John at Thanksgiving, 1979

Belatedly for someone as into the Beatles as I, I’ve been reading Fred Seaman’s The Last Days of John Lennon. It’s a very quick read, but not a particularly pleasant one. Seaman, John’s personal assistant for the last two or so years, depicts a rock star in his late thirties who may as well be in his late eighties for the way in which his happiness seems to be confined to rare moments when he reminisces about something he did in his early twenties. If there’s a spectrum of Dakota-era John Lennons stretching from Goldman’s smack-addled burnout on the far left to the drug-free, happy, bread-baking househusband on the right, Seaman’s is somewhere believably to the right of Goldman’s: functional enough to put on some clothes, walk down the block, and turn on the Lennon charm when he’s in the mood to do so, but stifled and depressed enough to retreat to his room for hours or days on end, where he does drugs, looks at Playboys or the TV, doesn’t write music, listens to Muzak versions of his own songs, and reads about psychology or the occult.

That the Dakota years were less rosy than the Ballad claims is not really up for debate anymore amongst anyone even semi-serious about the Beatles as people, not legends, but it’s still stunning to see what that looks like up close.

Weird beliefs. John appears to believe earnestly in what seem to be some pretty odd things. He is certain that Sean will inherit his soul when he, John, dies, because they were born on the same day. He believes that because Yoko was able to accomplish this feat, she has magical powers of some sort. He also believes that he is living on borrowed time and that he is headed for a violent end because he was a violent man. He is very interested in what it’s like to be shot and thinks a fair amount about assassination, which he believes is modern crucifixion. Most of us on this site don’t think about these things, but understanding the isolated, paranoid Lennon of the late Seventies probably depends on putting ourselves in the shoes of someone who did.

Exhaustion. One of the central impressions I get from Seaman’s book is exhaustion. I see someone who had given all he could give by 1966, and who knows it. Lennon’s encagement in the Dakota is enforced by “Mother” to degrees great and small, but until maybe the last six months of 1980, there’s a pervasive sense that John is choosing this. He’s exercising agency by not exercising agency. I think there are many reasons for this, some of which Seaman didn’t see (i.e., John’s about to buy a place with May Pang, swings by the Dakota for a stop-smoking cure, emerges three days later unsure of what day it is, complains of having thrown up endlessly, and ends the relationship), but that volitional laziness is present as early as January 1966, when Paul uses his break from recording/touring/filming to study piano and music theory; George, to learn the sitar, and John, to hang out at Weybridge and do LSD.

Unlike Paul, who came into his own during the Sixties, John hit the world stage shot out of a cannon. It took enormous energy to build up the charge to be shot out of that cannon, and that energy was almost entirely self-generated. Something like that cannot be sustained. Do you think that when it was gone, John knew it? I can’t imagine he didn’t. Do you think he sought protection because its absence left him feeling vulnerable? I could see that. Do you think without the animus to be bigger than Elvis, he needed something else to motivate him? Like being a guru? After the Beatles reached the “top of the mountain,” John doesn’t seem interested in pursuing his other artistic interests. He seems to be trying to figure out what’s above the mountain, and from there leads LSD immersion, compulsive meditation, the diminished ability to tell friend from foe Michael Gerber has discussed here, and various efforts to be bigger than John Lennon, Beatle.

John, the hipster IT guy at your local startup.

Yoko. It bums me out to detail what the Lennons’ relationship really seems to have been like, not because I want to believe in the Ballad of John And Yoko (I don’t, codependency with a superiority complex weirds me out), but because their marriage looks so toxic for everyone involved. Yoko appears to control most aspects of John’s life, sending him to different locales, requiring him to take vows of silence, and so on, while she conducts affairs and spends an odd amount of time on the phone making business deals of some sort. (Exactly what she is doing, or why it takes 20 hours a day to do it, is beyond Seaman’s purview.) When sessions for Double Fantasy start, John retaliates in some minor ways by being a tough critic, telling her when her performances need work, insulting her in front of the studio musicians and staff, and generally behaving like someone who’s finally got fire in the belly and an axe to grind. Seaman does not really see Yoko exact any measure of retribution for this, but given everything we do see of the couple’s arguments, distance, and compulsions, it’s impossible to think she did not do so at some point.

Double Fantasy Sessions

Loneliness. John seems to need the 22-year-old Seaman as a friend and as an assistant/employee, an uncomfortable blurring of boundaries that’s both doomed not to provide him with the companionship he really needs, and an encapsulation of what’s so sad about his life in the late Seventies. If even a quarter of Seaman’s recollections are accurate, John is simply alone. Unwilling or unable to accept calls from peers who might be able to relate to him, find a supportive romantic companion, or commit consistently to the type of other-directedness that would allow him to be a real parent, two of John Lennon’s closest and most healthy relationships in the Seventies appear to be with servants whom his wife paid to be his friends—May Pang and Fred Seaman. This is put into relief by the ways in which the lawyers, widow, and David Geffen attend to business necessities after Lennon’s death, Geffen apparently not too grief-stricken to exult openly about how much money he stands to make.

When I look back at all this, I think the inflection point occurs before India, before Two Virgins, before Allen Klein. I personally think the problem begins when John gets back from filming How I Won the War and Brian Epstein is too fucked up with his own addiction and depression issues for this content and to co-lead and manage the Beatles anymore. John Lennon had enormous potential at the end of 1966, but he needed someone who, like Epstein or George Martin, wanted to help him. McCartney tried to fill that role, but they were also friends, brothers, partners, competitors. And unlike 1961—the last time they were managerless—John didn’t have a cannonball charge in him. Unwilling to defer to Paul’s leadership, but too tired to lead, John was prey for those who would manipulate his need to be bigger than [Elvis/the Beatles/Jesus Christ] while using his directionlessness for their ends.

Who WAS John in ’66?

The book leaves me wondering what it was like to be John Lennon in 1967, a gauzy year when Lennon determination was being replaced with Lennon lassitude, but access to his subconscious, and his genius, appears to have been at an all-time peak. With worse luck—no Marharishi and too many hangers-on—the story ends in someone like Brian Jones’ flat in 1968, or something. With better luck, who knows—no one would have predicted 1961 John would become 1964 John, either. With the circumstances we got, and absent some affirmative effort from him, it feels like it inexorably leads to somewhere very like the Dakota circa 1979, looking out at Central Park, and writing funny shopping lists for your personal assistant.