It’s no secret to my family and friends that I possess slightly more than a passing interest in the Beatles, to include their history, their influence on popular culture, what inspired them, and the occasional darkness that fed their collective genius.
However, this decades-long quest has also revealed some uncomfortable truths about them. Shouldn’t surprise me; everyone has their unlovely side. But John Lennon’s was of such an unappealing variety (to me, anyway), I have trouble reconciling my scream-till-I’m-hoarse, gaga teenage dreamy picture of him with the man he actually was. Unfair of me, really.
Quite possibly the most compendious — and most difficult to prosaically read — of any Lennon book I’ve read has to be the latest from Philip Norman: John Lennon: The Life.
[This was one of the best pictures ever taken of him. Home run on the cover, Phil.]
I’m about two-thirds through the book. It’s a fascinating, yet difficult, read. Very heavy, stodgy British writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a different way of telling a tale and I’ve had to get accustomed to it. The double edge lies in the recounting of the ease with which Lennon dealt out cruelty to the people who loved him the most: his wife Cynthia, his son Julian, his manager (and secret admirer) Brian Epstein, and his close friends.
He could be at one moment compassionate, giving and kind, and at another, unmercifully vicious. He often berated his closest friends, insulting and humiliating them in public. Epstein was the recipient of many of Lennon’s one-line zingers, and he habitually absorbed them with silence and compliance. When Brian made a rare suggestion in the studio one day, John snapped back at the crowded control room with, “We’ll handle the music, Brian. You just worry about your 10 percent.” He incessantly and openly mocked Epstein for being a Jew and a homosexual.
Explosive and reactionary, he was heard to tell 5-year-old Julian, “No, I’m not going to fix your f*****g bicycle!”
He also had a bizarre need to make fun of the physically and mentally handicapped. Old TV footage bears this out. I have often seen him on film, pretending to be crippled or making faces that suggest he is a palsy victim. I have countless pictures in scads of books that show it as well. Bizarre. Traceable in cause and nature, but still bizarre.
The man was human. I’m not indicting him for being a) an insecure artist, b) something other than an angel, or c) a product of his environment and upbringing, which we all are. I’m not indicting him at all, actually. I’m just stewing in my kettle of realization that our idols put on their socks the same way we do. And that we’re all paradoxical in our own fashion. It’s all good.