The John Lennon Letters
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €26.99.
Review: John Carroll
“No one I think is in my tree. I mean it must be high or low. That is you can’t, you know, tune in. But it’s all right. That is I think it’s not too bad.”
John Lennon had a magical way with words, the lyrics (above) of Strawberry Fields Forever conveying his belief that he was either a genius or else belonged in a mental institution.
This is how he felt about himself since he was 12, nobody else was like him, nobody was in his tree.
Many people would agree Lennon was a genius — in just eight years taking in Hamburg, America, Ed Sullivan, LSD, the Maharishi and unbelievable personal baggage — he and the Beatles revolutionised popular music.
Lennon’s lyrics were his strongest asset, pointed and painful, poignant and painting the swinging ’60s supposed backdrop of tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
He claimed to have never held back anything he wrote and put all of his art in the public domain.
What he would make of the recent publication of his private letters is anyone’s guess but they can make for some compelling, but equally cringe-worthy reading.
Overall, they offer nothing wholly new or remarkable. But all is not lost.
Editor Hunter Davies could be accused of scraping the barrel to give us another book on John Lennon. There is no question of Hunter’s love and loyalty for Lennon, he wrote the first official biography of the Beatles with their first-hand co-operation. But these “letters” — a definition stretched to include post-it notes, shopping lists and telegrams — stretch from the marvellous to the mundane.
Just why Davies felt the need to reproduce evidence of what food was in Lennon’s fridge is baffling. It is a disservice to the time and effort he spent travelling to the world’s private collectors and memorabilia auctions to put this book together.
There is tripe — notes for his maids, with demands for kitty litter and laxatives — but if you can wade through the mire there are some beautiful letters.
Fans will be aware of Lennon’s love for the Goon Show, all his letters are dominated by scrawls and spelling puns. They are reproduced in full and annotated by Davies in this sleek-looking book.
In fairness to Hunter, he has done his homework, the book starts off with a letter from a 10-year-old Lennon to his aunt, thanking her for a Christmas gift. It was either politeness or taking the mickey when he says it’s “the best towel I’ve ever seen”.
Early in his music career, Lennon’s letters from Hamburg show a colossal love for his girlfriend back home, Cynthia, writing how he hoped they would be together forever.
He was on the brink of stardom and couldn’t foresee he’d next be in contact with her 12 years later, trying to take their son to the US and signing off with “your famous ex-husband”.
While there are letters to some of the very first Beatles fans, before they even had a record deal, some of the most insightful were sent to his best friend and art college buddy, Stuart Sutcliffe: “I can’t remember anything without a sadness so deep that it hardly becomes known to me, so deep that its tears leave me a spectator of my own stupidity.”
The book is littered with letters to magazines and celebrities of the time, often jokey with freakish cartoons. Other times he is curt and arrogant. He sent back his MBE to Queen Elizabeth, protesting at Britain’s support of the US in the Vietnam war, and also “against (his single) Cold Turkey sliding down the charts.”
The most interesting letter is already known to hard core Beatles fans — his rant at Paul and Linda McCartney, that takes in tax affairs, music, art, public bashing and conceit. “If we’re not cool, WHAT DOES THAT MAKE YOU,” he blasted.
Most surprising was his desire during the last few years of his life to make contact and reconnect with his extended Liverpool family.
This was despite dreading the reaction of his aunt Mimi who raised him. She still believed, Lennon said, that “I got lucky, ie, no talent!”
The isolation he felt since his mother Julia died and father Freddie ran out on him always distressed him. He appeared still desperate for some personal identity 25 years later, reassuring his cousin David, “I’ve never been ‘unapproachable’ ... only my ‘image’, ‘fame’, etc has come between the family and me. It’s unreal, ah well. What the hell ... ”
His real fear of Mimi came from the fact he had earlier re-established contact with his father when Freddie showed up at the height of Beatlemania looking for money. Letters reveal the tentative first steps between the two men at meeting.
Lennon went on to have a love/hate relationship with Freddie but gave financial support to his 54-year-old father whose 18-year-old girlfriend was pregnant.
Lennon had many admirable aspirations even if some, like his wish for world peace, made him sound like a dizzy Miss World contestant.
There is evidence of his dubious sponsorship of political causes, following his move to the US in the early 1970s, and a few nondescript letters relating to his infamous Lost Weekend when he temporarily split from Yoko Ono and went on an 18-month drinking binge with Harry Nilsson.
Towards the end, he simply wished to enjoy a quiet life with Yoko and their son, Seán, with a tragic prediction made to his aunt Leila that he’d live to a ripe old age.
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