YOUR PARENTS can probably tell you precisely where they were and what they were doing when the news of John Kennedy's as assignation reached them. The murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King strike a similar chord. These men had a particular quality that made them a part--however intangible--of people's lives Perhaps it came from shared causes and ideas, or simply grew out of the cult of personality. Regardless, their tragic deaths were greeted with the kind of heartfelt grief usually reserved for the loss of a family member.
There are those who find it absurd to put John Lennon in the august company of the Kennedy and King. The man was, after all, a rock star with long hair, into drugs, who once posed naked for an album cover and painted yellow flowers on his Rolls Royce. How easy it is to forget the impact Lennon and his Beatles cohorts had on popular and also avant-garden culture, an impact that transcended nations and people. When Lennon claimed in the mid-1960's that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus," he wasn't boasting: it was the truth.
For the Beatles did more than simply legitimize rock and create some of the most original and enduring music of this century. They helped set the political, social and cultural trends for an entire generation. True, it wasn't always color whether the Beatles acted or reacted, whether they made the vogue or followed it. But they certainly served as an accurate weathervane for the '60s: you could watch the lads from Liverpool and tell which way the wind was blowing.
WHEN LENNON was shot two years ago in December, a significant chunk of the world, briefly united, mourned. The dream, as Lennon himself had sung all the way back in 1970, was irretrievably over. There would be no more Beatles, no more '60s and no more youth for a generation that shook Western society, and then, unsure what to do next, drifted slowly into complacency. And there would be no joy or provocation from a man who had finally come out of seclusion to face a new decade.
Lennon's death brought the predictable slew of tributes. In American, tragedy usually also means profit, and manuscript after manuscripts chronicling the Beatle legend found its way into print. Most, hastily written, were garbage. Thankfully, the editors of the authorities rock magazine Rolling Stone took their time and only recently released a collection of interviews with and essays on the most controversial Beatles. The Ballad of John and Yoko is a captivating work, at once passionate and thought out, loving and objective. And it features some of the best writing on rock to be found anywhere.
To their credit, the editors recognize and emphasize the influence on Lennon of his second wife, Yoko Ono. Most Beatles fans, convinced Ono spurred the group's split, resented and even hated her. And they found her music--often comprised of screams, bizarre sounds and unconventional rhythms--impossible to digest. But all Ono did was make Lennon realize he couldn't be a Beatles forever and gradually save him from an environment of drugs and depravation.
In the essays and particularly some of the interviews, Lennon's devotion to his spouse rings true. And in the passages devoted exclusively to One, we gain insights into the genius and creativity that attracted Lennon to her in the first place.
MOST OF THE WORK, though, centers rightly around Lennon. The reader follows his progress from the beginning of the end of the Beatles to the release of Double Fantasy in 1980 and his death shortly thereafter. In between are fascinating accounts of Lennon as peace activist, of his light to remain in the U.S. and of his five-year hiatus as a "househusband."
Throughout, one theme keeps coming back--the idea that Lennon was constantly risking something by staunchly sticking with even the most unpopular and outlandish convictions. As Jann Wenner writes.
How John finally became John Lennon was crucible whose
enormity must be remembered a beloved hero leaves wife and
child, and openly admits adultery, as a lover he takes a foreigner
He then turns his back on all financial rules and commandments
by leaving the Beatles. He stirs the anger of the world which
cherished the Beatles, taking on its disappointment, its hatted
its need to strike back. I cannot think of an individual or a pair
of individual who in our times risked so much
At first, this assertion is a little hard to swallow Lennon had the world at his fingertips, he was rich, could go any where, do anything But Lennon, like Elvis before him was averitable prisoner of fame. His was a constant struggle to find reality in the distorted, take environment in which he lived. On the one hand were the insatiable expectations of fans who thought they owned him, on the other all the trappings of the elite--the women, the booze, the drugs, Lennon, being only human, succumbed to the latter as often as not. And when he finally rebelled and did what he wanted to do, he had the former to take on.
As a peace activist who held sleep-ins with his wife in hotel bedrooms, Lennon repeatedly risked the scorn of the press and fans. As a househusband who stayed at home for five years to take care of his son, he invited the ridicule and contempt of those who wanted him to continue recording. And as a comeback artist who let his unpopular wife Yoko contribute half the songs to a new album, he braved the possibility of rejection.
Through first-hand testimony and accounts of those who knew him well, The Ballad of John and Yoko admirably describes Lennon's battle. All the bitterness of the Beatles break-up pours from the "Lennon Remembers" interview. Cheat Flippo provides voyeurs with a delightful inside look at Lennon in "retirement." And Robert Christian enthralls with his inimitable analysis of Lennon's songs.
AND OF COURSE, the work, like any of its genre, offers bits of information and anecdotes throughout--like the key role Storm Thurmond played in trying to deny Lennon a green card. Or the organizational chaos that plagued the ill-fated Toronto Peace Festival, and what went on behind the scenes during Beatles recording sessions.
But ultimately, what makes The Battle of John and Yoko so appealing is the detailed portrait it paints of one of the most celebrated--and complicated--characters of our time. Because so many writers sketch Lennon from so many angles, you get a feeling of completeness and accuracy rare in most biographies of popular artists. Rolling Stone writers saw Lennon the musician, the radical and the husband/father. Lennon the film maker, the thinker and the Beatles. Their visions add up to present a man who created without compromise, without abandoning his convictions. The portrait shows how tragic it is that Lennon died before his time with so much more left to give. But he has willed to us all the legacy of his art. That will have to be enough.