By Tim Riley
“The John Lennon Letters”
A book edited by Hunter Davies
Like rain into a paper cup, words fairly giggled out of John Lennon’s pen nearly every day of his too-short 40 years. Now Hunter Davies, the Beatles’ early “authorized” 1968 biographer, has collected 285 Lennon letters, postcards, telegrams and to-do lists from early childhood to Dec. 8, 1980, hours before he was killed. They are bound in a handsome layout with reproductions of every entry, many of which are typed—hilariously—beside Davies’ transcriptions. Almost all reward close inspection both for Lennon’s intriguingly loose hand and whimsical cartoons. If he hadn’t become a songwriter/performer, Lennon could easily have gained notoriety as a scathing countercultural satirist on a par with B. Kliban or George Crumb.
Lennon never met a word he couldn’t mangle (“THEN POSSIBLEY DOWN TO NEW ORLEONS [sic] TO SEE THE McCARTKNEES ... “). And contrary to his slothful reputation, he made writing letters a priority, whether dashing off newspaper editorials or rocketing postcards to friends, relatives, reporters and fellow Beatles. Alongside all the serendipitous discoveries, an underlying discomfort often emerges (“ITS A LONG WAY TO TIP A NEGRO!”). Davies leans heavily on letters after 1970, and this edition lacks items before Beatlemania. Even more than Ringo Starr’s 2004 book, “Postcards From the Boys,” one of the myth’s better-kept secrets, this far-flung collection shows an array of moods, from blistering to fanatic, dramatizing just how far Beatle bonds transcended the musical.
But ultimately, very little is revealed. Yoko Ono, for example, went to great lengths during the shooting of the film “Nowhere Boy” to protect John’s Aunt Mimi, who was portrayed as harshly practical by actress Kristin Scott Thomas. But on the evidence of several letters to his cousin Leila Harvey, he sat on much justifiable resentment in spite of his affection. Consider this one to her from July 1975:
“ ... (mimi would never let me have a piano in the house ... said it was common!) she still thinks I ‘got lucky’ i.e. no talent! ... It’s a wonder I’m not a REAL JUNKY … she always wanted to castrate everyone (male and female) and put their ‘balls’ in an apple pie!”
The John Lennon Letters
Edited by Hunter Davies
Little, Brown and Company, 400 pages
Written interactions among his second wife Ono, his songwriting partner Paul McCartney and his manager Brian Epstein remain mysteriously thin. And certain well-known letters—to his first wife Cynthia, to art school intimate Stu Sutcliffe and pop star Todd Rundgren (“AN OPENED LETTUCE TO SODD RUNTLESTUNTLE,” “However much you hurt me darling; I’ll always love you ... “)—get reprinted here with slim rock ‘n’ roll context.
Typically, a missive to reporter and confidant Ray Connolly climaxes with an elaborate sign-off:
“Save the pound ... fuck the queen
Long live us all y’all,
Love to you and yours
From me and mind how you goffer,
The queen may have bestowed knighthoods upon George Martin, Paul McCartney and even Mick Jagger, but it would have taken more than a bellyful of wine for her to admit Lennon to that club. (By analogy, this would mean McCartney was Jagger and Lennon was Keith Richards. Knighthoods never made any sense.)
The only songwriting material comes from an unused lyric dated 1965 or 1966, but only confirms that Lennon knew how to toss mediocre material:
“When a girl begins to be a problem
Pretty soon the girl must go
When they’re gone you find at last you love them
Pretty soon you want to know
Little girl I’ve come to stay
And this time I just have to say
I love you
If she turns you down and rejected
Try again the best you can
Call to see her when you’re least expected
Tell her now she’ll understand”
But nothing explains the lack of personal mail to Yoko Ono, who has prevailed sphinx-like over Lennon’s estate for more than 30 years. Critics wince at just how well she embodies the stoic rock widow even as she blesses horrible moves such as Don Scardino’s flaky 2005 Broadway musical “Lennon.” If John’s legend has ballooned toward the saintly since his death, it’s the combined effect of Ono’s steely hand and our own celebrity death neurosis, in which halos abound. Lennon’s affection for Ono, and their romantic myth, crackles through these pages even though she opted not to share anything from her private stash.
Likewise, no new McCartney letters show up. Just recently, he made the wires by confirming the mind-numbing revelation that Ono did not “break up the Beatles.” Perhaps McCartney is still in denial about just how good his second wife, Heather Mills, made Ono seem by comparison. But he didn’t share any correspondence with Davies, perhaps since the one great harangue Lennon gets off at him in the early 1970s still stings:
“Dear Linda and Paul,” he starts in his famous rant, “I was reading your letter and wondering what middle aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it.”
A letter to EMI managing director Len Wood in which Lennon quickly jots down George’s and Ringo’s lead vocal Beatle tracks for a Mexican EP (extended play) compilation, reveals how fluent he was in the Beatles catalog.
So as we clamor for more revelations from the man who invited the world’s press into his honeymoon suite, we have to settle for devastating letters like this, again to his cousin Leila Harvey, from 1979 (line breaks and underline Lennon’s):
“I’m almost scared to go to England, ’coz
I know it would be the
Last time I saw Mimi—
I’m a coward about
Have a good year
Love from Sean & Yoko xx”
Tim Riley is the author of “Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music.” He teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston.