Michael Gerber
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Earlier this week, reader @Maya wrote me, knowing full well the flood of words that this would cause:

Hey, just wondering your thoughts on this video. At around the 1:20:00 mark, Lewisohn says that he thinks John and Yoko weren’t addicted to heroin? This is really throwing me and has got me worried about his third volume, should it ever be released.”

Having listened to the relevant bit, @Maya, I have to say I’m worried too. Strap in folks, this is gonna be a long one–I don’t have time to write it shorter.

A couple of things to begin with…

Mark Lewisohn is an excellent researcher—he’s a chronicler. That’s what he’s been doing since the early 1980s, and there’s nobody better. Future scholars will use his work, and rightly so. However! I don’t always agree with his interpretations, which I sometimes find fairly surface. That doesn’t make him wrong, just that I don’t expect him to say much that I haven’t read or pondered before. And when he does attempt to overturn some orthodoxy, I can find myself dubious of his interpretation. Here’s an example:

Midway through this interview he makes a point of saying that Allen Klein has been perhaps unfairly treated, made into a monster by Beatles biographers. To which I say, “The guy whose previous clients, most notably Sam Cooke and The Rolling Stones, did not exactly thrive under his care? The guy whose one job was to keep The Beatles together and productive, and instead decided to play John and Yoko against Paul, effectively destroying the group? That Allen Klein?” Klein is a figure who worked in the shadows, on purpose. You can’t really ascertain who or what he was via documents and his own statements; this is intentional. It benefitted him in his business dealings to be…well, duplicitous is a kind way to put it. Klein is actively hiding important things; if you take him at face value, you’re going to be misled, because Klein lies. Morality is not the point here; it is figuring out the most true model of what was going on. The only hope is to gather information from a wide variety of informed sources, then pull back and assess.

Allen Klein was an excellent Mob-style accountant, and there’s smarts and skill in that—setting up tax dodges and dummy corporations, striding into offices and shaking fatcats down for nickels per LP. That he could do, nobody can deny. But he was not, in any way, a good manager of artists, and anybody who says he was…just look at the careers of his clients. Sam Cooke died intestate—what reasonably competent manager allows that?—and Klein later bought his back catalog from his starving widow. The Stones straight up lost the rights to their music from 1963-69. Being murdered without providing for your family, losing six years’ worth of iconic hits, becoming estranged from your writing partner and breaking up the biggest group of all time—these are all catastrophically bad outcomes for the artist. And they were pretty unwise for Klein too—how much would Allen Klein have been worth, if he’d actually taken care of his clients? David Geffen would be asking him to borrow money.

Klein’s behavior—with Cooke, with The Stones, and The Beatles—makes no sense if he was trying to nurture and protect his clients over the long haul. It makes perfect sense, however, if he was primarily concerned with short-term gain for ABKCO. But short-term gain is dumb when you’re the manager of Sam Cooke in 1964, or the Stones in 1966, or The Beatles in 1969. Why would Klein, a smart guy, act so stupidly?

It’s almost as if Klein kept doing something destructive, and couldn’t stop. Anyone with a smidgeon of experience in showbiz recognizes this for what it is: reflexively screwing the talent, because you think they’re dumb, and think you can lawyer up longer and better than they can. IIRC, ABKCO and The Stones finally settled in 2015.

In the face of Allen Klein’s pattern of behavior, to say he is unfairly maligned by Beatles writers strikes me as—I want to be careful in my language here. I respect Lewisohn immensely and revere what he’s given all of us. He’s forgotten more about The Beatles than I will ever know. Let’s just say, to me it speaks to Lewisohn’s assuming that everyone is as honest as he is, and not knowing what he doesn’t know.

In the first part of this video, Lewisohn speaks about listening to all 95 or whatever hours of the Get Back Nagra reels, fifty years to the day that The Beatles made them. And he concludes—like Peter Jackson would later—that the sessions were quite peaceful and productive.

Okay, fair enough—but as I’ve said before, this reinterpretation creates a big problem. It directly gainsays what John, George and George Martin said, consistently, over years, about the sessions. They were there. They are primary sources. You can’t just ignore that data because the Nagra reels seem sunnier than you expected, or sunnier than Let It Be. There’s also the issue of Let It Be itself, which was undeniably, indisputably what The Beatles wanted the world to think about those sessions, as of May 1970. It was practically anti-Beatle propaganda, made by The Beatles.

Were John, George, and George all lying? How likely is that? Were they all mistaken? How likely is that? Were they all wrong in one particular way? Why? Similarly, was Let It Be a reverse whitewash? At whose direction, and for what purpose?

A mere chronicler does not have to answer these questions. A historian, however, must.

Like Jackson, Mark Lewisohn believes that the important truths of The Beatles are accessible via the sources we have—like the Nagra Reels. But I think the only way you can square things like the questions above is to acknowledge that there were conversations, essential interactions, which happened outside of the record we have.

This, to a chronicler, is terrifying; it hacks at the very root of their sense of self-worth. (Not to me; I personally think chronicling—unearthing information, organizing and cataloguing it—is absolutely essential. Lewisohn’s an absolutely essential man, and I’d promote the hell out of a Kickstarter for him; he should be supremely well-paid and supported for what he’s doing.) But the idea that sources are incomplete, or misleading, or worst of all, being used by liars to shape a narrative, that is a terrifying thing to a chronicler. It flips them from a discoverer of truth into a mouthpiece for propaganda. They will resist that conclusion if at all possible.

What does all this have to do with Maya’s question? Everything.

The impact of drugs on an individual, and a situation, is really hard to ascertain—something practically guaranteed to drive a chronicler crazy. Who took what, when? What consequences did it have on them, individually? Their relationships with others? The kinds of ideas they had? How can we tell? It’s invisible. And where’s the baseline? It’s all down to judgment.

Because of when it happened, and the business they were in, drugs are central in The Beatles’ story. It is a story about creativity, and luck, and drive, and money and Britain, and America, and the 50s, and the 60s, and sex, and the Cold War…and, inevitably, unavoidably, drugs. What they do to people, particularly artists.

Let’s take the most neutral, most accepted, most harmless aspect: Prellies. You cannot understand what The Beatles did in Hamburg, and what Hamburg did to them, without addressing the topic of amphetamines. That chemical isn’t just “a thing that happened in the story,” but “a thing that made the story happen.”

For years, historians attempted to understand blitzkrieg—how it worked, why it worked—without foregrounding the fact that the Nazis provided their soldiers with amphetamines. The astounding success of their tactics wasn’t just that Heinz Guderian was a genius; it was that German soldiers on speed could fight harder for longer, and move faster than their enemies. This internal, invisible chemical higher-than-baseline state is key to understanding the external, visible one—the fall of France in 1940. Yet until about ten years ago, historical consensus just said, “Well, the Germans were very motivated.”

That’s true, certainly. But they were also on speed.

Did speed give John, Paul, George and Ringo, normal British teens, the energy, drive and focus necessary to become The Beatles? Highly likely. Did speed also play a role in the supposed streetfights, including the one where Stu got kicked in the head? Highly likely. Did a mixture of Prellies and alcohol play a role in Lennon’s nearly beating Bob Wooler to death in 1963? Perhaps. These are canonical events, all—the Prellies and the violence—yet we have yet to acknowledge their interconnection. And we must, not to point fingers or assert immorality, but to understand.

How much of the Beatles’ fabled “cheekiness” and amazing capacity to work pre-1964 is due to their ambition, how much to their quick wits, and how much is due to speed? What impact does taking that much Preludin over that much time, do to a nervous system? How does it change one’s thoughts, one’s relationships? A chronicler can get away with saying, “No records exist which allow us to ascertain any of this.” But to the degree that a biographer can answer these questions, they must. If you know someone is taking drugs, those drugs are playing some role in their behavior; you can’t just set them aside as net-neutral because it’s impossible to quantify.

The same questions can, and should, be asked about The Beatles use of pot. In the podcast, Lewisohn says that, according to George, smoking a joint was no big deal, like having a few beers. Well, that’s true…but not for everyone, and not every time, either. And also, if you smoke pot like The Beatles smoked—incessantly—that’s no more benign or neutral than walking around with an open beer all the time.

And the same questions must be asked, of John at least, regarding LSD. LSD may not be habit-forming, but if you take it every day over long periods of time…it changes the brain. It must.

Just as a high person acts and talks and thinks different from a sober person—that’s why we take drugs, to change ourselves—John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s career, interpersonal relationships, and public behavior was different than if they’d been four teetotalers. This is simply factual, and telling their story without strongly factoring in how drugs impacted them and their relationships (including with each other), is like telling John DeLorean’s story that way, or John Belushi’s. Drugs had a massive impact on everyone involved in the counterculture—if you weren’t taking them, you were dealing with people who were, or you were dealing with the ideas and attitudes that they spawned or encouraged.

There is no reason to believe that the John Lennon of 1963, with a chemical diet of booze and Prellies, imagined himself crawling around naked in a bag with a Japanese performance artist. What changed him? The Beatles experience, yes, but also the experience of more and different drugs, both on him, and on the society around him. And that’s why he took them—that’s what “mind expansion” is and does. But mind expansion comes at a cost. Sometimes that cost is obvious–being an acid casualty, or a heroin zombie–but often it’s not. Often it must be inferred.

Before I say any more, let’s read what Lewisohn actually says.

Lewisohn to interviewer, 1:21:

“You called John ‘a heroin addict.’ I don’t believe he was ever addicted. I don’t see the signs of an addict there. And in fact I’m not so sure how many times he took it. He ended up writing the song that suggests that he was addicted, ‘Cold Turkey.’ Incredible song. And so revealing because no one knew he was taking heroin, and he writes a heroin addiction and withdrawal song, and puts it out as a record. I don’t know whether at that point he’d actually gone through that experience. He probably had, to know it. But that suggests a stronger addiction than there’s any indication of.”

First off, I wondered what are “the signs of an addict”? Here’s a thirty-second Google search:

WARNING SIGNS OF ADDICTION

  • Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual.
  • Changes in productivity, attitude and focus.
  • Increase in absenteeism and late arrivals.
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain.
  • Deterioration of physical appearance, personal grooming habits.
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing.
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination.
  • Apathetic attitudes toward broken relationships and the consequences of using drugs and/or alcohol.

All of the factors in bold are ones we see in John Lennon during the White and Get Back periods. The last one, particularly, is troubling. Lennon is suddenly saying things like, “I’d give all of you up for her.” Why would he suddenly say something like that? Because that’s not just about Yoko; it’s also about the woman who introduced him to heroin, who he is doing heroin with. The Beatles were John’s drinking buddies, Prellie gang, pot friends, (to some degree) his LSD pals…but the moment he does a drug that only he’s doing, he transfers his loyalties from them to his fellow heroin user. This is a sign of an addict. You seek friends not because they are good for/to you, but because they enable the addiction, which is paramount. Best of all is the same kind of addict; second-best is another kind of addict; third-best is an enabler.  Even if we agree with Lewisohn and say that Yoko didn’t break the band up, the business stuff did, it’s impossible to separate John’s relationship first with Yoko, and then with Klein, from his use of heroin. In ’67, The Beatles were a united front ready to mutiny over being sold to Robert Stigwood; now John is ready to cozy up to a bad new, gangster-adjacent guy like Allen Klein? Has he lost his mind?

No. It makes perfect sense; he’s started using heroin, and thus prefers the company of other heroin users (Yoko), and other addicts (Klein?) to enablers (The Beatles and support staff). Suddenly there are three things between him and the other Beatles, and they all are connected. Thinking of Lennon as an addict isn’t a value judgment on him, it’s simply a theory that helps explain the story in a logical way.

Back to the interview:

Interviewer: Think he had a relapse after “Cold Turkey” into heroin again? With Yoko?

Lewisohn: The suggestion is that George said that Yoko had got John into heroin and they didn’t like her for that. But I don’t think she was an addict, either…there’s no sign that either of them was. They functioned to such a high degree. I mean, John is so creative—okay, he’s not writing many songs at the start of ’69, but you look at John Lennon’s performance, most of January he’s…fine. At Savile Row he seems completely clean. He’s not strung out on heroin the whole month like I’ve read. He’s not, at all. The Bed-In, he’s so switched on, he’s definitely not doing any heroin in Amsterdam. Maybe, very late at night when the room finally is cleared, and finally the two of them are alone after another extraordinary day of their room being full of people, they might have a smoke. There is an allusion in one of the films to ‘Thanks for the grass’ whatever, it was nice, which is newlyweds, after an exhausting day, make love and have a joint and go to sleep, fine. I don’t think they’re doing heroin.

Interviewer: He’s so lucid.

Lewisohn: He’s so lucid, he’s so on top of it…He never drops the ball at any point, and it’s the same in Montreal. I think he has a heroin problem again in New York in 1971-72. There’s a story of them going cold turkey in a car being driven across America. They put themselves in the car and told the driver to drive and they would go through their hell in the back of the car. And when they arrived at the destination, they were over it. Which must’ve been a trip. And a half…But nonetheless. But I think it’s very easy to be frightened, obviously, of the word “heroin”and its potential, and to assume that John was strung out on heroin the whole time, and it’s very evident that he was not. He’s far too creative and lucid…he doesn’t exhibit any signs whatsoever of being strung out. In fact, in Twickenham, I think it’s the 14th of January, it’s the last day at Twickenham, John begins the day with an interview set up the day before with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation…and John is kind of green in this interview, he’s clearly unwell and in fact he goes off to throw up. And we know he’s thrown up because he comes back and says, “I’ve just thrown up.” There’s no secrets with these guys, they told us everything.

Did they, though? Or does Lewisohn want to believe they did, and for us to believe that, too? What if The Beatles didn’t tell us lots of stuff? What if they intentionally misled us at times? Or lots of times? Where does that leave a guy like Lewisohn? Doesn’t that totally change his job from what he’s so good at—accumulating and organizing facts—to something that he’s not good at, which is skeptical interpretation of someone who may have something to hide?

But let’s look at his words themselves. There are two things I want to point out here. The first is, Lewisohn’s story-making. We have no idea what John and Yoko did in the Bed-Ins late at night when it was just them. They might’ve had cups of cocoa; they might’ve been constructing a nuclear bomb. We don’t know. But instead of saying, “We don’t know what John and Yoko did after everyone left,” Lewisohn creates a story—presumably of what Mark Lewisohn would’ve done. (And what Mike Gerber would’ve done, for that matter.) But the whole point of John and Yoko is that they are not Mark or me. They lived an entirely different kind of life than we do, and it’s one that—not coincidentally—was full of drugs, legal and illegal, and people doing drugs, legal and illegal. Constantly. All the time.

Filtering a Beatle’s story through expectations formed solely by our own experiences will mislead us. These people were extraordinary to begin with, and then had lives that made them more unique and exaggerated, not less. Plus the time they lived in. We have to know what we don’t know, and ask people who might be able to tell us.

The second thing Lewisohn does is this: he assumes that Lennon isn’t an addict because he doesn’t conform to what Lewisohn thinks an addict acts like. Does Lewisohn have extensive contact with addicts? I do, and Lennon of ’68-’70 rings my addict-warning system hard. He’s got a tremendous amount of random anger and defiance, especially towards people who were his friends; he’s got a ton of chaos in his family life, and in his professional relationships, and in his business affairs. And so forth. True, he’s not a drooling zombie; but a guy who could help produce Revolver, Pepper, and all the songs of 1967 while “eating LSD like candy” is maybe not going to have the reactions to drugs we might expect.

The one thing we know about John Lennon and drugs is that, at every time of his life after Hamburg, he’s using chemicals, and usually a mixture of chemicals, to control his mood. Constantly titrating up and down. What was he like sober? We don’t know, we never met that guy. But people with a normal relationship to drugs and mood do not consume to the degree he did. And money can cover for a lot of personal messiness. When you think of a heroin addict—say someone like Charlie Parker hocking his horn, or stumbling around the Lower East Side at the end—how much of that is drugs, and how much is being a poor African-American musician who’s lost his cabaret card? A smack-addicted Beatle is likely not going to look like Charlie Parker. He’s not even going to look like a pre-Redlands bust Robert Fraser. A smack-addicted Beatle is still making a lot of people a lot of money.

John’s not on the nod, drooling; ergo, he’s not an addict. Lewisohn admits he’s taking heroin on January 13, 1969, even going so far as to finger Tony Sanchez as the connection thanks to photos, but then says John “regretted” taking the heroin, because he told Paul and Ringo “last night, I took something he shouldn’t have.”

This is story-making again. Did John really regret taking that heroin? If so, he would’ve stopped—which we know he did not do. Or did John, as committed to the Heroin Lifestyle as ever, simply run into some H that was cut with something that made him sick? Or was he performing contrition for Ringo and especially Paul, on the off-chance that tales of his morning vomiting had gotten back to them? “Handling one’s drugs” was a core value in those days. Who knows? I have my guesses, based on my tangles with addicts, but we really don’t know. We certainly can’t make the kind of calls that Lewisohn is making here, not on the data we have.

I know why Lewisohn is making up these stories; he’s a Lennon fan. I’m a Lennon fan, too. I hate thinking that John Lennon, amazing artist, was in thrall to anything bad for him. It really bugs me, that thought, because I care for the guy and appreciate everything he did that’s given me so much joy. But we have to go with the data.

The data says John wasn’t a zombie…in public. The data also says that he was taking heroin for longer than anyone knew, had to kick (that’s what an addict calls it, not a casual user); then picked it up again, then kicked again. And this is just up to 1972! (I read last night he checked himself into a hospital t0 kick in 1974.)

Lewisohn’s fundamental misunderstanding is that he thinks “addict” is a perjorative, that it’s got a moral connotation. I would argue that it’s simply descriptive, and what it describes is a person who has an injurious behavior they cannot stop engaging in.

You know, like Allen Klein. And John Lennon.

Addicts lie about their addiction, particularly about who’s in charge. They can, as the cliché goes, stop any time they want; it just sometimes takes them tying themselves to a chair, or a couple years later, going for a drive cross-country.

“I don’t think the word addiction should be applied,” Lewisohn said in the podcast. “I think he was in control of it, rather than the other way around.”

John said he could handle it—because he told stories about kicking H that show a kind of addict machismo—and rather than thinking, “Yeah, addicts talk like that”—Lewisohn believes him. But you really can’t believe an active addict when they are speaking about their addiction. If someone in recovery speaks about their addiction, they’re not spinning yarns about how they kicked in a manly way. Addicts in recovery are remorseful. John never, not once in all those interviews, suggested publicly that his prodigious, protracted drug use caused anybody any trouble. He never, not once, surmised that his prodigious, protracted drug use impaired his first marriage or his relationship with Julian. Or with the other Beatles. Drugs were just a thing he did…and it’s one thing for John’s manager and co-workers and flunkies and hangers-on not to call him to account. But we can, and we should. Not to moralize, but to understand.

So why is any of this important? What does it matter if Mark Lewisohn writes a third volume that promotes the countercultural myth of John Lennon, Drug Superman? Why do I endlessly rant about this topic on the blog?

Because if addiction can wreck John Lennon—if it can break up the Beatles—it can mess you up. And being real—not Nancy Reagan, but real—about addiction changes the way we look at  history since the Sixties.

Our culture is very poor at identifying addictive behavior. In fact, I’d argue that much of our society is actively instilling addictive behaviors into us, to build ever-growing streams of profit. How many of you are addicted to your phone? I am. Twitter or other social media? Me, too. This impacts my behavior, my thoughts, the way I move in the world. And if a person is an artist, it comes out in their art, because it changes what they see and how they see it. I write differently when there’s a lot of Twitter in my bloodstream. 🙂

To try to get some distance on this, I asked a friend of mine who is an addict. “How can you tell when someone is an addict?” They said, “If someone does a behavior that they know is bad for them, but continues to do that behavior, they are addicted to it. And a very good way to tell if someone is an addict—is indulging in harmful behavior, and will not stop—is to look at their life. Is there a lot of disorder around them? Are they doing things they later regret?”

Unlike the five years previous, John Lennon’s life has a lot of disorder between May 1968 and the end of the Beatles. Something happens to John Lennon, and he realized it too, because the whole Rolling Stone interview in 1970 was a retcon centered on that. He hangs it on Brian’s death, because that’s neutral…but is that the whole story? What if it’s drugs? What if all the chemicals that John had ingested since 1960 or so started to hit him funny? What if the steady dose of chemicals he needed just to keep going, started to have different effects on him? Which is more likely, that John fell out of love with The Beatles because Brian died, or because his poor mistreated nervous system just couldn’t take the punishment any more?

When you strip away the moral aspect—when you stop thinking that using drugs, even opiates, made John a bad person, and simply accept him as a fallible frail human with a fragile nervous system who acted in sadly predictable ways—the whole Beatles story begins to change. A lot of what John says, especially after Brian’s death, and certainly after the return from India, stops sounding like the interesting thoughts of a particularly perceptive young man, and starts sounding like late-Counterculture drug-guy spiel. Paul still sounds like Paul, George gets into Indian stuff but it still the same laconic fellow he was before, Ringo is ever-Ringo, but John starts saying things like, “Shooting (H) is exercise,” writing songs like ‘Cold Turkey’ and whispering “Shoot me” in “Come Together.” “I need a fix, ’cause I’m goin’ down…” That’s not someone who snorts a little recreational heroin at parties (and that absurd sentence seems to be what the consensus is). That’s a junkie talking about his life.

I do not get a sense that Mark Lewisohn is particularly well-read on substance abuse, nor particularly interested in its role in The Beatles’ story. That’s a shame, because unlike the reputation of Allen Klein, this really is a consensus worth challenging. I think just a few conversations with people in recovery, specifically well-off people who had long-term “maintenance habits” of opioids, would open his eyes. Did John’s heroin habit impact his working relationships? Of course it did.

Beatles fans must challenge the idea that all four Beatles, and John Lennon in particular, tried and did everything but somehow came out utterly unchanged by it—or only changed for the better. That’s the Sixties fantasy, but it’s simply not possible. Furthermore, there are aspects of the Beatles story that drug addiction is the most logical answer for; I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that John Lennon’s life explodes almost exactly the same time he gets into heroin. I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that John and Paul seem to enter a Cold War almost exactly the same time John gets into heroin. And any Beatles biographer who says that—especially THE Beatles biographer—is missing a huge opportunity to tell an important truth.

In my life I have occasionally encountered a peculiar belief that drugs are neutral substances. That they have their neurological and physical impact, sometimes profound, then leave. That they do not leave traces. In my experience, many people from the UK believe this; that a pint or four every night is normal and has no impact. The language and understanding of addiction seems to be catching on there, but for many years, it was considered to be as American-fake as capped teeth.

There’s also a political aspect; don’t be a narc, man!  The counterculture believed that drugs were either harmless or beneficial. When someone “couldn’t handle it,” that was a weakness in them. You do the drugs, have the fun, and then you’re back to normal—or better. Many people who indulged in the 1960s and 1970s seem to believe this. And many people who love those people, want to believe it. Sometimes even I want to believe it.

But I think the wiser idea is this: everything we do to our nervous system leaves a trace in our self, and our relationship with others. And that goes ten times for something used regularly. Given what we know about Lennon’s life and habits, we must assume that he was an addict, and use the forensic tools appropriate to addicts—people who lie about their cravings, people whose cravings cause alienation and disorder and make them be not who they truly are—to make sense of who he was and what he did.   Not to moralize, but to understand.

Of course there is a rather obvious reason that Lewisohn may not be able to see this: he hasn’t had a lot of close contact with addicts. This is my hope for him personally. Never having been around the lying, self-deception, and wreckage of an addict and his untreated addiction, Lewisohn may simply be reverting to media depictions of them as his model—”The Man With the Golden Arm.” Since Lennon didn’t ever act like a steroeotypical junkie (at least in public), he must have been master.

But I would hope that as Mark Lewisohn writes Volume II and III of The Beatles story—the point where the Fabs’ drug use becomes more intense, exotic, and a bigger part of the story, how they copied with being Beatles—he consults widely with experts on addiction and neurology, and we get sound medical thinking on these issues. So that we might stop viewing all this as morality, and truly understand.

Or he could just ask Ringo, “Do you think John was an addict?” I think I know what Ringo would say.