Renaissance Rebel: Lennon Outside Music

John Lennon’s first solo project wasn’t his noise art experiments with Yoko Ono (the Unfinished Music series) during the last, lingering days of the Beatles. Nor was it his scorching primal scream descent into personal musical Hell known as Plastic Ono Band. It wasn’t a trek to Toronto to play live sans his bandmates or a stirring nursery rhyme about giving peace a chance. No, John Lennon first stepped out on his fellow Liverpudlian pals with the 1964 publication of In His Own Write.

That’s right… a book. A satiric work featuring sketches, short stories, poems and other likeable literary fun, it would mark the beginning of what would quickly become an entire secondary aesthetic outside the Fab Four. While Paul, George, and Ringo were busy building the Beatle brand, Lennon explored his multimedia options, even if his fans didn’t always tag along for the adventure.

Such isolation was not usual for the man. He was always “solo” among his mates. Lennon was the only Beatle who was married (a fact manager Brian Epstein and the UK press downplayed incessantly). He was also the first one to have a child, a bright boy named Julian. He was the first to have a public extramarital fling, a equally noted divorce, and perhaps most memorably, a “bigger than Jesus” tabloid-style faux pax. To this day, he remains the source of “solo” intrigue, from questions of his sexuality to his violent, unnatural death. Lennon, though part of a collective, was indeed singular, the book being one of many things that separated him from the rest of the band.

In His Own Write was an extension of Lennon’s high school days, his often nonsensical and surreal pieces appearing in an exercise notebook he kept to amuse his friends. Known as the Daily Howl, wordplay and the like remained an fixation for the soon to be famous musician. At the height of Britain’s bout of Beatlemania, Lennon was approach by a journalist regarding the standard star feature. When the reporter saw his drawings and other comic creations, he suggested the mop top think about publishing them. In the same year that saw the group invade and thoroughly dominate America, Write became part of the overall marketing scheme for the group. Reviewers reacted kindly, giving it favorable marks and comparing Lennon to other English luminaries like Lord Buckley and Lewis Carroll.

A follow-up was soon commissioned and in 1965, A Spaniard in the Works was released. Again, it was met with a combination of praise and hysterical fan appreciation. As he did previously, Lennon mixed puns and malapropisms, cracked kiddie fables, and other examples of considered skylarking into a counterculture complement to the work of the Beat poets from the previous decades. While many in the man’s peer group was busy pulling birds and worrying about their wallet, Lennon was looking beyond his smothering stardom, hoping to find viable outlets for what was rapidly becoming a series of outside interests. Interestingly enough, fellow Hard Day’s Night and Help! co-star Vincent Spinetti successfully fashioned the tomes into a stage play, and with the permission of then National Theater director Sir Lawrence Olivier, brought The John Lennon Play: In His Own Write to the stage in 1968.

It would not be the artist’s final foray into stage work. The next year, British theater critic Kenneth Tynan created a sex-themed revue, seeking vignettes and material from such strange sources as Samuel Becket, Sam Shephard, and Jules Feiffer. Taking its title from a painting by Clovis Trouille, itself a pun on “O quel cul t’as!” (French for “What an ass you have!”) Oh! Calcutta! would become one of the longest running shows in Broadway history. Lennon’s name was checked for a segment called “Four in Hand”. It involved a masturbation contest among friends (supposedly based on the musician’s childhood hijinx) and one poor participant who can’t get “inspired” to ‘compete’. For decades, Oh! Calcutta! would join notorious Swedish drama I Am Curious (Yellow) as shorthand for scandalous, envelope pushing entertainment — kind of like Lennon outside the Fab Four.

In many ways, all the Beatles were interested in forwarding their artistic agenda beyond the three minute pop song. Part of the reason for forming Apple Corps. (and the label, Apple Records) was to help sustain and create projects outside the group’s albums and singles. Once established, divisions were set up: electronics (which hoped to develop new musical technologies); publishing (in which artists such as Badfinger, Billy Preston, and Lennon’s new love Yoko Ono found refuge); retail; studios; and perhaps most intriguingly, film. The Beatles would use the cinematic segment of their company to produce their last two “fiction” films (Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine) as well as a shingle for future solo ventures (including Ringo’s excellent documentary on Marc Bolan and T.Rex, Born to Boogie).

As for Lennon, he never completely enjoyed the experience of turning the Beatles into movie stars. He didn’t mind A Hard Day’s Night since it featuring as many performance sequences as comic intervals. Help!, on the other hand, came at a difficult time for the man and his bandmates and could only be coped with via an adequate intact of marijuana. Glad to be free of such obligations, Lennon fell headlong into the group’s newfound freedom in the studio. Such experimentation would be interrupted, however, when Richard Lester, the filmmaker behind the boys international motion picture success, asked Lennon for a favor.

Taking on an adaptation of Patrick Ryan’s celebrated black comic military farce How I Won the War, he wanted the celebrated superstar for the role of Gripweed. Lennon reluctantly agreed, believing he could use the time off to recharge his creative juices. The boys had been going nonstop since the start of the ’60s, and a few weeks away from the dragging demands of Beatlemania seemed like a good idea. Arriving at the Spanish locations ready to relax and refuel, Lennon was quickly reminded of why he didn’t like making movies. Increasingly bored, he called in friends to visit and break-up the doldrums, and when the film’s release was delayed for several months (while Lester completed another project), it looked like nothing good would come of the experience.

As with many of Lennon’s personal forays into the medium, How I Won the War was not well received, critically or commercially. Of course, this didn’t deter the artist from his own cinematic visions. When he met and finally committed to Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, the two became immersed in a liberating lifestyle that was as much passion as performance art. Using his newfound muse as a way to explore other forms of expression, Lennon himself took up the camera, conceiving and creating a series of short films with provocative names like Smile, Rape, Up Your Legs Forever, Fly, and Erection. As he did with most of his work, the titles were often the most sensational aspect of the piece. Indeed, when many learned that Erection centered on… the raising of a skyscraper, it was easy to see who was having the last laugh.

In keeping with the spirit of his former counterculture sway, Lennon also used his enormous celebrity to celebrate unknown or unheralded efforts. One such case involved Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. In 1970, he directed and starred in the brilliant revisionist surrealist spaghetti western El Topo. Praised for its visionary approach and berated for its contentious material, Jodorowsky soon found his distribution options limited. When Lennon came across the film at a midnight showing in New York City, he convinced the then head of Apple Corps, Allen Klein, to distribute it. With its eventual success, Jodorowsky was then given $1 million by the company to work on his fascinating reactionary religious epic, The Holy Mountain.

Things soon soured between the director and Klein when the latter demanded the next project be an adaptation of Pauline Réage’s classic novel of female masochism, Story of O. When he declined, Jodorowsky saw the rights to both El Topo and The Holy Mountain disappear. Klein kept both films out of the public eye for nearly 30 years, while the angry filmmaker bounced around — most famously working on a massive interpretation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi parable Dune. As with many things in his life, Lennon rapidly lost interest in being a movie mogul. In fact, the musician often pursued his outside interests with reckless abandon, only to drop them when his professional or personal life no longer supported their purpose.

It’s safe to say that Lennon was both filter and sieve, gleaning what he believed was necessary from each and every experience before moving on to something else. It was a position underwritten by Ono, who saw each and every facet of their life together as a challenge and a piece of a more complicated, yet complete puzzle. Even when Lennon left home and ‘shacked up’ with the couples’ assistant, May Pang, it was supposedly under the watchful approval of Mother Yoko. If there is one constant throughout his work outside of the behemoth Beatles label, it’s the aesthetic awakening he experienced under his newfound soulmate. Upon meeting Ono, Lennon has often said that it was like a whole other world was suddenly opened to him.

During his courtship with Ono, Lennon became intrigued by, and then involved in, her gallery shows, fascinating combinations of actual — if odd — art pieces (a real life apple ‘sculpture’) with more abstract elements (ladders leading to small print on the ceiling, only viewable through a magnifying glass). The notion of conceptualization would soon become part and parcel of the musician’s work, using Ono’s unusual initiatives as a basis for many of his pre and post breakup ideas. “Bagism” (in which Lennon would conduct interviews from inside a fabric sack in order to eliminate his famous face, and hopefully, reset the focus on the message alone) as well as still contemporary proposals as “visualization” (“War Is Over, If You Want It” being his most noted example) soon defined his early solo outings.

Yet he was also appreciated in standard art circles for his drawings, simplistic in design but also masterful in such brazenly basic forms. Usually centering on his love and relationship with Yoko, Lennon produced his first set of sketches in 1970, in celebration of their marriage. Of course, nothing the ex-Beatles did was without notoriety, and when the Bag One Portfolio (as the collection was called) was exhibited, it was raided by Scotland Yard. Eight supposedly “erotic” drawings were confiscated, and Lennon faced charges of indecency. The case was eventually dismissed, and the collection eventually traveled around the world. While a few museums faced protests by a few concerned crackpots, the prints have since become valuable collectibles among Lennon devotees.

For many, however, it will always be the music, an intriguing concept when you consider the limited catalog produced by the artist post-Fab Four. When his solo material was strong, Lennon overshadowed his former bandmates. Even in the rare collaboration — David Bowie and the hit song “Fame”, Harry Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats — he was more complicated than wholly commercial. It’s interesting to note that Lennon’s first and only #1 US hit single was “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” off of 1974’s Walls and Bridges, while each of his former ‘friends’ — George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”, 1970), Paul McCartney (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, 1971) and Ringo Starr (“Photograph”, 1970) — had one much earlier. Many chalk this up to the animosity many felt toward his relationship with Ono.

On the other hand, it could merely be indicative of a man who saw his fortunes lying outside the realm in which he made his most famous strides. While all the Beatles would dabble in film and other forms of expression, it was Lennon who embraced it as part of his personal process, of the sum total of who he was as a man, not just some manufactured artifact. Granted, many of his outside pursuits would be seen, in retrospective, as trivial, having little lasting impact in his life. Just as he became restless playing house-husband after a few years, Lennon seemed to absorb and then move on, fitting this latest discovery or design into his own personal mystery. Had he lived, it’s unknown where he would have gone or what concept would have driven him next (especially in the new world wired web universe). Whatever it was, it would easily become part of his “solo” legend. Within and without the famed Fab Four, he remained singular.