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John Is Dead

The "Paul Is Dead" conspiracy seems to me one of the most interesting spontaneous social creations in the mass media era (to put it as pompously as possible). It's not exactly a work of art, but I've had hours of entertainment from it, and it has enriched my appreciation for the Beatles immeasurably. Something similar, I must confess, is true of the bizarro Charles Manson reading of the White album, which enriches the music with the spirit of chaos and upheaval that then reigned in culture. That's not to excuse the murders he and his cult committed out of a misguided sense of social protest. My point is that conspiracy mongering is one of the most durable forms of "remixing" culture, a primary mode of folk art in the midst of an information surfeit.

So I can partly understand why Joseph Niezgoda would write a book like The Lennon Prophecy: A New Examination of the Death Clues of the Beatles, reviewed here (via Metafilter). The author's urge to create in the conspiratorial mode seems to have been cloaked or excused here by religiosity -- which also suffuses the review and, incidentally, enhances the ironic, distanced appreciation for a secular apostate like me. Irony is probably not the best way to consume conspiracy; it's probably much more fulfilling to be caught up in it, to give yourself over completely to the fantasy that any association you can think of has weighty significance, that all things can finally be connected if you are sufficiently zealous to weave a large enough web. Enjoying conspiracies ironically is to take a condescending and ultimately dismissive attitude toward creative (albeit misdirected and possibly insane and destructive) human energy.

Of course, that won't stop me from cherry-picking ludicrous sections from this review. Judging by this, the "Paul Is Dead" thing appears to be dead (perhaps people no wish he actually was dead, or at least artistically dormant, rather than shamelessly touring and cheapening the Beatles legacy). Instead, Lennon resonates with the most social significance, leading to the construction of this hypothesis that he sold his soul so that the Beatles would succeed. (How else would you explain their singular fame?)

When was the pact made? Niezgoda pinpoints the date - December 27, 1960, the night the Beatles played at the Town Hall Ball Room in Litherland, England. Lennon was a 20-year old wanna-be rock star in a mediocre band not so different from so many others at the time. He was desperate to “be more famous than Elvis.” Desperate enough to sell his soul to the Devil, Niezgoda contends.

During that performance, Niezgoda reports, “the Beatles evoked a response noticeably different from anything in their past.” As they played, the crowd unexpectedly surged onto the stage and the girls started to scream. It had never happened before, but it would always happen afterward. It was the birth of Beatlemania. All four have noted this night as the turning point in their careers.

Not coincidentally, Lennon would be murdered almost exactly 20 years later by a man who claimed to be possessed by demons.

If John had entered into a 20-year pact with the Devil for wealth and world fame, that contract ended that day with his violent death. Mark Chapman would later claim he was instructed to kill Lennon by a voice in his head that kept insisting “Do it, do it, do it.” Five years later at Attica State Prison, Chapman asked for an exorcism to be made by a priest. He said he was delivered from five or six demons.

It's interesting that the Devil (capital D) likes to operate in round decimal numbers. Why 20 years of fame? You would think the contract would stipulate 66 years or something more suitably infernal.

Unlike Paul, who died in a car accident and whose death needed to be communicated to fans through cryptic clues, John had his death foretold to him and felt obliged to convey his destiny through what is now "a well-documented trail of sorcery, mysticism, numerology, backwards masking, and anagrams."

Exhibit A: the "notorious" butcher cover of Yesterday and Today. The reviewer's description of its significance has a sincere perplexedness to it that's almost breathtaking:
The album cover of The Beatles Yesterday and Today, released in 1966, may say nothing about Lennon’s death, but it literally shouts that the so-called Fab Four were involved in Satanism.... This horrendous picture clearly refers to the kind of infanticide that takes place in Satanic rituals and Devil worships, Niezgoda affirms. It is the only credible way I see to explain the message of the picture – it’s surely not just avant-garde art. Take a look yourself and see if you would say it’s just merry pranksters making a joke, as some Beatles’ fans pretend.

Wow. Imagine if the only "credible" way you could explain the existence of this photograph to yourself was to believe that the most popular pop group of the 20th century were Satanists on a mission to surreptitiously spread their creed of baby murdering to a unsuspecting and credulous population that has ceased to properly fear God. This is sure to sound patronizing, but how strangely limited must your intellectual horizons be? How fervent and focused must be your zealotry? The sort of intensity, that sort of narrow but wildly imaginative world view, it seems to me, is not that different from the one that creates something like The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly.

In lashing out so vehemently against the Beatles and all they seem to represent -- the culture industry triumphant and ubiquitous -- the reviewer registers a twisted plea (in a very weird and possibly unconscious fashion) for the protection of native, homespun creativity in the face of cultural homogenization, against a zeitgeist that seems to achieve disproportionate scope and obliterates local distinctions. (After all, only religion should have such reach.) The willful misinterpretations of the Beatles is an attempt to neutralize it, or at least tame it, to put individuals back in a place above it, not subservient to pop culture and force to try to keep up with its trends and trivia.

This take on the butcher cover is the cry of someone who is genuinely threatened by culture, feeling palpably something we may have become too jaded to acknowledge anymore, that is, that maybe we have become unspeakably lazy about filtering the information we consume in the name of entertainment, and this has dulled our own capabilities in ways we can't even recognize. Our spiritual potential atrophies as we drift along in the digitized cultural surplus....

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