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Lives Of The Saints

The Lives of John Lennon

by Albert Goldman (Morrow, 719 pp., $22,95) Yesterday: The Unauthorized Biography of Paul McCartneyby Chet Flippo (Doubleday, 400 pp., $18.95) 


AT THE CORE of Beatlemania, after all its other rational and subrational causes have been diagnosed and stripped away, there has always throbbed a single, irrational impulse: the urge to do some kind of harm to the mopheaded objects of desire. Those screaming, weeping, barely pubescent girls, whose agonized faces are nearly the only clear memory anyone has of the Beatles in concert, would, had they miraculously found themselves alone in a room with their favorite Fab, scarcely have known what to do with him except tear him apart.

The Beatles naturally sensed this better than anyone; it terrified them, and in the end it was one of the principal reasons they gave up touring. The violence took various forms. Most often it was simply a violation of ordinary standards of civility: the mothers who brought their crippled children backstage and demanded that the Beatles touch them, or the diplomat’s wife who, at a reception at the British Embassy in Washington just after the Beatles’ first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” produced a pair of scissors and calmly began snipping off locks of Ringo’s hair. Sometimes the violence was a natural byproduct of the frantic need to express pleasure: when American fans, having heard that George liked jelly beans, pelted the Beatles onstage with the candy, they often saved themselves time and trouble by throwing whole, unopened bags of it.

But sometimes it was pure, unthinking, life-threatening mass hysteria. There were times when the Beatles were compelled, despite the danger of electrocution, to play open-air concerts during rainstorms to keep disappointed audiences from rioting. In San Francisco, during their 1965 world tour, they were transported through the airport in an iron cage to protect them from the fans; a few seconds after the Beatles were removed from it by the police, the cage collapsed from the pressure of the surging crowd. In Manila in 1966, after their manager Brian Epstein, in an uncharacteristic misreading of local protocol, failed to produce the Beatles for an audience with Imelda Marcos, the group was deprived of police protection and jeered at, punched, and kicked by crowds as it tried to make its way to the plane. And at one concert a limousine that was supposed to be carrying the Beatles was mobbed outside the hall; when fans climbed onto the top of the car, the roof caved in, (The limousine was a decoy. The Beatles were smuggled past in the back of an ambulance.

An entirely reasonable fear of their admirers led the Beatles to construct hermetic lives for themselves. Cultural trendsetters of the ‘60s, they spent most of the decade indoors, elaborately screened from accidental contact with the average fan. This meant constant contact with a different sort of fan: the managers, promoters, retainers, gophers, groupies, fellow celebrities, would-be fellow celebrities, and all-purpose sycophants who catered slavishly to every half-uttered whim and laughed admiringly at every halfhearted witticism. The Beatles rarely went anywhere unaccompanied,and they never carried any money. The story is told in every Beatles book, but it is still a good one: the first time the Beatles took an unchaperoned trip in the era of Beatiemania was in 1967, They went to Bangor, Wales, to attend a conference presided over by their new enthusiasm, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Mick and Marianne came along, and on their first night in Bangor the five kings and their consorts went to a local Chinese restaurant for dinner. When the bill was presented, it was discovered that not one of the millionaires had a penny in his pocket to pay it.

This hothouse life produced, inevitably, hothouse exoticisms and excesses. Told day and night that they could do anything and that nothing they did was wrong, the Beatles did what any normal person finding himself in their fantastically abnormal situation would have done, which was everything that struck their fancy and nothing that did not. Who was there to say no? Understandably, the Beatles’ publicity machine--which, from the very beginnings of Beatlemania, was essentially the entire world press—saw the need to filter some of the tales of self-indulgence out of the news of the Beatles’ lives. (It was important, of course, to inform the world of a little self-indulgence, for it would be disappointing to learn that entertainers upon whom the public had showered so much of its money were not spending at least some of it frivolously) The filtering required stricter cloistering; the stricter cloistering inflamed the frenzy to know more; and the frenzy to know more led to a second stage in the evolution of Beatiemania: the stage of the expose, the book that tells the “real” story.

During their entire career together as the most famous pop group in the world, from 1964 to 1970, the Beatles managed to preserve in the public eye a relatively anodyne image of themselves as, at bottom, four lovable lads from Liverpool. The increasingly “appreciated” music, the infatuation with the Maharishi and other dubious gurus, the occasional (and extremely tentative) comments on political events, even the hash and the acid: nothing significantly undermined the public notion of the Beatles as eternally innocent and beneficent household gods. But following the breakup of the group, its members drifting slowly but inexorably away from each other and from the center of cultural consciousness, less lovable images began to be purveyed.

In the beginning the salesmen were mostly people marginally on the inside who, discovering there was no longer anything to get further inside of, started singing whatever songs they had to sing—Richard DiLello, an Apple employee (The Longest Cocktail Party. 1972); Francie Schwartz, an American groupie who did a brief tour of duty as one of Paul’s London birds (Body Count, 1972); Allan Williams, the Liverpool promoter who allowed Brian Epstein to take over the Beatles as their manager on the eve of their breakthrough (The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away, 1975). Then came the people with longer or more intimate tales to tell—Peter Brown, Epstein’s assistant (The Love You Make, 1983); Pete Best, the drummer Ringo replaced, and therefore famous as the unluckiest man in the history of show business (Beatle! The Pete Best Story, 1983); Pete Shotton, a childhood friend of John’s who ran Apple’s ill-fated retail division (John Lennon: In My Life, 1983); John Green, Yoko Ono’s tarot card reader and spiritual adviser (Dakota Days, 1983); May Pang, John’s girlfriend during his separation frorn Yoko in the mid-’70s(Loving John, 1983).

Now, with the appearance of Chet Flippo’s Yesterday, the “unauthorized” biography of McCartney, and Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon (also, it goes without saying, unauthorized), we have reached the stage of the real “real” story. Here, it seems, are the facts reported by people with no grudge to warp their perspective and no sentiment to cloud their view, the Beatles without halos and without tears.


How DID the Beatles manage to preserve their image from the soilings of tattletales and hard-nosed reporters as long as they did? And what is at stake, anyway, in these new books that promise to bring the image back down to earth? In the tangle of reasons why the Beatles became what every performer and every group in their generation dreamed of becoming, “bigger than Elvis,” this reason seems central: the press adored them. Philip Norman, a British journalist whose Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation (1981) is a well-reported account unusually free ofhero worship, explains the media’s goodwill by the fact that the Beatles came onto the British scene at precisely the moment, late 1963, when the press was desperate for something lighthearted after its intense coverage of the Profumo scandal, and onto the American scene at precisely the moment, early 1964, when the press was desperate for something upbeat in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

This analysis may account for the enthusiasm of the initial coverage, but it doesn’t explain the continued enthrallment of the middlebrow press, previously condescending at best to rock ‘n’ roll phenomena, and the eventual conquest of the highbrow press, previously condescending to anything the middlebrow press found enthralling. Some of the credit for those sustained triumphs has to be assigned to the genius of the individual Fabs themselves.

The Beatles’ mastery of the press was astonishing in part because it seems to have been almost purely intuitive. When they arrived at Kennedy Airport in the early afternoon of February 7, 1964, the Beatles had not the first idea what to expect. They knew, of course, that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had reached No. 1 in America the month before, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a British group. But they had just come off a tepidly received French tour, there was talk in England that they were about to be supplanted by the Dave Clark Five, and they couldn’t imagine what the Americans would see in them. “America’s got everything,” George is supposed to have complained on the way over. “What do they want us for?”

Only a year or so earlier, the Beatles had been a local bar band. They had learned how to play together in one of the most raucous venues in Europe, the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. They performed in leather jackets and leather pants, they smoked and ate onstage, they screamed insults at the audience (which, in England as well as in Hamburg, occasionally responded by attacking the performers). They did not play for teenyboppers. In England they played for working-class kids and Teddy boys their own age; in Germany, they played for drunken sailors and offduty prostitutes. They did not regard these experiences as dues to be paid on the road to respectability, but as the natural thing to be doing. This was the world of rock ‘n’ roll they knew. It was their culture.

But though they were indifferent to respectability, the Beatles were not indifferent to riches. When Epstein took them over, they submitted willingly to the standard practice of pop management in England at the time: they allowed themselves to be made over into clean-cut pretty boys in matching mohair suits. The usual consequence of this sort of transformation is an impenetrable blandness. The uncouth expressiveness of the local performer in perfect cultural sympathy with the local audience has to be permanently locked away, since it is incompatible with the image of the middle-class teen idol, and is apparently untranslatable into a middle-class idiom. The pop star appears on stage, croons his pop ballad, and then is heard no more—for he has nothing, outside of the song he has been given to sing, to say. The Beatles, all of whose origins were as working-class as any white musician’s, jumped the gap. They spoke, and spoke in a language the middle-class audience found enchanting. Its essential mood was insouciance, but it was an insouciance the public interpreted not as class antagonism, but as the cheekiness of youth.

John’s request to the audience at the 1963 Royal Variety Performance in the Prince of Wales Theatre, where Lord Snowden, Princess Margaret, and the Queen Mother were seated in the royal box--he asked those “in the cheap seats” to clap their hands, “and the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry”--has gone down in pop history as one of the great spontaneous Lennonisms. But the remark was carefully rehearsed. You can see the calculation in Lennon’s delivery when you watch the tape of the show, and you can see, too, the little grin of relief he flashes, ducking away from the microphone, at Paul when the audience cheers. But at Kennedy Airport three months later, nothing had been rehearsed because nothing was expected.

The Beatles had not reckoned with the promotional powers of American business. Capitol Records’ publicity department had saturated the East Coast with news of their arrival, and thousands of fans turned out to greet them. When they saw the size of the crowd waiting in the terminal, the Beatles assumed that the president’s plane had landed at the same time as theirs. They were rushed through the frenzy and ushered into the press lounge, where they were confronted by 200 reporters irritated by the harassed conditions of the assignment and armed with the customary professional cynicism. The press conference that followed could scarcely have played more perfectly if it had been scripted.

Each question from the press was met with and topped by a Beatle one-liner. Some of the lines were standard comic bits:

Q: Was your family in show business?

John: Well, me Dad used to say me Mother was a great performer.

Some reflected the Beatles’ mysterious ability to sense skepticism and, once sensing it, to flatter it:

Q: What’s your secret?

George: If we knew that, we’d each form a group and manage it.

One was transcendent:

Q: What do you think of Beethoven?

Ringo: I love him. Especially his poems.

Some charms cannot be resisted. You only have to compare the transcript of any Beatles interview with an interview with even a thinking man’s rock star like Bob Dylan, or a smart actor like Mick Jagger, to appreciate the Beatles’ advantage in this field. Dylan is either obstreperous and sophistical or full of gassy nonsense about Rimbaud and Jung. Jagger always ends up being persuaded, too easily and often fatally, to take himself seriously. The Beatles, even when comparing their popularity favorably with Jesus’, almost invariably come off as ingratiating and self-deprecating.

No doubt some of this clever adaptability, and the wit that facilitated it, should be credited to the social style of Liverpool working-class life. Ringo, for instance, by far the poorest and leastschooled Beatle, did not acquire his drollness with his mohair suit; it was simply his natural manner of deflecting insults. The question about Beethoven was a genteel insult, and it is telling that he, the Beatle least likely to know anything about Beethoven, should have had the quickest retort, and a retort to which no follow-up is possible.

But to a significant degree the Beatles’ public voice was Lennon’s. Lennon derived his manner in part from the Goon Show, of which he was a fanatical admirer; he cultivated it by making the satirical sketches and punning fables that constitute the bulk of his production as an art student. When he formed the group that eventually became the Beatles, he gave this manner to the rest, leaving them free to improvise on it after their own fashions. One of the obvious but rarely enumerated reasons Pete Best was summarily dropped and replaced by Ringo is that he was too solemn and uninventive to play John’s games. It was characteristic of John’s thinking that the quality of Best’s drum playing—which, if it was not superior to Ringo’s, can hardly have been significantly worse--was not the issue. The issue was performance. The secret of performance was not talent: none of the Beatles was an exceptionally talented musician, and none of them believed that talent was important. The secret was style, and the trick of the Beatles’ style was never to be caught being completely serious.

It seems likely that Lennon was attracted to Yoko Ono (or, depending on the view you take of it, was susceptible to her witchery) because he recognized in her conceptual art a congenial style of performance. To put it another way: he took her silly, self-promotional happenings for a high-concept edition of his own art college. Goon Show whimsy. Its pretensions could be laughed off if it became tactically necessary to do so; and, like rock ‘n’ roll, anybody could do it.

It seems likely that Lennon was attracted to Yoko Ono (or, depending on the view you take of it, was susceptible to her witchery) because he recognized in her conceptual art a congenial style of performance. To put it another way: he took her silly, self-promotional happenings for a high-concept edition of his own art college. Goon Show whimsy. Its pretensions could be laughed off if it became tactically necessary to do so; and, like rock ‘n’ roll, anybody could do it.

By the time of the bed-ins for peace, however, when John and Yoko held what were essentially week-long news conferences from their beds in various hotel rooms, the mainstream press had become distinctly less receptive to John’s act than it had been in Beatle days. Just as she had been too much for Paul to take, Yoko proved too much for the New York Times as well. The alternative press, though, had always regarded Lennon as a hero, and was eager to continue that tradition. It didn’t mind that Yoko now seemed permanently attached to John’s elbow.

Lennon had his critics, political and musical, in the alternative press, but he liked the attention, and except for the four years after the birth of his second son in 1975, when he withdrew from public life, he cultivated the relationship. His picture was on the cover of the first issue of Rolling Stone in 1967, and the famous two-part interview he gave Jann Wenner in 1970, the very first of the Beatles exposes, was a gift from the gods. Lennon wrote for a San Francisco paper called SunDance; he wrote letters to the editor of Melody Maker and the Village Voice; he sent money to the ailing International Times (IT); he guest DJ’ed on WNEW-FM in New York; he gave interviews to everybody. The press responded by honoring the Ballad of John and Yoko, the image of the Lennons as the type of the countercultural marriage: equal partners, equally gifted, persecuted for their commitment to love and world peace by what the Beatles used to call “men in suits”—such as the agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.


On the face of it, then, the prospect of fresh tellings of the Beatles’ stories, John’s in particular, by people prepared, but not a priori disposed, to be unsympathetic can only be welcome. One doesn’t care especially whether these books yield Beatles that match one’s favorite images. One only asks that this time it not be gossip

Chet Flippo’s book on Paul is mainly a reminder that the only Beatle most people can sustain more than a casual interest in is John. And it’s clear that “most people” includes Flippo himself. The story from Liverpool to Apple has been told so many times that he doesn’t bother much in telling it again; he simply juggles with the wording of the familiar anecdotes so that wherever possible the protagonist is Paul.

More effort is expended on the post-Beatles era, and particularly on Wings, the continually changing assortment of journeyman musicians and session players Paul put together to back him in his solo career. The Wings product, for critics of Flippo’s tastes, is the essential McCartney: musically eager to please, lyrically vapid, commercially a staggering success. According to Yesterday, Paul made more money in his first two years with Wings than he had in ten years as a Beatle--though as Flippo points out, this is less impressive than it seems, since until they broke up the Beatles were the victims of some of the most lopsided contracts in the history of the business.

Flippo offers another statistic, however, that does give pause; Wings, he says, has sold more records than the Beatles. Since the McCartneys are the writers alnd sole owners of the Wings songs, and since the profits from the Wings records and performances go directly into Paul’s pockets—the rest of the band was usually paid scale—the band’s success has, according to Flippo, helped make McCartney one of the richest men in the world.

The cute Beatle has put most of the money into his music publishing business, a circumstance that has not endeared him to those members of the rock critical establishment who like to think that there is some meaningful distinction between the music side and the business side of the rock music business. Flippo notes, for instance, that although Paul has objected to the sale of “Revolution” to Nike for use in a shoe ad, Paul himself sold Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy!” which he owns, to Buick, from whence it reemerged as “Oh Buick!” (The songs Paul wrote with John are now, of course, the property of Michael Jackson.)

Yesterday was written not only without the cooperation of Paul and Linda, but apparently without the help of either of the other two surviving Beatles. Substantial chunks of the story (Flippo is perfectly frank about this) have clearly been worked up from the clip file. This doesn’t matter much because it turns out that Flippo is not interested in offering a seriously revisionist reading of Paul, whose mythical stature these days is no longer especially inflated anyhow. He’s mainly interested in getting most of the available information together in one place.

Goldman, on the other hand, is interested in revising our view of John, so the matter of sources in his case is a little more to the point. Goldman has had to answer two charges against The Lives of John Lennon. The first is, Everybody already knew this stuff; the second is. It’s not true. Among the claims in dispute are these: that Lennon was a drug addict, an alcoholic, a depressive, the victim of a mother fixation, the victim of a father fixation, anorexic, uncoordinated, lazy, violent, abusive, bisexual, possibly a murderer, and a bad guitarist. Aside from the last three items, there is plenty of public testimony corroborating the particulars of this description. What is offensive to Lennon’s admirers about Goldman’s account is that he ignores or downplays the rest of the public testimony, which is that Lennon was a well intentioned public figure, a despiser of cant, an astute analyst of his own contradictions and the culture’s, fundamentally humane, sensible about his foolishness, witty, articulate, and truthful.

Goldman was once a professor in the Columbia English department, and he is not shy about touting himself as a trained researcher. Given the promise held out by this credential, the number of trivial factual errors in The Lives of John Lennon is not encouraging. Some of them have been noted in a story on the book in the Times: Goldman says that “Love Me Do” was first released as a 78-rpm disk, but it was a 45; he says McCartney wrote “Hello Little Girl,” but it was a Lennon song; he says that “Any Time at All” was the best song in A Hard Day’s Night, but it is not in the movie.

Here are a few more. Goldman says that John’s Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him, had a sister called Mary Elizabeth, but Mary Elizabeth was Mimi’s own name. He says that “in every account of Lennon ever published, the impression is created that the guitar was the first instrument he owned or learned to play,” and proceeds to tell us of an accordion and of a harmonica given John by one of Mimi’s lodgers; but the story of the harmonica that predated John’s first guitar can be found in Hunter Davies’s The Beatles (1968), which happens to be the Beatles’ authorized biography.

He says that Dave Deliinger, the antiwar organizer, became an adherent of the Maharaj Ji, but it was Rennie Davis, not Dellinger, who defected to the boy guru. He says that George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass was a four-record album, but it contained only three records (still, for most tastes, about two records too many).

The little things don’t matter, of course, if the big things can be trusted. But the big things can’t. The giveaway in expose accounts of Goldman’s sort is the tendency of every tale of depravity to conform to a certain shape: a superstar, in the company of various hangers-on, is engaged in some sort of indulgence—doing drugs, making indiscriminate passes, welshing on deals, wasting money. While this is happening, there is always one person in the room who, though apparently participating fully in whatever is going on, is secretly appalled by the behavior of the star. This person is the source.

The source may deliver drugs to the star (Kit Carter, whom Goldman introduces as Yoko’s heroin supplier), he may shoot up with the star (the guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who hung out with Lennon during his separation from Yoko), he may be bilking the star (John Green and Sam Green, who contrived a fortune teller-art dealer act to swindle Yoko), he may be the eventual loser in a lawsuit against the star (Morris Levy, who took Lennon to court over his Rock and Roll album and lost). For Goldman, it makes no difference to his credibility. We are asked, in the opening pages of The Lives of John Lennon, to contemplate in some detail the gruesomeness of Yoko Ono’s heroin habit. That we should also find ourselves being asked to pity the sensibilities of the poor supplier who was so inconsiderately exposed to the sound of his client retching in the bathroom should give us a clue about the reliability of the description.

If Goldman got the clue, he ignored it. “Interview a score of people who interacted strongly with Lennon,” he confides near the end of the book, “and you will get a score of Lennons, each one a man highly congenial to your source. Clearly, John took his identity from the company he kept.” Clearly. No chance, of course, that the source might have an eye out for the way he will come off later in the pages of Goldman’s book.

Goldman reaches the top of his form when he has no sources to afflict him with this troublesome business of multiple Lennons. Sometimes the account of the unsourced betrays a charming hint of highbrow rectitude. Of a trip to Japan, for instance, Goldman notes that Lennon “does not appear to have attended the Kabuki theater or spent time in the museums or taken any interest in Japan’s remarkable crafts.” At other times it suggests the opposite, a prurience that cannot resist battening even on a mere figment. Of a visit Lennon made, unaccompanied, to Bangkok, about which Goldman confesses he has been unable to find any information whatsoever, he writes:

Stepping into the first [massage] parlor that caught his fancy, he would have found a room stacked on one side with bleachers on which were lined up the girls, each one holding in her hands a placard with a big number. When he had picked the best numbers, the girls would check out the job with the mama-san and then lead him to a private room. Here they would disrobe, revealing themselves as tiny, underdeveloped creatures with small breasts and virtually no pubic hair.. . . John might also have indulged himself with a Thai boy, who enjoys precisely the same reputation among sophisticated homosexuals as do the girls with straight men. Naturally there would be no problem about procuring his favorite marijuana, Thai stick, or in buying high quality heroin at astonishingly low prices. . . .

This is precisely the conjunction of two overlapping but otherwise unrelated sets of facts that tabloid headlines are created from. Before The Lives of John Lennon, we had mostly a lot of hype and some scattered bits of gossip. Now, at least, we have more gossip.

STILL, this is a fan’s book. The modern celebrity has two publics--or rather, his public has two faces. One consumes an idealized image, the other a titillating image. One watches “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” the other reads the Star. It is common to draw a “brow” distinction between the two tastes, but the truth is that most people interested in the celebrated--which is to say, most people—cultivate both. They find the scandalous as satisfying as the fabulous, and the fabulous no more believable than the scandalous. The interchangeability doesn’t matter, for both views meet the same need.

Everyone who leads an ordinary life knows that another life is possible. That other life is like an unknown planet: we wouldn’t want to go there, but we are interested in knowing what living there would be like. Belief in the other life offers two kinds of solace. It pleases us to think that, freed from responsibility and care, living would feel differently than it does; and we are certain that, in the end, being ground down slowly by ordinary life is the wiser choice, since we suspect that the atmosphere anywhere else would kill us very quickly. The celebrity is the explorer who tests the other life and sends back information about what it is like. It doesn’t matter whether we are told that the existence pursued by Paul or John or Marilyn or Elvis was a frictionless one or a wretched one. It only matters that it not sound too much like our own.

The advertised effect of books like Yesterday and The Lives of John Lennon is demystification. They propose to do us the service of shrinking the myths down to human size—or perhaps, by way of compensation for all the years of hype, a size or two smaller. We ignore the promise because we know it is false. For like studies that explain the behavior of saints as the symptoms of anorexia nervosa or some other neurotic compulsion, these books simply deepen the mystery. The more wretched and crippled, the more untalented and limited the locus of all that cultural power, the more inexplicable the magic. Joyce Carol Oates recently drew a distinction between hagiography and what she called “pathography,” the kind of lurid biography that is obsessed with the warts and personal failings of its subject. She was wrong. Pathography is hagiography. These books only scratch where it itches. They still can’t explain why it itches, and the itching doesn’t stop.


If there is a lesson to be drawn from the history of the Beatles’ celebrity and its press, it might be that informed judgments about the “real” lives of people like Lennon and McCartney are impossible. It is not simply that every piece of information that is made available comes with a price tag—for people who have had the chance to bump up against a Beatie naturally hope to have a little of the fame or a little of the fortune rub off on them. It’s also that the lives themselves are so permeated by the fact of their being always observed that separating the one from the other becomes an ontological impossibility. Celebrities like the Beatles don’t live in fishbowls; they are fishbowls.

This is especially true of John Lennon, who loved nothing better than to observe himself being John Lennon and to talk about what he saw. That he was apparently candid about so many things--his drug addictions, his extreme moods, his feelings about his parents, his fans, his fellow Beatles--makes the new items Goldman offers up (a long-term homosexual affair with Brian Epstein, for instance) seem even less plausible than they otherwise might. (That tale, too, suffers from vague and unreliable sourcing.) On the other hand, the general picture is not inconsistent with what one feels was part of Lennon’s essential nature. Hemmed in by circumstance as a youth--abandoned by both parents, a failure in school--Lennon raged against convention. Fantastically liberated from circumstance as a young man, he continued to rage--except that, the usual external objects having been removed, the only significant thing remaining for him to damage was himself.

This is the less important half of Lennon’s story, though. For in his public persona, he always seemed full of strong feeling tempered by good humor, which is a definition of the best kind of wit. He could not be baited, and he was brave enough to put himself in situations, like the bed-ins, where people would be tempted to bait him. The same mixture of urgency and mockery characterizes his music and his singing, which is why he can sound his best singing a number like “Twist and Shout,” a song that is both passionate and inane. (It was “Twist and Shout” that he sang to the Queen Mother right after inviting her to rattle her jewelry.) Lennon’s sound dominates the Beatles’ records--even those records, such as Let It Be and Abbey Road, that are supposed to have owed nearly everything in their conception and execution to McCartney.

That sound was important to the Beatles’ generation because, among other reasons, it was distinctly not the sound of responsible adulthood. The youth culture of the postwar generation begins in 1951 with The Catcher in the Rye, a book whose hero is an almost pathological hater of adulthood. This culture took up, with undiscriminating enthusiasm, exempla of hostility to growing up and settling down from the ‘50s (the Beat poets, James Dean, The Wild One) as well as the ‘60s (Ken Kesey, The Graduate, Easy Rider). Its music, though, was not ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, which is a music about courting for working-class teenagers, but ‘60s rock, which is a music about dropping out for middle-class students. The ordinary adolescent resistance to the confinements of grown-up life—jobs, marriage, assuming one’s place in the food chain—became generalized into the culture at large in the ‘60s in part because the mainstream society, confronted by a sudden swelling of the number of people ready to enter adult life, could support some middle-class dropouts temporarily on the outside more easily than it could absorb everybody into the inside. (This seems one of those rare instances when the baby boom, which is supposed to explain everything about postwar American iife, actually does explain something.)

The Beatles, childlike, acted out the positive side of this phenomenon of not growing up--just as the “satanic” Stones, I suppose, acted out the negative side. Most people who went through the ‘60s with that popular culture buzzing in their heads eventually grew past it, though for many the culture stopped being consumed long before the buzz went away completely. But it still seems important for adults well past 30 to remind themselves occasionally of the thrill they once felt when, in the exuberance of being “youth,” they scorned the trappings of adulthood.

Just a taste will suffice. And almost any taste of Lennon has what is wanted—his voice in a song or his face in a photograph, his appearance seeming to change completely every month with the mood of the times, but always striking, and so bracingly indifferent to convention. Lennon is the kind of rock star you experience best in private, alone in your room while you get dressed to go out to be sucked into the soulshrinking routines of maturity. His style, like any good style, is infectious without being oppressive: it makes you want to let your own light shine a little, too. There is nothing complicated about what he expressed. It’s just a kind of tonic, sometimes still a necessary one.

Lennon’s death in New York in December 1980 closed the period of youth culture, which suddenly felt as though it had been waiting to be closed for ten years. He was killed by Mark Chapman (b. 1955), a fan who was upset by an article in Esquire that accused Lennon of selling out. Bruce Springsteen, in concert in Philadelphia that night, played “Twist and Shout” as a tribute. When the police arrived at the Dakota to arrest Chapman, they found him waiting quietly for them, holding in his hand a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.