New books about John Lennon on the anniversary of his death
The world was always going to treat the death of a Beatle as something momentous. But John Lennon’s death was a shock. There was his age, of course; he was just two months past his 40th birthday. There was the irony of his recent comeback single, entitled “(Just Like) Starting Over.” But it was the manner of his death that hurt the most. Mark David Chapman murdered Lennon, gunned him down outside the Dakota Apartments where he lived, on December 8, 1980.
Which has complicated the issue of how to honor his memory. People can speak more openly about a death by illness, accident, or even substance abuse (though the latter does prompt its share of moralizing). Added to this, Lennon’s birth on October 9, 1940, was also in a year ending in a multiple of five. Meaning that the “big” anniversary years for those events—the 10th, the 25th, the 30th—come months apart. So this year marks the 80th anniversary of Lennon’s birth, and the 40th anniversary of his death. How do you capitalize on the marketing opportunities without seeming crass and exploitative?
Fears of being as exploitative meant it took two years before anyone released the first Lennon compilation (1982’s The John Lennon Collection), something hard to imagine happening today. Since then, the Lennon estate has made a point of tying its reissues to his birth anniversary, as with the release of Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes this past October. They scheduled a reissue of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band for release this month, but it was a tie in to the anniversary of the album’s original release date in December 1970. They pushed that release back to next year, though the related book, John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band (Weldon Owen), a beautifully illustrated look at Lennon’s first major solo album, still came out in November.
The complete songs
Paul Du Noyer’s The Complete John Lennon Songs (Weldon Owen) sticks firmly to Lennon’s songwriting legacy. Initially published in 1997 as We All Shine On: The Stories Behind Every John Lennon song, Du Noyer has expanded the new edition to include lyrics as well as the stories of a song’s creation. It’s a handsome, well-illustrated book, matched by Du Noyer’s careful, considered prose.
There’s also a welcome reissue of the interview Lennon and his wife did with David Sheff for Playboy magazine; All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono (St. Martin’s Griffin). The couple gave a number of interviews to promote their latest album, Double Fantasy, but none were as extensive as Sheff’s, who spent weeks with the couple. No subject was off limits, and to the delight of Beatles fans, Lennon went through most of the Beatles’ catalogue, identifying who wrote what. Lennon was excited about the interview’s depth, enthusing to Sheff at one point, “This will be the reference book.” Lennon comes across as an engaging, open man at peace with himself, in stark contrast to the blistering interview he’d given to Rolling Stone a decade earlier (also later published in a book, Lennon Remembers).
The last years
Two other recent books look at Lennon’s most enigmatic period, the last five years of his life. In the wake of reconciling with Ono after a separation, the birth of his second child, and winning his fight with immigration to remain in the US, Lennon took a break from music, free from any contractual obligations for the first time in years. There are varying accounts of what life was like after that. In the official version, Lennon found a new serenity in being a househusband, baking bread and attending to his son, Sean; “Because bread and babies, as every housewife knows, is a full-time job,” he told Sheff. Conversely, in the memoirs of former employees or books by iconoclasts like Albert Goldman, he’s described as a shadow of his former self, hiding away from the world in his room in the Dakota, fearful that he had lost his muse.
Kenneth Womack carefully picks through this minefield in John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life (Omnibus). He avoids more controversial areas, like Lennon’s purported physical state of health; the rumor was that he’d dieted so heavily he became anorexic. But Lennon does come across as something of a lost soul, adrift with no real purpose. It’s sad to read about him sitting down to compose a song, turn out a few half-finished demos, then quit out of boredom.
Womack has an earnest writing style that sometimes becomes overburdened with excessive detail and fanciful descriptions, like the publication of a magazine with a story on Lennon as “alighting [on] newsstands the world over.” Though there’s one detail that’s obvious by its omission; the name of Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman.
This isn’t an unusual stance in Beatledom. The fan magazine Beatlefan forbids mention of Chapman’s name, and several Beatles/Lennon facebook groups also ban it. One of the arguments for doing so is that naming the killer only draws more attention to him. It’s perhaps also indicative of how deeply the pain of Lennon’s murder still cuts. And that’s fine in a fan forum. But it’s a curious omission in a book that purports to offer a serious look at Lennon’s life. By being vague on the specifics—Womack chooses to quote nearby residents who heard the gunfire and watched a wounded man being placed in a patrol car—the leaves the reader to wonder what really happened (did Lennon die in a random mugging?).
A Lennon take from James Patterson
Other authors have taken the same tack; you won’t find Chapman’s name mentioned in Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth the Music—The Definitive Life. But simply describing the facts of Lennon’s death doesn’t have to be exploitational. Du Noyer’s book covers the incident straight-forwardly, summing the matter up in six sentences. James Patterson vaults in the other direction, placing Chapman front and center in The Last Days of John Lennon (Little, Brown; Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge are also credited as co-writers), recasting the incident as a modern-day thriller.
We first see Chapman introducing himself to a cab driver at the end of chapter one, in a moment fraught with foreboding: “I’m Mark Chapman. Remember my name if you hear it again.” It’s not a bad dramatic set up. And had the story followed the brief of its title, truly delving into those last days, this book might have had something new to offer.
Instead, Patterson chooses to go back to the beginning, trawling through Lennon’s entire life story to no real purpose. His promo blurb for the book, pinned to his Facebook page, promises “the untold love story of John and Yoko,” one that’s “full of the kind of twists and turns the storyteller in me couldn’t resist sharing with you. I don’t think you’ll be able to put this book down.” Well, you’ll find it “untold” if you’ve never read any other books about Lennon. But otherwise, it’s a terribly generic, by-the-numbers recitation of the very familiar story, with little discernable new information.
Some commenters on Patterson’s facebook page objected to his writing about Chapman: “With all respect but why should we give that speck of dirt any notice, let alone let his name be said out loud?” “I could care less what motivated this SOB to do what he did. The sooner he rots away, the better.” But truth is, the public hungers for such stories. There are numerous books on other high-profile killers, from Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy. Why wouldn’t an author consider Chapman a worthy subject for a book?
But in Patterson’s tale, his depiction of Chapman is just as one dimensional as that of Lennon. Chapman is little more than a cardboard cutout, lurking in the background as Patterson drops in his movements from December 6 to December 8 at intervals throughout the main narrative of Lennon’s life. It’s a character study that offers no insight, because it never takes more than a surface look at its story, streamlining the historic event into the kind of slick, pre-packaged entertainment that makes no demands of its consumers.
“I have not been able to work out John’s death. I will never understand it,” Sheff writes in the introduction to All We Are Saying. Lennon’s murder was a devastating conclusion to his extraordinary life. It also canonized him. Prior to his death, Double Fantasy had received mixed reviews; in the Washington Post’s scathing assessment, “$8.98 for a flaccid look at a family scrapbook is too much to ask.” But after December 8, 1980, as his songwriting partner Paul McCartney observed, “he’s become Martin Luther Lennon.”
And as McCartney went on to say, “But that wasn’t him either. He wasn’t some sort of holy saint. He was still really a debunker.” Neither fully a saint or a sinner, John Lennon was a talented, complicated man whose death only added to his legend. Working out what that legend means will keep authors busy for years to come.