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Crushing a Dead Beatle : THE LIVES OF JOHN LENNON by Albert Goldman (William Morrow: $22.95; 719 pp., illustrated; 0-688-004721-1)

September 04, 1988|Jon Wiener | Wiener is the author of "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time" (Random House). and

"Lennon: Cremation of; Criminal Ambitions of; Cruelty of; Defected Eyesight of"--so reads a portion of the index to Albert Goldman's new book. The list provides a sampling of Goldman's concerns and what is offered as "the definitive biography" of Lennon, from his birth in Liverpool through the heyday of the Beatles to his murder in New York City in 1980. Goldman claims to sketch Lennon's "complexity": Lennon claimed to be a man of peace, but he was violent at times; he said he loved his wife Yoko Ono, but he had fierce arguments with her; the Beatles on tour acted "sexless and charming," but in fact they often had sex with groupies--is this shocking to anyone?

Goldman gives readers the impression that his book is full of fresh revelations, but many of his stories have been familiar to fans for years. Incident after incident in Goldman's book will be old news to readers of the 1983 book, "Loving John" by May Pang, Lennon's girlfriend during his 1974 "lost weekend" when he and Yoko separated. Pang's theme is that John loved her more than he loved Yoko and went back to Yoko only because Yoko "brainwashed" him. Goldman retells that story.

More of Goldman's book comes from another 1983 book, "Dakota Days" by John Green, Yoko's tarot card reader. He claimed Lennon told him things that he told no one else, but others said that Lennon seldom spoke with him because, as Lennon declared in one of his songs, "I don't believe in tarot."

Much of what Goldman presents as fresh revelations comes directly from Lennon himself--from published interviews. Was Lennon at times angry, depressed, self-destructive? We don't need Goldman to provide the answer; Lennon himself described all of these in interviews, and also in his music, in songs like "Nowhere Man," "Working Class Hero," and "Help." It's not exactly news that Lennon had been a heroin addict; he spoke about it in countless interviews, and even wrote a hit song about it in 1970: "Cold Turkey."

Not all of Goldman's book consists of recycled material. The most original and disturbing section is his description of Lennon in the late '70s, when he was living as a househusband, out of the public eye. According to Goldman, Lennon in 1979 was a rock 'n' roll Howard Hughes--he suffered from malnutrition, seldom got out of bed, took a dozen baths a day, and avoided touching anyone including his 4-year-old son Sean. The problem with this picture is that Howard Hughes didn't do what Lennon did: Get up one morning, record a No. 1 album ("Double Fantasy"), and talk about his life in a series of interviews that were often brilliant and moving. Since Goldman's picture is so different from what the public saw of Lennon in 1980, the question becomes, what are Goldman's sources?

Virtually all of Goldman's "revelations" come from a couple of people with scores to settle or axes to grind. Fred Seaman is Goldman's most important source on John and Yoko's life in 1979-80. Seaman had been a trusted employee. Goldman doesn't tell his readers that, after Lennon's murder, Seaman set out to write his own book about them, but his publishers, Simon & Schuster, refused to release it and sued him for $500,000, declaring that they had "grave doubts about the veracity and source of the book's contents."

The problem: Seaman in 1983 pled guilty to grand larceny. After Lennon was killed, he had systematically looted Lennon's files, taking his papers and personal journals, as well as stereo and video equipment and cash. He was also seen wearing Lennon's clothes. He received a sentence of five years' probation. When Seaman's own book was canceled, he began collaborating with Goldman.

Marnie Hair, a neighbor of the Lennon's in New York City, is another key Goldman source. Goldman doesn't tell his readers that she sued Yoko for $1.5 million in 1983, after her daughter was injured in an accident at Yoko's Long Island house. Hair settled for $18,000 paid by the insurance company into a trust that will become available to her daughter in the mid-1990s. It's possible that Seaman and Hair are telling the truth about John and Yoko, but neither of them can be called neutral observers.

Goldman gained fame for revealing secrets of Elvis' sex life in his previous book; readers looking for more of the same will be disappointed. He reports on what he calls "Lennon's sexual exploits," the last of which, according to Goldman, took place in 1976. Goldman "describes" Lennon's visit to Bangkok, writing about what Lennon "would have found" \o7 if\f7 he had gone looking for sex: "John might have indulged himself with a Thai boy." But, in fact, Goldman knows nothing about Lennon in Bangkok; this entire account of "Lennon's sexual exploits" is pure speculation.

Some of Goldman's earlier sexual-exploit stories are far from sordid. A fan described sex with John on the Beatles 1964 Australian tour: "I liked him so much. He wasn't macho at all. . . . He was a very, very funny person. We laughed all night."

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