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by Richard Klin
Discussed in this essay: The John Lennon Letters, edited by Hunter Davies. 2012, Little, Brown, 400 pages.
. . . I’m bringing myself down thinking about what a thoughtless bastard I seem to be . . . I really feel like crying . . . —letter to his ex-wife, Cynthia, 1965
The John Lennon Letters bears a title that fails to convey the scope of this completist’s dream: an exhaustive collection of Lennon’s missives, handwritten lyrics, post cards, scrawled notes, shopping lists, all — with the gravitas of an exhibition catalog — carefully numbered and referenced.
The turbulent, warp-speed life of John Lennon is one of the most amply chronicled stories of the modern age. There really isn’t much to add. The John Lennon Letters is, on some level, pages and pages of interesting ephemera, but it does have the crucial effect of restoring Lennon to his proper, overlooked legacy: that of an artist and not simply a personality.
Lennon was a product of art school, that seminal incubator of British rock ‘n roll that spawned Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Syd Barrett, and so many, many others. The John Lennon Letters is crammed with cartoons, visual eccentricities, wordplay. Lennon penned two volumes of poetry, wrote a book review for the New York Times in 1973, and was thoroughly conversant with the avant-garde. He was also an inveterate letter writer.
Lennon wrote to family, extended and close. He wrote to his estranged, duplicitous father; he wrote to employees of Apple Records; to Paul, George, and Ringo; he wrote to his chauffeur; he wrote to country-music outlaw Waylon Jennings. There is a letter to late-night TV oddity Joe Franklin and to film icon Gloria Swanson (they were, improbably, friends). The Lennon letters brim with eclectic references: Watergate, The Mike Douglas Show, Woody Allen, spirituality. Brian Epstein, their Jewish, closeted manager — and handler, friend, image-maker — generates a fair amount of references that recede as Epstein’s influence ultimately wanes (and tragically ends altogether with his mid-'60s suicide).
The acerbic John Lennon — which has been somewhat tucked away these last three decades — is on full display. Todd Rundgren, who had publicly groused about Lennon’s 90-proof hi-jinx, gets the full smackdown treatment in a letter to “Sodd Runtlestuntle” in which Lennon makes repeated fun of his name, mocks his music, and disparages him as nothing more than a petty attention-seeker. Unsurprisingly, Paul McCartney, Lennon’s post-Beatles bête noir, is the recipient of enough invective to warrant an entire chapter: “I don’t believe you’re that insane — Paul — do you believe that?” In an open letter to McCartney that appeared in Melody Maker in 1971, we read: “It’s all very well playing ‘simple, honest ole Paul’. . . have you thought that you might possibly be wrong about something? Your conceit against us . . . is incredible.”
Lennon's full-throttle immersion into radical activism is all the more exceptional when one considers that his counterparts were not, by any stretch, Tom Hayden or Angela Davis. His counterparts were Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison. “Street Fighting Man” aside, these were musical entertainers — aware, relevant entertainers, to be sure — but entertainers nonetheless.
There is correspondence with Black Panther founder Huey Newton (1972), Lennon noting with incredulity that “Imagine” has become a hit in apartheid South Africa. His political concerns, as the letters attest, were legion: the arrest and legal tribulations of activist John Sinclair; the plight of incarcerated Trinidadian dissident Michael X (who eventually — despite the vigorous activism of Lennon and many others — was executed). Lennon lent support to the beleaguered British satirical magazine Oz and expressed solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland: “. . . how would we feel,” he writes in 1972, “being occupied by Irish troops? . . . our deepest sympathies must surely go to the victims of British and American imperialism. . . . the real cause of the problems is British imperialism.”
The hyper-opinionated letters are leavened with a strong, bracing dose of humor; no surprise to anyone remotely conversant with the Beatles. “Your Majesty,” a 1969 letter to Queen Elizabeth begins, “I am returning this MBE [an honorific title] in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against [his song] Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.”
John Lennon wrote most of these letters from an Olympian perch that no longer exists and never will. The Beatles, of course, were the biggest musical force the world had ever seen — and will ever see — and he was the unequivocal leader of the pack. This alone lends an intrinsic significance to any collection of his letters, but the book is compromised by an uncomfortable undercurrent of voyeurism. The reader can feast his or her eyes on letter 101 [undated]: a shopping list (laxative, swim trunks). Letter 264  is yet another shopping list, designated for his housekeeper (milk, oranges, one dozen eggs). Following along in chronological order, letter 265 is a brief, complaining note to the laundry that yellowed his “brand new white shirt.” Didn’t John and Yoko have their own washer and drier? And if not, why wasn’t there someone on their staff to handle laundry issues? These are mildly intriguing questions, but ones that seem more appropriate for People magazine or a late-night conversation in one’s dorm room. And over the years, Davies informs us, a good chunk of this material has been sold off to assorted collectors, which is not just exploitative but vaguely cannibalistic. Lennon was a showman par excellence and not known for his reticence. But it’s hard to know what he would make of his laundry gripes or need for new swim trunks available for public perusal. Or sold to the highest bidder.
“I’m 40 next year,” he wrote to a cousin in 1979. “I hope life begins...” He had found peace in domesticity, fulfillment as a father, and a newfound eagerness to make music. The reader is cursed with a sinking insight that John Lennon himself, of course, did not possess. His life would end, not begin, at forty.
Accordingly, The John Lennon Letters comes to an abrupt halt, wisely absent any sort of denouement. What conclusion, after all, can be drawn from that act of brutality in front of the Dakota?
John Lennon’s death made no sense in 1980. It seems, thirty years on, all the more tragically incomprehensible.
Richard Klin is author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011), a series of profiles of artists discussing the intersection of art and politics. His writing has been featured on NPR's All Things Considered and in numerous magazines.