John Lennon was.
John Lennon was, perhaps inevitably, a complex and contradictory collection of adjectives that could never fully describe him and what he meant to the world. And in the end, all of us are just lucky that, for 40 years, John Lennon was.
Murdered 40 years ago this week, on Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon would have turned 80 this year. New Beatles books are always arriving (2020′s highlights were Ken McNab’s “And In the End” and Craig Brown’s “150 Glimpses of the Beatles”) but these anniversaries have inspired five books devoted just to John. (Two more arrive fashionably late next spring: Peter Doggett’s “Prisoner of Love: Inside The Dakota With John Lennon” and John Kruth’s “Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band 50 Years On.”)
Of the five, only one — with James Patterson’s name slapped on the cover — reads like a money-grabbing misfire. While Kenneth Womack’s “John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life” is the standout, to varying degrees four are worth reading. As a group, you might say, they passed the audition.
“The Last Days of John Lennon,” by James Patterson, with Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge
Patterson’s brand is violent crime, so he and his collaborators start the book inside the mind of killer Mark David Chapman as he journeys to New York. This tasteless tactic is exacerbated by the rest of the book, starting with the bait-and-switch title. The book recaps the Beatles story in short, punchy sentences in short, punchy chapters. It often strikes false-sounding notes when presuming to be inside the minds of the Fab Four, but it might have passed as a CliffsNotes biography were it not for the cross-cutting to Chapman’s thoughts and actions as he closes in on his date with infamy.
The vast majority of the book is focused on the Beatles; Lennon’s last years and days feel tacked on near the end, as the authors’ crime-thriller instincts commandeer the final 30 pages. The focus on the murder and its aftermath shoves aside Lennon, his life, and his legacy.
“John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Year Canada Was Cool,” by Greg Marquis
This book dives deeply into Lennon and Ono’s three historic visits to Canada in 1969 when Lennon was being denied entry to the United States.
These trips yielded the Montreal bed-in that produced Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” anthem; an impulsive concert appearance for the newly formed Plastic Ono Band, which helped Lennon imagine life outside the Beatles; and the couple’s “War is Over (If You Want It)” campaign.
Lennon’s efforts to use the media circus to influence a warrior- and capitalist-driven culture is fascinating — he argues for using establishment tools to effect change, suggesting ad campaigns to plug the notion of peace. Marquis does call the rocker out for his more naive or half-baked ideas, like suggesting that American protesters simply move to Canada.
But with all the great John and Yoko material this is only a must-read for diehard fans of . . . Canada.
Marquis devotes pages and pages to Canada’s history and sociopolitical context. Our neighbors to the north may delight in this background, but American readers may want to skim, then skim some more.
“All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon,” by David Sheff
Beyond a brief introduction and a briefer epilogue, this book is essentially a repeat of Sheff’s interview with Lennon and Ono for Playboy, done in September 1980. (Despite the book’s title, Lennon actually gave other major interviews after this one, but we’re quibbling.) This is one book where you hear Lennon unfiltered. His voice remains vivid and vibrant, even when he’s myth-making: the bread-baking house husband narrative he describes neglects his genuine bouts of lethargy and depression and concerns about his diminished creative urge, and even his comments on the Beatles are distorted.
Asked about a Beatles reunion, he gives a classic Lennon rant, reading in part: “Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to get crucified again? Do we have to do the walking on water again because a whole pile of dummies didn’t see it the first time or didn’t believe it when they saw it? . . . No way! You can’t do things twice.”
Riveting reading but Lennon isn’t giving us the unvarnished truth. Womack’s book (below) reports that two months later, in a sworn statement for a lawsuit, Lennon declared, “I and the other three former Beatles have plans to stage a reunion concert.”
That was 11 days before his murder.
“The Search for John Lennon” by Lesley-Ann Jones
Jones is the most Lennon-esque writer of this group. Her deep psychological exploration of the legend’s life is literary, even lyrical, from the very first lines. “The rhythms of mind and memory are like tides. They change shape constantly. Even those who were there, who knew and experienced John Lennon first-hand, can be inclined to forget things.”
She’s occasionally overwrought in her language or psychoanalyzing, but she’s more often astute. She also offers oft-overlooked details and insights about, for instance, how Lennon could be swayed, almost conned by people. She recounts how Lennon let his off-kilter electronics guru, Magic Alex, sabotage the Beatles’ relationship with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and she delves into how Lennon’s experiences with Arthur Janov and primal scream therapy demolished the relationship Lennon had resurrected with his father, Freddie. (Lennon apologized shortly before Freddie’s death.)
Her long reporting career also yields caches of gold — she utilizes old interviews she’d done with the late Cynthia Lennon (John’s first wife), and Jones’s dirt on Lennon’s brief fling with David Bowie comes from Bowie himself.
Jones defends Ono from racist and misogynistic critics yet gives sources room to recall how selfish and controlling she could be; Jones takes Ono to task not for breaking up the Beatles but for destroying Lennon’s relationship with his older son, Julian, for which she also holds Lennon responsible. (She credits his mid-’70s lover, May Pang, for helping to repair that bond.)
The book rushes through Lennon’s final years, which makes it an ideal companion to Womack’s book . . .
“John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life,” by Kenneth Womack
. . . Which skips the Beatles and Plastic Ono Band backstory and instead captures Lennon’s life from the mid-’70s on. We see Lennon and Pang planning to visit Paul McCartney in New Orleans while the latter recorded “Venus and Mars” (Lennon’s return to Ono derailed that reunion), the birth of his son Sean, his struggles to write a musical and a book about his life, and his ongoing relationship with Pang.
The book describes Lennon’s mundane daily life (including his reading list and TV habits) and his creative process as he works and reworks song fragments. We see Lennon’s enthusiastic response to hearing McCartney’s “Coming Up” in the car and how it pushed him to return to songwriting. Womack also recounts Lennon’s flare-ups of jealousy and anger toward McCartney as well as his empathy after McCartney was arrested in Japan on drug charges.
Then Womack takes us on the 1980 sailing trip to Bermuda, where Lennon had to take the wheel during a storm to save the boat and his life, which rejuvenated his spirit and inspired the creative outburst that produced “Double Fantasy” and “Milk and Honey.”
Womack’s accretion of fact builds an organic narrative momentum. As Lennon returns to the recording studio, you can’t help but feel joy for how content and centered he finally seems, even as the plans for a 1981 tour that won’t ever happen fill you with dread and sadness. So many of Lennon’s final conversations seem eerie and poignant in retrospect. Womack’s book brings you right back to 1980, to the days before Dec. 8, when Lennon was celebrating his return, and the days after when the world was mourning his loss.