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Book Review : Streams of Glorious Thought . . . With a Twist of Lennon

November 20, 1986|TERRY ATKINSON

Skywriting by Word of Mouth by John Lennon (Harper & Row: $12.95)

Had he never sung a note, John Lennon still might have made his mark--as a successor to Lewis Carroll, James Joyce and other brilliantly playful molders and expanders of the English language. Except for its opening 25 pages of reasonably straightforward autobiography, "Skywriting by Word of Mouth" trails streams of glorious goofball thought--not quite in Carroll and Joyce's league, but strongly indicating that Lennon's writing could have become so if it had been his main occupation rather than a sideline.

Written largely between 1975 and 1979 ("at a time when the world was wondering whatever had happened to him," notes his widow, Yoko Ono, in a two-page afterword), "Skywriting" resembles Lennon's earlier books "In His Own Write" and "A Spaniard in the Works," published in early Beatles days.

However, "Skywriting's" 30 pieces of whimsy are more reflective and experimental, sometimes content to humorously mangle the language, parody styles and create portmanteau words like the older books, but just as often shooting off in various directions--i.e. one piece ("Be Were Wolf of Limitations") that evolves into a Burroughs-like cut-up approach. And since Lennon said he read Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" only after critics had pointed out a similarity to his first book, the word-jumble of parts of "Skywriting" may have indeed been influenced by the Irishman's great labyrinth. In any case, this is fun for the open-minded, laced with plenty of anger and cynicism but little of the cruelly jabbing jabberwocky of the first books.

Most readers, however, will probably be more interested in those first 25 pages, which contain rare glimpses of Lennon's post-Beatles life. The emphasis is the "racism and sexism" shown by so many after he began living with Ono, but there are also paragraphs dealing with his attitude toward his old band (In retrospect, the Beatles were no more an important part of my life than any other. . . ."), subsequent music-making ("It's irrelevant to me whether I ever record again."), and the "revolutionary period" (from which he seems to have come away despising everyone but Ono--potshots are even aimed at John Sinclair, Dick Gregory and Allen Ginsberg).

There are brief references to the more hidden areas of the Lennons' life: a successful attempt at "withdrawing cold turkey by taking a boat to Japan from L.A."--this "methadone withdrawal . . . almost killed Yoko.") and a naively trusting occultism ("We had followed the psychic's instructions carefully: Read the right passages in the King James Bible, had (sic) put the right verses in our boots, and dowsed our ritually folded handkerchiefs with the magic oil.").

Rage, Regret, Paranoia

Oddly enough, this last passage is one of the few where Lennon isn't chastising someone (including his various former selves). The tone throughout these opening pages is one of rage, regret, paranoia and virtually all-encompassing disgust--making the playfulness that follows in the rest of the book all the more welcome (and John's pen-and-ink sketches, several of which are reproduced here, are often delightful).

Both sections of the book suffer from the same dashed-off quality; as Ono says (without noting the detrimental aspects) in the Afterword: "John wrote very quickly. . . . He never had to stop to think." There is no sense of revision and one wonders what these clever, funny jottings might have become if they were gone over again and again and enriched with meanings--as Joyce did with "Finnegans Wake." One might speculate how great a writer Lennon might have become if he hadn't been a rocker.

Forget it. The magnificence of his songs overwhelms such imaginings. In the end, we have to be happy with what we got from such genius. Lennon could have been a great author; he became a great musician instead. And after all, by most accounts, James Joyce himself was an excellent singer, and among others his father always felt that he'd have been better off pursuing music rather than doing all that silly scribbling. But Joyce and Lennon both chose well and did well, and there's only so much time.

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