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ROBERT HILBURN

The Flip Side of 'Lennon' Bio : How Accurate Is Negative Portrait of Ex-Beatle?

September 03, 1988|ROBERT HILBURN

LONDON — John Lennon loved the music of Fats Domino, the roly-poly pianist whose '50s hits included "Ain't That a Shame."

Still, it's conceivable that Albert Goldman has it right in his controversial new biography, "The Lives of John Lennon," when he says it was Fats Waller's music Lennon was listening to one day while riding around Long Island.

But you know Goldman has it wrong when he says the first song Lennon ever learned on guitar was Waller's "Ain't That a Shame."

It's a minor but embarrassing mistake (or two)--the last thing Goldman needs in view of the tarnished reputation lingering from his mean-spirited, scandal-ridden 1985 biography of another rock 'n' roll legend, Elvis Presley.

In that book, Goldman--a former professor of English at Columbia University--treated Presley, his fans and rock music itself with contempt.

Through most of his adult life, the most influential singer ever in rock (and biggest musical influence on Lennon) was dismissed by Goldman as a marginal (at best) talent who was "sarcastic and vulgar," strong-tempered and possibly a latent or active homosexual. After all that, Lennon fans have braced themselves for a similar attack ever since the word went out that Goldman's next target was the ex-Beatle.

Their worst fears are realized in these 790 pages as Goldman goes after Lennon in a way that is symbolized by such sordid, tabloid-ready headlines as "Killer Nerd" (the title of a chapter on Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman), "Bang Bang You're Dead" (the actual murder) and "Season of the Witch" (wife Yoko Ono after Lennon's death).

The book is bound to be the most debated and discussed rock biography in years. Just released in the United States and England, it's displayed prominently in London bookstores. In one store here Thursday there were so many people thumbing through a stack of them that it was hard for anyone else to get through.

In the end, Goldman suggests that Lennon turned into another Elvis, not just in terms of influence and popularity but in terms of tragedy.

"Perhaps the cruelest irony in Lennon's self-destructive life style was the way it reduced him to the hapless condition of Elvis during his final years," Goldman writes.

"Though John wasn't fat, he had brought himself through starvation to the same state of befuddled torpor. There was a great difference, however.

"No matter how low Elvis sank, he had to rouse himself periodically to make a living, whereas John (who dropped out of the pop world for five years in the late-'70s) was free to sink to the bottom."

By 1978, the book maintains, Lennon had "ceased to resemble himself. Wasted by dieting, fasting and self-induced vomiting, he weighed only 130 pounds. Totally enervated by lack of purpose and exercise, he rarely left his bed. Drugged all day on Thai stick, magic mushrooms or heroin, he slept much of the time and spent his waking hours in a kind of trance."

Turn to almost any other episode in Lennon's life, and Goldman paints an equally bleak picture. He describes him as a tortured, self-centered soul with barely any principles, who often went into violent rages as a young man and lived in a drug-induced stupor in later years. Goldman dismisses the social idealism in Lennon's songs as either calculation or temporary whim.

"The Lives of John Lennon" is much more thoroughly documented than Goldman's Elvis book, because, no doubt, the author had far more information to draw upon. Unlike Presley, Lennon did hundreds of interviews, rarely missing the opportunity to point to his own self-doubts and indulgences. He constantly warned fans about worshiping pop heroes, urging them to believe in themselves.

Yet Lennon's interviews--like his music--were always accompanied by a warmth, humor and joy of life that is totally absent from this book. Once more, Goldman has looked at a pop hero only in the most dishearteningly one-dimensional terms in an apparent mission to counter what he sees as a misplaced idolatry. He fails to explore all sides of the mythical personality.

But Lennon--for at least half the book--is almost a secondary character. The real object of Goldman's ridicule and scorn is Ono, who married Lennon in 1969. Ono is portrayed as a power- and status-crazed no-talent who also was strung out for years on heroin.

She not only had affairs during the '70s but, despite her continued public mourning over Lennon, is happier now that he's dead, Goldman asserts. Among the thousand-and-one accusations, mostly drawn from the words and/or books of disgruntled former employees, Ono, Goldman charges, even set up Paul McCartney's 1980 drug bust in Japan: After McCartney phoned Lennon to offer him some "dynamite grass" during a New York stopover en route to Japan, Ono called a cousin who worked in Japanese customs to tip him off about the marijuana that the McCartneys were carrying.

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