Epistles of John: ‘The John Lennon Letters’

Whenever I encounter a John Lennon document, whether biography, documentary, music or photograph collection, I am left feeling (to steal a bit from Yoko Ono) approximately infinitely sad. Like nearly everyone else, I guess, I’ve known the Lennon story for what seems like my entire life, from the Beatles to Yoko to He-I’m-Loathe-to-Mention, Mark David Chapman who, of course, shot Lennon dead in December 1980, at a moment in Lennon’s life of musical, spiritual and personal rejuvenation. What a loss and what a time to lose him! Knowing the ending never dampens the blow.

I felt the same after reading The John Lennon Letters, a new collection edited by Hunter Davies. Davies was the first authorized Beatles biographer (The Beatles, originally published 1968, revised 1985, 1996), and while, at this point, another Beatles/Lennon book seems nostalgic overkill, these letters are a very fine addition to the legacy of a public figure who frequently aired his private life, along with his privates.

Davies provides a brief biographical introduction, and smaller introductions to each chapter, as well as background to each letter, so the book reads somewhat like a biography, autobiography and personal scrapbook combined. With the inclusion of reproductions of the original documents whenever possible, one is able to see the initial manner of attack, the original physical mark, whether crayon, pen or typewriter (Lennon was a two-finger typist). Thus, words with particular emphasis become a little more emphatic when seen “in the flesh”, as it were — something like, say, “John W. Lennon (LEADER)” signed on an early Beatles document. Plus, as most or all of these letters are valuable collector’s items, with Davies providing provenance, this epistolary portion of the Lennon story feels, at times, like an intriguing jigsaw mystery.

In his general introduction, Davies admits to “expanding the definition of the word ‘letter’” to include “postcards, notes and lists and scraps…” Even though Lennon was the “smart” Beatle — that is, the one with the greatest extra-musical intellectual reach, having published two books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard In the Works, at the height of the Beatle’s popularity — he wasn’t a consistent, copious letter writer in the sense of, say, D.H. Lawrence or some other purely literary figure.

Davies himself asks, “But was he any good as a writer?” and gives as answer a Parliamentarian’s assessment of In His Own Write, meant as disparagement: “It appeared that [Lennon] had picked up pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Robert Louis Stevenson while listening to the football results on the wireless.”

Not bad for a rock musician, I’d say. And like that assortment of poets and populism, what we get in The John Lennon Letters is an array of disparate artifacts — hastily scrawled messages, humorous survey responses, and weightier, more emotional letters in the full traditional sense.

From effusive love letters to his first wife, Cynthia (“I love you like GUITARS”), to more succinct responses to fans and/or detractors (“To Ruth, Thanks for your letters, I have only got 6 hairs anyway and I promised them to my dad…”), the prevailing temperament is humorous candor. As Davies notes, Lennon was never one to pull punches, an attitude that equipped him throughout his life, a survival mechanism against the pressures of fame, fortune and family.

Some of the most entertaining letters show Lennon in combative or defensive mode (contention being more compelling than contentment, I imagine). In 1969, to the editor of a leading radical magazine, Black Dwarf, who had questioned Lennon’s political commitment/revolutionary credentials, Lennon writes:

“Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? I’m not only up against the establishment but you, too, it seems…You say ‘In order to change the world we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world. And then, destroy it. Ruthlessly.’ You’re obviously on a destruction kick. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it — People — so do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly?…It’s a bit naïve…P.S. You smash it — and I’ll build around it…”

In 1974, during Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” — a months-long drunken exile from Yoko Ono — musician/producer extraordinaire Todd Rundgren publicly criticized Lennon’s behavior, prompting an “OPENED LETTUCE TO SODD RUNTLESTUNTLE,” responding to “Turd Runtgreen’s howl of pain (hate)”:

“I have never claimed to be a revolutionary. But I am allowed to sing about anything I want! Right?…

I don’t represent anyone but my SELF. It sounds like I represented something to you, or you wouldn’t be so violent towards me. (Your dad perhaps?)…

So the Nazz [Rundgren’s one-time band] use to do ‘like heavy rock’ then SUDDENLY a ‘light pretty ballad.’ How original!”

Soundly epistle-whipped.

Mind you, not all the ‘etters’ are Lennon with bitters. Many amend well-known biographical material about Lennon’s childhood. Though his father was essentially absent (as was John with his first son, Julian), and his mother, Julia, killed in a 1958 car accident, young Lennon had a “a close and supporting family, with aunts and uncles and lots of cousins.” In the tumult of Beatlemania, such connections were strained if not lost (“I’ve never been ‘unapproachable’… only my ‘image’, ‘fame’, etc has come between the family and me”), yet Lennon remained aware of, and supported, certain family members throughout his life.

Funnily enough, his Aunt Mimi, who had famously “raised” John in his mother’s absence, always considered her nephew/charge “an idiot who had got lucky!” His father, Alfred, re-entered Lennon’s life in the late-’60s and remained, if not a paternal presence, a friendly one, as short notes to “Freddie” make clear. And later in his life, in particular with the birth of Sean, Lennon reconnected with many of these relations, requesting photographs of their children, sending along his own, and generally reminiscing:

“I’m 40 next year — I hope life begins [underlined] –ie [sic] I’d like a little less ‘trouble’ and more — what?…I thought of you a lot this Xmas — the cottage — the record player…the shadows on the ceiling as the cars went by at night…”

Davies marks 1971 as Lennon’s most epistolary prolific, which makes sense given his new freedom from the Beatles, and his increasing political interests. In a way, Lennon was living out his early journalistic aspirations (see his Alfred Jarry-like schoolboy newspaper “The Daily Howl”), if not directly as a journalist than as an engaged intellectual in search of “some truth.” Lennon’s writing was most forceful and forthright when he had a personal stake, a cause to support, or something (or someone) to go after, be it Beatles, yippies, peace or Paul:

To George Martin, Beatle’s producer, who had remarked on authorship of particular Beatles’ songs: “I wrote Please Please Me alone [underlined]. It was recorded in the exact sequence in which I wrote it. Remember?”

To Paul and Linda McCartney: “I was reading your letter and wondering what middle aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it… I hope you realize what shit you and the rest of my ‘kind and unselfish’ friends laid on Yoko and me, since we’ve been together… I’m not ashamed of the Beatles — but of some of the shit we took to make them so big… Do you really think most of today’s art came about because of the Beatles? I don’t believe you’re that insane, Paul… I know the Beatles are ‘quite nice people’ — I’m one of them — they’re also just as big bastards as anyone else…”

And, famously, a 1969 telegram to Queen Elizabeth: “I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.”

It should be noted that all these letters sign-off with “love”, including the Queen’s telegram.

Emotions tend to become a bit depersonalized, or rather, universalized, through song; an artist transmutes and thus forfeits a solely personal emotional experience into chords and melody, song structure, etc., in order to share it with the world. So much of The John Lennon Letters are pure, un-alchemized emotion. Do they inevitably acquire a self-conscious cast, an awareness of him being “J. Lennon”? The knowledge that any written bit may become imbued with possible value — economic, historic, personal — doesn’t seem to have affected Lennon’s candor to a huge degree. Obviously, he had an awareness of the world’s eyes upon him, but as he “lived and died,” as Davies writes, “in an era before computers, emails, twits, tweets and twitters,” it was nothing compared to today’s celebrity culture of Instant Camera.

Not all the letters or notes are hot gems — grocery or to-do lists, for example — and there are no letters to Yoko Ono (apparently, when apart, they communicated solely by telephone), but even the slighter ones acquire a power when taken in toto; as with a mosaic, every stone counts.

Of course the closer one gets to the end of the book, the more one feels a sense of impending doom. Davies chronicles Lennon’s last written actions, including autographing Mark Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy hours before the murder, and one last fan autograph, flourished with a final example of that expressive self-portrait with which Lennon nearly always signed off. You know the one.

RATING 8 / 10