'Don't talk to me about Elvis. He's dead. Don't try to sell me on the dreams and myths of these people. Elvis is dead. It's all over. It's unhealthy trying to live through anybody.'
It is fairly embarrassing to find oneself on a bus at the age of thirtysomething, crying over the last chapter of a biography of John Lennon.
For one thing, it really is a bit late in the day. It puts one in mind of the French boy who fired his catapult at the English tourist 'because the English burned Joan'.
'Yes,' remonstrated his father, 'But that was 400 years ago!'
'I know,' said the boy, 'But I only heard about it this morning.'
John Lennon died rather less than 400 years ago, but my memories of him are not a great deal more vivid. I spent the Summer of Love making sand castles on Perranporth Beach. I knew that the 70s were going to be a drag when Miss Ward told me off for not drinking all my milk. Vietnam made me angry since news items about it used to interrupt Osmonds records on Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart's Junior Choice. My first exposure to the Beatles themselves came in Miss Harding's class. I was part of the Chorus of Lost Boys in her end-of-term production of Peter Pan, which involved walking on to the stage in our pyjamas singing that well known Lennon-McCartney track: 'We all live in the never-never land, never-never land, never-never land.' My theatrical career never really recovered.
Possibly scarred by this experience, I managed to pass through my teenaged years without the slightest interest in pop music of any kind. I once attended a fifth form disco, and if pressed, could probably remember the lyrics of Don't You Want Me Baby. I seem to recall thinking that Boney M were 'quite good'. And, come to think of it, I did win second prize in the Butlins junior disc-jockey of the week competition at Clacton, selecting Save Your Kisses For Me as my favourite record of all time. I think I got through on novelty value: all the other entrants were female, and all of them chose as their favourite something called Fernando which may or may not have been by Abba. By the time everybody else was pretending to like Punk, I had decided that the only music I was interested in was opera. What passed for my 'record collection' were boxed sets of the Ring cycle.
But now, at the age of 32, I find myself buying every book I can about the Beatles, and trying to collect every record that John Lennon ever recorded and boring my friends silly about whether Penny Lane is more drug induced than Strawberry Fields. And I'm frankly as embarrassed about it as they are. I mean, a dead hippie, for goodness sake. If I'd suddenly developed an enthusiasm for Frank Sinartra, I could have passed it off as endearingly eccentric.
Quite apart from the carelessness of catching Beatlemania thirty four years after the rest of the human race, I'm also faintly disgusted with myself for indulging in this sort of rent-a-blub sorrow. I didn't pick the book up under the impression that the 57 year-old Lennon was alive and well and expecting his knighthood at any moment, did I? There is something mawkishly masochistic about pre-meditated weeping over the imaginary corpses of dead strangers. The Graceland Elvis cultists shed a lot of tears each year on the anniversary of the Annointed's great self-destruction, but they enjoy every minute of it. It's Lassie Come Home grief: nothing whatsoever to do with the guy who sang the songs with the catchy tunes.
One can try to salvage the situation by saying that one is not indulging in sentimentality, but expressing real grief at the awfulness of an event which really happened. This was the line I tried to take when (several weeks ago) I first became a serious student of Lennonism. His death is one of those events which is simply too awful to contemplate. We aren't talking here about a fat man having a heart attack or a woman obsessed by suicide finally sticking her head in a gas oven: sad stories but stories which had only one possible ending. Nothing in Lennon's life makes us expect the story to end this way. Lennon had spent two decades on drugs, Buddhism, alcoholism, Primal Scream therapy and songs about walruses. So we genuinely can't bear to think about the fact that he dropped dead at a point when he seemed finally to have got his head together. Ray Coleman, author of the blub-inducing biography, tells us that Lennon died at the very moment of his artistic maturity. If we choose to believe that his final album was 'mature' (rather, than say, 'burnt out' or 'smug') and that it was a sign of things to come then this might be true. But it is a truth that only a reader or writer of biographies could believe. I couldn't describe with nearly so much confidence the pattern of my own life, which, arguably, I know more about.
If you prefer a different pattern, you could always emphasise Lennon's 'last' interview in which he remarked, 'What's the point in being a peace campaigner if you get shot?' That allows you to turn his death into a Kennedy-like martyrdom, symbolic of all the usual abstractions. (There are people prepared to prove that Chapman was a patsy for the C.I.A, if that would make you feel better.) But then, if he'd died six months earlier, the "Goodbye!" at the end of the Rock n Roll album would have seemed just as significant.
You can't explain someone's life in a biography, not even a hardback one. A dead person leaves behind fragments of their life: an interview, a song, a couple of wives, a few million people prepared to swear that they went to school with them. The biographer lays them out on the floor and moves them around and eventually finds a shape which he likes. That shape is inevitably a fiction, though not necessarily a lie. Some of the Lennons who lodge in our heads never claimed to be anything other than fictions —the stage-persona of Hard Days Night; the already politicised angry young man in Backbeat, the maybe-gay cod-philosopher of the ridiculous The Hours and the Times. (Has anyone ever used 'Would you rather be remembered as kind or just?' as a chat up line.) Never having known the real thing, these fictional Johns are the only ones which we can related to. Or we create our fictions out of the raw materials of the records, poems and interviews. The most enthusiastic creator of fictional Johns was, of course, Lennon himself.
One could probably make a party game, or maybe a PhD thesis, out of discussing which of Lennon's lyrics are autobiographical, and to what degree. You could start with 'Love, love me do, you know I love you' and end up at 'I wish you here right now dear Yoko'. This would prove that he started his career on a completely impersonal love song and ended it on a completely personal one; depending on what you mean by 'career' and 'personal'. On the way, you could argue about whether the singer of 'You've got to hide your love away' was a closet homosexual, and whether it is a vicious slur to suggest that the man who said 'I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved' was at one time guilty of domestic abuse.
I think all of John's songs were about John—but this is not the same as saying, (as one of the Lennon webpages does), that his music amounts to an aural autobiography; or (as Ray Coleman does) that Walls and Bridges is 'an open letter to the absent Yoko.' Complete authenticity in art isn't possible: one is always playing a role. When one watches the movie Imagine: John Lennon it is easy to forget that all those wonderful domestic scenes which we eavesdrop on—the breakfast, the meeting with the crazy fan, the honestly no-kidding first demo of Imagine—were actually being filmed by some sort of camera-man. And surely, even if you are John Lennon, when a camera is pointing at you, you perform. Does this mean that home-movies and confessional diaries are 'staged', or that the whole of life is a performance? What does authenticity mean for a man who sang 'I'm a loser...and I'm not what I appear to be'?
The Beatles started out singing other peoples rock-and-roll songs; they rapidly began to write songs about their own experiences—that is, the experience of being singers and song-writers. They then start singing about their own emotional and spiritual states. By the time of the White Album, they have arguably stopped performing altogether, and merely allow us to eavesdrop on their jamming sessions. It's as if these people thought and spoke and communicated in music, so that by listening to their mellow doodling, we can hear their actual thoughts. When Lennon murmurs—we can hardly call it singing—'Julia, seashell eyes, windy skies, Ocean Child calls me' all Lennonologists agree that he is addressing his dead mother and asking permission to love Yoko. (Singer's absent mother = Julia Lennon; Ocean Child = Yoko Ono in Japenese; allegedly.) Ian MacDonald calls the song a ritual invocation of an ancestral spirit, too personal for public consumption. But Lennon intended it for public consumption; at any rate, allowed the public to consume it. The first song on the directly post-Beatles Plastic Ono Band album is also about his mother; he appears (appears being the operative word) to experience an hysterical emotional trauma in the recording studio. Its one of the most powerful, expressive, communicative works of art I know. But I don't know whether I would call it music.
It's no very great discovery that artists use their own experience in their work. Paul McCartney was capable of being just as autobiographical as Lennon—indeed, he could be more specific about love and Liverpool. He also wrote better tunes, and was, by all accounts, a nicer man. (Let it Be even exhibits a kind of mother complex, turned into a hymn rather than ancestor worship. 'McCartney's mother comes unexpectedly and talks gently to him. Lennon screams for his mother and gets no answer.' Discuss.) I would happily say that as a piece of music, Blackbird outstrips anything Lennon, or indeed anybody else, ever wrote. Yet who, besides some screaming middle aged schoolgirls ('a pretty face may last a year or two') ever gave a damn about Paul McCartney as person?
The very greatest artists are impersonal figures; their works are artifices, detached from themselves. They don't want to tell you about how they feel: they want to tell you about this piece of marble or this canvass or the nature of the English language. We don't feel that we know them, however much we may admire them. There is no writer who I admire more than Virginia Woolf. But I cannot imagine myself crying because the silly old cow jumped in a river.
But there is another sort of writer, maybe less great, whose personality seems to be present in their work. The accuracy or otherwise of the biographical picture of themselves which they present is not really the issue. It is the process of confession, of unmasking, of using art as a medium to simply be themselves which gives us the illusion that we have had contact with them. In Lennon's case, there is something in his voice—total sincerity; with just a hint of irony, just a hint that you and he are the ones who are in the joke—which makes us think that he is talking directly to us. Or perhaps more accurately, that he is talking to himself and allowing us (and us alone) to listen in.
Once we have said 'He was talking directly to me', we are done for. We've taken a fictitious person, and pretended that we have a relationship with them. We start to read biographies to confirm, or to elaborate, or possibly to smash down the icon we have built up. We struggle to read every word they every wrote, however second rate, because it enables us to understand, to possess, to appreciate, the person. I am relieved that someone has re-issued the Two Virgins album, since this is a crucial event in John's life, the thing that was produced the first time he and Yoko spent a night together. The fact that I have never heard a single person saying that it is worth listening to as a piece of 'music' is not going to stop me shelling £16.99. I suspect the impact of the famous nude cover is rather spoilt when reproduced on a CD. We feel slightly proprietorial towards them: as if the fact that they have touched us in various ways means that they owe us something. We feel that acquiring books and memorabilia will capture and perpetuate and validate our experience of them.
And in the more extreme cases, we murder them.
Being shot in the back by a mad American is not that big a deal. It happens to hundreds of people every year. People walk in front of buses and collapse with brain haemorrhages every day of the week. Screaming about it won't help.
'He went out,' said George Harrison, 'In such a stoopid way.'
According to Yoko, when Sean Lennon—then a preternaturally articulate toddler—heard the news, he said: 'Daddy is a part of God now.' Given that God was at the top of the list of things that John Lennon didn't believe in, this is a little ironic. It might please him better if we all stood up and chanted 'I don't believe in Lennon.'
Or, failing that: 'John Lennon is a concept by which we measure our pain.'