Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon
Rosen, Robert. New York: Soft Skull, 2001. 210 pgs, hardcover, $22.50. ISBN 1887128468.
Maddeningly unreliable, with opaque origins, yet completely fascinating, and a part of the most important of 20th century phenomena: are we describing this new book...or its subject...or both?
Behind this book lies a fascinating story.
Twenty-one years ago, John Lennon was assassinated. So predicated, this event was surely something new under the sun, a genuine first: a popular entertainer, a singer-song-writer, a mere celebrity was not merely murdered but "assassinated" -- a word whose associations evoke kings, archdukes, historical personages, heads of states, presidents, historical demarcations, Lincoln, Kennedy.
Sitting in prison, then-Soviet-dissident, now-Czech-President, Vaclav Havel heard the news of John Lennon's death, regarded it as an event of political consequence, and ruminated on this historical shift, this bridging of the pop and the political, what this could mean about the nature of democracy. Ten years later, we all saw the fall of the infamous Wall in Berlin and heard its echo in Prague and Budapest and the other great, shadowed cities of Eastern Europe: the nearly literal echo took the form of loudspeakers playing, and local singers with guitars singing "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance." The kids suddenly appeared in blue jeans; and, it turned out, Lennonist manifestations of dissidence, of a counter-culture, had been there all along, waiting and working for this liberation.
John Lennon and The Beatles, more than any other single group, person, or abstraction, had both reflected and created The Sixties, which is to say, therefore, most of the culture in which we presently live. How else explain the reaction to George Harrison's death in 2001? Even Beatles fans must have been surprised to see George on the cover of nearly every magazine together with coverage given in all national and local newspapers -- and coverage of the sort associated with the passing of a person of great historical significance.
It was long ago. And it is the present. At the end of the Sixties, in the phrase everyone knows, The Beatles Broke Up.
So extraordinary was their fame, the four of them could not help going on to live lives of allegory. Ringo, playing a part in various magical railroads, has happily stayed in the Octopus's Garden that they all created; Paul, in the more purely musical parts of the garden; and George, of course, in its mystical corners.
And then there's John. It was The Beatles, a cross between a disciplined band and an improvised commune, not Johnny and the Moon Dogs, but it was also -- we were supposed to just know this -- John's band. "Contradictory" hardly begins to describe him. One thinks of Oscar Wilde's penetrating comment that in the world of art a thing can be true, and its opposite can also be true. John was an almost insanely egotistical individualist -- who needed a partner, a collaborator, a lover, a competitor. Mick Jagger once said that John's ambition was simple: to become the most famous person on the planet, an accomplishment he pretty well achieved.
After achieving that goal, and (in the first half of the Seventies) on his own developing through further stages of popular music, he turned around, so to speak, to observe the process and the price of his kind of fame. One of the most fascinating insights in Robert Rosen's book is that John knew that he, in the last half of the Seventies, exercised his greatest power to the extent that he wasn't seen; he was beyond success; he had achieved such fame that his five-year silence bellowed much more loudly than, say, any of Paul McCartney's many appearances on the cover of People Magazine.
After the intensely personal work on Plastic Ono Band, John zoomed to the politically radical ("The Luck of the Irish" being the least known but most wonderfully mordant of his songs of this period), worked out various kinds of mind games, again retreated to his own childhood, and then a Goodbye-to-All-That with his Rock'n'Roll album; he retired from Public Life and became a father and househusband (though that was a very political statement to us post-Sixties guys who came to think of ourselves as feminists).
For five years he allowed himself the unspeakable luxury of following Emerson's advice: over your door, post the word "Whim." He had 150 million dollars and Yoko and a great apartment in The Dakota, a fortress in the middle of New York, at the center of the American Empire: he could live in and simultaneously observe the new Rome at its very pinnacle.
Five years: and then, a cross between a showbiz comeback and the next chapter in the Gospel According to John: Double Fantasy is the great story of their life: all you need is love; it's by, about, and for the two of them: they sing love songs to each other, songs which record ups and downs and angers and reconciliations and fears and delights -- all the stuff of everybody's love-life, even people without 150 million -- in original work which suggested a new direction.
Then: no new direction. Shot. Assassinated. The dream is, without doubt this time, definitely over.
So, naturally, we want to know: what was the sunset of this extraordinary life really like in The Dakota in the last half of the Seventies?
Ten years ago, one answer to that question appeared in Frederic Seaman's "personal memoir" The Last Days of John Lennon. Seaman was John's personal assistant, gofer, bought and paid for friend, "sycophant slave," Yoko-watchdog over John, and note-taking observer of the whole strange scene for the final two years. The book begins with a scene in which Seaman is abducted, beaten, and eventually arrested, by two New York cops who also worked for Yoko: they were after "the journal," which he insisted he did not have.
At the end of the book we get the story: after John's death, Seaman admits to smuggling John's journals (covering the Dakota years) out of the apartment and giving them to a friend to be copied. He says that the friend refused to give them back and Seaman concocted a ruse involving a financial backer which resulted in his getting the journals back, with one missing, and giving them to Yoko. He ended matters by pleading guilty to grand larceny (getting five years probation) and by writing his book.
His book is a true memoir: it is his memory of his experiences with John Lennon. These experiences show a man who, pretty much, stayed stoned (he "Thai-ed one on") for five years and rarely left his bedroom, much less his apartment, and lay on his bed and watched TV as he did nothing much but create, jealously guard (and then preserve on Double Fantasy) The Myth of John and Yoko. Yoko, meanwhile, really is a Dragon Lady who snared John, got his millions, gave him a son -- which seemed to John nothing less than a cosmic miracle -- and then abandoned him to the Thai and the TV while she spent hours with astrologers, numerologists, and Tarot readers -- when she wasn't on the telephone turning John's millions into more millions.
The book culminates, one might say, in late 1980 during the Double Fantasy hoop-la, in the bizarre scene in which John and Yoko are filmed naked in bed, simulating love-making. It is a perfect final moment -- because, after Sean was born, they rarely had sex together, or even were together very much, if at all. They just wanted to make it look like they did -- even to putting this non-existent erotic love on film.
Now, ten years after Seaman's book, comes the aptly and naturally titled Nowhere Man. One learns from the Prelude of this "work of investigative journalism and imagination" (quite a combination!) that Robert Rosen is, in fact, the "friend" Seaman referred to in his book.
It's all pretty weird, and you really don't know whom to believe or even, much of the time, what to make of what anyone says. This, however, is as befits the cloudy stories which emerge from The Dakota. A hundred years from now, "sound, sullen scholars" (in Dr. Johnson's delightful phrase) will be able to delineate some accuracy in all this. Meantime, those of us still living in the latter days of the tale will learn what we can from the accounts of participants.
Now, Robert Rosen was not exactly a participant. He never met John Lennon, but he was a close friend of Frederic Seaman: they both agree about that. They both agree that Seaman gave Rosen the journals and told him to "copy" them. They both agree that, after a period of time in which Rosen had the journals, the journals ended up back at the Dakota -- where, one assumes, they are today.
What Rosen did was not to copy but to transcribe the journals, over a period of six weeks, in which he consciously tried to live as much as he could in John Lennon's mind. And John recorded everything -- what he ate, what the weather was like, his dreams and sexual fantasies, his thoughts about Sean and Yoko, and his endless, obsessive scores off Paul.
So Rosen says, "The result of this confluence of information, imagination and intuition is the story of what it was like to be John Lennon." Thus, the subject is exactly the same as Seaman's, but Rosen attempts to write it from the inside. It is written in the third person, but most of the time we are inside John's mind.
Seaman and Rosen, therefore, often give a sort of Rashomon view of what lay behind The Myth of John & Yoko, of the Double Fantasy. However, we begin with delightful factual discrepancies -- in Seaman, John is 5'10; in Rosen, 5'8 -- and we're off.
The first page opens this way:
"If I hadn't made money honestly, I'd have been a criminal. I was just born to be rich."
New York City, Wednesday, January 9 , 12:06 PM. -- The words astounded John Lennon as he stared at the caption beneath the old photograph of himself in The National Enquirer. He remembered thinking them but had no recollection of ever saying them out loud. Though he loved reading about himself in the tabloids, he hadn't spoken to a reporter in five years. He hated the motherfuckers. Since he'd gone into seclusion, virtually everything they wrote about him was libelous fantasy. But there was nothing he could do about it. He was fair game. It had been open season on Lennon for 18 years. Still, he had to admit, it was flattering that the press couldn't get along without him and Yoko.
There is, in fact, a tabloid quality to the whole of Robert Rosen's book. How could it be otherwise? We are following him, prying into the inmost privacy of someone else's life. That is precisely what tabloids do. However, as the opening paragraph makes clear, Lennon was amazed at how accurate the bastards were. Indeed, later in the book, he thinks that the tabloids tend to be far more accurate than the mainstream press, which really does get everything wrong.
So how can we not -- especially if we love John Lennon's music and marvel at his profound and still pervasive influence -- be fascinated by Rosen's promise: of course we want to know what it's like to be in the mind of John Lennon. In a way, Lennon himself would, eventually, have understood. At the very end of his life he feared his fans (obviously, he was quite right to do that!), and hated the fact that they were always "expecting us to do something," but that "following is not where it's at" and that the whole point of The Beatles and John & Yoko is you should "realize your own dreams." All we can do, he said, is send out "messages and postcards": "here's what it's like for us; what's it like for you?" [John's remarks were from his final interviews, available on Elliot Mintz's The Lost Lennon Tapes and on the 1983 LP Heart Play.]
Well, what was it like for them?
Here are a few items:
We learn that 1980 began for John in a state of such acute depression that he could overhear the servants wondering if John & Yoko would both commit suicide: the year progressed from a possible double suicide to a Double Fantasy!
We learn that he was, or at least could be, a real bastard. He could be viciously cruel to his only couple of friends, the Peter Boyles. No wonder New Year's Eve was spent, in formal dress, with exactly one guest, the quasi-sycophant slave (the phrase was John's from the Playboy interview) Elliott Mintz. John was euphoric when Paul was arrested for marijuana-possession in Japan and spent ten days in jail. Poor Paul! Paul had tried to smoke a dopers' peace pipe with John in New York as he had scored some "excellent weed" and thought the Lennons would be delighted to learn that he and Linda were touring Japan and even staying in the Lennons' favorite hotel. Wrong. So freaked were the Lennons -- bad karma in their hotel, man -- that, it is hinted, it was Yoko who tipped off the Japanese authorities about the marijuana. When Yoko sold a record-breaking cash cow, it was "another victory over the McCartneys."
His hatreds were legion -- Bob Dylan, Paul Simon ("his first name alone gave him the creeps"), the list is more or less endless. He hated his fans for rejecting Yoko. And he hated them for recognizing him in the streets of New York...and for not recognizing him.
He was hopelessly addicted to coffee, cigarettes, and other drugs: he would snort heroin and then pray for the courage to resist its temptation. He prayed -- sometimes; but much of the time his idea was to become God. He meditated to achieve clairvoyance -- and then thought, ah, clairvoyance would be the ultimate money -- making skill; and he always wanted to be sure that he was richer than fucking McCartney.
For much of the five years, he simply slept; he took a morning siesta; he could sleep 16 hours a day. He did dream therapy -- which seemed to consist chiefly of willed sexual fantasies. He stopped sleeping with May Pang for good old-fashioned reasons -- guilt and fear of being caught by his wife. His 150 million dollars and world-wide fame weren't of much help in his sexual life: he would have an occasional "massage" (one in Cape Town, where he was alone but too afraid to sleep with anyone, was particularly memorable because the masseuse had big breasts); otherwise, he masturbated and wrote in his journal, "Call me fuckin' Portnoy!" There is something comically sad about all this.
And there is also something endlessly fascinating about all this: his consuming hatred of Paul did not prevent his using Paul's song "Coming Up" as the catalyst for breaking his creative silence and beginning to write again. His first song, and the second, were absolutely apt (both appeared not on Double Fantasy but on the posthumous Milk and Honey) -- "I Don't Want to Face It," which ends with the spoken line, "I look in the mirror and can't see anybody there!" and -- especially poignant -- "Borrowed Time." These songs -- especially if you listen to them after hearing "Coming Up" -- have a wit, edge, and unmistakably Lennonist bite to them.
Rosen's book concludes with an engrossing portrait of Mark David Chapman. We are reminded that, on the afternoon of the day he shot John to death, Chapman got John's autograph and asked John for a job. With Chapman's Holden-Caufield-esque delusion about saving the children of the world from the phony John, but also wanting to be John Lennon, we realize that there was a sort of weird Triple Fantasy going on.
Rosen's book, like Seaman's, offers plenty of food for thought on the ever-useful themes of trusting the tale and not the teller, the song and not the singer. However, there is a moment described in the Double Fantasy studio sessions in which John and Yoko take a break by going off together and putting their arms around each other. There are plenty of scenes of John screaming at Yoko and Yoko screaming at everybody else, plenty of scenes debunking The Myth and showing a weird, sad reality. But John Lennon and Yoko Ono certainly had something. One danger of both the Seaman and Rosen books is that they invite a sort of tsk-tsk judgmentalism -- as if we readers were of course all water-drinkers with perfectly ordered lives.
In any case, there is the music: and if John and Yoko needed The Myth of John and Yoko -- and also really needed to put their arms around each other -- to create those last, lovely love songs (and some very great songs before that), well, let's note the reality and then grant them, and maybe even admire, The Myth.
Oscar Wilde said, Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth.
John and Yoko were people whose fantastic freedom became -- where extremes meet -- a fantastic prison. They were also people whose masks were pretty interesting in themselves and which also told invaluable truths. John mused, in his final days, about the fact that when "a person comes along with a good piece of truth," people choose to focus on the person and not the truth. It's the reverse of the old custom of shooting the messenger: "now, they worship the messenger and don't listen to the message." This astute point applies equally well either to worshipping the messenger or to deploring the messenger. This particular messenger, with all his wild contradictions, is certainly interesting. But he was one who came along with "a good piece of truth," and his music is the real treasure.
New Year's Eve, 2001
Robert Rosen's Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon