- F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Lennon - July 1, 2020
- The Artist as a Dissipated Man: Fred Seaman’s “The Last Days of John Lennon” - February 15, 2020
- John Lennon, Alma Cogan, and the Delicate Mechanism of Efficient Beatles Operations - December 21, 2019
I’ve been on something of a Jazz Age kick recently, and you can’t be on one of those without running into my second-favorite American author of all time, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Somehow the thought occurred to me: F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Lennon have a lot in common.
Fitzgerald said that all his works were imprinted with what he called his “stamp”; he said this stamp was “taking things hard.” Specifically, Fitzgerald was referring to Ginerva King, a Chicago heiress and socialite whom Fitzgerald courted in his late teens and who rejected him for someone wealthier and more socially prominent. Fitzgerald was devastated and seems to have experienced the rejection as a trauma. Sound familiar to Gatsby readers? Fitzgerald drew upon this rejection—the deep longing to be let into the world of someone wealthy, and the disjunction between intense idealization of a love object and reality—in all his works, including the scores of short stories he churned out through the 1920s, which made him one of the most famous and successful young writers of the age.
John had his “stamp,” too. We all know John’s childhood, of course, and how parental abandonment, death, and a Dickensian aunt who was ill-suited to raise a particularly sensitive boy with a family history of mental illness combusted with his innate talent to give us JOHN LENNON. I’m quite sure that those events didn’t just inspire John’s later, confessional songs like “Julia” or all of Plastic Ono Band. Just like Fitzgerald writing is going to sooner or later return to money, class, idealized love, and the wispiness of dreams, John’s early and mid-period Beatles songs are filled with a set of recurring themes: reuniting (It Won’t Be Long; When I Get Home; A Hard Day’s Night), unconditional emotional availability (Anytime At All; All I Gotta Do), a singer telling a girl that he’ll treat her right—in contrast to another guy, who’s treating her poorly (This Boy; You’re Gonna Lose That Girl), betrayal (Not A Second Time; I’ll Be Back; No Reply; I’m A Loser; Baby’s In Black; I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party). All of these can be traced back to Julia Lennon, either as wish fulfillment (all of those songs about reuniting and being there “whenever you call”) or expressions of profound insecurity caused by maternal abandonment (lack of a stable sense of self, wildly vacillating self-confidence, an Oedpial desire to save Julia from wife-beating Bobby Dykins, etc.).
Both men were able to spin these early hurts into gold, almost mechanistically at first. John spoke of having a “formula” he used to write early Beatles songs. He never said what the formula was, but I think it involved matching his genius for pop hooks to words that translated his deepest wounds into simple, relatable expressions of love and longing. Fitzgerald basically did the same thing, except his genius was for lyrical prose, not music. Like John, Fitzgerald admitted that he deliberately structured his short stories to be marketable by changing parts of them after he’d written them—i.e., hewing them to a formula. Both men arrived on their respective cultural scenes already able to do this extremely well, and then got much better at it in an extremely short period of time. Soon, they were blending craft and art, “formula” and emotion, so well that they were making Great Art: Gatsby and Rubber Soul both mark a crystallization of these abilities.
After that, a decline begins. In Fitzgerald’s case, alcohol, possible mental illness, and a codependent, mentally unstable, and controlling partner who was Bad For Him are the culprits. In John’s case, you can substitute “heroin and LSD” for “alcohol.” Both of them were so closely linked to the decades they helped chronicle and shape that they were adrift, almost irrelevant, in the decades that came next. Both of them looked to be poised for a late-career second act but died, in terrible physical health (John’s assassination notwithstanding), in their early forties before that second act could happen.
I’m most interested in why Fitzgerald and Lennon lost the plot so quickly after their early career peaks. I think addiction has a lot to do with it. As Michael Gerber observed elsewhere on this site, genius is a delicate mechanism; when you start jackhammering it with chemicals that change your brain chemistry, you might ruin it very quickly. Distractions caused by unhealthy relationships took a big toll in both cases. Both artists were involved with partners who seemed competitive with, rather than unequivocally supportive of, their genius, and whose own addictions and mental health struggles made it very difficult for Fitzgerald/Lennon to get healthy and focused in the way they needed to do to create.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Both men relied on easy access to reservoirs of personal pain. And in both cases, it was a sort of adolescent pain, and an adolescent relationship to that pain. (In Fitzgerald’s case, that’s more obvious, but John retained a very particular “my mother died, so fuck the world I’m going to get trashed” type of anger for the rest of his life.) They took a craftsmanlike approach to their work whether they realized it or not, though neither viewed their best work as craft. But to me, both men depended on the fire from those emotions to fuel inspiration for their work, “product” or otherwise. As the years separating them from those traumas accumulated, it’s possible the pain dulled. It’s possible they ran out of new things to say about it. It’s possible that their reliance on intoxicants prevented growing beyond that pain, or finding new ways to look at it, or talk about it.
Whatever it was, in both cases, it’s remarkable that they gave us so much, so young, and sad to hear the Bermuda Demos or read the first third of The Last Tycoon. There may be second acts in American lives, contrary to what Fitzgerald said, but not in the lives of those who crashed into earth like comets as very young, very talented, very vulnerable artists.