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.