Heroin and the Beatles’ Breakup

Finally, someone outside of Dullblog (in fact, George Martin’s biographer, in Salon) says what I’ve been thinking for years: heroin broke up the Beatles. Kenneth Womack does a good job of digging into quotes from McCartney, Barry Miles, and John and Yoko about the Lennons’ heroin habit to show how the Beatles’ delicate balance didn’t just tip, but fracture, in 1969. This quote, to me, is particularly telling:

Indeed, by this juncture, Lennon’s mood swings and absenteeism—the ups and downs of his erratic, unpredictable behavior—were likely the result of their protracted heroin use. As music historian Barry Miles later wrote, “The other Beatles had to walk on eggshells just to avoid one of his explosive rages. Whereas in the old days they could have tackled him about the strain that Yoko’s presence put on recording and had an old-fashioned set-to about it, now it was impossible because John was in such an unpredictable state and so obviously in pain.”

“Shooting is exercise”: Beatle John’s low point

I defy you to find me a significant event that had only one cause, and the Beatles’ breakup is no exception. But equally often, there’s one particular cause that makes the outcome particularly unavoidable. I submit that, in the Beatles’ case, it was heroin, for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it cemented and darkened the distance between John and the other three that opened when Yoko entered the picture. He had Detox insurance and he made no use of it; he was never able to identify that his substance abuse was a huge problem. It’s possible John may have, deliberately or not, purposefully used the drug to do that—to take him to a place that Paul, George, and Ringo wouldn’t follow, to passive-aggressively glory in an anaesthetized cocoon with his new partner. But heroin is not the kind of drug one controls for long, and by late 1968, it seems, smack was using John, not the other way around. The consequences were swift and disastrous.

All of Lennon’s justifications for his bad attitude and lack of contributions to the group’s 1969 projects—I was fed up with being Paul’s sideman, I was an artist, Paul had the nerve to write a bunch of good songs on his timeline and then railroad us into the studio—don’t account for two things: why John’s muse seemed to disappear for almost the entirety of 1969 (“The Ballad of John and Yoko” and “Come Together” are not the work of an artist at the top of his game), and why meeting the love of his life seemed to turn him into an angrier, more unhappy, and more visibly unhealthy-looking person. Heroin addiction explains those things. Unlike comparatively mild substances like pot, or ones that take their toll over decades of abuse, like alcohol, heroin’s form of oblivion seems to have brought an anvil down on John Lennon’s creative mechanism. And Miles’ quote makes clear that the physical and psychological side-effects of junkiedom walled John off from the others in a way that I don’t think even Yoko alone could have done.

One thing the Stones were better at than the Beatles: junkie aesthetic

To end the Beatles, the mind-meld, the four-headed monster responsible for their magic, had to be destroyed. Drugs could do that: there are signs it was in danger of happening in 1966, when Lennon and Harrison had taken LSD together, but Paul hadn’t. Paul stormed out of the “She Said She Said” recording session; it was three-against-McCartney as to whether or not to keep touring. But Paul turned on, and there was another burst of unity and apparent enthusiasm (no matter what John said later) to create Pepper. Heroin, though, was different. The drug’s stultifying, antisocial nature (and its propensity to cause dramatic mood swings, which must have been terrible in someone not known for his easy-going, stable personality) cut John off of the electrical grid he had shared with Paul, George, and Ringo, and re-wired him to one shared only with Yoko. Whether someone—John, Yoko, or both— deliberately employed the drug to achieve that effect, or whether it was an unintended side-effect, is worth exploring to understand why John ended up in that place, but it’s ultimately immaterial to understanding what happened next. Once John was sharing (painful, isolating) experiences that nobody else would understand with Yoko, not P/G/R, the writing was on the wall; once he was addicted to the substance, it seems impossible to avert the destruction that would follow without outside intervention that didn’t happen. The only way it might have been different is if the other three Beatles had joined him. (Which, dear God, I can’t imagine the Beatles recording their own Exile on Main Street, can you? The Beatles’ ability to tap and express pure joy was a terrible terrible match with opioids.)

George and Yoko are the only ones telling the truth here.

There’s another question here, too: why has it taken 50 years for this theory to get traction in any sources other than Peter Brown (who flatly says that heroin was the single factor most responsible for the Beatles’ breakup) and kind of Albert Goldman? I think it makes people too uncomfortable and sad to contemplate that the Beatles ended because of drugs, just like every other rock group, and I think most people can’t handle the image of John being a pathetic (rather than tragic) figure. John certainly couldn’t, which is why he spent the rest of his life assiduously making sure it seemed like he dabbled in heroin, never injecting, for only a few months before kicking it for good in August 1969. The power of wanting to believe, and respect for his memory, I think, kept people from digging under too many rocks; the Estate made it equally clear that those who did ask such questions were not going to get the access or support they required.

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  1. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    I think heroin was a symptom not the root cause.

    There’s a few reasons for this:

    First, Lennon and McCartney were ultimately very different personalities with very different priorities, and as they grew up and out of their boyhood gang, those different arcs simply had to go their separate ways. (Their differences, of course, are partly why they were such a potent songwriting team and musical partnership in general.) And by the time of the break-up, they had long written the bulk of their songs separately. John was more an activist, rankler, trickster, messiah, philosopher who happened to be a musical genius too. Paul was pure music, and happy to be a regular guy outside of that music.

    Second, heroin needn’t necessarily lead to addiction. Studies show heroin is not addictive when someone “has a life.” In other words, heroin becomes addictive when there is some hole of meaning or satisfaction. I think Lennon had many demons and as he realized he couldn’t be happy as a Beatle his whole life, he felt lost and angry. He thought Yoko and heroin could fill the hole. No such luck.

    Last, look at Keith Richards. He was hooked for years but remained the musical heart of the Rolling Stones. During the Exile recordings, the band had to wait for him to come out of the bathroom or the bedroom or wherever to start recording because he led the sessions. And he was relentlessly meticulous about getting the right parts. Richards was a junkie but he also cared about the Stones. He wrote and played a lot of good stuff while addicted.

  2. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    This seems to be a heroin interview. They had to pause the filming at 16:26 minutes in so he could vomit.

  3. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    Excellent piece, Michael.

    I think the boomers are the ones who have resisted knowing the unvarnished truth of John Lennon. They were the ones who grew up with The Beatles, and had an emotional investment in them. Plus, Rolling Stone being the dominant music magazine of the times, not printing anything negative about Lennon, especially after his death.

    I was a teenager in the 70’s, and while some information on The Beatles has been disappointing, or myth busting, it doesn’t make me love them any less. I know younger fans, who seem to accept the fact that Lennon was an addict, and an asshole. (My nephews words, not mine).

    Mikal Gilmore wrote a great piece in Rolling Stone, I think in 2006, that lays the breakup at the feet of Lennon. Paul McCartney recently confirmed that also, to Howard Stern.

    The heroin angle is debatable I guess, but it makes sense, and fits the pattern of drug use in Lennon’s life.
    As the saying goes, “The truth will set you free.”

  4. @Chris, I’ve spoken with someone just recently, a longtime heroin user, who said the same thing. What makes heroin lethal, according to this person, was the crime and danger of having to score it. If you were a gentleman junkie, with a steady supply of unadulterated stuff of consistent purity (swings in purity from dose-to-dose seem to be what causes OD’s), you can live a normal life on the substance. But even granting that, what was the heroin use the symptom of? What happened in early 1968 that put Lennon in so much pain? Or was it simply that his new girlfriend, whom he was crazy about and loathe to disappoint, convinced him to try something that he’d hitherto shunned.

    The Beatles were no strangers to heroin before 1968. Somewhere I read a friend of theirs, someone in the Inner Circle, saying that he saw a beautiful woman offer McCartney heroin around the time of Help! He said it was “chilling” or some such.

    Have to run, will address the other comments later! Great piece, Michael —

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      Thanks, @Michael! I also want to address @Craig’s comment when I have more times but two historical notes of possible interest. One, Goldman (the only biographer with a real interest in this stuff) has Lennon trying heroin pre-Yoko, post-India; supposedly, he arrived back in such a state that he delved into a monthlong binge that culminated in the 24 hours where he announced he was Jesus, then invited Yoko over to Weybridge. Second, 1968 is the year heroin really hit the London rock (as opposed to art) scene: it’s also when Keith Richards and Brian Jones started using (and possibly Hendrix, but I may be wrong on that).

  5. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    @Michael, I don’t think heroin addiction just happens to someone. The seeds of heroin have to fall on receptive soil for the addiction to take root. And I think Lennon was receptive soil in 1968 without needing a particular event to provide the fertilizer.

    John was an independent, rebellious spirit who was conflicted about the Beatles and Paul from the day he met Paul. He barely contained that spirit by acting the good little Beatle all through their crazy touring days. But the headiness of fame and his instinctive musical genius overrode his disdain for the whole show. Right through Revolver. After that, I think Lennon had had enough of it all. That, I think, is when he found his realizations about himself, life, fame and his unique internal rhythm all start to become glaringly at odds with the demands of the record company, the public, and Paul, to keep churning out the hits and being a dutiful Beatle.

    Paul I think could have done it forever. He was more a musical craftsman and showman who had found his place in the world and was unbelievably good at it. John was ready to move on. His songwriting output had lessened along with his enthusiasm for it. He kept writing out of occasional inspiration, a healthy dose of prodding from Paul, and a sense of needing to continue to compete with Paul even though he wasn’t that interested. He wasn’t that interested but he also didn’t know how to extricate himself, what to do, what to be, who to be. Maybe he wanted to still be a musician but not on Paul’s timetable or maybe in Paul’s band.

    But he had no template or role model for making that kind of transition. Given this, Paul becomes an easy target for resentment. And heroin and Yoko become attractive ways to break ties not only with Paul but with all the boring, bourgeois, conventional bullshit that he felt so oppressed by.

    I think Paul saved his life when he was 16 and Yoko saved his life when he was 27.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, I think that’s the story Lennon wanted us to believe, and perhaps that he believed himself, but I don’t think it’s true. John’s songwriting output lessened in quantity in 1967 because he was dosing himself with LSD all the time, almost certainly to avoid untreated childhood trauma. It didn’t really decrease in quantity, unless writing A Day in the Life, Walrus, and Lucy is a bad year. In India, drug free, John writes something like 15 songs, maybe more. There’s no evidence whatsoever that his enthusiasm for being a Beatle is dimmed at this time: he’s dancing in MMT, singing backing vocals on Lovely Rita, and coming up with a whole album’s worth of songs in India. Something changes when he gets back, and by May 1968, he’s doing smack and bringing an outsider who doesn’t like the Beatles very much into their recording sessions. (And, by the standards of any decade, the Beatles had almost no pressure from EMI after 1965–they recorded when they wanted to, as much or as little as they wanted to.)

      The story John told after 1970 is a justification by someone who’s trying to justify having destroyed his life’s greatest achievement, without really being willing or able to admit the reason why. I think that because it doesn’t fit a close examination of the evidence. When you have to discard ambiguity or contradictory details, as John’s version asks us to do, that’s a narrative—it’s not an explanation.

  6. Avatar Tony Collins (formerly evilpants, a ridiculous name) wrote:

    I think Lennon was a prime candidate for heroin addiction. He did have the emotional hole, was full of pain, and had already used a lot of drugs to try to fill it. Heroin – all opioids in enough quantity, really – is great at making you float just above all your pain.

    However, I’m always loath to think of heroin as the major cause of anything for him. As has already been observed, heroin addiction doesn’t have to wreck lives – in the 1980s, one of Margaret Thatcher’s main medical policy advisors was a full-on heroin addict and absolutely no one knew, because he was able to continue his work.

    I also think we tend to judge heroin from the 1980s+ campaigns about addiction: we see heroin addicts as people who are just unable to function, completely suppressed, spaced out.

    Two people who live in my block are heroin addicts, and a former landlord was also an addict. You couldn’t imagine 3 different responses to heroin addiction. The neighbours – one gets upset and fragile, the other sits quietly doing nothing. The former landlord wouldn’t stop talking when he was on it.

    And finally, if I’m remembering correctly Lennon only smoked heroin at that point. That makes both the the addiction and the effect somewhat milder.

    I agree that for Lennon, being in lock step with another addict would’ve had a profound effect on his relationships with those who weren’t addicts. Heroin is a very passive drug – sedation and elation, “nodding out”, “waking coma”, those are things people say they experience. And from my own experience of prolonged periods of prescription opioid use, opioids really do smother emotions.

    All in all, this is probably never going to have a definitive answer. Lennon was abrasive, wonderfully so, and nasty: wouldn’t heroin have smoothed our those parts of his personality? It’s a fundamentally different drug to cocaine, which can heighten aggression and ego. As we saw during the Get Back sessions, he was completely disinterested.

    So maybe the question is, would the Beatles have split up had Lennon not started taking heroin? I think that’s a much more interesting angle.

    In my life, I often wonder why I feel/experience certain things. I can often see several clear causes. But the answer is always the same: it is a combination of things, and each item needs to be there for me to be feeling what I’m feeling.

    And as unsatisfying as that is for our understanding of the Beatles, I think the same is true. They broke up because of age, ego, differences, outside relationships, Brian’s death, the fact that they thrived most when they spent their lives together but no longer did, heroin, and a dozen other things I’ve forgotten to mention.

    I truly believe that no one thing can be said to be the cause. If heroin is the proximate cause, then surely Yoko is the root cause. And that’s not fair (and this blog is one of those places that doesn’t entertain such nonsense).

    I don’t think I’m saying anything new here at all, but I’m good at using lots of words to say it 🙂

    In a way I’m more interested in the questions “what kept the Beatles together, and how many bricks could be removed while leaving the building still standing?”

  7. Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

    Interesting speculation, @MB John told his fellow Apple Corps folks that he was Jesus, in somewhere in 1969. Perhaps Joe Goodden’s ‘Riding so High – The Beatles and Drugs’ is a helpful exploration of drugs. Joe Goodden has all the quotes that are relevant. In ‘The Love You Make’ Steven Gaines and Peter Brown actually don’t write a lot about the drug, but identify the moment and situation when they started using it, by referring to Yoko.
    “It was at Montague Square, feeling more than a little bruised and already like outlaws, Yoko says, that they began to take heroin.”
    Brown, Peter. The Love You Make (p. 277). Kindle Edition.
    At the time they were living out of a suitcase, staying a few weeks at Paul’s home, then with Neil Aspinall, and at last in the basement at Montague Square.
    Steven Gaines and Peter Brown actually don’t say much about the consequences of heroin and how it influenced the break-up. They leave it at:
    “If there was one single element that was the most crucial in the breakup of the Beatles, it was John’s heroin addiction.”
    Brown, Peter. The Love You Make (p. 277). Kindle Edition.
    It wasn’t explored in much more depth. If there would have been clear indicators of how and when it influenced events and developments my guess is Gaines and Brown would have included it in the book.

  8. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    “John’s songwriting output lessened in quantity in 1967 because he was dosing himself with LSD all the time, almost certainly to avoid untreated childhood trauma.”
    I agree with this 100% Michael.

    John was self medicating pretty much his entire life. I see heroin as the obvious next step in that process. The Beatles experience was intense, and very stressful. That was most likely the catalyst for his heroin addiction and subsequent breaking up of his band. John was emotionally unable to handle life anymore.

    I myself am a survivor of a traumatic childhood.
    I struggled, but basically functioned, until a cancer diagnosis in my early 30’s. That led to a breakdown, but with subsequent therapy, I was able to see that getting cancer was the last straw for my psyche.

    It makes complete sense to me, that John emotionally, was spent. But unfortunately, he didn’t get traditional therapy to cope. He used heroin and Yoko.

  9. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    @Michael B., it’s true Lennon wrote some fantastic songs after Revolver and that India was a fertile period. But I don’t think that nullifies the larger points I’m arguing. Namely that part of John always cast a derisive, ambivalent eye on being a Beatle and that his enthusiasm for being defined/confined as part of the group was becoming more glaring after Revolver. Isn’t that when he starting tripping for days in his mansion—being basically unreachable? When you don’t know how to say, ‘hey, I need a break from making albums and I’m not sure what I want to do, or how often I want to write songs, or how long I need,’ you passive-aggressively drop acid and wait for Paul to drive out.

    Regardless of whether John ended up rising to the occasion and singing back-up vocals or dancing in a video, he more and more, it seems to me, needed to be coaxed into it. I don’t think the fact that he wrote great songs and contributed during this period negates the over-arching direction that John’s psyche was moving in—namely away from what had always felt in part like a suit that never quite fit him.

    Pepper was Paul’s idea, Paul’s project. From then on, he lit fires under everybody, to keep them all being Beatles. (Maybe Paul was addicted to the Beatles!)

    You could also argue that if John had wanted to stay a Beatle, the meditative cleansing of India would have resulted not just in more songs, but in a renewed sense of unity with the band. It didn’t.

    The twin heroines of drugs and Yoko that John grabbed onto didn’t descend on John the neutral pawn and tear him away from what he wanted. Heroin and foreign women were also available to Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin for that matter. But we can’t, I don’t think, imagine these men getting hooked. (Well, George was experiencing similar discomfort with the group but his more stable psyche got hooked by Eastern philosophy/religion.) And again, other rock stars did heroin and stayed in their bands. Besides Keith, isn’t Townsend another example of that?

    51% of John, at least, must have wanted to break off with the Beatles—or at least wanted things to change but didn’t know how to do it gracefully.

  10. Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

    @ChrisDingmam. I tend to side with your arguments. Heroin alone possibly cannot do so much damage to the group, in a life that seems so very active as Lennon’s in 1969… (My advice to everyone is beside Joe Goodden’s ‘Riding So High’ also check: Lennonology. The rhythm of life, the social connection, the rhythm of activities it all makes a difference in how far down the destructive road of addiction and loss of perspective of oneself in a social and cognitive context John and Yoko went).
    John had this personality that had a tendency to estrange and ward off others, even though he was kind too. Heroin doesn’t help to maintain social relationships, there are quite a few comments by Yoko and John in which they blame others for their behavior. Helplessness.
    Oh, and there are many indications George had problems with hard drugs too… or was all the pain and madness Patti experienced just a relationship flying off the rocky cliff coast – I don’t know.
    The Beatles were not smarter than others when it comes to drugs. Drugs can amplify anti-social behavior… Maybe a lot of money was spent at Apple Corps, yet the four boys spent way too much privately, they went way beyond their budgets… and how much was spent on drugs
    I hope that Joe Goodden’s book, Womack’s article, and this discussion cuts the crap and we start looking at the private money spent and local level drug traders/runners, and drugs will be a serious issue. It is much more important than whether John and Brian were wanking in Spain or in London or John and Paul had a crush on each other. Can we now please get Goldman’s book out of the mothballs?

  11. I’ve now written two long comments and deleted both. I’ll just say this then:
    I don’t think you can hope to understand The Beatles—success and failure, sticking together and breaking up—without understanding addiction, and I suspect that at least one of them would agree with me.
    Coming at this discussion without any deep familiarity with addiction, addictive family patterns, codependence, and such like is simply wishing. “I wish Lennon to be a rebel, a creative hero, so I believe him”; “I wish Yoko to be a villain, so I don’t believe him.” But this isn’t fan-fic; it’s real people, living real lives.
    Beatle people overvalue personality; they think Brian Epstein was a thoughtless businessman and prone to impulsive sex, frequently blackmailed, and addicted to pills because “that’s who he was.” But these traits all work together, and the latter state would heighten the former three. I’ve never, not once, read someone write, “Brian fucked up Seltaeb, in part at least, because he was addicted to uppers and downers and not always in his right mind.” Which if you think about it, is actually pretty likely.
    They believe that the Lennon of 1980 or 1969 is fundamentally, psychologically the same guy he was in 1964; or the McCartney of 1979 was the same as in 1965; or Harrison; or Starr. But drugs affect your BRAIN; that’s why you take them. Lennon wasn’t the same guy after heroin, and daily doses of mystery psychedelics before that; McCartney smoked pot in truly heroic amounts; Harrison struggled with cocaine through most of the 70s; Starr’s struggles are well-known. Because these guys were all heavy drug users, we simply can’t understand this story if we don’t factor in the impact of these drugs on these guys’ brains. Their brains are what wrote all the songs, and what allowed them to co-exist happily, or not.
    Drugs—namely booze, and the alcoholic family patterns of the Lennons and the McCartneys—surely brought The Beatles together. Prellies and pot and psychedelics kept them together. And they were probably the only thing strong enough to push them apart.
    Chemical addiction isn’t “liking something a lot”; addiction to booze or pot or heroin isn’t the same as playing a lot of Candy Crush. It’s a recognizable condition with physical and psychological effects; and one of the traits is not being able to stop even when it’s fucking up your life. I would say that the Get Back sessions show a guy who’s fucking up his pretty great life, not eating, not sleeping, etc. He looks like a junkie. I think it’s pretty clear Lennon had an addictive personality, and the idea that he could not become addicted to heroin, or could break it easily, is wishful thinking given his relationship to other chemicals.
    An addict is not a well-functioning mind; it is not someone you want to be a partner with. It is wrong to separate Lennon’s addiction from his decision to side with the sleazeball Klein over Paul’s objections, or his inability to solve Apple’s troubles, or his rage at Paul and the other Beatles. To think of him as fundamentally the same guy he had been except for the heroin—to treat heroin as a value-neutral activity, a chemical process that happens WHEEE and you’re the same person as you were two hours or two years before—that’s addict-thinking. The addict doesn’t see any difference in him/herself, but those around him DO, and usually don’t know why. Cumulatively—and that can be amount of drug, or time using, or both—the change is profound.
    All this shit is obvious to anybody in recovery, or who knows anybody in recovery, or who knows someone who died because of drugs. So why has the Beatles story — and Lennon’s in particular–been so resistant to “the elephant in the room”?
    Once again, I don’t think you can understand any of this without addressing the Baby Boomers’ attitude towards drugs. As kids, for a million reasons, they experimented with drugs; and it became politically important for a time that all drugs were shown to be harmless — that all the scare stories were shown to be propaganda—whether they were or not. In 1965, Lennon and his Beatles are potheads, along with the hippest Boomers; in ’66 and ’67, they were all dropping acid, right along with the Hollywood and jet set; in 1968, it’s time for heroin. So of course their hero Lennon takes heroin, but HE doesn’t suffer any ill effects; he gets tied to a chair, and writes a song, and poof no more addiction. Because he’s John Lennon. Drugs can’t kill John Lennon; drugs MADE John Lennon, just like the monster scene in Yellow Submarine.
    So went the Boomer fantasy.
    Then, as they became parents in the age of Reagan, they reversed hard on drugs, and adopted a stance of disappoval; see this survey from Rolling Stone in 1988, and the pretzel logic it employs to make Boomers into something other than hypocrites (and homophobes). Note what people were so mad at Goldman for: that Lennon was a stone druggie, and that he was bisexual.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Michael – this says what I was trying to say better than the initial post. All I can add is, I think there’s a huge misunderstanding of what made the Beatles, the Beatles because virtually all biography of them basically ignores the rather obvious detail that they were all addicts to some extent or another, and completely ignores the various implications of that fact. Rock biography in particular likes to name-drop the sordid details of who used what drug to what extent, but it doesn’t ask the next questions: what does that mean? How would that change someone? Saying “John did acid every day he didn’t have to work for two years and then replaced it with heroin” is not the same as saying “for two years, he took the motorway to work but then decided to take surface streets instead,” but it’s usually treated as such: oh, this happened, and then that happened.

      You and I talk a lot about addictive family dynamics vis a vis the Beatles, and one thing that I’m wondering is whether the nature of heroin addiction meant that 1968/9 was the first time Paul, George, and Ringo found John doing a drug (a) all the time (you can’t use heroin just on your days off that (b) they all didn’t want to do. If that’s so, I think it explains, as much as how H changed John himself, why they fell apart. The others Beatles were not just codependents enabling the addict (John), they were also co-addicts.

      • @michael, I am glad you found my comment worthwhile. Much pain has bought this wisdom. Or, let’s call them “conclusions.”

        The thing about John is — the thing that made his drug use different than the others was — he had this tendency to fall off the earth. McCartney LOVED smoking pot, but it’s inconceivable that he would ever stop writing songs, performing, being a husband and father. Lennon didn’t just take acid, he disappeared into acid — his life and manner changed markedly. He holed up. So too with heroin.

        To compare Harrison’s great passion of the time, meditation, this was an activity that sent him round the world in search of teachers, and introduced him to a wide range of people. Did he abuse it? Probably; did it change his friends? Yes. But the fundamental wholesomeness came through in the end. One is an addiction, the other is an interest. But it’s important to note — and this is germane to a post I’m finally planning on what I think happened to Lennon in India — when he meditates, Lennon meditated like an addict. Always always craving the loss of self, the escape.

        There’s a peculiar compulsiveness, a lack of volition with addicts that you don’t see in average folks, or even codependents. It’s like when Nilsson offered Paul some PCP, Paul asked, “Is it fun?” Nilsson said, “Not really,” and so Paul said “No thanks then.” That wasn’t paul being a square, that was Paul not being insane.

        One thing to keep in mind is the peculiar politics of the late 60’s, which Lennon created before 1968, but was excruciatingly susceptible to as soon as Yoko came on the scene: heroin became hip, and not doing it meant you were square. Paul’s main fault in Lennon Remembers is being a square. It is insane to think that this mattered to people so much, and that for some brief time they thought things like heroin were as value-neutral as, say, Beatle haircuts.

        • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

          Among other things, this confirms my theory that Lennon suffered from borderline personality disorder, but the labels don’t matter.

          John undoubtedly had a void he spent most of his life attempting to fill or escape noticing through chemicals. I think the difference that I’m pondering, then, might be this. It was perhaps inevitable that as time went on and addiction to chemical escape generally worsened, Lennon would get better at approaching oblivion. Heroin offered a particularly efficient and effective way to get there. Up until LSD, John’s all or nothing approach to drugs wasn’t incompatible with his closeness to the other three, both because the substances didn’t take comprehensively take him out of the game or because the other Beatles partook enough to join him. LSD created or revealed the schisms, but it also left John passive and agreeable enough to keep a good attitude—and the others partook. Heroin could do in minutes what LSD never did—give him the feeling of being swaddled in wool—he had a new Pete Shotton to do it with him, and it was very very hip in 1968. All of a sudden, John doesn’t need to trauma bond with the other Beatles over addiction (remember when George becomes his BFF after acid?) AND the other Beatles are squares.

          I don’t think you can discount the hipness aspect at all. The elites of the elite were dabbling in smack in 1968.

          • …And when you ask the question, “why did the drug culture change from pot and psychedelics pre-68, to speed and opiates?“ that leads you into some very fucking dark territory.

            I haven’t read this new book on operation chaos, but what I know from my earlier reading is truly depressing. The government knew that you couldn’t be both a junkie and an effective political leader.

  12. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    Michael B., I agree with your take. I’d add emphasis to one dimension of Lennon c. 1967 and after: he was deeply unhappy in his marriage to Cynthia, and the end of touring made that reality more inescapable. He was stuck in London’s “stockbroker belt” with a wife he didn’t feel connected to and a child he’d never wanted.
    The end of touring meant a daily schedule that made self-reflection harder to avoid, and that self-reflection was amped up by meditation in India. My sense is that once Lennon pried the top off the trauma and misery he’d repressed, it was scary enough that heroin felt great. He absolutely wanted out of his marriage with Cynthia (and, I think, out of being a parent to Julian — at least at that point). And he was unquestionably attracted to Yoko Ono, for many reasons.
    But I’m not convinced that Lennon really wanted to end the Beatles. I buy the argument that Mikal Gilmore makes in his 2009 Rolling Stone piece about the breakup — Lennon wanted to rein in McCartney and reassert control of the group, and overplayed his hand. To some extent I think Lennon projected his misery with Cynthia onto the Beatles, and there’s no question in my mind that he was using heroin to manage all the pain that the Beatles’ frenetic schedule had helped him tamp down for years. As Michael G. put it, Lennon used drugs to “fall off the earth.” Would he have been willing to fall off the earth so hard in the late 1960s without Yoko as a companion in that falling? I don’t think so. That’s not to blame her for what Lennon did, just to say that Yoko gave him somewhere to “go” that wasn’t the Beatles.

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      I totally agree Nancy.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Nancy, I completely agree. I think that John never grew out of needing a Pete Shotton/Stu Sutiffe/Paul McCartney to join him in his next adventure. Problem was, in 1968 and after India, the adventure was loss of self, with an anger not present in 1967 (when he’s equally seeking self loss but seemingly more resigned to it). If depression is anger turned inward, ‘67 is John unaware of that fact, and ‘68 is after the penny drops while in India.

      The drug binge when he returns from India to me looks like, among other things, an expression both of anger that’s been bottled up since the last time John was publicly allowed to be a drunk and smash phone booths, and of despair after spending a few months alone with himself. I agree that if Yoko hasn’t shown up, he could have lost the plot altogether.

      • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

        I should add: I think in 1980, he was getting up the nerve to try being just John Lennon, but he was killed before we got a chance to see what that looked like.

        • Yep. Totally agree here. The idea of Lennon living through the first real wave of “Clean and Sober” — as the Boomers cleaned up from the inevitable, entirely predictable effects of a decade or more of chemical use — is thrilling. He would’ve gotten it. Would he have gotten sober? I think he, like George and Ringo, would’ve tried. Would he have stayed sober, like another Beatle? I think he would’ve really tried.
          Lennon was naturally attuned to the spiritual side of 12-steppery which (so I’ve been told) is a sticking point for so many.

          • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

            Like everyone, John just wanted to be happy. Unlike everyone, he was particularly aware of that fact. I think he would have really wanted to be clean and wouldn’t have had a ton of trouble letting go of the image of being a fucked up rock star. So I think the effort, at least, would have Brent there.

      • I will be working on a post that “explains” this behavior.

        I think John Lennon post-India was going to be a member of the 27 Club.

    • “That’s not to blame her for what Lennon did, just to say that Yoko gave him somewhere to “go” that wasn’t the Beatles.”

      Nobody wants to repeat the racist and sexist behavior that Yoko suffered early in their relationship (For example, that article in Esquire magazine), But at the same time I think it must be acknowledged that Yoko has really gotten a pass from Beatle people since Lennon’s assassination. And in this particular case, I’m not comfortable giving her a pass. She introduced John Lennon to heroin. She did it, in part at least, to strengthen their relationship, and weaken his connection with the rest of the Beatles. This would be incredibly inappropriate in a college kid; but it’s really some Machiavellian shit when you’re in your 30s, as Yoko was.

      Yoko was, and occasionally still is, the victim of a despicable “dragon lady” stereotype. That is not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is simply this: if a friend of yours, clearly in a life crisis, started dating someone and began behaving like John Lennon behaved, and looking like John Lennon looked in late 1968, and you knew that this new girlfriend had introduced him to heroin, what would your responsibility be as a friend?

      We can say, “well, John Lennon did whatever he wanted,” and that’s true. But that doesn’t absolve all his friends and lovers from basic decency. Here was a guy who always felt abandoned, never felt love; but Clearly he played a role in that, because the loving, protective, nurturing thing in 1968 would’ve been to say to him, “Yoko is bad news,“ and his reaction to people saying that was to attack them. Just as if they were trying to take away his crack pipe. “You don’t know! None of you know! I don’t have a problem, it’s you guys that have the problem!“

      John Lennon didn’t start taking heroin until Yoko Ono arrived on the scene, and that is simply factual. And all four Beatles had had plenty of opportunity to experiment with that drug before the middle of 1968. As I might’ve said in this thread, I’m sure they Knew junkies in Hamburg, given the drug culture of Germany. If I recall correctly, heroin was invented in Germany, and first marketed there.

      The other thing raised by Nancy’s comment is simply this: if John Lennon was so miserable in his marriage, why didn’t he just divorce Cynthia? The obvious answer is that he didn’t want to upset the applecart; but then when he did divorce her, he did it in the most public, self-promoting way possible. He went from someone apparently unwilling to risk his public image, to someone actively immolating his public image. Why? And once again, the difference is the presence of Yoko Ono.

      And even if we posit that all these bad ideas, up to and including trying to trick Cynthia into sleeping with magic Alex to save some money in the settlement, even if all these bad ideas were 100% from Lennon, what is that say about Yoko? She’d been married; and divorced. Did she never say to him, “Listen, she’s the mother of your child. You’re going to have a relationship with her, so ease off here.” As Michael said, meeting the love of his life apparently made Lennon MORE angry, ruthless, and unhappy. Is that someone who is a good life partner? I would say not.

      John and Yoko were very vocal about all the “pain” that they were in, some of it caused by “their beast friends.” But Just based on what we know, isn’t it likely that they were dealing out massive amounts of “pain” to everybody who touched them during this period? This story isn’t like Eric Clapton falling in love with Patty, and then getting hooked on heroin because he was suffering. It’s about meanness and self indulgence, And when anybody pushed back on that, calling them a square or bourgeois or whatever. It’s just ugly.

      The moment you stop making the story about the famous John Lennon, and the famous Yoko Ono, and the love that will last 1 million years, it gets pretty stupid and pretty sordid. And I think 40 years after Lennon’s death, it’s time to acknowledge that, if you’re a thinking fan. Sorry to be intemperate, but I’m weary of the Ballad.

      • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

        Even if Yoko had been cast aside once her year was up, like Maharishi, Janov, the Yippies, and Harry Nilssson, introducing John to heroin and encouraging him to take it with her would easily, in my opinion, make her one of the worst influences on his adult life. That she also linked it to his being “an artist”, and encouraged or condoned all the hurtful, destructive, and antisocial behavior you mentioned that followed his addiction (anybody else notice that John only started to show an interest in leaving Cynthia or the Beatles in the most needlessly cruel way he could after May ‘68?) means that the accepting whole Ballad narrative is as bizarre as if biographers reported “John didn’t have a drugs problem, it was everyone else who had a problem!” Although some of them do that too.

        • I think one of the things this thread is showing is that your opinions about drugs and drug users are inherently tied to your own experiences with drugs and drug users. And unfortunately, the kind of people who have been attracted to John Lennon enough to write a biography have always been, in my opinion, much much too lenient towards drugs and drug users, and much too quick to Play the “Square” card. Except, of course, for Goldman—but he is so obviously biased in the other direction it’s hard to take him seriously either.

          You will know Beatle historiography is mature when a biography of Lennon is written that does not need to reinforce the countercultural schema that drugs are in an inherent good. They are neutral; it’s how you behave on them that matters.

  13. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    Yes @Michael–drugs are neutral. Many of these comments are making the point I was trying to emphasize. Heroin and Yoko of course had some insidious consequences. Lennon could be a huge asshole—with or without them. But neither heroin nor Yoko broke up the Beatles or made Lennon behave like an asshole. Lennon did. Lennon invited or allowed these things into his life because he could not handle what was happening inside him.

    Yes, he needed his Stu, his Paul, his Yoko, and his heroin for a time. And without the last two, as I said before, he might have died—perhaps right after beating the shit out of everyone in his life.

    The scenario is this: A sensitive boy has a tumultuous childhood with a flaky mom who isn’t interested in being a mom and a dad who is more literally absent. He loses his mom and his uncle George and his best friend. He is angry and hurt and lost. His band and his genius catapult him to unprecedented fame—the kind of cultural influence the world has never seen. He still feels the anger, but the fame and the fun override it. At a certain point, though, you realize the fame and the fun aren’t the answer. You start to feel the Beatles aren’t maybe the answer. But what is? And how could you step away—or change the dynamics—gracefully from something as huge and successful as The Beatles?

    Here’s the important thing in my mind: Lennon had zero in the way of tools, wider experience, psychological support or guidance, regular old human skills or context. Given the bizarreness and extremes of his life, I can see no alternate path that has Lennon navigating through this period in a pretty way.

    To say heroin or Yoko messed him up and made him unable to cope is to pretend that he had the capacity to cope without them. Heroin and Yoko, far from being the cause of the break-up, were the best option available.

    • @Chris, I get your point, but I think you’re looking past a whole bunch of stuff.
      Heroin DID make Lennon act like an asshole; Yoko DID make Lennon act like an asshole. Who you hang with, and the chemicals you put into your nervous system have effects on how you act, the decisions you make, et cetera. We’re not unaffected by these things; they change our behavior and, if someone has a dependency, determine more and more of it.
      Let me rewrite your scenario: “A sensitive boy probably from an alcoholic family has a tumultuous childhood with a flaky, charming, irresponsible, sexy, impulsive, hard-partying mom who because she has a dependency on alcohol and perhaps sex, frequently isn’t interested in being a mom and a dad who is more literally absent. He is handed over to his loving, but extremely angry and controlling Aunt Mimi, who loves the boy but bitterly resents his mother’s sloppy irresponsible life, so common among untreated addicts. His aunt is being forced to clean up his mother’s mess, because she is the responsible older sibling. As his Aunt tries to raise the boy, his mother cycles through the kind of intense love/uncaring behavior that is utterly typical of alcoholic parents. The boy learns to perform, hoping to please and charm his mother, so he will get the attention that he should get just by being alive. Sometimes she gives it to him, and he is enraptured; sometimes she doesn’t, and he is angry. The anger at this fucked up situation that he didn’t make and doesn’t deserve, starts to grow. Sometime in his early- to mid-teens, he finds that alcohol soothes this anger and gives him confidence and self-esteem. He also turns to music, a positive thing which gives him these same benefits without the side-effects. He loses his mom and his uncle George and his best friend, but because of where and where he’s from, nobody has taught him how to process these common life experiences and the attendant strong emotions; at that time and place, alcohol was how people dealt with such stuff, especially men. Even at this young age, the boy’s drinking becomes habitual, and feels like an act of rebellion, even as his behavior often turns more and more aggressive, and shuts off more and more opportunities for him. He is angry and hurt and lost and turns to music to channel his fury; he becomes driven to succeed, but not just succeed–he must be the most successful musician the world has ever seen. To make his body able to be driven this hard, he begins to take speed. Now, still in his early 20s, he has dependency on two chemicals, and this potent cocktail makes him lash out, getting into fights. His inability to regulate his emotional state is so severe that he nearly beats people to death, the last time in such a public way, it comes within a hair of ending his promising music career and sending him to jail. At this point, at the attack on Bob Wooler, the boy is clearly not in control of his addictions; no sensible person would risk so much, especially over such a stupid insult. But luckily, the boy has met and befriended a man who slides into the codependent role of fixer, advisor, and adorer. To bond with this man, he introduces the man to pills, which eventually kill him via OD. The boy feels deeply guilty about this. Which, over time, makes him use more. His band and his genius catapult him to unprecedented fame—the kind of cultural influence the world has never seen. To deal with this, he increasingly turns to pot, recommended by one of the handful of people in a similar situation. This slowly replaces the booze and pills. For a time, this more benign chemical allows him to regulate his nervous system, produce art, and deal with the inhuman pace of his career. He still feels the anger, but the fame and the fun override it. He is married, and a father — like his own father, it’s the result of a drunken sexual encounter with a local girl, before either are ready or want children — but the boy acts as though he’s still single, which creates endless self-loathing; he ignores his child, or lavishes attention on him, replicating the pattern HE suffered through. He knows this, and hates himself for it, but cannot make himself be more mature; an addict, his emotional maturity has stopped at the age when his addiction started, roughly 16. This is a benefit, mostly, because so many of his fans are around that age; they feel they can relate to him, unlike other married fathers ten years older. So it works, sort of. At a certain point, though, you realize the fame and the fun aren’t the answer. You start to feel the Beatles aren’t maybe the answer. But what is? ACID! But that stops working. MEDITATION! But that makes the boy feel worse, as all the unprocessed shit he’s drunk down and smoked down and pushed down comes streaming up. And because he’s so rich and so famous, nobody will tell him the truth, and he’s totally isolated, and more and more miserable, and more and more desperate. In his pain, he looks at everything around you, desperate to find the source, and even more desperate for distraction. The blaming goes out in ever-widening circles; from his guru, to his wife and kid, to his band, to his main collaborator — there’s a problem, THEY must be it. The boy turns to the things that once gave him relief–pot and acid, booze–but the discomfort is too great. He is reaching bottom; but instead of facing who he is, what he’s done, and what can be done about it, he reaches for the ultimate distraction, a love affair with one of the many women who are always pursuing him. And YAHTZEE! They are very different, raised literally worlds apart, but they bond over the important stuff: she also has severe trauma, and addiction problems. She immediately identifies the boy’s central wound, and begins playing on them to soothe her own wartime fear of poverty and abandonment. For a time, she gives the boy the total attention he’s been craving; he loses himself in her, just like he used to in booze, in pills, in pot, in acid…and in music. When she suggests they cement their bond via heroin, it sounds like the perfect solution: to be in a perfect womb, but not alone. Meanwhile, everybody in the boy’s life is getting worried–his behavior is different, and his physical appearance is alarming. And, frankly, they’re getting a little tired of hanging out with a jerk; a lot of the things they loved about the boy don’t show up any more. But they don’t get it! They don’t understand the boy’s pain! They NEVER have! They’re the problem, aren’t they? But how to live without the fame, and the money? The boy can’t imagine it, and his girlfriend says he shouldn’t have to. And how could you step away—or change the dynamics—gracefully from something as huge and successful as The Beatles?

  14. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    We should also, I think, not forget that Lennon deeply felt the importance of love and often let that shine. I think his anger and confusion was in proportion to his feeling for its importance–for our common humanity. (This is not a comment on the appropriateness or effectiveness of how he expressed that spirit–the bed-in, and so on–just an acknowledgment that that spirit was there and it mattered.)

    • Totally agree, @Chris! I think Lennon was heroic in his battles to feed the best parts of himself and starve the worst. But we cannot see his heroism if we don’t understand his struggle, and the tools/concepts of addiction therapy are there for us in a way they weren’t in 1970, when Lennon was talking to Wenner.
      The tragedy of addiction isn’t that the sufferers turn into irredeemable monsters; it’s that all the good things — and in my experience, addicts can be uncommonly gifted with good things, too — are distorted/diminished/etc by the negative consequences of a misfiring nervous system.
      John Lennon did the best anybody could do with the life he was given. But we know more now and can understand his struggles in a way that make them more useful as a guide to people now.

  15. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    Chris, I agree that Lennon lacked the tools he needed to navigate what he was experiencing. I have a huge amount of sympathy for what he must have felt as he slowed down and had a chance to recognize how much trauma he was carrying around. But I can’t buy into the statement that “drugs are neutral,” at least not without modifying it significantly.
    At best, drugs are neutral for *some* people. They are not at all neutral for people who have addictive tendencies / addictive personalities. And even for people without those tendencies / that personality, I’d say there’s a danger that drugs (including alcohol) can become a way to numb out and evade growth and change. Now, people can use all kinds of things to numb out in this way, including food, television, social media, shopping, gambling, etc. But drugs interact with us physically in a different way; some can lead to actual physiological addiction, while others create a state of feeling that we can crave to the point of sacrificing a lot of life to get there.
    I’m not trying to preach here. I’ve just known enough people with addiction struggles to need to register what I consider a reality check: for some people drugs are very dangerous. And I think the preponderance of the evidence suggests that drugs were ultimately destructive for Lennon. His early pot and LSD use he could handle, but later in his life I see the LSD and heroin handling him.

    • I AM trying to preach, @Nancy! How many people were encouraged to see drugs as neutral because of Lennon and The Beatles? But there’s a huge amount of evidence that drugs were a net-negative for each of these men. Even McCartney and pot.
      Knowing what we know now, it’s irresponsible to shade the story to avoid/elide the negative consequences of drugs on these four guys. Where all the consequences negative? No. Could all these substances (even opioids) be used wisely and even occasionally recreationally, without ill-effects? Yes. But these four guys? Drugs took a piece out of each of them.

  16. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    Nancy and Michael B., and Micheal G.,
    I totally agree!!

  17. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    @Nancy–you’re right, absolutely. My agreement with the “drugs are neutral” statement was an inaccurate way to say what I meant, which was mainly that drugs don’t descend on someone. Someone chooses them.

    • @Chris, the point here isn’t that drugs take you over like being bitten by a zombie. It’s that they have effects on the CNS, and you can’t separate the beneficial effects — the things people take them for — from the other effects. When Michael writes, “Heroin broke up the Beatles,” he’s not saying the chemical compound broke up the band; he’s saying that the drug caused Lennon to act in certain ways, do certain things, and have different perceptions, that he wouldn’t have if he’d been sober; and that these things drove a wedge between himself and his bandmates.
      Is this just semantics? Or do you firmly believe that Lennon’s actions and behavior and decisions were not influenced by his use of heroin? If so, tell me why. That’s a pretty big claim, but it’s an interesting viewpoint worth hearing. What’s I’m hearing so far is more like, “He could take stuff recreationally but it didn’t impact his life past that” and since that wasn’t true with Lennon and booze, or Lennon and pills, or Lennon and pot, or Lennon and acid — all of those substances changed his behavior in marked ways, and impacted his life — I doubt that heroin was the one outlier.
      Now I must leave this thread and do some work! Enjoying this folks, thanks everybody.

  18. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    I think the reason he handled his early pot and LSD was that the phenomenon of being a Beatle and all that that brought–meeting people, touring, writing great songs, discovering the recording studio–was still novel, fun, interesting, engaging. But at a certain point he realized it wasn’t enough–wasn’t addressing something deeper in him, wasn’t allowing him to fully flower or move at a different pace. That’s what he didn’t know how to handle. So he let the drugs handle things.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, did he handle it? Pot, I agree with, but I think that’s because pot itself (especially circa 1964) was relatively benign. Acid, though—as soon as John has time to try acid in earnest, after Rubber Soul comes out, he basically spends three months tripping on it, until it’s time to make Revolver. While George is learning about the sitar and Indian culture, and Paul is learning music theory and piano, John is doing drugs. Strip away anything value-positive or negative about it, and that’s what we know he’s doing with his time. For three months. He’s able to stop when it’s time to make Revolver and the new single, and he’s still at or near the peak of his powers, so he contributes four very good songs to those sessions and two decent ones. After he finishes his Beatle obligations, he does make a movie—but he spends his free time tripping on LSD. When he gets back to London, he has even more free time, and he spends all of it tripping on LSD. He’s up for multiple days, tripping on LSD, and taking speed and, eventually, coke in order to continue tripping on LSD.

      Replace that with “drinking alcohol”, and it sounds to me like someone who’s not handling a substance well. I don’t mean to come off as a Puritan here—I think, for example, that Paul handled LSD quite well, just as George seemed to handle pot reasonably well for a person of his age, background, and fame. But John’s pattern, virtually from the moment he had the opportunity, was to abuse a new substance. It so happens that due to the Beatles’ schedule, that didn’t occur with LSD until the end of 1965. And it so happens that LSD isn’t the same type of drug as cocaine or heroin, so John, bright as he was, got something out of it. But when Paul, for example, finally had the time and opportunity and interest in trying LSD, he didn’t immediately take it every day. John did. That’s not to say Paul is better than John, it’s to say that John’s life and body chemistry and possible personality disorders made his relationship to drugs much more difficult and consuming than you’re suggesting. And when something that affects your thinking, like addictive tendencies, plays that big a role in your life, it is inevitable that it…affects your thinking. And from there, your actions.

  19. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    @Michael G. It seems like we agree that Lennon’s underlying trauma from the tough hand he was dealt early in life, and the resulting instability and anger, were the fuel for the negative aspects of his behavior.

    And you believe I’m overlooking that he was born and raised in a culture where addiction (usually alcoholic) was the norm? Is that a fair summary of your point?

    I would still disagree that heroin & Yoko substantially made Lennon more of an asshole than he would have been. I think he was prone to being an asshole because of that trauma/anger we both agree he experienced. As Tony Collins pointed out in this comment train, heroin can affect people in very different ways. Tony said “You couldn’t imagine 3 [more] different responses to heroin” among the people he knew who were hooked. One went quiet, one got fragile, one couldn’t stop talking. And again, Keith Richards was an exacting, astute bandleader on the stuff! We have evidence of other people acting other ways while junkies.

    • @Chris, I think I described pretty exhaustively what I thought happened to Lennon re: drugs. That’s what I think; just go read that. I say this because, as you point out, people differ — it’s all very complicated. It’s hard enough to get across what I think about this very intricate topic without summarizing.
      What I would say about this particular comment is “being an asshole” is doing a LOT of work. I have no opinion about how much of an asshole Lennon would’ve been if he’d never taken heroin; it’s impossible to say. What we DO know is that Lennon ca. 1967 was highly functional; he was productive, social, and more approachable. He was married and had a relationship, such as it was, with his son. He may have been miserable, but if so, he hid it well; he expressed no public discontent about Paul or the Beatles, and within the group was still engaged and doing “all the little things.” He looked healthy, was funny, and sounded like the guy we’d met in 1964. And he was tripping balls pretty much constantly. I wouldn’t say he could “handle” pot and acid, because that’s famous last words, but at that point things were going OK.
      Then, 18 months later, he’s skinny, sallow, isolated, paranoid, confrontational, fearful of poverty, in business with a known shyster, and increasingly treats his main collaborator with contempt. He’s an extremely unpleasant guy, and that comes through even with all the PR.
      So something changed. Was it Yoko? Yeah. Heroin? Yeah. All sorts of emerging childhood trauma? Yeah. Reasonable people can disagree how much of each — but I don’t think it’s odd or unfair to suggest that, on heroin, Lennon was a nightmare to work with, and that contributed greatly to the demise of the group. To suggest otherwise would require a LOT of proving, and I just don’t see that in the historical record of this particular man’s life.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, I’m reading your comments as a defense of heroin as a neutral factor, and I’m confused why you think that’s so. Let’s take Keith for a quick example. In early 1968, Keith Richards is not on heroin, and has pretty much single-handedly begun inventing the sound (chording and recording-technique-wise) that will define the Stones for the next 50 years. He writes the almost all the music and some of the lyrics to most of their songs—Mick finishes the lyrics and supplies about 10-15% of the music. By January 1970, he’s a junkie. He’s credited with songs on the next album he didn’t have a hand in writing. Mick Jagger plays rhythm guitar on two songs and arranges most of the album with Mick Taylor. He doesn’t show up to sessions. When he does, he’s moody and unpredictable. It reminds people of Brian Jones, who whithered away under the influence of several substances, including heroin.

  20. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    This conversation has led me remember an interview with Paul McCartney I watched recently. It was in the 80’s, after John was killed.

    I don’t remember who the interviewer was, (it was a British show), but he asked Paul about
    John and Yoko, and commented on how John had seemed to be controlled by Yoko. I was very surprised at Paul’s reaction. He got angry, and said, “No, no that’s wrong. John didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do.” It was interesting how adamant Paul was, and how angry.

    So, I guess I’m wondering, did Paul really feel that John was in control of his behavior, or did he realize John was an addict?

    As far as I know, Paul, Ringo and George never attributed the breakup to John being an addict.
    They had to have realized this, though. Were
    they still acting co-dependent, even after the breakup?

    • @Tasmin, in my experience, codependent behavior persists until it is rooted out, and even then, it’s very difficult. And someone you have a codependent relationship with — that you love — it’s very tough not to do it. You have to
      1) recognize the pattern;
      2) realize that, even though it feels like helping/loving, it’s not
      3) really be self-aware and re-train yourself.
      It’s a tough thing. And also? To someone of Paul’s generation, calling someone “an addict” is like calling them “a pervert.” There isn’t the knowledge that addictions aren’t chosen. (Neither are perversions, but you get my point.) To call his old friend and collaborator an addict would be unthinkable for Paul, I suspect. And the guilt would be immense; to know your friend is an addict but have not done anything? Really painful. Better to say that he was totally in charge and can handle it.

      • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

        Thanks Michael. I had interpreted Paul’s
        response as being protective, (which it was also), but it makes sense Paul would not or could not, admit his friend was a serious addict, for the reasons you stated. I had never really thought about Paul being co-dependent before.

        Also as discussed here, all the Beatles had addictions to some degree. If Paul admitted John was an addict

        • Avatar Tasmin wrote:


          If Paul admitted John was an addict, he would have to look at his own pot use.

          • Well, sure. And his brother’s alcohol use, and Ringo’s alcohol use, and and and…

            You can understand why someone like Paul would be loathe to open that door. And people don’t open that door unless they absolutely have to. In my experience, people’s lives have to become (as they say) “unmanageable” before addressing these issues. If things are going more or less well, or are even tolerable, you look past it all. I can’t blame anybody for wanting to avoid a hard, painful process, and wanting to keep their comforts. It takes an extraordinary person, or more usually extraordinary circumstances, for that breakthrough to be made. And the life of a rock star is filled with people who want you to stay JUST THE WAY YOU ARE, so they can take advantage of that.

        • Paul is practically the textbook definition of a people-pleaser, including the inner resentment of that. And let’s be honest: just like John’s risk-taking and easy boredom is part of what we love about him, Paul agreeableness is part of what we love about him.

          That’s what makes all this stuff so difficult; addicts and the circles of people around them who support and enable the addiction are not bad people. They are often very good people. But they are people who have fallen into a way of living that causes them and others great pain. This should always be factored into my comments on these issues. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, all and any of you who’ve struggled — we are all doing the best we can.

  21. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    Ok. One of the things that’s happening is that I’m not seeing people’s comments on my past remarks until after I’ve written new ones. So I apologize if I seem not to be responding to some of your comments. I too, Michael G., am enjoying this a lot!

    Based on what I’m now seeing in the comments thread, @Michael B’s remarks on “handling” drugs. I agree with you. When I said Lennon handled drugs early on, I meant that relatively. Relative to later. Yes, he absolutely disappeared into LSD for long stretches and yes he was much more susceptible to getting lost in drugs in general.

    The main point I keep wanting to make that I feel is more important and interesting and that I’m not hearing others address is this: Lennon stayed in the Beatles at first because it was new and amazing and engaging. The tours, the sex, the glamor, the songwriting, the performing, the studio, the friendship with Paul and the others. But at a certain point–being more sensitive, intelligent, and astute than your average bear–he realized it wasn’t addressing the deeper things in life, in himself. I think other rock stars of lesser spiritual depth were happy to keep being famous musicians, but for Lennon this wasn’t enough. This is what I keep trying to get across in these comments.
    So he INVITED heroin and Yoko into his life. It was simply part of his inept process of cutting ties with things he found superficial. Paul, Beatles, Cynthia, good behavior, fame…

    @Michael G, you wrote: “When Michael writes, “Heroin broke up the Beatles,” he’s not saying the chemical compound broke up the band; he’s saying that the drug caused Lennon to act in certain ways, do certain things, and have different perceptions, that he wouldn’t have if he’d been sober; and that these things drove a wedge between himself and his bandmates.
    Is this just semantics? Or do you firmly believe that Lennon’s actions and behavior and decisions were not influenced by his use of heroin?”

    (Sorry if this is formatted poorly)

    I do believe that his actions and behavior were influenced by heroin. But, based on the fact that others acted in different ways on heroin, I think Lennon’s underlying issues influenced that influence. Yes, the chemicals have an effect. But the evidence of other people strongly suggests heroin doesn’t have a single effect on everyone. Lennon was going to do ugly things at this point in his life one way or another. He didn’t have the tools to do otherwise.

    And I agree, @Michael G that he did his best with what he had, that the times were different.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, I’m not addressing that narrative because I don’t see any evidence that it’s true. Like Michael G. said, the actual contemporary evidence from pre-May 1968 is that John is engaged with the band, doing all the little things, writing with Paul (half of Pepper is co-written, and Get Back session tapes reveal that John had a hand in songs like I Will, too) and at least making sporadic efforts to be a father to Julian. The only evidence we have that John was depressed *because he was in the Beatles,* and not, say, because of his mother and father and aunt and uncle and guilt over maybe killing Stu and indirectly killing Brian, is John telling Jann Wenner so in 1970 after he’d set on fire the best thing he ever created—while possibly coked up. Taking Lennon at his word doesn’t account for his lack of objectivity or the conflicting available evidence.

  22. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    Chris, thanks for clarifying. Things are flying fast around here today! 🙂
    One place I do disagree with you: I don’t think Lennon soured on the Beatles because he found the band too superficial. I think that’s the narrative Lennon created and wanted to believe (everything was crap from the day we put on suits, lots of the songs were “shite,” etc. — basically everything he said to Jann Wenner in the early 1970s).
    To me the evidence — in that Gilmore piece I cited and elsewhere — more strongly supports that Lennon was acting out somewhat haphazardly because he was in great pain and not thinking clearly (hello, heroin). To the extent that he did have a goal, it appears to have been reshaping the Beatles to put himself more fully in charge again, and perhaps to include Yoko. When Paul called it quits publicly with the McCartney album, Lennon felt massively betrayed.
    Lennon could have gone on to do a ton of projects without the Beatles had the band continued to exist; heck, they were all already doing side projects. What he couldn’t seem to stand was not being the ultimate leader of the group in the unquestioned way he was at the beginning. And it turned out that Paul had a limit and was finally pushed over it with the Allen Klein business (hence his comment that he hadn’t left the Beatles, the Beatles had left him. And for “the Beatles” in that sentence, I think you can read “John.”)

    • @Nancy, never underestimate the Allen Klein situation as the proximate cause of the breakup. In Paul’s mind — and I think this is probably true — he had to sue Klein and the other three to keep Klein from taking over the Beatles’ catalog. It was the lawsuit that kept Paul out of the studio with the other three (and note Lennon’s glee at them “tricking” Paul into coming into the studio, thus invalidating his claim!); it was the lawsuit that forced Paul to use the McCartney LP as a public statement that the group was over.

      The moment a heroin-addled Lennon invited Klein into the garden, he was no longer in charge of the situation, Klein was. And not seeing Klein for who he obviously was, was at least in part down to heroin. Lennon signed with Klein in January 1969, the absolute nadir of his addiction. Once Paul had to deal with Klein, he had to fight John and the others to save what they’d made together — something that Junkie John simply wouldn’t see or could not admit. (Later John would see it, but by then the group was over.)

      • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

        Very good point about the need to factor in the full nefariousness of Klein’s influence, Michael. That honesty-loving Lennon got to the point of being willing, under Klein’s direction, to try to trick Paul into the studio in that situation reveals just how far below his best self John had fallen at that point.
        Like you, I think Paul was willing to put up with a lot from John, but couldn’t stand the prospect of Klein’s taking over what the four of them had so painstakingly built. Especially not after the experience he and John had years earlier of selling their songwriting rights so cheaply.

        • Yeah! I think that was Paul’s worst nightmare, and had been John’s, too. And then, suddenly, what really mattered was saving the world. (Or at least not being a square.)

        • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

          I just remembered a quote from George Martin:

          “You must remember, Paul would do almost anything for John.”

          Except let Allen Klein own The Beatles.

  23. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    I want you all to know that

    a) you make really good points

    b) these comments are a model for how to argue with respect, insight, and intelligence

    c) I’m still not convinced I’m wrong but I’m too tired to explain why right now. But be warned, I may be less tired tomorrow.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, thank you for pushing back. I get what you’re saying, even though I disagree with it. It’s generally similar to the official narrative about these musicians and drug use. In my opinion, that narrative is inaccurate for the reasons Michael G. explained above, and because the rock press wants access, which won’t be forthcoming if musicians’ stories about their own addiction are picked apart too carefully, AND because most people really don’t want to see their heroes as human. If you’re 16, there’s something appealing about the indestructibility or mythic-ness of a John Lennon who flirts with heroin and then kicks it by tying himself to a chair, or a Keith Richards who can take any drug under the sun and still lead the Stones. But poke and pry at those myths based on what little we know about those men and their bands, and the stories fall apart.

      • I think for me the reason I CARE about the rock-star-as-drug-superman myth is because I think it is a reflection of, or at least an encourager of, the sense held by many fans that they can ALSO do drugs (alcohol included) and not pay any price. Everything in this world, and certainly every pleasure, has a price; the question is, how much, and who pays? I’m not so much of a bluenose to say nobody should ever do drugs, but I think the Boomers have always driven this discussion, and framed it as a matter of their personal freedom, or official hypocrisy, and while those two things are PART of this discussion, they’re not the only factors.
        This discussion is, to me, about who paid what for John Lennon’s dalliance with heroin, however long it lasted. I’d be delighted if the price paid by him was small: that John tried heroin, did it for six months, decided that it wasn’t for him, tied himself to a chair, and kicked it, with the only lasting consequence being “Cold Turkey,” which is a good song. That it didn’t impact his relationships during that six months, and didn’t harm the group dynamic. That’s what I want to be true.
        But I don’t think that’s likely, for all the reasons that I and others have enumerated.
        So what if John lied? What if the price heroin exacted from him was great? What if it drove a huge wedge between him and the rest of the group? Maybe the group was on its way out anyway. And he’d already given so much. And people lie about that kind of thing all the time. Give him a break, right?
        Here’s why I think it matters: the largely self-indulgent, largely naive behavior of the Boomers in regards to drugs — from Tim Leary and Hunter Thompson on down — had massively deleterious effects on their children. (Just as alcohol use by the Depression generation had on THEM.) And it wrecked the political movements that they worked hard to build, The Boomers were so smart, and so RIGHT, about so much; but they were totally wrong about drugs. On their own, drugs aren’t a path to liberation for most people, and they’re a path to misery for a few.
        The Boomers who, emboldened by their rock star heroes, experimented with drugs often talk about them positively; but the people around them also had their experiences. Those experiences matter, too. John’s heroin use wasn’t just about John; it also touched all the people around him, and the closer they were to him, the more his smack was their business.
        To bring this into sharper focus: Julian was unquestionably harmed by his father’s drug use, something he didn’t deserve any more than John deserved Julia and Fred’s immaturity. John may well have said that acid was a good thing in his life, but Julian doubtless sees it differently, and his experience counts, too. And John’s use of heroin during a pivotal, perhaps THE pivotal time in the Beatles’ history — less than a year after Brian’s death, and with the appearance of Yoko — could not have been a good thing for the people around him. Because when you’re on a drug, you’re in a different place, having a different experience, than the people around you. (Now, if Lennon had been taking MDMA in 1968 and ’69, maybe it would’ve helped. But he still would’ve been in his own world.)
        Whether Lennon took heroin to end the Beatles, or the Beatles’ end encouraged him to seek comfort in heroin, there’s unquestionably a relationship between the two things. And I think it’s fair to say that Lennon needed all of his wits about him in the period after August 1967. And he didn’t, which had to make a huge difference on how everything went down.

        • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

          Totally agree. In addition, I think it minimizes what Lennon did achieve and dehumanizes him, to pretend he wasn’t an addict or that substances somehow didn’t affect him the way they affected everybody else. If John Lennon is impervious to things that everyone else struggles with, what can we learn from him? What lessons does his life hold? When he sings “children, don’t do what I have done; I couldn’t walk, and I tried to run,” what does he mean? It doesn’t insult Lennon to say he was an addict; it creates (given his fame and musical legacy) a way to better understand how hard it is to seek and find happiness and personal peace.

          • Nicely said, but there is a hard core of people out there for whom calling someone an addict is like calling them a pederast. Until that changes, you’re going to have a group of Beatle people who will cling to the idea that Lennon was merely “complicated.” Well, he was, but much of this complicatedness had a name which helps you understand it.
            In my experience, the UK is about 20 years behind the US on this–they still see responsible alcohol consumption as a function of maturity, toughness or virtue (“he can hold his liquor,” Major Pilkington said approvingly), rather than the uncaring math of substance + genes.

    • Ooh, don’t leave us in suspense!

      I am delighted that you feel this has been a fruitful discussion; “arguing with respect, insight and intelligence” is the old Dullblog way, and it’s what I’m hoping we can get back to.

  24. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    I’m not arguing for the boomer fantasy that Michael G refers to; I’m not arguing that Lennon was not an addict; I’m not arguing that drugs are benign; I’m not arguing that heroin didn’t affect John’s behavior. The main issue here for me sounds like it is different from yours, Michael G., and Michael B.—like I am a gladiator fighting in the next arena over.

    In fact, what I’m arguing may pop even more or bigger Beatle-fantasy balloons than what you are—I don’t know. I’m arguing Lennon’s asshole-ness goes deeper than heroin. That he might have in fact been a bigger asshole without it. Yes, heroin affected him negatively. Yes, yes, yes, yes. But what if instead he had beat up people like Paul to within an inch of their lives (as he’d done to others in the past) and then killed himself? That’s the kind of underlying anger and pain I intuit was there, from all I remember reading and hearing about Lennon and his past.

    I’m arguing Lennon was going to act ugly. Period. And I could even say it is naïve to imagine that he would have been less ugly without drugs. I can’t of course prove that. But my reading is that John was between a rock and a hard place. The options available to him were ugly and uglier.

    The other Beatles-fantasy balloon that my theory pops is the notion that the Beatles could have been saved. If only it weren’t for heroin, or Yoko, or whatever else. In my reading of Lennon, The Beatles could never contain his full nature. It would take a lot of pages to enumerate the signs I see of that. Accurately or not, I think he felt himself to be more than a pop songwriter. Whereas Paul found full expression of his being in the realm of pop songwriting. Lennon yearned for some greater, deeper sense of truth beyond that world. The Beatles were a beautiful phase in his life. I don’t subscribe to the notion (and I’m not saying anyone here does—you can tell me) that The Beatles could or should have lasted longer.

    I propose that before he did the movie in Spain, before he took acid, before he met Yoko, before he took heroin, John was feeling increasingly less fulfilled by what The Beatles were doing. All these things are the result of that lack of fulfillment and some were the result of that lack of fulfillment along with an addictive, extreme personality. (He could still write songs and participate, yes, but his engagement slackens.)

    I think the personal part of this for me is that I have felt myself move through many phases in my life, looking for something fulfilling. I wrote comedy, then I wrote screenplays, then I wrote and recorded songs, then I wrote more screenplays, then I wrote poetry, now I’m writing poetry as well as essays. Women, too, have come and gone. Things that used to dazzle and delight have lost their sparkle. It has not been emotionally easy and I had talk therapy to help. Unlike Lennon, I never felt drugs would be the answer—whether prescribed or illegal. I don’t know how much the examples of Lennon and others helped me steer clear of them.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, here’s the thing. We have no evidence John was uglier without drugs, or that he was equally as ugly with drugs, because he was seriously addicted to at least one drug the entire time he was in the Beatles, and usually taking at least another 1 or 2 more with regularity. Was John disturbed for reasons that entirely predate drugs? Yes. Was it inevitable that his traumas would manifest themselves in unpleasant ways? Also yes. But alcohol, pills, heroin—all can cause common, serious behavioral side effects on their own, much less when combined, and those side effects are, to put it mildly, not positive. We simply have no “control John Lennon” that we can compare, but we do have a lot of evidence that, for example, daily amphetamine or heroin or alcohol use profoundly clouds your thinking and negatively impacts your ability to regulate emotions. Which is precisely what John was doing.

      What’s more, I’d posit that the feeling of emptiness John retroactively ascribed to his 1966-67 likely had less to do with the Beatles than with untreated depression/trauma/borderline personality disorder. Lennon, as the sufferer, and without therapy, wasn’t in a position to contemplate that. The Beatles were a target to blame, just like Cynthia or capitalism or Richard Nixon. All of those things surely made John angry or upset at times. But knowing all we know about John, it’s far more likely that the howling void came from within, from parental abandonment and unmourned deaths and guilt and untreated personality disorder. Otherwise, why did his life get worse after leaving the Beatles? Why didn’t he stay clean for the rest of his life? Why did he struggle more, not less, to make great art and art he was proud of? Why did he spend more time proclaiming he was an artist while never again making anything to match the art he made with the Beatles between 1964-67? Why did his identity and image change more often and more drastically? Why did he retreat from the world for five years into a cocoon of Thai stick, smack, and television? Why did he look so unhealthy and grim when he finally re-emerged? Why did he never return to England after getting his green card, despite being homesick for it? These are just the first questions I have that come to mind when I consider whether John might have been right on the money when he said his problem was disillusionment with the Beatles.

    • This is really sharp. Thank you, @Chris.
      I, like Lennon, have been fortunate or unfortunate enough to have my childhood dreams come true. (I had much smaller dreams, obviously.) And there IS an undeniable, down-to-the-roots disillusionment when that happens. It’s quite a moment when you realize that the internal problems that the child was trying to solve by achieving that dream, whatever the dream was, are still there, relatively untouched.
      I don’t think this was the precise driver of Lennon’s breakdown in early 1968; I have a specific theory about that, that I’m preparing to unleash. But I do think that it was the source of his general alienation after ’65. He didn’t set out to become the most famous man in the world for nothing; and when he’d busted ass and sold himself out to do it, and the problems remained, well…”Help!”
      But here’s the thing: John Lennon was smart, and charming, and resourceful. This is what Goldman, for all his research, didn’t get. People would not have cut him the slack they did, especially before he got famous. Paul, George and Ringo wouldn’t have stuck with him if he were an asshole. Brian wouldn’t have either, nor George Martin. I think he was angry, and a total mess, but I don’t think he was an asshole; his success depended on a whole team helping him, believing in him, and loving him.
      Furthermore, if John were an asshole, I don’t think he would’ve felt the guilt he felt, and we wouldn’t be able to bond with him as millions have. This is the fundamental difference between John Lennon and Yoko Ono; both were/are important, driven artists, with similar emotional damage. But Lennon could connect with people — that was his great gift. Yoko cannot, and that’s why she’s so resentful, even with the life she has. I think John Lennon was, under all the trauma, and all the bad decisions that caused, a damn decent guy. I think he TRIED to be better; that’s what all the gurus and self-help were for.
      I think John Lennon did a thing that’s classic to addicts. His trauma makes him do a thing to self-regulate, and that thing has all sorts of CNS side-effects that make for negative consequences, and then he has to deal with the consequences of his actions, which make it harder for him to self-regulate, and the cycle continues.
      You’re miserable, so you do smack, and the smack makes you act weird and be cruel to your friends, and then at some point, you realize what you’ve done and that makes you more miserable, so you do more smack…
      If addicts were assholes, nobody would put up with their shit. They are often incredibly charming and talented, and I think this is adaptive.
      Anyway, I don’t mean to beat a dead horse (maybe too late!), but I will also say that I for one see no reason why The Beatles could not have continued indefinitely as an artistic unit. The Stones, their closest equivalent, certainly have. In a world where all sorts of amazing things had to take place just perfectly for The Beatles to happen, once they had happened having them continue is hardly wishful thinking. The Stones are eternal, The Who kept going until Keith died, Cream reunited, Zep reunited, Queen reunited… In fact, I think a lot of bad luck had to line up just perfectly for the group to split.
      As you’ve said, Chris, it was HARD to leave The Beatles, and once out, to stay out.

      • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

        @Michael that’s an interesting thought. What if one little thing had gone differently? Like, what if Alma Cogan (whom John believed to have his mother’s spirit, and with whom he had an affair) hadn’t died three weeks or so before he met Yoko, in 1966?

        • Oh yes.
          Or if Brian had been able to raise some friends that night?
          Or if John had met a simpatico therapist or mental health professional — his version of W. H. R. Rivers?
          Or if they’d been charmed by a guru with more experience, in an established tradition, who wouldn’t just drop them into the deep end?
          Or if they’d found a proper businessman to run Apple?
          Or if he’d picked another manager other than Allen Klein?
          And so forth. All of those things had to go spectacularly wrong, right in a row, for the working partnership to splinter.

          John Lennon, in late 1966, could have done anything. Anything.

      • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

        Michael, great point about Lennon’s fundamental kindness/decency. So important to keep that in mind in this discussion. He wouldn’t have been so emotionally reactive if he didn’t, at some level, care about the people he was hurting. And he was too smart to be able to continuously avoid seeing that he was hurting them.
        A question: at what point, and in what way, do you see Lennon “selling himself out” with the Beatles?
        Also, The Who actually kept going way after Keith Moon died!

        • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

          Not the Michael you were referring to, Nancy, but I never see Lennon selling himself out to be in the group. From beginning to end, he was permitted to record exactly the type of music he wanted to record. The suits phase was something John wanted too, in order to be that famous. He was into Pepper.

          I do see John selling the band out in 1969, by coasting along on heroin fumes while introducing dividing influences like Klein and Yoko. He stopped bringing his A game.

        • @Nancy, I agree with @Michael B on this point—-in so much as I don’t think that (for example) dropping the leathers for Pierre Cardin suits was something that Lennon hated at the time. Saying he hated it in 1970 was a pose, in my opinion.
          But the game of being a popular artist is a strange one, and once again I am speaking from personal experience. What makes you popular–and what makes you want to do it in the first place–is connecting authentically with an audience. But as that audience gets larger, and as in you engage with the distribution and publicity aspects, the pressure to turn yourself into a cartoon of sorts becomes immense. Continuing to connect authentically with your audience becomes more and more fatiguing. So, in part to conserve your energy for the actual creation of the work, you allow your own cartoonification, as it were.
          This process accretes over the years, and you will occasionally get a sudden glimpse of it, and be shocked at its inauthenticity. At those moments you think, “Why the fuck am I still doing this? The person that these people love, or say they love, is not me.”
          No persona can be as complex and nuanced as the individual behind it; and the more famous one becomes, the simpler the persona must be to be “broadcast“ widely. I was so sensitive to this process that I actively turned away from it after just one big book; but then again, I was 33 and had a ton of therapy. The Poisoned apple that Lennon bit into was much more delicious, and was offered to him at age 22. No one could’ve resisted it; and anyone sensitive enough to make good work Would have begun to feel that poison immediately.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Chris, I can also really relate to your last paragraph. I agree that John got to the top of the mountain and realized it didn’t fix the things he was hoping it would fix, and that that was one of the things that triggered the depression he more or less was in and out of the rest of his life. I think that’s partly because he was incredibly gifted, and no one idiom could be a vehicle for all his talents. But there were alternatives—he could have tried other art forms on the side instead of taking drugs to excess. He had every resource in the world to try new things. That he ended up spending his free time taking drugs unlike Paul or George says to me that the deepest burning need was more historically rooted than one to express himself in other media. And *that* makes me think that the end of the Beatles wasn’t inevitable. (Whether that’d be good or bad is a different discussion.)

  25. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    Those are good points, Chris. It’s certainly plausible that Lennon might have acted out more violently than he did, had he not been on heroin. Certainly it would be naive to suggest that everything with the Beatles might have been peachy-keen in the 1960s except for heroin. There were more than enough reasons for tensions to be brewing.
    Could/should the Beatles have gone on longer than they did? Maybe, if they’d been able to keep loosening up the band to give everyone more room for side projects — which they were doing more and more (George’s work with Ravi Shankar, Paul’s work on “The Family Way,” John’s work on “How I Won The War,” etc. How sustainable would such a model of occasional collaboration have been for them, and what quality of music would they have produced in those circumstances? I really don’t know.
    I do think heroin contributed heavily to the WAY the band broke up. Without it, and without Allen Klein, who only gained the power he did because a heroin-using Lennon let him have it, the band might at least have called it quits with less damage all around.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      @Nancy, besides George, who had a legitimate need to get those songs out, I see the problem as being more about Paul and John’s natural need to find identities in addition to being in a gang of guys. Paul had no problem balancing both—he was active in the London arts scene, wrote and produced other artists, etc. It was John who needed the others more than they needed him, as Cynthia put it, which is probably why he turned on them like a rebellious teenager in 1968 at a time of crisis.

  26. Avatar Marlo wrote:

    Loving this discussion, very interesting.
    Speaking as someone with some experience with drugs, and family and friends with addiction issues,I would say marijuana and LSD aren’t necessarily benign drugs, they are just a channel.
    They open up the voices in your head, which may be helpful or very destructive.
    I think John might have retreated into heroin as a substance he could use to escape, but without the head-miles that come with more psycho-active drugs.
    Heroin really just turns you into a meat-bag that doesn’t have to think or feel.
    And he found a person who would take care of all that boring bothersome stuff. It was a perfect storm to look after his needs, in a negative way.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      Marlo, that part about “opening up the voices in your head” being the result of marijuana and LSD makes a lot of sense when looking at Lennon in the late 60s. As others on the thread have pointed out, those voices must have included the traumas he’d tried so hard to tamp down. Heroin, coming after those drugs, really could have felt like the “escape” you mention. To me that ties in to what Chris said about heroin possibly preventing Lennon from acting out violently in response to the turmoil he was feeling.
      I’ve been thinking about why so many of us are deeply interested in this topic, and speaking for myself, it’s about at least two things. It’s partly about history (why did these four men, who had an unbelievably strong artistic alchemy together, come apart in such a damaging way?), and partly about understanding how people more generally navigate changing circumstances / relationships. Chris said something like this in his latest post, I believe. Not to make it sound too pat, but what can we learn from looking at the breakup that we can use in our own lives? (As a side note, I really wish the Gallagher brothers of Oasis fame would manage not to emulate Lennon and McCartney with their own band breakup.)

  27. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    The discussion on whether John was an asshole without drugs made me remember this interview on The Beatles Channel, with Freda Kelly. For those that don’t know,
    “Freda Kelly was secretary to Brian Epstein and the The Beatles from 1962 through 1972, and president of the group’s official fan club.” (Wikipedia)

    Freda said that John was the most sensitive of
    all The Beatles. He could get his feelings hurt easily.
    I think this sensitivity is what made him NOT an asshole. How can you be the leader of The Beatles, whose music WAS/IS happiness and love, if you are?

    This sensitivity is also, I believe, what made him so vulnerable to drugs. Coupled with his childhood issues of course.

  28. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    In reply to both Michaels!
    Good point about the “poisoned apple” of fame, Michael G. Dealing with other people’s expectations and strong reactions all the time must have felt to all four of them like being under a heat lamp they could never escape.
    Michael B., I agree with your reading that Lennon didn’t “sell out” until he checked out with heroin.
    In general: One thing we haven’t mentioned specifically on this thread is the overall atmosphere of the late 60s. In 1969, the year Michael B. focuses on in the post, you have the ongoing Vietnam war, Altamont, and the Manson murders, the last of which includes a spooky Beatles link through Manson’s crazy reading of the White Album. I don’t want to get all woo-woo here, but it sure seems like the overall vibes were bad. And that can’t have helped.
    Particularly if Lennon was already ambivalent about fame, things like Manson’s appropriation of the band’s music must have made him very uncomfortable.

  29. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    First of all, how do you guys do that cool excerpting of a quote from another comment to embed into yours?

    In the absence of the above skill set, let me attempt to respond to a few of you and perhaps babble a bit more.

    One thing I think we are not keeping more front and center is, again, heroin—and drugs in general—affect people in different ways (talk a lot, shut up, become fragile, and so on), but that in general it seems to be a numbing drug not an agro drug. I lived with a woman who was fantastic at her job at a pretty high administrative level because she was brilliant and cared deeply. But she was prickly and impatient and prone to outbursts which would have alienated her. She smoked pot every day before work to take the edge off her sharp corners. And it seemed to work fine. You’d never know she was “a pot-head.” She just fit in better and was still highly effective. Pot makes me paranoid. I hate it. And again, Keith never dreamed of ending of the Stones while strung out.

    @Michael B., Lennon’s lack of artistic success or happiness after the Beatles break-up, doesn’t to me mean he didn’t WANT something more or different. It just says to me that he didn’t necessarily find it, or achieve the artistic or popular success with it that he did with The Beatles. But, hey, NO ONE has EVER found that kind of artistic and popular success.

    This also segues into my thoughts about your comments, @Michael G. when you point out that other groups like the Stones and the Who stayed together longer. The Beatles, I assume we all agree, were not those groups, but magic of a higher order. And I think what made that magic was that you had at least three people who on their own were very strong, intelligent, creative, deep, caring people, all in different ways. And these people somehow melded that individuality into a super-organism that was in a different league from the other great groups you mentioned. (I don’t want to disparage Ringo as a contributor to their music—he was a brilliant drummer, perfect for the group.)

    I absolutely agree that Lennon was a beautiful, loving man. When I refer to his asshole-ness, I am only referring to one aspect of his behavior. To me, there’s four or so layers to Lennon of successive fundamentality (which should be a word if it isn’t): drugged Lennon, angry Lennon, hurt Lennon, loving and playful Lennon.

  30. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    @Michael G., I appreciate your insights into the cartoonification process as the wheels of popularity take you out for a spin. I think that’s spot on and was multiplied by 4,987,637,329 for Lennon. That, of course, is an estimate.

  31. I didn’t really complete my thought about the Beatles being at least three powerful souls and how that connects to the thread here. My point was that such individually amazing, deep people probably find it harder to stay in a group. I intuit that The Beatles were a finely balanced unit for a time (and very insular, perhaps to keep that fine balance), but that each personality could only do that for a brief and sublime window in time.

    • This makes sense.
      But also: the making-music part of being a Beatle was FUN. And they knew they were great, and as the years passed, realized that they were better together than they were apart. There’s a pleasure to running your own show, but there’s also the pleasure of being delighted by collaborators. So without the legal stuff, I suspect the group would’ve downshifted in the 70s, with each doing solo music mostly, but coming together to do a Beatles LP when they were so moved (or whenever George needed the money).

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      Christopher, your comment reminds me of Mark Lewisohns book “Tune In”, where he talks about how John, Paul and George were such strong individuals. I got the sense reading it, that that was going to be an issue for the group down the road.

  32. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    That sounds totally possible, @Michael G. And I agree. Except, I get the sense, at least from George and John, that even though they knew they couldn’t top the Beatles on their own, they resented being associated with the Beatles. Even when they were making Anthology, wasn’t there some hesitation on George’s part? I sense that George and John wanted to be known for and do other things. And being any part of The Beatles felt like it threatened their sense of individuality. I could be wrong but that’s the vibe I get.

    • Absolutely, George would’ve never done Anthology had Denis O’Brien not embezzled a ton of his money. I don’t know if it ever got near to him losing FPSHOT, but that was the only reason Anthology and The Threetles happened.
      I get that same sense from John and George, too, but on the other hand, there’s this post, which you should read if you haven’t.
      John’s opinion about Paul and The Beatles seemed to blow hot and cold; and if it blew very cold at times, it also blew very hot (1975/76). Once he died, though, I think it became solely about nostalgia, which I think George despised. I think he felt nostalgia hindered awakening.

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      From my understanding, George hesitated on doing Anthology, because John was gone, and it wasn’t The Beatles, without all 4 of them.

      I read an interview with George, I think it was in “Guitar Player” magazine, or something like that, where he said he felt he had to represent John on Anthology, so he adopted a sort of “debunking” attitude like John. He said he did enjoy it.
      I think it did heal some issues between he and Paul.

  33. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    @Tasmin–interesting about George’s remarks. Thanks!

    @Michael G–I read the post you referred me too. Great piece. You make a compelling argument.

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