon remained lovers long after Ono and Lennon reconciled after an 18-month separation in the mid-’70s.

That might merely be personal history, says Kane, but Ono’s passion to manage Lennon’s legend affects subsequent products that Ono releases under Lennon’s name. For instance, he notes, a DVD collection of updated video clips she commissioned for release in 2003 – “Lennon Legend” – featured Lennon’s 1975 hit “No. 9 Dream.” Kane says the song was written not for Ono but for Pang, and that the voice that whispers “John, John” on the bridge was actually Pang’s, not Ono’s.

“But in the video, Yoko casts herself mouthing the words ‘John, John,’ ” says Kane. “Both women are still fighting for his affections.”

Kane also concludes, based on an interview with early Beatle Stu Sutcliffe’s sister, Pauline, that Lennon and band mate Sutcliffe had indeed been lovers. (Pauline Sutcliffe says the same in her 2002 book, “The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe and His Lonely Hearts Club.”) But he also opines that long-standing rumors that Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein were lovers are probably not true.

Martin Goldsmith is program director of classical music at XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the Beatles. He, like others interviewed, considers Ono’s comments comparing Lennon’s and McCartney’s talents to be a “stupid” exercise pitting one genius against another.

That’s because they mask the essential truth of any artist: Artists are, almost by definition, complex.

“No one is a bigger admirer of John than I am,” says Goldsmith, “But John also wrote ‘Run for Your Life,’ which is horribly misogynistic and not very good to boot. … And John also wrote ‘Goodnight,’ which is very treacly.

“I think it’s very dangerous when anyone says a human being, particularly a creative human being, is one thing,” he says. “If art teaches us anything, it’s that the human animal is very complex. No one is very consistent in his creative or daily life. For anyone to say the mystery of John Lennon’s character has been solved now is wrong.”

And in any case, he adds, “Artists give their art to us, not their personalities.”

But when there’s money to be made, and perhaps old scores to settle – and more than anything else, when a figure inspires as much love and devotion as Lennon continues to do – opinions will be expressed and stories told, subject to all manner of prejudice and agenda.

Harvey Kubernik is a longtime music journalist and author of a recent book of interviews, “This Is Rebel Music.” He met Lennon a couple of times and has been close with many of his associates through the years.

“Someone once told me, you don’t marry one person, you marry the whole family,” he says. Indeed, Paul came with John, and John comes with Yoko. They all were parts of a creative explosion that continues, in its various and expanding forms, through the storytelling and even historical revisionism of the past 25 years, and for perhaps 100 years more.

What stays true is Lennon’s music.

“Look at the man,” says Kubernik. “He took what might have seemed a simple statement, ‘Give peace a chance,’ recorded it in a roomful of people, mucking about – talk about lo-fi! – and it is somehow more poignant 35 years later. It is more durable than anyone might have expected.

“The stuff he did with Phil Spector – ‘Crippled Inside,’ ‘Imagine’ – they hold up really well,” he adds. “We were getting information from a man who was unchained, who had economic security, so he could sing and speak his mind, and not worry about economic repercussions.

“Even now, it’s powerful stuff.”