Yellow Matter Custard. . .

While doing a bit of research for something other than this, I chanced upon the John Lennon biography on the Rolling Stone website. Prior to reading it, I anticipated that the unsigned item would be nothing less than the most fawning hagiography imaginable. After all, of the Beatles, Lennon was evidently the most in keeping with RS‘s ostensible ethos of edginess in all things.

But much to my surprise, I find that the Lennon biography is downright dismissive of much of Lennon’s work and archly critical (perhaps the old damning with faint praise approach) of his lifestyle.

In the opening paragraph, the writer notes that Lennon and McCartney split the songwriting for the Beatles, and that while McCartney’s songs were “more pop-oriented,” Lennon “contributed more experimental and mystical music during the band’s later years.” There is no mention of the type of music contributed by either during the band’s earlier years; the implication, however, is that the songs were neither experimental nor mystical. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Presumably there is an explanation for this musical wackiness: “Lennon also led the group into drug use during the mid-’60s and encouraged them to follow his guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” While the mid-’60s isn’t exactly their later years, one can see the seeds of discord.

As the bio moves on, we learn that John had a “rocky” marriage with Cynthia Powell, mother of Julian, “especially after Lennon began openly dating an older Japanese-American artist named Yoko Ono.” [Enter villain, stage right] An “older Japanese-American artist”? What’s interesting here is that while the first sentence of the piece indicates John’s date of birth (10/9/40), there isn’t any other discussion of age. So I can only assume that the writer figured that s/he couldn’t get away with the adjectives that were really being thought of when the dreaded Ono appears in this story.

In ’68, not only were John and Cynthia divorced, but the Beatles produced The White Album. Then the other shoe (yes, I know that this would be the third one) drops: “John and Yoko released the experimental ‘found sound’ collection Unfinished Music, No. 1—Two Virgins.” This is the recording with the naked John and “older Japanese-American artist” on the cover. The Beatles put out a blank cover; Unfinished Music, No. 1, was banned from many stores and caused a hue and cry from the media: “reporters speculated that Ono was ‘controlling’ Lennon and causing trouble for the beloved Beatles.” The “beloved Beatles”? Beloved by whom? The structure of the phrase is unclear whether it is the reporters who love them or, what is more likely, the anonymous biographer.

1969 sees “Lennon and a very pregnant Ono”—note, again, the adjective—”embarked on a ‘honeymoon’ in Europe, stopping along the way to get married in Gibraltar on March 20th.” The quotation marks around “honeymoon” can be construed as some raised eyebrows: How dare they! The two “staged a notorious ‘Bed-In’ at the Amsterdam Hilton.” Notorious in what way? could be wondered but never answered. The duo went on to “constantly” decry “political injustices from their celebrity bully pulpit.” The bully pulpit, of course, is something that is ordinarily associated with historic figures like, say, Theodore Roosevelt, not a falling rock star and his controlling interest.

Next, the biographer claims that in order to deal with the “anguish” of a miscarriage that Ono experienced in May, 1969, the two “hastily recorded two more avante- [sic] garde albums, Life with the Lions—Unfinished Music No. 2 (which features such ‘songs’ as flipping through various radio stations and several minutes of silence) and The Wedding Album (whose entire B-side consists of John and Yoko screaming each other’s name).” At this point the venom of the biographer is almost palpable, especially since 1969 was the year of Abbey Road, yet John had to go form that damned Plastic Ono Band the same year.

“As Lennon spent more time collaborating with Ono, he began to distance himself from the other Beatles”—which is obviously a heinous thing. He wanted to quit the band in late ’69, but “contract negotiations were underway with EMI,” so he kept his mouth shut. Presumably, John was wise enough to know that he wasn’t going to be earning quite the same royalties from things like Unfinished Music as he would from Beatles’ records. In the spring of ’70, Paul McCartney evidently didn’t have such compunction because not only did he release his first solo album, but he publicly announced the End of the Beatles. [I’ll pause here for genuflection and a moment of silence.]

5 thoughts on “Yellow Matter Custard. . .”

  1. Well, that’s the traditional view of all things Beatle – Yoko came along and broke up the greatest band in the world and destroyed the genius of John Lennon. I always thought that was crap, tho – what, did people think The Beatles would last forever and never break up or start to suck? But that’s also why I hated The Beatles for so long – egotistical boomers cramming their self-indulgent propagnada down our throats. For a long time I used to badmouth the lads from Liverpool just to bait the boomers, calling them over-rated and pretentious. It was a lot of fun to watch ’em sputter and fume – it was like telling a fundamentalist that God doesn’t exist. Of course, eventually I sat down and re-listened to them with a clear, open mind and had to admit that even if they aren’t the greatest band in the world, they’re still pretty damn good. John Lennon’s solo stuff I haven’t really listened to, although I wasn’t too enamored of ‘Double Fantasy’ when it came out.But the official party line is still pretty much how the Rolling Stone bio reads – Evil Ono and Spineless John. Too bad they can’t seem to let the music stand on it’s own merits.

  2. To anyone interested in some damn good comprehensive reading material about the man, the music, the myth that was John Lennon, check out MOJO magazine’s special JL edition, available in bookstores (not available on the web as far as I know). The shame about John is that everything you read or write about him is History now. We had our brief forty years to dissect the man while he was alive; now that he’s gone, there are no new discoveries. There’s nothing new to be said or written, and yet everyone with a beef or an accolade feels compelled to throw their two cents into the pile.Just over a year ago, my family was listening to a Beatles CD as we drove to Grandma’s for holiday turkey. My father, 51 years old and as straight-laced as they come, commented that the real shame of Lennon’s murder was the social influence that he no doubt would’ve had on the world had he lived as long as Paul, George or Ringo. The man was significant. Whether you’re personally prone to diefy him or denigrate him, it’s easy to understand how a Rolling Stone writer could oversimplify the life story of a man who’s no longer around to refute the hype. Wherever he is, John’s enjoying the fact that he’s not here, and doesn’t have to defend himself anymore. And that comprises my two cents. Thank you.

  3. Hmm, wonder if that unnamed RS scribe bothered to do any research before writing his piece. I’ll be the first to admit that I know almost nothing about Lennon, but if forced to write his bio right now, I’d probably come up with something similar. A shame that the (now) 2 remaining Beatles haven’t done a better job of honoring his true legacy, rather than allowing this silly “party line” about Lennon to be repeated ad nauseum 20 years after his death.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *