John the Revelator?: Review of ‘The John Lennon Letters’

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In this post, I am happy to discover the items on John Lennon’s shopping list of 8 May 1980. No, really, I am.

Hunter Davies, ed., The John Lennon Letters (W&N, 2012)

9780316200806_vert-86a6139cc543190daea2b4dd33cb18b94d5f7595-s6-c10[1]I’d love to be someone fortunate enough to own a piece of handwriting or typescript attributed to the late Dr Winston O’ Boogie (aka John Lennon), either in a frame or within a Swiss bank safe deposit box – I don’t mind! I was mightily impressed when I saw some examples of the songwriter’s large and spidery scrawl (the lyrics for the Beatles songs ‘Help!’ and ‘In My Life’) through glass-encased panels at a British Museum exhibition many years ago, alongside extracts of manuscripts by Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, of all people. I have also entertained the idea recently of raising the sum of $35,000 to purchase an unearthed eight-page Lennon epistle to Eric Clapton from 1971, which went up for sale at an auction in Los Angeles in December 2012. However, as a Beatleologist who is not sufficiently rich, old or lucky, the nearest I have ever come to owning some Beatles writing is when I purchased a signed copy, for £15, of Pete Best’s 1997 book, The Best Years of the Beatles. Not terribly impressive, I know.

What is immediately apparent from The John Lennon Letters, a fine-looking, all-white hardback book, is that editor Hunter Davies clearly recognises any scrap of paper marked with Lennon’s scribble as a massively important and valuable British cultural artefact. He gained authorisation to edit nearly 300 of these highly prized documents, from individual private collections around the globe, ostensibly because he published the first and only authorised biography of the Beatles in 1968, before going on to author a book on the celebrated Lake District fell-walker Alfred Wainwright, of course!  He has had the blessing of Yoko Ono in putting this book together, as well as the good wishes of pretty much all of the surviving Beatles insiders (even if Lennon did call his biography ‘bullshit’ in a 1971 interview for Rolling Stone magazine). He has also done a fine job in tracking down the recipients and owners of these letters, while putting them into a readable and roughly chronological order, with some sense of narrative cohesion.

In accordance with his duties as a kind of cultural archaeologist within the book, Davies presents the Lennon letters, written between 1951 and 1980, in a reverential manner, giving an introduction, context and number to each piece, and reproducing them in full colour, together with his own typescripts so that we don’t have to work too hard to decipher the messy and dashed-off handwriting, as Lennon was (perhaps forgivably) a terrible speller, with a sloppy approach to grammar. Yet we quickly realise that Davies gives a very wide remit to what actually constitutes a ‘letter’ in this collection, because the material is made up of postcards, Christmas cards, telegrams, book inscriptions, filled-in questionnaires, concert set lists, notes to chauffeurs, ‘to do’ lists for staff, and, it is true, shopping lists. This is for the given reason that ‘for Beatles and music fans generally, anything that gives any sort of insight into [Lennon’s] work or biographical details is of value’. However, I have read many critics commenting on the ‘trivial’ or ‘barrel-scraping’ nature of many of the entries, with Jarvis Cocker among them saying that whereas Davies is just ‘doing his job’ as an editor, we as readers of the book are unable to escape the ‘echo’ of great artists from the past.

It is a little upsetting to be considered as some sort of nostalgia-driven Lennon obsessive when embarking upon this book because, while it is not an essential work towards understanding the Beatles’ working lives or John’s output as a solo artist, there is much to value here. This is because the letters – to fans, friends, relations, the Melody Maker, The Times etc – shed much light on Lennon as a person, by which we discover that he is very funny, open, sensitive, generous and endlessly curious, as well as acerbic and sarcastic. There is ample entertaining evidence here, for instance, of Lennon’s Goonish humour and liking for Lewis Carrol-influenced nonsense wordplaynotably when we find him, during the course of his residence in Hamburg with the early Beatles lineup, writing an absurd missive to George Harrison’s mum: ‘Dear Mrs Horminsoon, Are is verig hansume to been in Homburg and having great day’. There is also evidence to suggest that Lennon had a surprisingly unguarded attitude towards fans during the early days of Beatlemania, when we see him, in ‘Letter 22’, ‘to Sylvia and Kathy, dated March 1963′, disseminating his bandmates’ home locations: ‘Thanks for your letter – here are the addresses you asked for. George – 174 Macketts Lane, Woolton, Liverpool 25, Paul – 20 Forthlin Rd, Allerton, Liverpool…’  We also see him expressing guilty feelings over his inattention to his newborn son, Julian, while touring with the Beatles around this time, complaining to his wife Cynthia: ‘I spend hours in dressing rooms and things thinking about the times I’ve wasted not being with him’.

For me, the most compelling section of the book falls under the heading ‘Problems with Paul’, a chapter dealing with Lennon’s well-known falling-out with McCartney after the Beatles breakup. The letters here may already have been analysed by Beatles scholars over the years, but they are nonetheless shocking in tone; we find John, for instance (in ‘Letter 142: to Linda and Paul, 1971?’) having a right old rant at McCartney’s wife over words that she and Paul had said regarding his relationship with Yoko Ono in the press, mingled with his constant obsession with demythologising the Beatles legacy: ‘I hope you realize what shit you and the rest of my “kind and unselfish” friends laid on Yoko and me, since we’ve been together […] I’m not ashamed of the Beatles – (I did start it all) – but of some of the shit we took to make them so big – I thought we all felt that way in varying degrees – obviously not’. Lennon’s own dismay regarding his dire legal and personal predicament with McCartney is further noted in a postcard to Ringo, dated 27 January 1971: ‘Who’d have thought it would come to this… Love John & Yoko’. However, we see that he reserves similar vitriol for producer George Martin in September 1971, soon after Martin had given an interview to Richard Williams of Melody Maker:  ‘Now on to Revolution No.9, which I recorded with Yoko plus the help of Ringo, George and George Martin. It was my concept, fully. For Martin to state that he was “painting a sound picture” is pure hallucination. Ask any of the other people involved.’ Such writings might be seen to constitute petty griping, but they make for illuminating reading nevertheless.

It is certainly the Lennon letters produced after the Beatles breakup that constitute the most weighty material in the book, with the singer’s most prolific period of writing stemming from 1970 to 71, when he was at his most political. We see his anger flare up in his protectiveness towards Yoko and her avant-garde art, for instance, in a postcard to an unknown woman (‘Yoko’s been an artist before you were even a groupie’), together with a hateful reaction to a random figure called Thomas Bonnfield who took it upon himself to offer Lennon some spiritual advice, on the supposition that he thought him ‘open to sharing ideas’: ‘Listen, Brother, Why don’t you Jesus Freaks get off people’s backs?’ Indeed, it is the purely random nature of a lot of the letters that really intrigue, the most outlandish, to my mind, being one that is addressed to Ronald Powell Bagguley, head teacher of Linton Primary School, in 1973, a figure who had written a letter to the Sunday Times deploring the state of children’s reading skills. John saw the letter in the newspaper and responded by saying, ‘American Public Television’s Sesame Street is teaching children to read – they use jingles in a positive way – with music as the “mind bait” just as the old nursery rhymes did. “TRY IT You’ll LIKE It.” (Alka Seltzer ad.) John Lennon NYC.’

The book also details exactly what  Lennon was up to during his increasingly reclusive house-husband years shacked up in the Gothic heights of the Dakota building in New York from the mid-70s up until his death. We discover, for instance, that he was insistent on catching up with family news and building bridges with his relatives, despite his geographical dislocation from them. One of the book’s most substantial letters, several pages long, is therefore one that is addressed to cousin Leila, where, among other things, he expresses disappointment that his Aunt Mimi should accuse him of ‘branding’ Sean, his son with Yoko, with the middle name of ‘Taro Ono’. We further find that John was amused by Woody Allen films, and that he wrote a copious amount of notes and shopping lists to staff who were employed in the Dakota. We find him requesting the Donna Summer album ‘Hot Love’ in 1979, for example, as well as the new Wings album ‘Back to the Egg’ (he needn’t have bothered!)We also find him increasingly tied up with domestic matters, with ‘Letter 269: List of domestic jobs, XMAS 1979’ being pretty much an exemplar of complete mundanity: ‘2 more bedside lights …Nuctic(?) Acid Pills (ask Y) Bring me more of my clothes from upstairs, Croissants, Cornflakes, Dylans and Randy (Born Again) Newman Albums’.

Undeniably, the pious presentation of many of Lennon’s more workaday and hastily written notes and lists within the Letters can appear unintentionally comical. Letter 14, particularly, is a typed letter from 22 October 1963 to the National Health Service, requesting that his name be put back on the NHS register after he had been out of the country for a spell: ‘Dear Sir, I have received your letter of the 1st instant [sic] to say that you have been informed that I left the country in July 1960. In point of fact I left the country only for an engagement (as a musician) in Germany’. Davies also details Letter 31 as being a ‘Questionnaire completed for Linda, July 1963’ in which we discover that Lennon’s favourite food at the time was ‘cornflakes and jelly’. This is before we contemplate the momentous significance of ‘Letter 53: Note to Cyn re Tom Maschler’, where we read: ‘Cyn, I’ve gone to town to see Tom Maschler and Brian. I couldn’t find anyone so Terry took me.’ One might also quibble at some of the sloppy editorial mistakes within the book, which wouldn’t really be expected from the Only Authorised Beatles Biographer; Davies does for instance refer at one point to Lennon’s ‘Long Weekend’ when discussing the singer’s boozy off-the-rails period away from Yoko in LA, when he surely means the ‘Lost Weekend’.

The book ends with a reproduction of what appears to be Lennon’s last ever piece of writing from the day he was shot on that fateful December day, simply stating ‘For Ribeah, Love, John Lennon Yoko Ono 1980’ and leaving me feeling sadder about his tragic end than ever before, having completed a book of letters wherein I felt I had achieved an unusual degree of intimacy with the subject. I did, however, come away wondering just what Lennon himself would have made of seeing his shopping lists in print, but there is no doubt that the book as a whole provides a vibrant addition to our knowledge concerning this most famous of songwriters. It also leaves you with thoughts about what other, perhaps more substantial, Lennon letters might be out there, and that this is only a work in progress, particularly as Davies himself regards it as an unfinished (and unfinishable?) project by asking readers to send him more written findings. Indeed, the very detailed letter to Clapton that went up for sale in LA in 2012 is undoubtedly as revealing as anything we have so far read – concerning Lennon’s very real desire for the guitarist to join his band: ‘Eric, I know I can bring out something great, in fact greater in you than had been so far evident in your music. I hope to bring out the same kind of greatness in all of us, which I know will happen if/when we get together’. If there are more discoveries like this to be made, here’s very much looking forward to ‘The John Lennon Letters, Volume 2’.

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