Today is John Lennon’s birthday. In the nearly eight years since he was assassinated, volumes have been spoken and written about his inestimable contributions to pop culture.
No one, however, has generated more widespread attention, not to mention furor, than Albert Goldman, whose tawdry 719-page biography, “The Lives of John Lennon,” paints the artist as a spineless, drugged-out, selfish, petty, bisexual criminal whose talents as a musician and lyricist were merely the result of dyslexia.
The Oct. 20 issue of Rolling Stone devotes the cover and 5 1/2 pages to a dissection of Goldman’s book, citing example after example of factual errors, exaggerated or fabricated quotes and other distortions.
Orange County has its own Lennon expert, Jon Wiener, a UC Irvine history professor who wrote a book on Lennon in 1984, based on declassified FBI documents he gained by suing the government. Wiener didn’t even have to reach the table of contents in Goldman’s book to find the first factual error.
On the acknowledgements (Page 4), Goldman lists the other books he drew from, including Wiener’s “Come Together.” But Goldman spells Wiener’s first name John instead of Jon.
Because it is such an easy fact to check, such a careless mistake to make, it typifies the flaws that riddle Goldman’s book.
This week, Wiener, reached by phone in New York where he is on sabbatical, laughed the gaffe off (“I’m used to that”).
But having poured years of research into Lennon’s life and impact on contemporary music and politics, Wiener wasn’t quite so forgiving about the rest of “The Lives of John Lennon,” which has hovered in the No. 2 spot of the national best-seller list for the last three weeks.
“Anyone who had read (Goldman’s) Elvis book knew, or could have figured out, that he would do the same thing to Lennon,” Wiener said.
“For people who were looking for more of the kind of dirt he presented in his Elvis book, I think the Lennon book is a disappointment. The sex stuff isn’t very wild or exciting. Most of the shocking things are those that Lennon talked about anyway; Goldman just puts a malevolent spin on them.”
On the other hand, the new Andrew Solt film “Imagine: John Lennon” presents an unvarnished yet balanced portrait of the artist (it is at several theaters in the county). And the largely negative reviews of “The Lives of John Lennon” have largely doused whatever fire Goldman ignited, Wiener said.
“My view is that Goldman’s book has been discredited by the reviewers and also by the journalists. In his (TV) appearances, both on ‘West 57th Street’ and on the ‘Today’ show, he was challenged and didn’t do a very good job of defending his book against (allegations that it contains) numerous simple mistakes, distortion of evidence (and that it is) claiming as new discoveries things that have been in print for many years.”
Wiener cited Goldman’s assertion (on Page 437) that Lennon paid for two busloads of protesters to be transported across state lines to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. It is an incident on which Wiener has extensive information, based on the FBI documents he reviewed.
Goldman quotes A. J. Webberman (the guy who used to root through Bob Dylan’s trash and analyze it): “Lennon believed in violence. . . . They did finance the riots in Miami--that happens to be the truth.”
Wiener said: “That’s a ridiculous thing to say. In 1972, when Richard Nixon was renominated to run for a second term, there were large anti-war demonstrations outside (the convention). . . . To say these demonstrators needed to be paid was absurd. Even the FBI didn’t say anything like that, and they were doing anything they could to tie Lennon (to radical political action). It doesn’t take a historian to establish this.”
Wiener’s book is no fluffy love letter to a former Beatle. He castigated Lennon and Yoko Ono for many of the ill-conceived campaigns on which they embarked over the years. But Wiener was and remains sympathetic to Lennon.
“One big difference between Goldman’s book and most of the other books,” Wiener said, “is that Goldman isn’t very interested in Lennon’s music. It seems to me what made John Lennon important was his music over all else. Goldman doesn’t have much interest in him as a composer. He says that (Lennon’s) guitar-playing was anemic, that the song ‘Imagine’ is boring and repetitive.”
Given that Lennon would have been 48 today, a passage from Wiener’s book seems especially appropriate with all this scrutiny into his personal and musical legend:
“As John’s efforts to link pop and politics developed, he worked on a series of problems, which he summarized as ‘becoming real': how to understand the oppressiveness of rock stardom; how to bring together the struggles for personal and political liberation; how to create art that is both radical and popular; how to tell the truth with rock and roll; how to survive political persecution; how to renew commitments; how to return to music.
“To understand John Lennon is to understand this struggle to be real.”