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I’m writing this because the discussion on the “Were John and Paul Lovers?” post has been niggling at me for a while now. Though it was published more than six years ago, it’s one of Hey Dullblog’s most viewed and most contentious posts. And because Michael Gerber and I read every comment as it goes through moderation, we’re aware of movements on the blog in a way others may not be. Given the persistent interest in this topic, I’ve decided that it’s worth articulating my thoughts about it in more depth.
I want to emphasize that the frustrations I’m expressing are directed not at any individual or group, but at the larger patterns and tendencies I’ll specify. I value this blog as a place for substantive, respectful conversation, and have no wish to point fingers at anyone in a destructive way.
Michael’s original post posed the question of whether Lennon and McCartney were ever physically intimate or had erotic/romantic feelings for each other. The available evidence makes that a reasonable question. In another post I’ve explained why I think our culture tends to undervalue and oversimplify friendship, and the way that to me the “Lennon and McCartney must have been in a sexual relationship” idea exemplifies that. But here I want to focus on four things that give me qualms about the John/Paul narrative and the reaction to it, and that’s because they reflect larger issues.
1. “Alternative facts”
Making claims with very little evidence, or cherry picking evidence, is a tendency I’m perpetually dismayed to see playing out on a national and international scale. In terms of the Beatles story, the “Paul is dead” conspiracy myth is the most egregious example. Proponents of this “theory” spend time analyzing ear height in various photos but avoid the questions that quickly make nonsense of the story. And at times I believe the “Lovers” discussion has gone in a similar direction.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is the title of one of Delmore Schwartz’s stories, and in my view we incur responsibilities when we choose which stories to tell and retell. In particular, it makes sense to think about why we are drawn to a particular story, and what consequences, intended or unintended, stem from its telling.
2. Unacknowledged wish fulfillment
In a comment on the “Lovers” thread, I noted that the “John/Paul” narrative closely resembles the slash fanfiction that is found in conjunction with many other pop culture phenomena. Kirk/Spock fanfiction seems to be one of the earliest to surface. Today there is slash fanfiction for a wide range of books, films, and TV shows, including Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Game of Thrones, and The Lord of the Rings, to name just a few of the more prominent. Available evidence (which is tough to authenticate, since many writers are anonymous) suggests that most slash fanfiction writers are women. Why women choose to write and read stories about men in romantic sexual relationships is a complex question. One relative constant in such stories, however, is the emphasis on emotions and relatively intricate plotting, at least as compared to plain old porn. In slash fanfiction, sexual activity can be quite explicitly depicted or merely suggested.
Writing fiction that is acknowledged as fiction and consumed as fiction is one thing. Presenting a narrative that is at best tenuously supported with evidence as reality is something else again. My own opinion is that there is no problem with anyone writing or enjoying John/Paul fanfiction. It’s when there is a strong investment in believing in an ongoing, intense romantic relationship between them that I disagree. There’s just too much evidence that has to be ignored or explained away for that narrative to be credible.
3. Writing out women
A lot of the evidence that has to be ignored or explained away comes from the life and comments of Lennon and McCartney themselves. I’m going to pass over a lot here (the many stories from the touring years about the insatiable skirt-chasing, Lennon’s first marriage and possible affairs, McCartney’s relationships with Jane Asher and others) and focus on their marriages.
Both men were eloquent about their long-term romantic partners. John talked at length about Yoko Ono, as Paul did about Linda McCartney. They wrote songs with and about their wives and repeatedly performed with them. Arguing that the two men’s real passion was for each other doesn’t just imply that they were both liars (more on that in a minute). It also radically deemphasizes the role of a key woman in each man’s life.
There’s already been far too much downplaying of the importance of women in the Beatles story, and I hate to see that trend continue. It’s worth remembering that Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney got roasted by the press and fans for years. Lennon and McCartney stuck it out with those women in the face of a lot of pressure to do otherwise. Both Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney deserve a great deal more recognition of their central importance to these two men’s lives.
4. Presenting Lennon and McCartney as lifelong liars
Finally, buying the “love of each other’s lives” story about Lennon and McCartney makes them cowardly liars who persisted in falsehood for years. The idea that there was erotic attraction between them that may or may not have been acted on at some point is not what I am talking about here. I’m talking about the narrative that they were each other’s true loves, and the corollary that they concealed their primary same-sex attraction for decades.
Believing this would make Cynthia Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jane Asher, Linda McCartney, Heather Mills, and Nancy Shevell “beards” that Lennon and McCartney used to fool the public into thinking they were straight. It would make all the interviews both men gave about their passionate love for those women a tissue of lies. It would make McCartney, in particular – who has lived long enough to see same-sex attraction and marriage be widely accepted – contemptible in his refusal to be honest.
I believe we have the responsibility to discuss the lives of real people with care. If someone wants to embrace a story about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson being embroiled in a torrid long-term relationship, it’s hard to argue that anyone is hurt. But the Beatles aren’t fictional characters, however easy it can be to treat them as such. Speaking for myself, my ability to enjoy the Beatles music would be substantially undermined if I learned that the members of the band had been, for years, systematically misleading the world about something fundamental. There’s a high bar of factual provability that I’d need to see cleared before assenting to believe that Lennon and McCartney, for all their manifest flaws, were complicit in a scheme like that.
And, in the end . . . .
Real talk: I’m seriously worried about where we are heading, both as a nation and as a world community, in large part because of the “alternative facts” trend I noted at the beginning of this piece. Compared to things like climate change, impeachment, and the political misinformation that is rampant on social media, the John/Paul story is very small beer indeed. But here at Hey Dullblog, we’ve always believed that talking about the Beatles is a way to talk also about larger issues. I’m convinced that the ethical standards we use to decide which stories to tell and give credence to matter, and that’s why I decided to write this post.
Hey Dullblog has always been, and I hope will remain, a place where many opinions are welcome. Please take this post as my own considered opinion on this topic.