John Lennon’s Alter Ego
On the anniversary of the Beatle’s assassination, turning to his wild, controversial biographer for enlightenment
There are three things that must be said about The Lives of John Lennon, the best-selling and controversial biography of the rock star who was assassinated 32 years ago this weekend. The first is that the book, published in 1988, is vile. Written by Albert Goldman, a former Columbia University English professor, in the panting style of the tabloids, and stretching over more than 800 pages, it makes the following claims about Lennon: He was a closeted homosexual who was busted buggering Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, by the latter’s mother; he was a clandestine pedophile who prowled on young boys in underground Manhattan clubs; he killed a man, or two, or three if you count the fetus his wife, Yoko Ono, miscarried after Lennon allegedly punched her in the stomach; he was a bully, an anorexic, a narcissist, a deadbeat father and a no-talent hack who mostly wrote catchy ditties that were nothing more than plagiaristic rearrangements of “Three Blind Mice.” For his troubles, Goldman was accused by Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney of being a liar and a lowlife, by Gore Vidal of writing the biographical equivalent of pornography, and by Greil Marcus of practicing cultural genocide. These are all fair points, considering that despite reportedly conducting more than 1,200 interviews over the course of six years, Goldman offers absolutely no convincing evidence to support his outrageous claims.
The second thing to know about Goldman’s book is that it’s not only brilliant but also—despite the liberties it takes with the truth, or maybe because of them—the most perceptive and telling portrait of Lennon ever compiled.
Consider, for example, the book’s majestic opening set piece: Lennon, a year or so before his murder, is now the world’s most famous has-been. He is at home in the Dakota, the luxury building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He does not live alone: Yoko is there, too, nurturing what Goldman claims is a $5,000-per-week heroin habit, as is the young Sean, who is raised free of any form of adult supervision. But Lennon spends very little of his day interacting with his family. Most of the time, he’s in his bedroom, flanked by his three Persian cats, cuddled in his Moby Dick of a bed, sustained by his fancy stereo system and other hi-tech toys. At the foot of the bed is a steamer trunk containing his most treasured possessions, including childhood drawings and early writings. The word “Liverpool” is stenciled on the trunk’s top; it might as well have read “Rosebud.”
It doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize Lennon in this grotesque portrait; all it takes is listening to his music. The songs support Goldman’s general outline. Like Goldman, they tell a story that begins in the early 1960s, with Lennon listening to Elvis and Roy Orbison and other American giants and translating their music into British, which meant draining them of the libidinous essence that the King could convey with one gyration of his hips and a well-timed “uh” and masking them instead with cute mop-tops and clever suits. This is how we got “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me,” pop anthems that are not on most people’s list of favorite Beatles’ songs and nowhere near as rattling as, say, “Heartbreak Hotel” or “All Shook Up.” By 1966, however, having become more popular than any recording artist before or since, Lennon was at liberty to explore, which he did with both psychotropic drugs and magnetic tape: on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for example, he recorded George Harrison repetitively playing a single C chord on a tambura and then routed it, accompanied by a drumbeat, from the recording console into the studio’s speaker. He told his engineer that he wanted it to sound “like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top.”
Lennon didn’t just want to be a pop star; he wanted to be a deity, and deities obeyed no laws. Not even the laws of music: By 1968, on The White Album, Lennon’s determination to do violence to traditional song structures was burning brighter than ever. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” arguably his best song, begins in 4/4 time, the standard for pop songs, but then implodes: 5/4, 6/4, 9/8, 12/8, part acid trip, part doo-wop harmony, all restless energy. If you doubt Albert Goldman’s claim that Lennon was a maniacal nut whose mind was too jittery to do much but rapidly spit out puns, gags, and quips—a tendency he demonstrated nicely when he came out with that bit about being bigger than Jesus—just take another listen to the song.
This trajectory, of course, is not unique to Lennon. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and others have all traveled the same path, writing music that came closer and closer to collapsing in on itself. But Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison followed their art to its foregone conclusion and died young. Lennon, on the other hand, was getting old. With the Beatles having broken up, he was at liberty to record whatever he wanted without consulting anyone, and what he ended up recording was a series of songs that were, at best, like “Working Class Hero,” perfectly passable bits of pop confectionary packaged in a one-chord casing, and, at worst, like “Imagine,” tripe more befitting of Billy Joel than of the man who had co-founded the greatest band in history. And even this weak stream trickled along with difficulty: Drugged out of his mind, lost in his Lost Weekend, aloof and skeletal, and strangely obsessed with assassinations, Lennon contemplated the nonsensical life of a self-made martyr who, for some reason, was not yet nailed to the cross. In some eerie and horrible and nontrivial way, the fan who most deeply understood Lennon was Mark David Chapman. Albert Goldman understood him, too, which meant a second assassination, this time in print.
Which brings us to the third, and most important, point about Goldman’s terrible, wonderful book, namely that once you’re done marveling at everything you’ve learned about John Lennon, you realize that the book’s real, and far more interesting, subject is Albert Goldman.
Who was he? In true Goldman fashion, let us be elastic with the outline of a man’s life in order to get to the ecstatic truth at his core. Born in 1927, Goldman grew up in Mount Lebanon, Pa., a community of Scotch-Irish farmers who raised corn and rye and turned it into whiskey and refused to sell property to blacks or Jews. Bright, ambitious, and taken with show business, Goldman enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and studied acting and stage design. Then came the war, and Goldman was drafted, serving two years in the Navy. When he returned stateside, he enrolled in the University of Chicago, which identified his intellectual promise and allowed him to study for his Master’s degree despite never having completed his B.A.
Signs of the holy terror he would soon become emerged during his doctoral studies in English at Columbia, which he completed in 1961. His dissertation, titled “The Mine and the Mint: Sources for the Writings of Thomas De Quincey,” portrayed the celebrated essayist as a serial stealer of other people’s ideas and a scoundrel whose real talent was bluster. It was the same treatment he would later give Lennon and Elvis Presley, another subject of a hotly contested, deeply insightful Goldman biography. And it revealed a lot about its author’s bifurcated mind.
Later defining himself as “one-half New York intellectual, one-half Brooklyn-Broadway wise guy,” Goldman found academia both irresistible, insufferable, and inevitable. And just as Lennon had McCartney, Goldman, who worked as an adjunct professor of English at Columbia between 1963 and 1972, had Lionel Trilling.
Trilling, the department’s éminence grise, was everything that Goldman was not. He, too, was Jewish, but, born in Queens to a British mother, he graduated from high school at 16 and entered Columbia, where, with few exceptions, he would remain for his entire career. Trilling was elegant and graceful, “a quietly dominating figure,” as one critic later described him, “sensitive, sensible, and reassuring in his emergence from 1930s radicalism and his nuanced Freudianism.” When it came to describing Goldman, the best his observers could do was comment that he sounded a lot like Bette Davis, which is to say a voice that is neither sensitive or sensible and very far from reassuring.
Trilling was cognizant of his influence; his circle of New York Intellectuals—Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt—was, he wrote, “busy and vivacious about ideas” and as such was a class onto itself whose “assiduity constitutes an authority.” Authority repulsed Goldman. As far as he was concerned, all authority had ever done was keep his people from buying nice houses in town, pluck him out of school just as he was about to become an actor, and suppress him in other subtle but meaningful ways. When he quoted John Lennon saying that “you want to belong, but you don’t want to belong because you can’t belong”—a negation not only of authority but, really, of society as a whole—it isn’t hard to imagine Goldman nodding enthusiastically. He wouldn’t be a member of any club that would admit anyone like him, and he would always rage against those that wouldn’t. No record remains of Goldman’s feelings for Trilling, but one wonders if, seeing his colleague, Goldman might have felt the same thing Lennon did when he saw Yoko for the first time, perched on a ladder in an art gallery, a figure so different from himself and the source of much future consternation but also, in her drive and organization and quietly executed self-assertion, a source of tremendous comfort and great allure.
Where else could such a mind as Goldman’s turn, in the mid-1960s, but the counterculture? He wrote about rock and pop and jazz and turned an essay about Lenny Bruce into a massively popular and critically acclaimed biography. It’s easy enough to imagine him graying into respectability, but to have done that he would have needed to learn the trick that made rock’s greatest critics great—namely the spell of alchemy that turned the dross of pop culture into intellectual gold by finding hidden virtues in men who spent their days grinding their crotches against their guitars as tens of thousands of teenagers clapped them into a frenzy. That was too much to ask of Goldman. Like Lennon—who, even as a child, would grow upset if strangers failed to recognize him on the bus—Goldman wanted fame. Not the kind of fame Trilling had, which was considerable but expressed softly and reverentially, as is befitting an intellectual of his stature. Goldman wanted the kind of fame that made audiences scream, and if he, unlike Lennon and Elvis, didn’t have what it took to make them scream in adulation, he could certainly, as a first-rate mind, make them scream in rage. This was more than merely an act of intellectual vandalism: If there’s one thing Goldman and Lennon shared, other than their fierce distrust of authority, it was the hunch that the only way to save pop culture from ossifying was to do violence to anything it considered sacred, from its basic tempos to the taboos protecting its most luminous stars from scrutiny.
Goldman was the master of shattering rock’s taboos, an art form that, like rock itself, required endless chutzpah to practice properly. “With the counter-culture, “ Goldman told an interviewer later in life, “I had found a great field that needed a great mind like mine to explore it.” The interviewer then noted that Goldman, finishing his immodest thought, picked up an artfully placed copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and remarked that he would have written it better.
Instead of Johnson, though, he turned to Elvis. His subsequent biography, for which he received more than $300,000 in advance, portrayed the King as a sexual deviant and a drug addict who, toward the end, had grown so lethargic and fat that his aides frequently had to shove fingers down his throat to save him from choking during his many spells of falling asleep while consuming gargantuan portions of food. Then came the Lennon book. It earned Goldman a million-dollar advance, a parody on Saturday Night Live, and, finally, the kind of renown he’d always craved. “The rock establishment hates me because I’ve upstaged them time and again,” Goldman told an interviewer after the book came out. “In their simple minds, that’s a terrible affront. I often have more exposure than they, and it troubles them that this old gray-haired fart is getting more attention than they.”
But the master biographer forgot how the lives of the furiously talented and incandescent usually ended. In the spring of 1994, flying from Miami to London to appear on a television show, he suffered a heart attack and died on board the plane. He was 66 years old. Hearing the news, Phil Spector, Lennon’s close friend and producer, rejoiced in a jubilant letter to Rolling Stone. “The first thing to do,” he wrote, “is to make sure he is dead. I don’t trust him. … Albert Goldman was truly an evil man. He knew the least yet was the most vain about his opinion. In Goldman’s case, death was not an end, but rather a very effective way of cutting down on the pollution. My dearly beloved friend John Lennon once paraphrased an old proverb that I believe to be very apropos to the death of Albert Goldman: ‘Time wounds all heels.’ ”
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