- Something Happened - March 6, 2023
- The Beatles As They Were Heard: KHJ 93 Los Angeles - March 4, 2023
- All is well! - February 28, 2023
Is there, do you think, a secret history of The Beatles? In a private email, commenter Justin and I began talking about this Dullblog post—which, nearly ten years later, remains the best summary of my feelings on the breakup. (For those short on time: I think Lennon pulled away from Paul and the group impulsively, almost by mistake, driven by his pride, his manager, his habit and his wife, pretty much in that order; and then didn’t have the emotional tools to walk it back, even though he regretted it immediately and eventually realized it killed him creatively.)
The secret history of the Beatles is, to me, the four of them as people. I’m attracted to this reading of the breakup because it’s messy and lives in the emotional realm—if you pin me down, I’ll admit I think it’s more likely precisely because it can’t be proven. Because it makes the Beatles feel like human beings, not corporate entities masquerading as people. And because it rejects the simple narratives put forth by Lennon in 1971, Apple since 1970, and the Estate since 1980—all of which are based on none of the four guys (but Lennon especially) realizing how special The Beatles were. That Lennon, for example, really thought that his jams with Yoko were as epochal as Chuck Berry, or that George really couldn’t tell the difference in musicianship between Delaney & Bonnie and John, Paul, and Ringo. That the world’s reaction to the Beatles’ music was only teenybopper hysteria. Well, I don’t buy it. If you have the taste and ability to make all those great songs, you also have the taste and ability to hear what all of us hear.
That earlier post was kicked off by this even earlier post, detailing a bunch of surprising items once owned by Derek Taylor. That auction included a letter from George Harrison to the other Beatles, posted on the wall at Apple in 1969, asking them not to break up. “A flower on its own is pretty. A flower in a garden is beautiful.”
What? Famously let-me-outta-here George asking the others to cool it and keep the group together? That single memo changed my ideas about George during the breakup and as a person…which led to my thinking more seriously and analytically about who broke up the band, and why.
I bet the photo above—which appears to be genuine, according to the redoubtable BPB—makes you see Lennon a little differently. It did me!
Is there document or statement or such that’s changed your vision of the group, or the four guys? Could there be one? Share it in the comments.
I 100% agree to the breakup being MUCH more complicated than business dealings. If,and that is a BIG if,something was going on between John and Paul that would certainly explain the messy as hell breakup and why the whole group broke up. J&P were the principal songwriters and essentially the leaders of,the Beatles,and if they couldn’t stand being in the same room anymore,then the whole group would go to hell in a hand basket. I REALLY wish we could learn what happened.
I’ve been talking to Michael about my feelings about George Harrison. I vacillate between thinking he was a passive-aggressive grouch who should have stood up for himself if he wasn’t happy with the group’s MO and feeling sorry for a man who was put in the impossible position of trying to flourish next to two incredibly talented, strong-willed men who didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Even if Paul is my favourite Beatle, what we know about his future attempts at collaboration suggests that he could easily have been a total nightmare for George to be around. And it’s very interesting that, even given all we now know about George’s main 1969 problems being with John and Yoko, he said years later that he’d be in a band with John any day but never again one with Paul. Even if we allow for the way the ongoing wranglings coloured everyone’s statements in the ’70s, it’s pretty damning to say that someone’s working style set your confidence as a player back by years.
As Michael said to me, the “secret history” of the Beatles allows for such relentlessly dismissive and unkind treatment from John and Paul (basically, take the ‘you just write daft songs’ anecdote and multiply it by 365 days a year for 10 years) that any resentment he suffered for the rest of his life would be a lot more understandable if we knew about it all.
To me as an outside observer, J&P seem an awful lot like George’s dysfunctional parents, with John as the absentee “cool father” and Paul as the overbearing mother. Think about the tropes: the overbearing mother as almost unbearably controlling and stifling, but also the first person you turn to in a crisis and, ultimately, the person you love most in the world. This fits. And the absentee father as someone you have a lot more fun with, share cultural experiences and illicit substances with and try to model yourself on, until eventually their lack of genuine concern for you becomes too much and the relationship suffers a permanent break. This also fits. What is George’s eventual relief over the split if not a young man’s relief after flying the nest and living his life without his mother micromanaging him?
TL;DR: if Paul was the mother who was more irritating on a day-by-day basis, John was the father who let George down in the end. I mean, Paul even nursed George on his deathbed! (Incidentally, few post-Beatles facts show Paul in a more saintly light, or make me happier.)
Justin, what you say here about Paul as an “overbearing mother” reminds me of something Rob Sheffield says in one of the chapters of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran. He compares Paul to his own “bossy Irish sister” and makes a pretty good case for it; yeah, she can be an insufferable know-it-all, but ultimately she truly cares about you as a member of the family and is the one who will always be there.
I have to say that one thing that stands out to me more and more about the whole Beatles story, as I get on in years myself, is just how young they were when everything went down. These were guys in their 20s, and they’d had to contend with an unprecedented amount of fame for years. That no one overdosed, was in a major car accident, or otherwise permanently ruined his life seems like a miracle, really.
Age at the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night—
(Somebody check me?)
Haha, he gets compared to women a lot doesn’t he? Wonder if he’s ever said how he feels about that. As for their age and resilience, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it past 1964 without a nervous breakdown or some sort of health scare. Every one of them was as strong as an ox, physically and mentally.
I have been curious as well, about the relationship between George and Paul.
There is a great interview in Rolling Stone, January 2002, with Tom Petty. He was of course, great friends with George, and a fellow Wilbury. This interview was after George died.
Here’s an excerpt on George’s feeling about his fellow Beatles.
“How do you think he felt about the Beatles as he got older?
I just know what I’ve heard from George as the years went by. But he was very funny, like, “The Beatles, they weren’t all that they were cracked up to be [laughs]. He loved the Beatles. He used to bitch sometimes about individual Beatles who got on his nerves. But he really loved them down deep, and I knew this. I think that a lot of George’s personality was formed by John. This is just a guess, but that was the way it appeared to me. He looked up to John so much. He said, “Oh, John would be a Wilbury in a second.” He’d say about Paul, “Paul is a year older than me, and he still is.” But he really loved Paul, too. And he really loved Ringo.”
I think your assessment of John and Paul as George’s dysfunctional parents is right on.
Ringo has even said that John and Paul were like an
old married couple fighting, and he and George were their kids.
Here’s the link for the Tom Petty interview about George.
There’s also a great story where George talks about having Paul and Linda over for dinner, and how loud they were!
“Is there document or statement or such that’s changed your vision of the group, or the four guys? Could there be one?”
I can’t offer up anything profound here. But let me come at this question by presenting the hopefully interesting experience of a ‘Beatles newcomer’. I’m a Beatles fan born in the 80s, I knew pretty much nothing about their story until watching the Anthology documentary in the mid-90s. As we all know, that documentary presents the politburo-approved, shellacked version of the official story. (The Anthology book has some more behind-the-scenes insight, but I hadn’t read that.)
So all I had was the ‘official story 101’ perspective – plus the music. I quickly realised that the story was extraordinary and actually a bit cosmic – very rapidly the Beatles magic did its thing and I was drawn into life-long fandom, like so many others before me. But I knew almost nothing of the behind-the-scenes human story. I was like some kind of historiographical test-case – virgin snow into which Goldman et al would soon trample.
I started reading and watching a bit more. What struck me most of all, out of all the facets of the story, was the disparity between the official John and the real John. Official John was – simply by omission – painted as just another of the four happy-go-lucky lads (albeit one with an odd childhood). Real John, it becomes clear, was ‘disturbed’ (Paul’s word) psychologically to a degree that is really hard to believe given all he achieved in the Beatles. This disconnect is a big part of what makes the Beatles so fascinating to me. On reflection, that John’s mental life was turbulent one picks up intuitively from his music; but the Anthology documentary looks away from this important aspect of the story. I think this is sad: I agree with Michael that the human flaws of the Beatles only makes their story that bit more compelling.
My vision of the other three Beatles hasn’t really shifted that much, despite all I’ve read – and it’s not that I think of them as simpler characters than Lennon, just that my early intuitive vision of them pretty much matches my later, more-informed vision.
As for something that would now instigate a shift in my vision of the group as a whole? I think any such thing would have to revolve around the central Beatles axis of the Lennon-McCartney relationship e.g. I’m imagining the release of secret letters between J and P from the late 70s – perhaps discussing their feelings towards each other and the Beatles, and a possible getting back together. I wonder if Yoko has something like this in a refrigerated voodoo shrine in the basement of the Dakota….
However, short of revealing the John-Paul romance so many long for , I’m struggling to think what such letters might contain that hasn’t already found light of day elsewhere. What could it be?
@Ben, I say unto ye (and everybody else): you simply CANNOT accomplish what John Lennon accomplished before the age of 30 without really powerful mental turbulence. There is no reason to crave that BIG success, drive yourself so hard until you get it, then eat the shit you eat when it happens.
Only a person trying to work out a deep, primal injury would have the drive and obsessiveness to imagine a Beatles, then gather a Beatles, then make a Beatles happen. The darkness is the fuel that makes the dream happen. Ask me how I know.
Then, after the dream happens and the darkness remains, there is a kind of despair which is either resolved or not. (This is why the 27 Club exists.)
You wanna know how driven John was? He saw a person as talented as he was, and immediately grabbed him for the band. He knew this would be more difficult; but he also knew that it increased his chances immensely. I truly believe that Paul and George were both as talented as John; but neither man had the extra, mostly dark quality necessary to think of a Beatles, or make a Beatles happen. Lemme explain what I mean.
Paul could imagine a kind of love other than worship; we know this because of all the romances and then stable marriages. For young John to make up for the love he didn’t get, and to feel safe, he had to be in absolute control: he had to be worshipped. John established a D/S relationship with Beatle fans; this also explains Yoko (“You WILL love her as much as I do”) and John’s not wanting to be a Beatle almost immediately after the fans called out their safe-word. Paul’s relationship with love was/is more conventional, more securely attached, less excessive. Feel the difference between worship and applause, and not only do you feel the difference between John and Paul, psychologically, you also can chart the course of their entire lives. Paul was/is more normal.
George did not have John’s tendency towards monomania; George had a stable, permanent self outside of Beatledom/guru-hood. When John wasn’t playing or writing music, he was practically a ghost. With the small exception of his time as a Pop Messiah, when John wasn’t doing Beatle-things, he didn’t exist. There was no John other than Beatle John. This was necessary equipment from 1957-1962, and after that it made him pace like a tiger in a cage, or numb out on drugs. Harrison was more normal.
So the important thing is not what most fans are coming to believe about John — “Oh, he was bipolar/violent/an addict/etc” — it’s that those big flaws were necessary for the Beatles to happen, and then sustain. Lennon’s darkness was the driver, and I’m not saying that to excuse it, or ennoble it. I’m saying it to explain why this blog talks about it so much, and to correct a problem in our modern mindset. We, as fans, want the flower without the manure. That’s impossible. That’s why I reject the Official Version. You don’t get a Beatles without a ruthless man driven by deep self-loathing and something to prove. You also don’t get a Beatles without a world-charmer like McCartney. It can’t happen. The former gives you Beatles, but also gives you Bob Wooler getting nearly beat to death. The latter gives you Beatles, but leaves a series of jilted lovers and probably quite a few hushed-up pregnancies.
By far the biggest difference between John and Paul is Paul’s lack of violence. He had/has his own struggles, but if you want to see the difference, see how this feels: “Paul once kicked a man to death in Hamburg.” Can you even imagine that? I can’t.
I’m curious Michael, are you saying that one has to be damaged to create, or achieve greatness?
I agree that this was the driver for Lennon, but is that a requirement for ANY success? And isn’t that the argument that’s used against Paul?
John was edgier because of his childhood traumas, so therefore he was more “artistic” than Paul, who’s childhood was more stable.
Tasmin, if I’m understanding Michael aright he’s not saying that being damaged is necessary to creativity, but that it is necessary for the nuclear-fusion level of burning ambition that made it possible for Lennon to dream up the Beatles. No question that McCartney was ambitious too — they all were, or they wouldn’t have made it in the first place or stayed in it as long as they did — but it was Lennon who lit the spark. He was the one asking “Where are we going, boys?” and they were the ones answering “To the toppermost of the poppermost!” They were in it together, but he was the driver.
I don’t see that as a rap on McCartney at all. His “failing” is being relatively better adjusted than Lennon. And the Beatles could never have made it if the band had had more than one Lennon-type personality in it.
I guess I’m thinking more universally. Yes, that’s what it took for Lennon, but what about other artists, and people who have achieved great things?
Does it have to come from a place of darkness?
“The darkness is the fuel that makes the dream happen.”
@Tasmin, first off know that this opinion comes from my own career, as well as the hundreds of top comedy people I work with. So it’s just an opinion, but it’s a fairly well-informed opinion, about the kind of people who seek out a career in the arts, are successful in it, and then that 1/100th of 1% that are the real world-changers.
I absolutely DO NOT think that a person has to be damaged to create, or even be successful in the arts. I do think that an excessive commitment to an art makes it more likely that a person will develop their style to such a degree that they will achieve singularity in the field (“nobody does it like that person”). And once you have reached that point, then it’s a question of other factors mostly outside your control whether you will achieve “greatness.” John Lennon came along with his Beatles when the world was ready for a Beatles; he couldn’t know that. And he wasn’t in charge of the scale of success, either — an event like the Sullivan show is the confluence of a million factors.
I think I touched on this in the comment, but probably the single biggest factor in John Lennon’s success was his ability to co-create The Beatles with Paul McCartney. So John’s excessive commitment to the goal of stardom, caused by his damage, actually made him do something more well-adjusted in that case. His ruthlessness and single-mindedness was stronger than his ego. Until 1968; then, as soon as John reneged on this bargain, his greatness disappeared. Lennon after ’68 is merely successful, no longer great.
I actually think that Paul’s childhood trauma is within spitting distance of John’s. I suspect that Paul comes from an alcoholic family, like the other three (remember that Liverpool and the UK had a culture which, if you had any tendency whatsoever towards abusing alcohol, it was right there for you). That’s a hell of a trauma. Then/Also, his mother dies.
These are not out-of-the-ordinary things, but they do mark a person, and they do become drivers of ambition. And they instill in a person a craving to make a new world, one that’s better or different or fits them in a way that current reality does not. I think this is the key to an artistic temperament. So, given his talents and traumas, I think Paul would’ve been creative whether he’d met John or not, and successful at it too. Paul’s gifts are the gifts I see in a lot of topflight creative people. I do not see Paul having the internal rage to make it to the very top without John; conversely, I think John’s rage would’ve ended his rise very early without Paul. Paul without John could’ve been Robert Fraser, easily; or Richard Neville; or a million other things. I think Paul without John would’ve had the knotty problem of what success to choose, and might not have been so very successful because he could do too many things very well, and would’ve likely gotten a certain amount of money/power/prestige without trying so very hard.
Despite the John Cult, John’s sources of trauma were not that extraordinary before his mother’s death, and his ending up with Mimi (and, while he lived, George) was about the best outcome imaginable. But I suspect Julia’s “come here/get away” dance while he was a teenager, and then her death (was she drunk, btw? Did she weave out into the street? I just realized I’ve never heard one way or the other) were fresh motivating traumas on top of the initial abandonment. He had plenty of reason to push himself. But it’s John’s talent that made him extraordinary, not his traumas.
I think John and Paul’s young lives dealt them a roughly equal share of difficult shit. And George and Ringo got plenty of tough stuff, too. Of the four, it’s maybe Ringo who overcame the most. But of the four there’s something EXTRA going on with John; depression/bipolar/something. Violence. That’s why his traumas have been enshrined — not because of the St. Lennon myth, but because they have to explain so much more. Before ’64 the guy’s running for his life, with maybe even actual murders in his past. Paul (and George and Ringo) have talents we see in other people; John has talents that are a bit uncanny, and I think it’s his “extra” that explains this uncanniness.
I think Paul is/was unquestionably better-adjusted than John was. I think Paul enjoyed/enjoys a lot of normal pleasures, has a fairly stable sense of self, and would’ve been successful in a million other ways besides as bass player for The Beatles. I think John Lennon contorted himself into a machine to do one thing — write and play songs — and did it relentlessly in the pursuit of an outlandish goal. If you helped him in that goal, he tolerated you, but if you hindered him in any way, you were dismissed or he reacted violently. John clearly decided at an early age that he needed to be The Best Ever or Die; there is no evidence that Paul made that kind of bargain with himself. To his credit.
I am never interested in diminishing Paul McCartney; Paul’s one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century, and a big part of why this blog exists. But I don’t think his behavior suggests anything like the desperation, ruthlessness, or craving for domination that John’s did. Even when John wanted to save the world, it was by making everybody do what he wanted.
A person who functions like that has two outcomes, neither happy. The first is they try, and fail. The second is, they try, succeed, realize that their problems are still there, look to succeed more and more, and eventually fail. If they are lucky, they are able to remake themselves and their life in the wake of that failure; they finally realize that outlandish success isn’t going to solve their problems. That “the call is coming from inside the house.” They realize that the reason that things like a nice spouse, kids, pets, walks in the country, watercolors on the weekends, fooling around in a boat on a lake, warm socks, hot tea, Sunday dinner with the kids are commonplace pleasures precisely because they work. They are better at making a happy life than 50,000 screaming teenagers or £100,000,000 in the bank. Those last two are teenaged dreams, and they are appropriate for teenagers, but if you’re still chasing that at 30 or 50, there’s a kind of self-swindle going on.
A final thought: each Beatle speaks most powerfully to a different kind of person. John, I suspect, speaks most powerfully to people who are (permanently or temporarily) desperate. This desperation gives John a messianic quality. (People who are spiritually desperate tend to gravitate towards George, and so he can also have a bit of a cult, too.) People who gravitate towards Paul and Ringo are more normal, less excessive, more well-adjusted, because Paul and Ringo are those things. That doesn’t make Paul and Ringo lesser, but it makes their fans less loud. And far from being a criticism, I think normalcy is good.
The Beatles, without Paul, could’ve easily become Baader-Meinhof.
Thank you Michael for your thoughtful response.
I know you are a successful writer, so I wanted to ask you that question. I have no one in my life that has had a career or success in the arts, so I am genuinely curious as to where that drive comes from. And of course, how that drive applies to The Beatles.
I think everything you said makes sense. Especially in terms of John and Paul, and how they needed each other to create The Beatles. Neither could have done it without the other. They both realized it, and made it happen.
Also, I know you are not one to criticize McCartney for not being as “artistic” as John. I was using that example as to what mostly music critics have said.
I appreciate your response.
What makes people do art is different from what makes them do it professionally. And then that’s different from what makes them stick to it even after you open the Mystery Box and, rats!, you’ve still got the problems you started with. (That was Lennon after 1966 or so — he realized that he was still going to be the same guy and…blamed Beatling.)
The mechanism of art-making is a very delicate one, and when you tie it to capitalism, you can get yourself in quite a pickle. And if you’re using artistic success to soothe something internal, and the mechanism craps out, it’s excruciating. You’re stuck! That’s why artists drink/do drugs/get therapy.
One of things that’s really remarkable about McCartney is that not only has he been able to make the stuff, he can do it on the schedule and in the way necessary for commercial success. From the moment he’s gotten on the treadmill at age 21, he’s more or less been able to keep it up. This makes me think that his mechanism is a fairly rational, predictable one divorced from his own emotions. He’s happy, he can write; he’s sad, he can write; he doesn’t have to torture himself to do it. That shouldn’t lessen the work, though outsiders like critics think it does. It actually makes it even more impressive. And you can reflect that process backwards, for a clue as to what kind of person he is: fairly rational, fairly even-keeled. I’m sure he has his bad days, but Paul’s not…crazy. Lennon was, God love him, pretty nuts.
Lennon, after 1965 or so, didn’t write songs out of craft. He really did have to gin up a kind of emotional intensity to write. “I’m really miserable” or “I really love Yoko” or whatever. This fits with the critical idea of what creativity should be — the preferences of critics — which is fundamentally adolescent. But you can’t make a living doing art if you have to break yourself a bit with every song. When you’re 16 and everything is happening for the first time, you can take that excess of emotion and turn it into endless bad poetry set to a I/IV/V progression, but when you’re 25 and a Beatle, it’s gotta be different. Lennon without McCartney would’ve run out of juice quickly; McCartney within Lennon would’ve written show tunes. Each needed the example of the other to become their best.
After all those words I don’t think I answered your question: “Where does that artistic drive come from?”
I think the most honest answer is, when you put a young, intelligent, emotionally sensitive person in a very difficult situation — one they can’t control — the creation of art is a type of psychological escape. You put your mind THERE so it doesn’t have to be HERE. Then, if you get praised, it becomes doubly attractive. You’re escaping in the moment, and there’s also the possibility of escape for good: for money, fame, excitement. So you start to do it a lot, and if the praise continues, you become a professional.
Art is wonderful. It’s one of the things that makes life worth living. But doing it professionally seldom comes from happiness, at least at the beginning.
What I’m waiting for (perhaps naively), is after Paul is gone, for his kids to maybe release some writings, or letters, that have never been seen. I’m hoping things that will shed more light on his relationship with John. We know there were letters written between Paul and John in the 70’s. I’d love to see them.
I hope Sean would do the same with any correspondence of Johns. I would love Sean to shed some light on the true relationship between his parents. There’s got to be some things Yoko has stashed away that Sean will inherit.
The Beatle kids are all close, and will carry on Apple and all Beatle material, projects. I guess I’m hoping they will all decide to share some private things that may provide more insight to the Beatle relationships after the breakup.
@Tasmin, the reply button isn’t working for me so hope you see this. I haven’t read a tenth as much about the Beatles’ lives as the average Dullblogger – like Devin, I’ve always been more into their work – so my opinions of the guys get revised all the time as I read new articles or HD comments. That Ringo remark’s really interesting and, as you say, confirms my suspicions about the group dynamic.
And the Tom Petty interview is fascinating. My take on George is mostly shaped by Anthology and various interviews I’ve seen of his over the years, but this article gives a whole different side to him (one that’s backed up by all that Wilburys footage of the band smiling at each other and joking around between takes). I love to think that George actually was proud of the Beatles, that he was so generous to his friends and that he was capable of being wide-eyed as well as world-weary (the anecdotes about his fan worship of Dylan are hilarious).
What has always made me saddest about George is that the more the years go by and the more he continues down his spiritual path, the less evidence I see of inner peace. Interviews I’ve seen or read from 1969 to 1971 (Dick Cavett etc) – the period when you’d think he’d hate everything and everyone most – show him complimenting Paul’s songwriting, cracking wise, humbly offering his opinions on life, the universe and everything, etc, etc. But in many of his ’80s to ’90s interviews there’s this deep-rooted bitterness against his bandmates (one of whom is dead and can’t possibly be a threat any more) that I find hard to watch.
What the Petty piece suggests to me is that George learned to adopt a prickly persona towards the press – who, of course, he didn’t like – and that if you watch his interviews that’s the only side of him you’re going to see. Whereas interviews ABOUT him by people he did like can give more insight into who he was day to day. (To really round the picture out I’d have to check out interviews by people who don’t like him, but why go down that road.) This is similar to the case with Dylan, who for some reason I’ve always found easier to empathise with – in fact I feel far more spiritually connected to him than any of the Beatles. Fandom truly is a mysterious thing.
I have to confess I’m also deeply ambivalent about the tenets of George’s spiritual outlook. As someone with a spiritual practice, I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between accepting life as it is and insisting that it can be better than it is. If the “unfinished project” of the Enlightenment (to use Habermas’ phrase) sometimes errs on the side of smashing everything down and building it back up again, then Eastern philosophies like Taoism sometimes err on the side of fitting in with nature, when in fact the natural world is founded on several injustices that human society is capable of adjusting. The middle way involves saying something like ‘Everything’s already OK, but as long as I’m capable of lessening my suffering and everyone else’s that’s what I’m going to busy myself doing.’ It sounds like a paradox, but we’re familiar with the same interplay in self-help: I accept myself just the way I am, but I can change.
I’m not accusing George of not trying to lessen humanity’s suffering – organising the first charity concert in history is a pretty cool thing to do – but to me ‘All things must pass’ smacks of detaching from the troubles of the world, when the business of life is engaging with them and ameliorating them. I may be recalling wrong, but I think he quoted those words in an interview when a reporter brought up John’s death. Personally, I don’t feel that’s an appropriate way to look at the murder of one of your closest friends. I don’t intend this as an attack on George, but as his views have been so influential I think it’s fair enough to highlight their shortcomings. If I’ve been unfair I’d love to be corrected by someone who knows more about him or his philosophy than I do.
Gosh, I’m late to this very, very lovely thread. Comments like these are why I love this blog.
There are two sets of documents that have long piqued my interest: John’s letters to Stu, and John’s diaries from the Dakota Years. The former, I think, actually could go some way toward addressing a part of the darkness and trauma that, as Michael explained above, motivated John. Stu gets somewhat glossed over in the traditional reading of the Lennon Myth, and with good reason: Julia is a more obvious source of pain, and John was far more vocal about the impact that losing his mother had on him. (And John’s behavior before Stu’s death makes it clear that he didn’t need anything else to push him into the darkness, thank you very much.) But but but but but but what role did Stu, probably John’s closest friend and confidante in the whole world, play in John’s life before he died? What exactly were the types of things John revealed to Stu? What was the nature of their relationship? Were there any parallels between the role Stu played as a Lennon confidante/supporter/enabler/possible lover, and the role Brian Epstein played? What could that tell us about where John’s head must’ve been at after Brian died? What, in turn, could that tell us about Yoko? What could it possibly indicate as to John’s sexuality, or his desire to fulfill certain types of sexual urges (or have a certain type of relationship)? Pete Shotton said he believed he was the “…some are living” in the “some are dead and some are living” line of In My Life, and that Stu was the “some are dead…” Well, isn’t that line talking about “friends and lovers”? What can we make of all this?
The Lennon Diaries, I would hope, tell us something more about where John was in the final years, because neither his music nor especially his interviews feel like they’re giving a complete picture. We know there’s a lot of bitterness in some of them toward people like Dylan, McCartney, Jagger, Paul Simon. We also know from Jack Douglas that John in these years struggled a lot with not feeling able to write songs any more (probably for the very reasons Michael G. describes up above — if your creative mechanism depends on experiencing pain that you don’t know what to do with unless you create art, at some point either you’re either going to break, or you’re going to stop consistently creating great art — and probably not helped by Yoko telling John he had said everything he could say to the world as an artist, and didn’t need to say any more). If, as Michael puts it, “John clearly decided at an early age that he needed to be The Best Ever or Die,” what was going on once John worried/believed/suspected that he was not, currently, The Best Ever? What were the Dakota Years if not a type of waking death, after all? Did he think about Paul? Did he ruminate about the breakup? What did he admit to himself about his marriage? The Dakota period is such a weird, sad, mysterious time. Even if the Diaries are really depressing and gloomy, I’d like something that sheds a little more light on them, if only out of wanting to know about and empathize with what their creator was dealing with.
From what we know about John now, I think it’s pretty safe to say that his relationship with Stu was sexual, if not in a grown-up serious sexuality way. And a lot of the coding of that time and place points in that direction, too. Male “artists” were given a certain leeway in the culture that non-artists were not.
RE: Death of Julia/death of Stu: Grieving the death of your mother is a much safer kind of grief. It is, in some sense, a child’s grief, and who’s going to criticize you for that? Grieving a same-sex friend is definitely questionable if it exceeds certain pretty narrow boundaries. Would, say, Hunter Davies under the watchful eye of Mr. Brian Epstein go anywhere near that? No he would not. But Lennon was obviously “contents under pressure” in 1967, and Davies had to explain that. So he emphasized the loss of his mother, not his friend. (Not that Lennon didn’t grieve/miss Julia, surely he did.)
One of the things that comes up for me a lot with the “John and Paul were lovers” folks is: you have to look at John and Paul’s behavior in the context of the really narrow male gender roles/coding from the 1950s to 70s. Applying female gender roles/coding, even from that period much less now, will give you a distorted picture of what was possible for men, not least because violence was so much more likely to be used to enforce behavior. Brian Epstein got away with his proclivities because he was local gentry, and then only barely. Male homosexuality was considered to be a threat to society in a way that female homosexuality was not; lesbianism was never explicitly targeted by any legislation; so John and Paul, or John and Stu, or John and the milkman’s boy — all these acts would’ve been conducted under the gaze of the law, a law so restrictive that “Often a letter expressing terms of affection between two men was all that was required to bring a prosecution.” [More here.]
Same-sex experimentation seems to be fairly common during precisely the ages that John and Stu were friends — it would be reasonable to assume that this happened, and that if it did happen, they’d not speak of it. Because they were lower-middle-class, their entire friendship would’ve taken place under deep cover, with the constant possibility of violence from other men; and if it had been discovered to be sexual earlier than say 17 or so, their families would’ve immediately separated them. Growing up under these conditions, IMHO, make it more likely that adult same-sex attractions would be sublimated/unacted-upon. But as with all stuff in this realm, we’re guessing. Anyway, I’m with you, @Michael — I think those letters would reveal much.
@Michael, have you read Richard Rosen’s book, supposedly based on the Diaries? I have not.
@Justin, my reply button isn’t working either!
I’m glad you enjoyed the Petty interview.
George definitely disliked gossip magazines, and gossip in general. In Mark Lewisohns’ book “Tune In”, he talks about how as a boy, George got after his Mom for gossiping with her friends. He even recorded a song right before his death, “Devils Radio”.
I do think fame wasn’t good for him. I read an interview with Olivia Harrison, and she said she thought George had PTSD from the Beatles experience. She said his personality just wasn’t suited for it.
Maybe some of the negativity we sensed from him, was because of that. I think more so than negativity towards John and Paul. I think he and Paul definitely worked out their differences before George passed. I think the healing started during Anthology.
I also think George’s spirituality was an attempt to work through his issues, and try to reconcile his feelings towards fame, and the whole Beatles experience.
@Michael “Growing up under these conditions, IMHO, make it more likely that adult same-sex attractions would be sublimated/unacted-upon.” I agree, and I think it’s imposing this age (including the ways in which the Internet facilitates and intensifies speculative thinking) on a recent, but very different one (at least as regards sexuality) to assume that anything “obvious” happened. It’s more consistent with what we know about middle-class Britain, still draped with the last remnants of Victorianism, to assume that there wasn’t an entire world of actual physical relationships. But sublimated or unacted-upon same-sex experimentation or affection? Yes, that sounds very possible, and it also happens to echo something Philip Norman said in Shout—I forget the phrasing, but basically that John’s behavior from 1969 – onward suggests that beneath the schoolboy competition lay a streak of repressed homosexual desire for Paul.
I have not read the Rosen book, but not for any particular reason. I think at this point, my “Goldman Goggles” are sufficiently specialized that I could have a go. I do remember reading some preview pages on Amazon or Google Books back in the day and seeing something that mirrored the general picture that Seaman/John Green/Goldman all provide. I’m also trying to track down a copy of Pete Shotton’s book.
Dammit, I think I gave my copy of Shotton away; if not, @Michael, I’ll send it to you.
I think the wisest course of action is to sit in the “not-knowing.” People don’t like that, which is exactly why it’s good for the brain; and it’s also really good to get aware of one’s own tendencies–seeing obvious sexual attraction between John and Paul in, say, a press conference, is a great moment to pause and think: “Were people having sex in 1965? Were there gay men in 1965? Am I more perceptive than people were in 1965?” Every generation thinks it invented sex, and with the internet, that’s amplified. But if John and Paul were doin’ it, how likely is it that every member of the inner circle — Brian, Neil, Mal, Peter Brown, Tony Barrow, Derek Taylor — kept quiet all those years? Hell, what about malcontents like Magic Alex or Allen Klein or Francie Schwartz (or Diz Gillespie)? How come they didn’t come forward with the big secret?
I think the John and Paul as lovers meme is contemporary women carving out a space in the Beatles’ story for themselves. Which is understandable. But in the absence of definitive proof (and what could that even be?), I think we gotta live in the not-knowing.
All that having been said, I recently ran across a book published in 1968, which included Paul McCartney in a list of so-called “Practical Homosexuals” — along with, of all people, William F. Buckley. (But if you know much about Bill Buckley’s pool parties, that’s not so surprising. There were rumors.) So: were there rumors about Paul? Apparently. But whether that came from twigging to smoldering interactions with John at press conferences, or whether it came from the usual Paul-is-effeminate macho insecurity is a matter of interpretation.
The other thing is simply this: Paul is still alive. If he’d carried on an affair with John, torrid or tepid, brief intermittent or longstanding, it’s his right to say it or not. Speculating is one thing, that’s what the internet is for, but any serious treatment of the question has to also acknowledge Paul’s right to personal privacy.
“I think the John and Paul as lovers meme is contemporary women carving out a space in the Beatles’ story for themselves.”
I agree with this, Michael. And I have to say that it makes me quite uncomfortable, because to me it easily falls into the whole conspiracy theory / alternate facts nightmare we’re living in today. In my judgment believing in an acted-upon sexual relationship between Lennon and McCartney requires ignoring significant evidence to the contrary and overreading other selected bits. At this point I’m weary of such assertions, and that’s why I had to stop interacting with the “were they lovers?” thread.
I think there are plenty of ways for women to find a place for themselves in the Beatles saga without resorting to this kind of, IMHO, wish-fulfillment. I also think that believing that a complex, intense working and emotional relationship between two people must be sexual is disappointing at this point in history.
I’ll climb down off my soapbox now. This has come up so many times now I just wanted to state my current opinion of this phenomenon.
Nancy, you have articulated my feelings exactly!
I HATE conspiracy theories, and as you said, they are running rampant in our current political climate.
Paul McCartney is still alive ( I really hate Paul Is Dead conspiracy theories),
and if he wanted to tell us something, he would. It’s very disrespectful to him, and his family.
Thanks Nancy for saying how many of us feel!
Thanks, Tasmin. To be clear, I’m fine with people imagining a Lennon/McCartney sexual relationship — whatever floats anyone’s boat, fantasy-wise. It’s when people insist that it’s true that it crosses the line for me. As you say, it’s very similar to the “Paul is dead” conspiracists. At this point I just can’t interact with that kind of stuff anymore. I find it both too toxic and too far removed from what is really interesting to me about the Beatles.
A thought about the creative process: I’ve wondered whether, given the way he wrote songs after 1965, part of what was going on with John was that as he wrote the defining songs about certain things that animated him, the wellspring dried up. The sublimated came out into the open and, having been articulated and released, was no longer available to inspire unique and original works. For example: the isolating nature of John’s giftedness and childhood pockmarked with deaths and solipsism is behind Nowhere Man, I’m Only Sleeping, In My Life, Help, Girl, Rain. It finds its fullest expression in Strawberry Fields and A Day in the Life. If your creative mechanism is “your own pain,” where do you go once you’ve completed to process of drawing that particular type of pain out from the inchoate/unconscious/inarticulable (Help, Girl) to the fully realized (the 67 tracks)? If you’ve always wanted to do something that captures your love of Edward Lear, anger at vestigial Victorian Britain, and semi-default surrealistic nightmare, what do you do after you’ve made I Am The Walrus?
Famous people talk about this. Once you’re “discovered,” you lose access to the secret personal things that fed your creativity up until then. But your point is even more interesting: can you become a victim of your own successful endeavors? The itch is scratched.
I also think there’s a problem in that you can’t talk honestly about what’s happening to you. So much of middle-period Lennon is gobbelygook because he’s having very singular experience that either fans can’t/won’t relate to, Cyn can’t find out about, are X-rated, or simply very strange. Then, when his mind narrows down to Yoko, he goes back to the themes of obsessive love and personal pain that he and Paul used in the early work.
To this I’d add: what happens if you build a creative identity around being a misunderstood outsider, but you become a worldwide phenomenon and are all but worshipped?
Famous people talk about this. Once you’re “discovered,” you lose access to the secret personal things that fed your creativity up until then.
Elvis Costello said “You’ve got your whole life to write your first album, and three months to write your second one.”
Strawberry Fields was clearly a very, very special song for John; that’s clear from the amount of time he spent demo-ing it, and then recording it. It’s possibly the most Lennon song ever. He knew he had something precious to him in it. But then what? The personalization of John’s songwriting finds its apotheosis in Strawberry Fields, and he was too smart not to know that, which is one reason why he tried to run away from it, and back to basic rock and roll, afterward — if you know you don’t have more where that came from, you’d probably want to tun to another challenge, like trying to write pure rock and roll that approaches the way Elvis made you feel when you were sixteen.
John’s songwriting already went from great to successful, to use your phrase, before Yoko/heroin/ending the Lennon-McCartney partnership: he wrote almost all of his White Album songs off heavy drugs in India, bungalows away from Paul and George, married to Cynthia. And while many of those songs are very good, there’s no colossus in the bunch. The closest John gets to his ’67 heights is Happiness is a Warm Gun, which is disturbing, adventurous, and different than anything else being done in rock. But as good as that track is, it’s an album track, not a monument. It’s one section of a movement in a symphony. SFF/Day in the Life/Walrus are a whole movement, or a whole symphony, in themselves.
It’s a problem all songwriters seem to face. Dylan, too, experienced it right around the same time. But Dylan seems to have been more or less able to accept that he would try to do, and enjoy doing, other things–less monumental, less messianic things–with his still-impressive verbal facility. In addition to all the other reasons we’ve discussed possibly motivating John choosing to become Smacked Out Jesus in 1969, it’s also possible–I would even say probable–that once John’s antenna stopped picking up those grand songs from the outer planets, he decided to go directly for being a prophet, rather than being a musician. Which also makes sense because, as you indicated in this thread, part of the whole point of becoming a Beatle wasn’t to make music, it was to be worshipped, and music was a way to get that worship. I’m not sure if any of this is clear, but basically: John knew Yer Blues wasn’t Strawberry Fields, and he knew Revolution wasn’t Walrus, but he couldn’t write those latter two songs a second time. His insecurity about that fact is probably directly correlated to him wanting to become a messiah by other, more obvious means.
“So much of middle-period Lennon is gobbelygook because he’s having very singular experience that either fans can’t/won’t relate to, Cyn can’t find out about, are X-rated, or simply very strange.”
Yes, and learning more about his life in that period makes this clear. A Day in the Life is, among other things, a very obscure way of saying I’ve been up for three days and started seeing in black and white and oh god I’m going to die one day and what if I killed Stu.
Interesting that therapists initially had a lot of success with LSD as a therapy for anxiety, alcoholism, etc. (See: Cary Grant)
Who knows what Lennon would’ve been like if he’d just stopped after the 10th trip?
I think he drew musical inspiration from sources a little closer to home. Other songwriters. (I posted a few examples on the “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out Acoustic Demo” thread.) In unguarded moments he was happy to admit this.
It’s easy to fall into a “Magical Lennon” trope, the way screenwriters for many years fell into the “Magical Negro” cliche. Lennon himself may have encouraged this; like when he talked about composing Across The Universe.
But he was no less a craftsman than Paul. He’d borrow guitar licks from other records, assemble bits of melody from other songs, add his own stream of consciousness lyrics (inspired by Dylan’s wordplay). Mr. Gerber recently uploaded John’s demo for She Said She Said and we can hear him doing the hard work of crafting just the right tune, trying and then discarding various lyrical and musical bits.
This hard work was a productive escape from his personal pain. It was a healthier escape than heroin or LSD, especially the collaborative aspect of songwriting with Paul and arranging with George and Ringo. Being a Beatle was a positive addiction. But a negative addiction like heroin eventually replaced his healthier addiction of the craft of songwriting. Maybe this was inevitable, because his new spouse shared his interest in heroin. By 1980 he was moving beyond this, IMO.
There’s no document or statement or such that’s changed my vision of the group. For me, it’s been discovering all the old songs the Beatles borrowed from. When I first heard the Beatles (when I was five years old) I thought they’d invented rock and roll. Literally came up with the idea of electric guitars and fast songs. Fifty six years later, I love listening to all the records that influenced them. Because I appreciate the genius of taking a bunch of music from other, wildly different artists, mixing it all together, and making something better. Rather than (for example) Mick Jagger’s minstrel show, or Led Zeppelin’s outright theft.
In conclusion, the Beatles are a land of contrasts.
@Hologram Sam, I don’t believe in the Magical Lennon trope either. But I do know, from personal experience and from talking with other creative types, that there are times when inspiration does seem to come from somewhere else, and John himself told Hunter Davies that a lot of his songwriting process involved “catching” small musical ideas that popped into his head. No matter how much craftsmanship he put into his songwriting behind the scenes, and no matter how much he tried to cover it up as divine inspiration in interviews, the fact remains that the ideas popping into John’s head between 65-67 were really uniquely special. There’s something beyond craftsmanship that accounts for coming up with “let me take you down, cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields,” and everything that combination of words/music could indicate, in 1966, and the songs he wrote in India in 1968. I agree with the dangers of ascribing metaphysics to processes that occur within our own brains, but in my experience, at the very best of times, there is a mysterious element to the ideas that arrive in our heads, and the possibilities they suggest, which likely comes from the subconscious. Once John had given voice to some of those things in his subconscious, I speculate, he had…done so. You can’t open Pandora’s Box a second time.
For me, a strictly materialist view of The Beatles’ story is perfectly legitimate, but not quite credible.
I mean, think of it: four untrained musicians, in the same place, at the same time, who can not only coexist but are able to grow together. Hamburg does exactly what is necessary to form them into an amazing group, and somehow these young guys get out of there without any of them being killed or arrested for something serious. Then they find probably the only person who can translate their charisma and talent into a commercial enterprise, and that person loves them and doesn’t screw them over. Then they crisscross the UK in a van which never crashes; then land in America at precisely the right time for maximum impact…and throughout all this, they are teaching themselves to write probably the most beloved songs of our era.
The Beatles’ story, until the death of Brian Epstein, is essentially the equivalent of rolling double sixes 1,000 times in a row. Is that possible in a random, mathematical, materialist view of the Universe? Sure. But I think one could be excused for believing that there was something extra going on here, and Lennon surely did.
The nature of reality is strange. It is much larger than our minds can conceive. We are engaged in an endless discovery of how this place we’ve landed functions, and that’s a good thing.
Michael, Paul’s right to personal privacy is exactly the reason why there will be no publication of letters, diaries, etc., when he is gone. He obviously values his personal privacy above all else, and has spent a lifetime projecting a public image that he uses as a shield to protect his true self. None of us know who he really is, and the closest we can probably get to finding out is by listening to his music.
Personally, I don’t find it hard to believe that someone as rich and powerful as Paul could keep many secrets buried. There are lots of reasons why people in his inner circle might keep quiet. The fear of being sued or of not working again, definitely – but also the fear of being evicted from the inner circle, of losing their own identity, their place in the world. Not to mention that most people in the entertainment industry have secrets of their own.
Obviously, Paul will have taken steps to protect his legacy, and carefully censored the information that will be released by his estate. However, that’s when he’ll lose control of the inner circle – when the biggest reason to keep quiet is no longer a threat.
@Elizabeth, I think all this is very sensible.
Information control is good, but IMHO the best way to vouchsafe your legacy is to live a long, long time, and Paul is doing that. God willing he’ll be with us until he’s 100, and by that time precious few will care to examine the nooks and crannies of his life. The inner circle shrinks, and (more importantly) the audience for any tell-all does, too.
People don’t want to lose the conception of Beatle Paul. Goldman’s book was released when millions, perhaps a billion, knew and gave a shit about John Lennon — was exhaustively researched, with a bombshell on every page — and even then it didn’t sell. Obviously there was a political element to John’s persona that Paul’s doesn’t really have, and so fans came to John’s defense perhaps more fiercely than they would to Paul’s. An attack on Lennon, in 1987, was an attack on The Sixties, and the Counterculture, in a way that an attack on Paul McCartney in 2025 would not be.
Whatever secrets Paul has — and I’d agree that he has many* — they will go with him.
(*I say this simply because, since the age of 21, Paul has existed in a world without the usual limits on his appetites. He would be an utterly remarkable individual if that kind of power and license hadn’t gotten him into a lot of dodgy situations. I don’t think he’s particularly venal or wicked, but even a person in the normal range of morality would generate quite a bit of scandal in Paul’s circumstances. That’s why I’ve never believed that Paul suddenly shifted from a compulsive “hunting of the female hordes” to perfect fidelity with Linda; if you’re prone to do the one, and do it on a scale unknown since the days of Nero, you’re not really built to do the other. Linda didn’t seem to chafe on this point, at least publicly, and every marriage has rules known only to the people in it. But that’s a perfect example of a secret of Paul’s that is really none of our business.)
Michael Bleicher, I have read both books that were based on John’s diaries. One was written by Robert Rosen, the other by Geoffrey Giuliano, who is a very controversial figure, but managed to get his hands on a lot of information and access to a lot of people, including Yoko and John’s sister, quite early on. The two books are both quite … consistent. But I don’t recall much mention of Stu in either one. There is a lot of obsessing about Paul, however – most of it fairly bitter.
The allegation that John kicked Stuart in the head, causing the injury that led to his death, comes from Marnie Hair, who was one of Goldman’s main sources. She seems to be a bit dubious (unsurprisingly with a name like that), but Stuart’s sister also alleges that the incident happened, and it’s more difficult to dismiss what she says. People do, of course, because the alternative is so unpalatable. But logically, she was Stuart’s sister – she has to know more than most other people, and more than what she is able to say.
Personally, having read May Pang’s book, I don’t doubt that John was capable of that level of violence. Whether the injury ultimately led to Stuart’s death, I don’t know. But I could imagine that the possibility of it having done so would be torture for John – his own personal hell.
@Elizabeth, it’s not so much whether it medically led to Stu’s death as whether or not something like that might’ve happened. If there ever was violence from John toward Stu, it almost certainly haunted John afterward, and it contributes to our understanding of what might have made him so uncomfortable.
@Tasmin, I don’t think that level of fame would be good for me either, and my PTSD would set in a lot earlier than George’s did! Like I say, the guys were all incredibly strong to take the battering from the media, drugs and each other that they did. But I have to say that I do detect a bitterness in George towards Paul and John as people that I wish he could have shaken off as he got older and the experience retreated ever farther into the past.
I’ve noticed two starkly contrasting trends with celebrities who are fuelled by anger in the early days – their public persona mellows out in time as they work through their issues or come to terms with life (John Cleese, David Mitchell, Roger Daltrey), or they become ever more pissed off and/or morose as the things that bother them pile up year after year, gradually eroding their defences. This is the difference between the early, happy-go-lucky Billy Connolly and Dave Allen sets and their later, shoutier work, or the early, funny interviews of Frank Zappa and Woody Allen and the later, morose ones. Once the charm and resilience of youth are gone, the anger gets ever more thinly veiled and unpleasant to look at. That’s what I sense from George in some later interviews, but I sincerely hope I’m wrong. (Note that I said “public persona” because I don’t know what any of these people are like in real life – there’s evidence that Connolly’s real-life MO is nothing like his stage manner.)
@Michael G, I agree with you on sitting in the not-knowing and feeling comfortable with the possibility of causes and effects in the universe that have little to do with the laws of science as we know them. Not only would modern technology seem like witchcraft to people just a few hundred years removed from us, the ongoing research into how subatomic particles behave continues to fly in the face of Newton and Einstein’s most basic assumptions. (One piece I read a few years ago used findings like quantum entanglement to argue that the universe was a hologram in which every point in space contained the whole.) Throw in current speculation on the determinative powers of consciousness (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170215-the-strange-link-between-the-human-mind-and-quantum-physics) and I’m happy to think that genius like Lennon’s can’t be contained in purely chemical reactions. Of course, maybe it can.
Getting back to the secret history of the Beatles, how about our friend Ringo? He’s generally regarded as the least interesting Beatle by some way but it seems pretty interesting to me that (a) he had the most difficult childhood, (b) he was the first Beatle to quit, (c) he was an alcoholic and wife-beater, although he fails to get the bad press for these things that John does by virtue of getting less press full stop, (d) he was an incredibly funny interviewee with an edge to him back in the day (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQaqcLPAI_s), and (e) at some point he seems to have decided to reduce his public persona to a cuddly figure that makes the peace sign wherever he goes. But if he was never anything more than a cuddly peacemaker he wouldn’t have been an alcoholic or a wife-beater, and he wouldn’t have been provoked into quitting a band that even John hadn’t got around to quitting yet. Any thoughts from people who’ve read more than I have?
P. S. Hardly a “bombshell” given that John probably came back the next day and proposed the Beatles become a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band, but interesting: https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/bombshell-recording-proves-beatles-planned-144133850.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZmFjZWJvb2suY29tLw&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAB_LE9lDVl9Yze1glupm0by20q-O-YF-5p3KNtuvCVpTt3E27XuIHCt5HT1z2ytcaZWWUxF9PCYgMwDoy8gRW0392t47Fb0jBdwyVvN0hXb8vHhB71_oADrAxIli9pHcUS70DWsFNQq-QTd17azGGIEQDD1XBlx2KUkPxugRhM3P
Justin, as regards Ringo — I think the difference is that his talent is primarily for playing an instrument, and not for writing / creating music. He’s a great drummer, a good actor, and was the ideal fourth corner of the Beatles’ square. He has also, as you point out, contended with his own troubles. But those troubles and struggles aren’t articulated in songs he writes, so they’re not nearly as accessible to us as the inner lives of John, Paul, and George.
I see his “cuddly peace sign” persona as a defense mechanism he’s activated in response to overwhelming fame and the need to keep some kind of handle on his sanity. In essence it’s similar to what Paul has done, although Paul is a much more complex case because he does reveal himself in his music.
@Michael, my own feeling is that any tell-all books about Paul will be written by the likes of Philip Norman. In fact, I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a second edition of his biography all ready to go. No doubt filled with off the record anecdotes that he wasn’t allowed to publish the first time round.
Whether there will be any appetite for a book like that, I’m not sure. Obviously not among fans – no one wants their dreams shattered. But I don’t know about people in general in a world where the past is now viewed through the lens of the present.
@Michael Bleicher, yes, I agree – if John blamed himself for what happened to Stuart, it would explain why he was so anguished.
It’s a forbidden subject among Beatle fans, of course, because it’s too horrible to contemplate, but for me, if there is a secret history, that’s it. That and John’s murder.
To be fair, I think the John and Paul ‘conspiracy’ is probably true as well, but I don’t see it as that important, except insofar as it may have contributed to the break-up of the group. Otherwise, so what? It’s mind-blowing for maybe five minutes, but then, who cares?
The problem with the secret history is that no one dares to examine it. And anyone who does is disbelieved, no matter how likely they are to know the truth. I suppose most people aren’t interested in the truth, and just want to hold on to their own dreams.
@Elizabeth, I really believe that there’s a certain type of person who believes that 95% of reality is lousy/flawed/dark, and gloms on to certain things that are “better” or “perfect.” If you examine those perfect things too closely, and discover that they’re just another part of reality, this type of person doesn’t want to know. In fact, they feel attacked. “Don’t tell me that John and Yoko were going to get divorced!” “Don’t tell me that George was a cokehead in the Seventies!” “Don’t tell me! You’re ruining Christmas!”
I have met Beatles fans for whom the group and its story is a religion. But to think of John, Paul, George and Ringo as something other than four humans doing their best going through a very weird, intense, utterly unique experience full of temptations and missteps — well, it diminishes what they did. It diminishes how basically decent they seemed to be, most of the time. Lennon’s violence is only shocking because there are other parts of him that are very much NOT violent. George’s womanizing is only shocking because he was so committed to a spiritual path. And so forth.
And to put these four people up on pedestals is to put them in a position where they can only disappoint you — it’s a peculiar way to treat people whom one professes to like, don’t you think?
I agree 100% with this, but I’m wondering if you meant to address it to Elizabeth?
She had commented about people not wanting their dreams shattered knowing the dark truths about the Beatles.
@Michael, and it was fans treating the Beatles like a religion that affected John and George in particular, I think. As the group’s two searchers/seekers, they were arguably most aware of their own failings and most uncomfortable with being deified by people they hadn’t met…except, as you point out, Lennon could also only conceive of public acceptance in absolutes, so he was caught in a no-win situation wherein he wanted to be seen and appreciated for who he really was, warts and all, yet needed to be worshipped, so he lived behind a brand his entire adult life. George’s “fuck them” attitude seems to me to be an adolescent reaction to an adult problem–how do you deal with people who want to venerate or possess you because they’re unhappy, while also acknowledging respectfully that they’re the reason you get to live in Friar Park, race cars, and not work?
People talk a lot about how Paul was the one keeping the Beatles together because it’s true, but I’d argue that it only became the case from 1968 onward. Before John abdicated, Paul actually compartmentalized the Beatles–he took music lessons, he immersed himself in the art world, he tried to make up for all the education and culture he’d missed out on in Liverpool, he shagged himself silly, etc. John *was* Beatle John 24/7 (or else, like you said, he simply ceased to exist), and it’s while he was the keeper of the flame that the group functioned. I think it’s fair to suspect, given the way that John approached everything else in his life with the monomania of a religious convert, that John was the first person to treat Beatles as a religion, and it was his need for the Beatles to be able to fill that emotional role that led him to create something, mythwise, that could do the same for others. And then when he saw that emptiness reflected back at him, he rejected it.
Excellent point about John’s being the first person to treat the Beatles as a religion, Michael B. That goes a long way towards explaining his huge emotional investment in the band and his need to tear it apart once he was disillusioned with it.
Was it empty, though?
In one sense it was — love of the Beatles isn’t a comprehensive philosophical system strong enough to comfort you in ANY circumstance. It wasn’t enough to soothe a midlife crisis, even if you were Chief Beatle.
But one of the most interesting things about John post-Beatles is how his love for the group seemed to generally grow, and seemed to wax and wane with his own psychological health. I think he was coming to realize that while it wasn’t a myth on the scale of Christianity, that was not always a bad thing and in fact maybe a good thing.
He was the promulgator Beatle Myth, and after him, it has really stopped growing.
@Michael, it wasn’t empty in many senses: the Beatles’ story was full of creativity, friendship, exploration, joy. It seems to have brought John more fulfillment than anything else he did in his life, although toward the end, trying to be a father to Sean might’ve come close. It wasn’t the fault of the Beatles that untreated trauma/depression/other mental illness/guilt continued to haunt John.
But in another sense it was empty, because John seems to have earnestly believed for his entire adult life that immersing yourself in and/or hiding behind a myth was a feasible way to deal with/escape/compensate for whatever was making him so uncomfortable. And that’s empty. Pretending to be someone you’re not, or part of something that’s not real, because you think it will make people love you more is a hollow endeavor, and loving a myth is–maybe not empty, but it’s awfully fraught. It was almost like some kind of a fear-of-abandonment shit test, creating the myth of Beatle John or the Ballad of John and Yoko in hopes of making people love a more palatable John Lennon, and then disdaining people who believed it.
I saw this comment over at Steve Hoffman’s blog:
Yes, but that’s a viewpoint that cannot be tested. Believing in scads of undiscovered genius thwarted by circumstance is no less an unprovable act of faith. It’s a belief in malign Fate.
Actually, we might be able to prove this wrong: the whole premise of social media is that there’s a vast amount of undiscovered talent out there’s and once it was given equal access to an audience…
That has not been shown to be the case.
@Nancy, for sure people’s apathy towards Ringo is largely based on his lack of artistic self-revelation. Then there’s his instrument of choice – bass and drums are designed to hide you in the background of a band, unless you’re a bassist-frontman like Paul or a lunatic like Keith Moon. But I think a lot of the problem has to do with his I-just-hit-things-with-sticks, I-left-Rishikesh-because-I-ran-out-of-baked-beans persona. The fact that he’s actively encouraged this perception of him doesn’t mean it’s valid.
I’m curious to know what people who’ve read a lot of Beatle biographies – In Tune in particular – think about the man, because what I see is a hard-headed materialist who believes in God, a peacemaker who quit the Beatles before everyone else, a happy-go-lucky clown who hit his wife and spent the entire ’80s drunk, a simple soul who has a sharp, cutting wit to rival John’s, and a loyal friend who was happy to battle Paul in court and help John record “How Do You Sleep”. These contradictions may not be any wilder than the paradoxes we all carry around, but I still think it’d be fun to try and get inside the head of the most overlooked Beatle.
What interests me about the peace sign strategy is that it’s something Ringo picked up much later in life, whereas Paul’s “thumbs aloft” MO has been established for decades now. If it’s a coping mechanism why did he develop it so late? Did something happen to him in the 2000s? What do you think?
The principles of 12-Step May be enlightening here. (I’m not sure, and if I were sure, I wouldn’t have brought it up. But…)
Justin, I agree that the perception Ringo is encouraging us to have of him isn’t the whole story of his character. But I do think that, like Paul’s public persona, it’s a selective representation of traits he actually has. My sense of how he hit on this particular selective representation — relatively simple, relatively happy and no-nonsense guy– is that it’s a survival strategy that he developed early and has modified somewhat over the years. Something like this:
Ringo grows up in poverty in Liverpool in a family that likely included active alcoholics, and (unconsciously) adopts the role of “clown.” (As Michael G. has pointed out previously.)
Ringo drums in bands (Rory & the Hurricanes, etc) and finds that being the “clown” lets him get along with lots of people and avoid drama. This is a strategy that will prove crucial for surviving the Beatles, since being in a band with these three guys, especially John and Paul, is like Clash of the Titans in terms of the big-league egos at work. Keeping his head down and being genial with everyone seems like a great idea.
As the fame gets huge and the tensions rise, the persona is key to masking, in public, the drinking and despair.
Once he’s in recovery, the persona — now deployed much more consciously — gives him some psychic space and helps him stay sane. Basically, at this point he’s where Paul has been for awhile.
@Nancy, this all strikes me as very sound. And it also Explains how Ringo seems to take on the character of whatever group he’s in; he’s attuning himself to the other people, whether that is his childhood friends who are pretty criminals, or John Paul and George.
The thing about mechanisms of codependence/alcoholic family patterns is that they break down eventually. Eventually the clown can’t just be the clown anymore, for himself or other people. The hero can’t just be the hero; the lost child can’t just be the last child. And that’s a good thing! My feeling is, the Beatles couldn’t have continued Indefinitely with the mechanisms that they had put in place as essentially children; but they could’ve related to each other in adult ways, and still make music.
You intrigue me Michael.
Anonymity is an important part of 12-step groups, even if you’re a Beatle. (Maybe especially if you’re a Beatle.)
So had I personally seen Ringo at a meeting, I wouldn’t say anything. I’m not in a program, but so many people I know have benefited so immensely, I may try it sometime.)
Though it has never been said public to my Knowledge, I think it’s a pretty good bet that Ringo is in recovery. And my guess is, had he lived, John would’ve ended up there, too.
@Nancy, so you see the persona getting deliberately magnified after recovery – I’ll have to think about that one. It certainly helps explain the timeline.
It’s fascinating how many celebrities pretend to be less bright than they are – ‘Who me, read French poets?’ Bob Dylan and ‘I don’t know that many words’ Norm Macdonald spring to mind. It’s something I see all the Beatles doing when they don’t want to “go there”, with the possible exception of John (his method of hiding something being to energetically convince you of the opposite). Honestly I find Ringo’s latter-day hippyisms so exaggerated as to be almost cartoonish, but if they work for him then more power to him, and he really only uses them in soundbite situations anyway – the man still gives a good interview.
A more in-depth version of the article I shared above – lots of interesting stuff here, and oh man would I love to hear this “secret tape”. And what do you know, it features Paul casually dismissing George’s talents to his face in just the way we were imagining: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/sep/11/the-beatles-break-up-mark-lewisohn-abbey-road-hornsey-road
To be fair, at that particular time, John had enlisted George to help “rein Paul in”. As Mikal Gilmore said in his Rolling Stone piece on the breakup, “John and George treated Paul terribly”.
Does that excuse Paul’s comment? Probably not, but I would argue he was under enormous stress dealing with Allen Klein, and John’s erratic, drug induced behavior. I think he was lashing out, and it was easier to lash out at George.
@Tasmin, I agree that the others were treating Paul like dirt and he was under a lot of strain at the time. But given everything else we know I have no trouble at all imagining that he regularly talked to and about George that way. It’ll be interesting to see how Lewisohn portrays the relationship in his forthcoming books.
Yes it will be.
One interesting thing is, I’ve watched quite a few interviews with George, and he always references “John and Paul.”
Such as, “John and Paul were so wrapped up in being John and Paul, they couldn’t see me.” (Paraphrasing)
What I’m saying is, it wasn’t just Paul who dismissed George. John did as well.
Certainly if a benevolent invisible hand guided John towards Paul and George and Ringo (aligning the heavens and protecting them from motor accidents on the road) and brought them Brian Epstein and George Martin, all so that we could sit back and enjoy Sgt. Pepper’s today… surely a malign Fate (an Antic Malice as Thurber called it) must have guided Michael Abram and Mark Chapman and the FBI (and lesser evils like Allen Klein and “Magic” Alex and yes, Yoko with her heroin and jealousies) into their story as well.
Over the years I’ve often wondered: “How unlikely it was for all these elements to come together. Three genius songwriters fall together in Liverpool, and everything aligns perfectly for them.” I still think it’s a miracle they lasted as long as they did. And I certainly do my share of magical thinking. There have been more than a few happy coincidences and minor miracles in my own life. I look back at paths that opened for me and think there must have been some larger guiding force. But then other times, I think “Nah…”
There have been more than a few threads here about how unlikely it would have been for the Beatles to succeed in today’s environment, where it’s entirely up to the artist to create themselves on social media.
I admit I’d be a close-minded fool if I tried to argue for a strictly materialist view of the Beatles. Reality is too weird and unknown for that. But at the same time I feel silly arguing against a materialist view.
“The Mind is the most important thing in the world!” says the Mind. 🙂
Th organizing principles of the universe are a little above my paygrade. I’m content to simply say “thank you thank you thank you,” like a certain songwriter I know.
What is benign and what is malign is very hard to discern; for myself I think the story is remarkable, and I’m grateful for it, but more detail than that …well, I feel foolish. And I’m especially uncomfortable with any idea of reality that has in being controlled by “something like me, only bigger.”
“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
― Emo Philips
Not sure if this fits under Secret History, but for years I wondered why Lennon talked about Paul Simon in his 1979 “recorded Lennon diaries” (calling him a dwarf, etc.) Turns out Simon got on his nerves in a recording studio:
@Sam, with stories like that I’m torn between finding them funny in themselves and finding it depressing that Lennon held on to the ensuing grudge forever.
It’s true he could hold a grudge, but before I heard this story, I thought Lennon was just being a crank criticizing Simon in the ’79 audio diary. It sounded he was lashing out for no reason. At least now I know he had a reason!
(Google “Los Lobos” and “Paul Simon” to get a better idea of why it’s easy to hold a grudge against Simon.)
From the first time I read this theory years ago it rang true for me.
Oddly, one thing that makes me think it was right came from (of all places) Carole King’s autobiography. This is from memory, so I may have a few minor details wrong, but here’s the basic story:
Carole King was at a party in New York celebrating the Beatles either in 1964 or 1965. She was excited to meet them because John and Paul had said in interviews that one of their goals was to be the British equivalent of Goffin-King. When she met the Beatles, Paul, George, and Ringo were charming, but John was an asshole. He made ugly, misogynistic remarks about her to her face (I think implying that she was worthless if she wouldn’t have sex with him right then and there). King was mortified and quickly fled the party.
More than 10 years later (during the “househusband” years), King ran into John again, maybe at another party. She mentioned their previous meeting at the party and basically called him out for his horrible behavior. My recollection of her book is that he apologized and told her that he didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with strong women at the time and all he could do was sexualize them and put them down.
I am someone who believes that people can change and evolve and improve. I have no doubt this happened with John and would have continued to happen if he had lived. The John Lennon of the late 60s was brilliant and wonderful but also horrible and petty. I have no doubt that he wouldn’t have had the capacity to walk back an impulsive decision to break up the Beatles.
I also have no doubt that there were still remnants of his “old” personality present when he died… and that they’d probably have been there all his life even if he’d lived. But in spite of all the mythologizing and the attempts by the four Beatles to stick to the “official story,” I have zero doubt that the Beatles would have gotten back together at some point if he’d lived. And it would have been precipitated by John privately apologizing to the three others and perhaps then publicly apologizing to the others. Because (at least for George and Paul), being acknowledged by and valued by John Lennon was something they always craved even long after the Beatles had split up.
“he apologized and told her that he didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with strong women at the time and all he could do was sexualize them and put them down.”
That comment makes me wonder about his feelings towards the original strong woman in his life. After all, Julia gave birth to John, but she wasn’t really his mother, Mimi was. Even when he made the tape discussing his attraction to Julia, I suspect John was probably not willing, or possibly even able, to articulate boyhood sexual desires towards Mimi. Still, the fact that Yoko was, in her own way, a lot like Mimi says a lot to me.