Monday, January 7, 2013

"The John Lennon Letters"

I didn't read all of Hunter Davies' The John Lennon Letters, just skimmed it. Going through the many missives that John wrote to various family members and fans struck me as a tedious and repetitive process. I also didn't think I would miss out on much by paying little attention to the doodles, to-do lists and other ephemera that pad the book. In all, I probably read one-eighth of the letters, focusing on those of substance and historical significance, like ones dealing with The Beatles' breakup. It's the approach I'd recommend if you're curious about the book. Some thoughts below.
- Whether it be a love note to Cynthia, a brief fan-mail response or a heated dispatch to Paul (see "the John rant"), the letters convey an essential element of John's personality: he operated at the extremes. When he was affectionate, he didn't skimp on giddy, boyish yearning. When he was goofy, he was an exceptional nutjob. When he was defensive about Yoko, he let no criticism, whether real or imagined, go unmet. In this sense especially, John's letters were an honest reflection of who he was.
- It's tough to read John’s loving words for Julian (“He’s a real living part of me now”) and not think ahead to their sad estrangement. John even mentions how guilty he felt about not always being there for his young son. One wonders to what degree that guilt waxed and waned throughout the remainder of his life.
- Davies points out that John was closer to Ringo than were Paul and George. I wasn’t aware of this. It’s something he attributes to Ringo’s wit and his ordinary, salt-of-the-earth character, both of which John appreciated. In one letter to Ringo, John simply wrote: “Keep off the grass.”
- John to Linda Eastman: “I know The Beatles are ‘quite nice people’ – I’m one of them – they’re also just as big bastards as anyone else – so get off your high horse.” John was quite nasty to Linda in this instance.
- Reading his letter to Huey Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, I almost felt bad for John. From the way he addressed the letter (“Dear Comrade Huey”) to how he halfheartedly noted the political nature of some songs off Some Time in New York City, it's obvious that the radical pose John had adopted was forced and unnatural. Even if his heart was in the right place, he just wasn’t the activist type. Like other movements and practices that he dabbled in, John’s radical chic-ness eventually went by the wayside.
- I didn’t know that John and Yoko stayed in constant contact during his "Lost Weekend." Davies writes, “John and Yoko talked by phone every day, sometimes up to 20 calls.”
- Todd Rundgren on John: “John Lennon ain’t no revolutionary. He’s a fucking idiot.” Come on, Todd, how do you really feel about him?
- John on Mimi: “She still thinks I’m an idiot who got lucky.”
- In one section, Davies tells a fascinating personal story about writing obituaries for each of The Beatles after Brian Epstein died. What a job that must have been.
- Finally, near the end of the book, Davies shows a to-do list that John wrote that includes tasks like calling an HBO cable guy and something about Hertz Rent-a-Car. Seeing familiar brand names like those in connection to John’s daily life was oddly disconcerting. Even though I’ve listened to his music on countless occasions and read so much about him, John is still a distant, mythic figure to me. Knowing that HBO and Hertz occupied his thoughts on that occasion (and presumably others) lessens the gap between John's life and the life of someone like myself. It happens in two ways. First, I think of John as someone belonging to the Sixties and Seventies - decades prior to my birth. But, for me, the HBO tid-bit has the effect of bringing him more into the time-frame of my life and the specifics of my world. That perceived overlap has a weird feeling about it. Second, the items on his to-do list are such ordinary concerns. Even if we’re well aware that our heroes are merely flesh and blood, it can be comforting and rewarding to still hold them on high. When quotidian details like an interest in premium cable puncture that mystique, we feel closer to them, which again doesn't seem quite right.
. . .
For more on the book, go here and here.

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