John Lennon would have been seventy-four years old today.
Take a moment today to think of peace, think of love, think of joy, and think of the music. Because those are the things John lived for, you know–and wanted you to live for, too.
John Lennon would have been seventy-four years old today.
Take a moment today to think of peace, think of love, think of joy, and think of the music. Because those are the things John lived for, you know–and wanted you to live for, too.
One of the more fun and fascinating bits of Beatles lore has always been the whole “Paul Is Dead” hoax. The story spun by that particular hoax is that Paul McCartney allegedly died in an automobile accident in 1966 – a “stupid bloody Tuesday” – and the heartbroken Beatles decided to soldier on without him, replacing McCartney with a lookalike, but planting clues of Paul’s demise in Beatles songs and on album covers. Books could be written about the hoax – and, in fact, a few have – but now comes Joseph Niezgoda, in The Lennon Prophecy: A New Examination of the Death Clues of The Beatles to tell us that everyone’s got it wrong. The clues aren’t there to detail Paul’s demise, Niezgoda says, but rather to foreshadow John Lennon’s violent death in 1980, payment to the Devil for a 20-year pact Lennon made with Satan in 1960.
According to Niezgoda, at some point in December 1960 — likely between the Beatles’ anticlimactic return from Germany on December 10, when the group seemed on the verge of breaking up, and their triumphant appearance at the Litherland Town Hall concert on December 27, the night it is generally accepted that Beatlemania was born – John Lennon traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for rock and roll fame and fortune. Twenty years later, in December 1980, the Devil called in the debt, using a demonically-possessed Mark David Chapman as his instrument of death.
On that wacky premise, Niezgoda devotes 186 pages to analyzing John Lennon’s behavior, scrutinizing album covers, scrubbing lyrics for hidden meanings, and generally working way too hard to come up with spooky numeric coincidences to support his theory. Like the Paul is Dead theory, I don’t buy one word of it; unlike the Paul is Dead theory, however, this one is neither fascinating nor even all that convincing. Niezgoda’s theories and his interpretations of events, lyrics, and images, are almost always eye-rollingly dopey, and ultimately require enormous leaps in logic or imagination to make lyrics, album covers, or anything else fit his theory.
Part of the problem is that Niezgoda is completely humorless. Sarcasm, satire, puns and plays on words are completely lost on him. Lennon’s wit—one of his most enduring traits—baffles Niezgoda, as does Lennon’s use of metaphor and delight in wordplay. And Niezgoda—who calls himself a “life-long Beatles fan, collector, and scholar”—doesn’t seem to be able to put Lennon or his quotes in context. He can’t tell when Lennon is joking, bragging, or being dismissive. He’s absolutely tone deaf.
Anyway, to spare you from ever having to read this thing, I’m going to give you a rundown of some of Niezgoda’s claims to give you an idea of just how loopy, and how spurious, Niezgoda and his claims can be.
Early on, in a chapter titled “Bewitchery of the Masses,” Niezgoda asks how to explain the enormous effect the Beatles had on their fans. How does one account for the swooning, the fainting, the screaming? Could it perhaps be their undeniable charisma or talent? Ridiculous, Niezgoda says; those are exactly the kinds of “intangible” and “indescribable” qualities that manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin ascribed to the band—and they’re indescribable, Niezgoda says, because they were a gift from the Devil. So, Niezgoda’s first “evidence” of demonic influence is Beatlemania itself, in all its inexplicable, unexplainable wonder.
It’s not enough to sell one’s sell to the Devil, though—as Niezgoda explains earnestly, one must also do all he can to actively deride God and religion. Therefore, any time Lennon mentions God, religion, Christ, or his soul, Niezgoda pounces. While he naturally makes hay of the “bigger than Jesus” statement—though not as much as one might expect, giving it only eight pages—any other reference to God is dissected looking for hidden meaning. For example, when John Lennon, following the massive Shea Stadium concert in 1965, remarked that it was “louder than God,” Niezgoda arches an eyebrow curtly. “Why did he chose that analogy?” Niezgoda demands. And when an exhausted Lennon tells childhood friend Pete Shotton at the height of Beatlemania that he often feels he’s sold his soul, the nonplussed Niezgoda can only take the most literate Beatle literally.
Niezgoda is at his most bizarre, though, when analyzing music, lyrics and album covers. The intricate, interwoven images on the cover of Revolver don’t trouble him all that much—but he’s convinced that the album’s name has to be a foreshadowing of the kind of gun that would be used to kill Lennon fourteen years later. Certainly, the name Revolver has nothing to do with the fact that vinyl records were played by placing them on a turntable that revolved at a certain speed—thus making any record, in a sense, a “revolver,” right? Again, that sort of word play is lost on Niezgoda.
He’s more fascinated by the infamous “butcher cover” for the Yesterday … And Today album—with the Beatles in butcher smocks covered with dismembered dolls and raw meat—which Niezgoda is all but certain is Lennon’s nod to “the most reviling sacrifice to Satan . . . the killing of young innocent children—infanticide.” Niezgoda quotes Lennon’s enthusiasm for the project (“I would say I was a lot of the force behind it going out,” Lennon once said) as the final word on the impetus behind the photo—but either doesn’t seem to realize or completely ignores the fact that both Paul McCartney and photographer Robert Whitaker have claimed credit for the idea, too. Whitaker’s version, in fact, holds up to the most scrutiny, as the photo was actually part of a series of artsy photos Whitaker staged, including one in which George Harrison appears to be driving nails into Lennon’s head. Lord knows how Niezgoda would have interpreted that photo.
The real stretch, however, comes in his scouring of the cover of A Collection of Beatles Oldies—a relatively obscure album released in the UK and Australia in late 1966. While the Paul is Dead crowd point to the drawing of the car getting ready to crash into the lounging figure’s head as a “death clue” for Paul’s alleged death by automobile, Niezgoda’s got something much more clever in mind: “[The figure’s] right crossed leg, with only slight imagination, can be seen as the letter ‘J,’ and it rests aside the word ‘OLDIES’ . . . [t]ogether, they spell ‘JOLDIES'”—or, as Niezgoda explains, “JOL (John Ono Lennon) DIES.” Cue the thunderclap and opening notes of Toccata and Fugue. And don’t try to tell Niezgoda that Lennon was 16 months away from changing his middle name from Winston to Ono when the album was released—he’s already ahead of you: it’s a “craftily constructed prophecy,” don’t you know?
Sgt. Pepper also falls under a similar scrutiny—although, unlike the Paul Is Dead gang, Niezgoda isn’t as much interested in the front cover as he is the back, where the Beatles, with the album’s lyrics superimposed over them, appear against a blood red background (nothing is ever red in Niezgoda’s book; it’s always blood red!). McCartney famously stands with his back to the camera—“turning his back on John and what he knew of the fatal pact,” Niezgoda says solemnly—but the real clue lies in the layout of the lyrics from George’s “Within You, Without You”: the words “lose their soul” are perfectly centered on John’s waistline. Pretty sinister, huh?
Even sillier is Niezgoda’s discussion of the drumhead on the cover of Pepper, an image already overanalyzed by the Paul Is Dead aficionados. Niezgoda relies on the same parlor trick as the Paul Is Dead gang, using a mirror to bisect the words LONELY HEARTS (which, he points out sinisterly, are in a different font from the rest of the drum!) to reveal a messy I ONE IX HE DIE. For the Paul Is Dead people, this convoluted hidden message means that Paul died on November 9th (with “I ONE” meaning eleven, and IX meaning 9, for 11/9). Not for Niezgoda. Instead, he reads this as a taunt from Satan to John Lennon: “I won! Nine, he die!” Nine, Niezgoda explains, is the day Lennon died—because it was already December 9th in Liverpool, you see, when John died in New York on December 8th.
That kind of convoluted numerology, in fact, is where Niezgoda becomes wearying. Lennon himself made much of the number 9 in his life—he was born on the ninth and included the number in the title of several songs—but Niezgoda comes up with some truly inane readings and sleights-of-hand to arrive at his nines. For example, he points out that if you dial the name JOHNONOLENNON on a push button phone, you get 564666536666 – and wow, look at all those sixes, which are really just nines standing on their heads. And only Niezgoda could read “One After 909” as an omen—it’s waaay too confusing to explain how it predicts Lennon’s death down to the day—all the way down to a reference to Yoko as a his “bag.”
The punch my ticket moment, though—the moment I knew Niezgoda was in way over his head—arrives on page 122, as Niezgoda does some headscratching over the band’s name:
“’The Beatles’ was a curious choice of name for a band, especially because it’s spelled wrong. In 1961, John wistfully explained to Mersey Beat where he got the idea: ‘It came in a vision—a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on, you are Beatles with an A’”
With an absolutely straight face, Niezgoda explains that Lennon had to spell “beetles” incorrectly so he could use the letters to make an anagram of “seal bet,” hiding in plain sight his pact with the Devil. As for the man on a flaming pie, Niezgoda points out, his gears churning, that “man on a flaming pie” scrambles as “pagan flame minion.”
Apparently, the pun on “beat” in the word “Beatles” seems to never have occurred to the humorless Niezgoda—he’s too busy making scary sounds and tut-tut noises. (As for the “pagan flame minion,” you can also anagram “man on a flaming pie” to make “film an ape moaning,” but that hardly means Lennon had hidden aspirations of being a voyeuristic zookeeper). I can’t tell if Niezgoda is being intentionally ridiculous here, or if he’s really that clueless.
Niezgoda’s last chapter contains two incredibly odd bits of contrived thinking and backwards logic. The first is a way-out reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – a book published a year before Lennon’s birth, but which Niezgoda is nonetheless convinced contains prophecies of Lennon’s life and death. And that’s mostly because, at certain points over its 600 pages, Joyce uses words like “beetle,” “pepper” and “funeral.”
The second is a wacky bit of mathematics in which Niezgoda chooses three songs he believes “place the final moments of John Lennon’s life to music”: “I Am The Walrus,” “Revolution 9,” and “#9 Dream.” Niezgoda informs us that the total elapsed time from the moment Lennon was shot to the moment he died was 17 minutes—and I think we’re supposed to get chills when he informs us that the total time playing time for those three songs is 17 minutes, 42 seconds. Niezgoda provides us with absolutely no reason why there should or should not be a correlation between the playing time of these songs and Lennon’s last moments. It’s a completely nonsensical premise and farcical train of thought, and we’re supposed to somehow be spooked by it.
But that sort of spurious thinking is the norm for Niezgoda. His premise is a bizarre one to begin with, but The Lennon Prophecy is full of so many thin, lame, and eye-rollingly ridiculous theories that it’s impossible to take seriously. Yet, Niezgoda does. And “no one,” he writes in his wistful introduction, “is sorrier than I about what is written here.” Except maybe those of us who’ve read it.
Coming, perhaps appropriately, on the heels of yesterday’s review of John Lennon: The Life, a number of readers have e-mailed to ask my opinion of the recent “One Laptop Per Child” commercial that uses Lennon’s likeness and a digitized “voice.” If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s right here:
My reaction? Meh.
While many of the commenters on YouTube are offended that the highly-selective Yoko Ono would sanction the use of John’s image for a charity that hands out laptops — and there’s a lot of chatter on whether that’s a charity Lennon himself would have embraced — it’s not really the kind of thing that bothers me. Yoko is famously careful and tight-fisted when it comes to John’s name and reputation — even going so far as to stiff-arm Paul McCartney when he recently suggested that “Yesterday” be credited to McCartney-Lennon, rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney — so I wouldn’t presume to second-guess her assent for this particular organization.
For my part, I’m just not that impressed with the ad. Given that Yoko so rarely allows for John’s name and image to be used, I expected something a little more spectacular or moving. The brief and grainy glimpse we get of John in the final few seconds — with the Forrest Gump digitizing of the mouth — doesn’t really work. And the voiceover, while it very well may have been put together using actual Lennon clips, sounds to me like the cartoon version of Lennon from Yellow Submarine — or, better yet, like Paul Rudd doing his deadpan Lennon in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (NSFW, due to naughty language and drug humor…):
The heart is probably in the right place, but the ad just doesn’t do much for me.
“In September 2003, I suggested to John’s widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer,” writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, “Yoko Ono was upset by the book,” Norman tells us, “and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been ‘mean to John.'”
I actually don’t think Yoko’s got anything to worry about; Norman’s book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon’s all-too-brief life and career. While there’s much in here that’s familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories — most of which are familiar to Beatle fans — and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn’t they? question that has surrounded Lennon’s vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn’t), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John’s darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.
There’s also quite a bit that’s new in here, too — or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what “business” Yoko was doing during Lennon’s househusband years — she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John’s profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon’s writings in the 1960s — a hidden gem in the literate Beatle’s career — exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.
For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon’s story finally come into their own. John’s Aunt Mimi — who can often come off as a bit of a shrew — gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You’ll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John’s seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons — excuses — for his actions, but for the first time, you’ll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.
If there’s a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman’s narrative voice. Norman’s prose isn’t ever stilted — he’s too good a journalist for that — but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to “Twist and Shout,” for example, “dippy”). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon’s fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.
For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can’t help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. “Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony,” he writes. “Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building” where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, “John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota — an omen if ever there was one . . . ” It took me a moment to figure out why this was “an omen” — until I realized it was the use of the word “Dakota” in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.
Perhaps even more annoying — especially to the biographer in me — there’s no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman’s book when I found myself saying “Where’d you get that?” and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn’t enough room left. But I’m sure I’m not the only one missing it.
I know, I know . . . I vowed to stay away for a week. And I really am on my way out the door to go interview a source, but I just couldn’t let this go past.
Over the weekend, the Vatican announced that it had “forgiven” John Lennon for his 1966 comments in which he remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. According to the article on the BBC website (which you can see here):
The semi-official Vatican newspaper marked the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ “White Album” with an article praising Lennon and the Fab Four from Liverpool.
The paper dismissed Lennon’s much-criticised remark that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ as a youthful joke.
The paper described the remark as “showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success”.
Give Lennon a bit more credit than that. While Lennon was certainly indulging in a bit of “showing off,” he and his views were a lot more complicated than the Vatican is giving him credit for. For the record, here are Lennon’s remarks, in their entirety, and in context with Maureen Cleave’s interview and article in the March 4, 1966 London Evening Standard:
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first-rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ He is reading extensively about religion.
Once can certainly parse Lennon as much as one wants — and back in 1966, Lennon’s remarks were widely interpreted as enormously sacrilegious, with Lennon daring to displace Jesus with the Beatles at God’s right hand.
But what Lennon was actually trying to do was make a point about Christianity — which, in 1960s England, Lennon viewed as being subverted by the Church of England to the point where its message had been lost. Consequently, English teenagers were choosing the Beatles — or television, or pop culture, or just about anything else — over religion. That, to Lennon, was why Christianity would fade — not because of the Beatles, but because the Church had failed to advance its message. And that — again, to Lennon — was the real problem.
Here’s Lennon trying to explain just that view in a 1966 interview in Los Angeles — and not really making things much better:
Finally, after countless protests in which Beatle records were burned in bonfires (“Hey, they had to buy them to burn them!” Ringo later joked) and the KKK began making gauzy threats, manager Brian Epstein had had enough. After a formal statement of apology failed to cool tempers, the Fabs were finally persuaded to sit before the cameras in Chicago for a hastily-called press conference at which Lennon offered a half-hearted, though Officially Formal Apology:
Once again, however, the press don’t seem to get it, and Lennon — normally quick-witted and articulate to a fault — still couldn’t make his point clear. And obviously, even 40 years later, there was still some confusion from the Vatican as to what Lennon was really saying.
Still, even if it missed the point, I give the Vatican credit for taking notice of the Beatles for their “unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words.” Which rather sounds like the way one would describe a blind date.
All right, I’m outta here. Really.
As I promised yesterday, here’s a rundown of my five favorite biographies. I should probably qualify this by adding the disclaimer “…at this particular moment”, as my list might very well be different, depending on when you ask me. Yeah, I’m a noodge that way.
Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Peter Guralnick)
There’s a moment from the film Pulp Fiction that ended up on the cutting room floor in which Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he’s an Elvis man or a Beatles man. “You might like both,” she tells Vincent, “but you always like one better.” If you’ve been reading this blog even casually, you know I’m a hardcore Beatles fan. But I’m still fascinated by Elvis — especially the post-GI, bad-movie making, white jump-suited, bloated karate Elvis. And that’s why I bypassed completely Last Train to Memphis — the first book in Guralnick’s two-part Elvis bio, which tells the story of Elvis’ meteoric rise — and headed right for the good stuff.
Guralnick tells Elvis’ story in a clear-eyed manner, spinning a story that’s almost Shakespearian in its tragedy. And it quickly gets ugly, as Elvis corrodes into a lazy, strung-out fat kid, distracted by go-carts, badge collecting, and playing cowboys and Indians with his sycophantic Memphis Mafia, all the while derailing his own career, despite an incredibly forgiving fan base. From one oh-my-gosh, no way! moment to another, Guralnick delivers the goods, careening like a barely-controlled jalopy toward the decidedly non-glamorous ending we all know is coming. Look away? Heck no. Cringe-inducing? Heck yes. Awesome.
Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (Robert Caro)
Think the legislative process sounds boring? Think again. Using the crafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to frame the story of Johnson’s Senate years — during which he practically invented modern Senate procedure — Caro makes lawmaking look downright dramatic. Which it is, especially when the stakes are so high.
Johnson doesn’t come across as a hero in the practical sense — he’s a boor, unfaithful to his wife, an opportunist, and, at times, doesn’t appear to have any real core beliefs. Whether it’s speaking to Southern senators with a deep drawl before turning around and talking to New England progressives without a hint of an accent, or kissing the appropriate backsides to secure plum committee assignments and roles in the Senate leadership, Johnson appears to bend his own personality — as well as the personalities of others — to fit his own purposes. But whether you like him or not, he understood politics, and process, like no one else before him (and perhaps better than any since). And once he became committed to a cause, he was a dangerous man to cross; no one could kick your teeth in quicker using parliamentary procedure than Lyndon Johnson. You’ll genuinely cheer when he finally steers the Civil Rights Act to final passage.
Caro ends the book with a cliffhanger, as Johnson angles toward the Vice Presidency — and Caro’s next book will take things from there. Don’t rush things, Caro, but really, hurry up, won’t you?
The Lives of John Lennon (Albert Goldman)
If I had to choose my all-time favorite book — biography or otherwise — this would probably be it. Certainly, the fact that it’s about a Beatle automatically moves it toward the front of the line. But why choose this particular book — which I’ve re-read more times than I can count — when there are so many other Beatle bios out there? Simple: this one’s terrible.
No, really. This is a train wreck. Goldman has a major axe to grind, and over the course of 700-plus pages, he grinds his axe to iron powder. Lennon comes across as a mainly lucky, mostly untalented, naive bisexual musician with serious mother issues. It’s Character Assassination to the Extreme — of Lennon, Yoko Ono, and almost everyone but Paul McCartney — and you’ll find yourself marveling at the body count Goldman leaves behind. Every page contains one cynical, sneering appraisal of Lennon and his work after another, with Goldman trashing Lennon’s motivations and so often rooting for him to fail that it begs the question of “Why in the world would you devote 700 pages and seven years of your life to a subject you obviously can’t stand??”
I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad Goldman did it anyway — because this one is so gawdawful that it’s terrific.
Oscar Wilde (Richard Ellmann)
Richard Ellman won the Pulitzer for his work on Oscar Wilde, and with good reason: it’s not only the definitive look at the Irish poet, playwright, critic, and martyr, but it’s also a ripping good read. Wilde was a movie star in a time before movies, a tabloid staple, and a constant bestseller, and Ellmann makes him — and his work — come alive.
Following Wilde’s rise to literary and theatrical fame, a series of colossally bad decisions lead to his imprisonment and disgrace — another ending we know is coming and want desperately for our subject to avoid. In Ellmann’s capable hands — especially as he traces the poet’s final frustrating years — Wilde emerges not so much a victim of Victorian morals but rather of his own ego and genius. And we’re more than ready to forgive him for it.
John Adams (David McCullough)
Sure, it’s an easy choice — the Citizen Kane of biographies, universally admired, and perpetually in print. But it deserves every word of praise that’s been written about it. And if you say you didn’t enjoy it, you’re just trying to buck the trend, mister.
McCullough originally set out to write a book about the relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but worried (he said later) that Adams might get lost in Jefferson’s shadow. But the more research he did, the more he began to wonder whether Jefferson could truly stand up to Adams — and changed the focus of the book to turn the spotlight solely on the second president.
It was a shrewd decision, and the right one. John Adams — heck, all of McCullough’s work — is not only a great piece of storytelling, it’s a user’s manual for How To Do Biography Right.