The August 15th Issue of ‘People’ Magazine had Barely Hit The newsstands when the calls started coming in. Beatles fans in the Los Angeles area were dazed, confused and hurt by the harrowing tales of drug abuse, violence and anorexia excerpted from Albert Goldman’s new biography, The Lives of John Lennon. They turned to the dean of the local scene, Kroq-FM DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, for solace.
“I got all these calls at the station,” says Bingenheimer, “from kids who were really upset, fifteen-, sixteen-year-old girls who kept asking me, ‘Is this really true – is this what John Lennon was really like?’ They were really disappointed to read that this was what one of their big heroes was really like.”
The truth is that many things are not as they appear in The Lives of John Lennon.
The publisher of the book, William Morrow and Company, trumpets Goldman’s controversial 719-page tome in the jacket copy as “a startling and revolutionary portrait” of the former Beatle, the exhaustively researched product of six years’ work and 1200 interviews conducted around the world. And The Lives of John Lennon is certainly nothing if not startling.
The author of similarly iconoclastic biographies of the comedian Lenny Bruce (Ladies and Gentlemen – Lenny Bruce!!!) and Elvis Presley (the 1981 best seller Elvis), Goldman charges, among other things, that Lennon and Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, had a homosexual relationship until Epstein’s death in 1967; that Lennon was a longtime drug addict, even during the “househusband” years at the Dakota, the New York City apartment building where he lived, and that his wife, Yoko Ono, also had a $5000-a-week heroin habit during those years; that Lennon suffered from anorexia and lived an ascetic, Howard Hughes-like existence behind the walls of the Dakota; that Lennon was violent toward his wives, lovers and friends and that he feared he was responsible for the death of the early Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, having kicked Sutcliffe in the head in a fit of “uncontrollable rage”; and that he was aloof and unloving toward his son Sean.
But an intensive investigation by ROLLING STONE in the weeks following the late-August publication of The Lives of John Lennon reveals that it is not, as Morrow claims, “the definitive biography.” In fact, the book is riddled with factual inaccuracies, embroidered accounts of true events that border on fiction and suspect information provided by tainted sources. Goldman provides only vague documentation for some of his most serious allegations, and he has drawn considerably from previously published works on Lennon and the Beatles, sometimes without sufficient credit. ROLLING STONE spoke to sources interviewed by Goldman who said that they were misquoted or that the information they provided him was used out of context.
Other figures close to Lennon who refused to speak to Goldman or were not contacted by him claim that incidents in the book in which they appear either never happened or did not occur in the way Goldman recounts them.
Two of Goldman’s principal sources for life at the Dakota were Fred Seaman, a Lennon-Ono gofer in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and Marnie Hair, a periodic visitor to apartment 72 who lived in the neighborhood. Goldman neglects to say anywhere in his book that in 1983, Seaman pleaded guilty to the theft of some of Lennon’s personal effects, including his personal diaries. Nor does he mention that Marnie Hair unsuccessfully sued Ono for $1.5 million in 1982 after claiming that her daughter Caitlin was injured in an accident while visiting Sean at the Lennon vacation home on Long Island.
Harry Nilsson, who was Lennon’s drinking partner during the 1973-74 “Lost Weekend” separation from Ono, told ROLLING STONE that Goldman “tried to ply me with alcohol” to get an interview. Tony Monero, who got drunk with Lennon and Nilsson in Greenwich Village one night, produced a tape of his interview with one of Goldman’s researchers that shows how Goldman retold Monero’s story with inaccurate and falsified quotations. And Peter Brown, Brian Epstein’s personal assistant and an Apple executive following Epstein’s death, says that Goldman’s lurid description of an attempted rape of Epstein by Lennon and the panic-stricken Beatle’s plea to Brown to fly him out of England is “completely untrue.” Goldman’s main source for the story is Marnie Hair.
Repeated attempts to interview Albert Goldman for this article were unsuccessful. His literary agent, John Hawkins, said Goldman was “dubious” about speaking to ROLLING STONE because of the “obvious connection” between the magazine and Lennon and Ono over the years. (In fact, ROLLING STONE published excerpts from Goldman’s Elvis in 1981.) Defending his work in the September 12th New York Times, Goldman admitted that there might be factual errors in his book, but he denied that any had “been made on which a great deal turns – like the interpretation of an episode, or a major point” Stuart Appelbaum, vice-president of publicity at Bantam Books, which is Morrow’s partner in a copublishing arrangement for The Lives of John Lennon (Bantam will publish the paperback edition), also defends the book and its author. “Albert’s major energy as an investigative biographer goes into the culling of information, of sources, of that which is not on the public record,” Appelbaum says. “He claims he did a lot of cross-checking, with a couple of sources being interviewed a couple of dozen times when the research was being pursued. Hopefully, in the cross-examination that Goldman did of these people, in redirecting questions, he was able to satisfy himself that these people were speaking with a point of view that was fairly factual, and anything recriminatory would have been excised.”
Attorneys for Yoko Ono told ROLLING STONE that possibly libelous statements in the book notwithstanding, they would recommend to Ono that she not institute legal action against Goldman or the publishers, “based upon the personal turmoil that it will bring.”
Ono herself is uncertain what she will do. “It’s as if somebody had just punched me 800 times,” she says. “I was always saying, ‘Don’t focus on the negative, do the positive thing.’ In that respect, I shouldn’t say anything about this. I shouldn’t put my energy into it at all. The other thing is that I’m very hurt, and it’s difficult not to say anything. Also, John is discredited so much. And John cannot reply himself. His dignity is at stake. But I think eventually people are going to see this book in perspective. In the big picture, it’s like a house of cards. It’s doomed to fall.”
Paul McCartney has already blasted Goldman, particularly for his allegations of homosexuality, in a statement issued after McCartney saw excerpts from the book in London’s Daily Mail. “It’s disgusting that someone like Goldman can make up any bunch of lies he sees fit and can be allowed to publish them without fear of repudiation,” McCartney said. He urged the public to boycott the book, “which in my opinion is nothing more than a piece of trash.” In any case, The Lives of John Lennon entered the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for September 11th at number 2.
Strangely enough, Goldman professes to be as disappointed in his portrait of Lennon as a druggie, bully, sadist and closet homosexual as those young fans who called Rodney Bingenheimer. In a recent interview with the London weekly Time Out (the cover headline was LENNON: THE SECOND ASSASSINATION), Goldman insisted his desire to write about Lennon “was entirely a product of my admiration for him, but then as the delineation of his personality became clear to me, I was very dismayed at what I was discovering.”
Later in the interview with Time Out, Goldman turned to Lennon’s interest in primal therapy, philosophy and spiritual pursuits such as transcendental meditation. “But, you see, the other side of being ƒa believer is you’re always disillusioned,” Goldman said. “Then you become angry. And then you become vindictive. And then you go out and you say terrible things to all these people and expose them… . And that’s the way he’d take his vengeance, you know?”
He could just as well have been talking about Albert Goldman.
Ironically, Goldman Himself Cast Serious doubt on one of his most inflammatory charges, Lennon’s alleged homosexuality, when he appeared on the Today show September 6th and 7th. When the Today cohost Jane Pauley asked Goldman about his claim that Lennon had a sexual relationship with Brian Epstein, the author replied, “I don’t know how you regard a man who says he loved Brian more than he loved any woman,” adding that Lennon “made a rather clear confession of his relationship with Brian.”
“Yoko told you that?” Pauley asked. “No,” Goldman admitted (Goldman did not interview Ono during his research for the book). “Yoko told that to her closest friend and confidante, a woman named Marnie Hair, who spent years and years and years visiting Yoko and talking with her every day at the Dakota.”
According to The Lives of John Lennon, Ono also told Hair that Lennon felt he was responsible for Stu Sutcliffe’s death. Indeed, Hair is depicted by Goldman as Sean’s de facto nanny, an audience for frequent discursions by Lennon and a daily witness to bizarre Dakota misadventures.
Marnie Hair’s testimony is, at best, highly suspect. Although her daughter Caitlin was one of Sean’s playmates for a few years, Hair made only occasional visits to the Lennons’ apartment and never had any deep, lengthy conversations with either Lennon or Ono, according to Norman Seaman, a close friend of the Lennons’ for many years whose wife, Helen, was Sean’s real nanny. “This whole story of Marnie Hair – it’s complete fiction,” says Seaman. “Marnie Hair hardly ever knew John. She talked to him maybe once or twice. She brought her daughter over every once in a while, but she had nothing to do with taking care of Sean.”
Ono admits talking with Hair when she dropped her daughter off at the Dakota. The conversation, though, usually turned to money. Hair was often in financial straits; she asked for help, and Ono says that she gave it. “When you’re always in a position where you’re being financially asked to help, you don’t open up as a friend,” Ono says. “I would never confide to her in any way. And it wasn’t even a matter of principle. The only time she would approach me was about her problems and why she needed my help.”
Hair’s association with Ono ended in 1982 when she filed suit for $1.5 million, claiming that Caitlin had been injured while playing with Sean during a visit to the Lennon retreat at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. Hair eventually settled for an insurance payment of $18,000 that was put into a trust fund for Caitlin. “So naturally her testimony is slightly suspect,” says Seaman. “She was very angry because she had been cut off.”
Fred Seaman, Norman’s nephew, was another dubious Goldman source for life at the Dakota. Recommended to the Lennons by his uncle, Fred was employed from 1979 to early 1982, principally as Lennon’s gofer until Lennon’s death in 1980. But during that time, he enjoyed little direct access to Lennon in his seventh-floor apartment, according to Norman Seaman. “He worked down in Studio One [the Lennons’ ground-floor office at the Dakota]. He would go up there occasionally to get something or if John wanted him to bring something up.” Even Goldman states at one point in his book that “only once in all this time has Fred had a long face-to-face encounter with his employer.”
The only Lennon secrets Seaman was privy to were those he found in Lennon’s personal diaries, covering 1975 to 1980, which he stole from the Dakota sometime after Lennon’s death, along with unreleased recordings, stereo equipment, artwork and the then-unpublished manuscript for Skywriting by Word of Mouth. Seaman’s plan was to write his own book about Lennon and Ono. In January 1981, barely a month after Lennon’s assassination by Mark David Chapman, Seaman signed an agreement with a collaborator, Robert Rosen, stipulating financial arrangements for the sale of such a book.
The book was never published. Seaman’s publishers, Simon and Schuster, refused to issue it and sued him for $500,000, asserting serious doubts about “the veracity and source of the book’s contents.” Goldman nevertheless quotes a passage from it regarding Sean’s birth, in 1975, to buttress his argument that Ono had a premature Caesarean section to ensure that Sean was born on John’s birthday, October 9th. Seaman writes that “both my Aunt Helen and my Uncle Norman confirmed that Yoko had discussed it with them beforehand. They advised her against it.”
Norman Seaman says that is “a complete lie. Never at any point did she ever suggest that she was going to have a Caesarean on that day – certainly not, as he puts it, to ‘Aunt Helen and Uncle Norman.’ “
In February 1983, Fred Seaman was indicted for grand larceny in the second degree for the theft of Lennon’s diaries and effects. (The material, except for the original copy of Lennon’s 1980 diary, was returned to Ono by a third party in exchange for $60,000.) Seaman pleaded guilty and was sentenced the following July 14th to five years’ probation.
Consuelo Fernandez, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, says one of the conditions of Seaman’s probation was that during those five years, Seaman was “prohibited from publishing, disseminating or revealing to anyone, whether for profit or not for profit, any of the contents of John Lennon’s journals.” He was also required to turn in all “copies and reproductions” of the journals and “any and all notes or memoranda and recordings in his possession or which he has access to based in whole or in part on the contents of those journals.” Any information Seaman passed on to Goldman “based in whole or in part” on Lennon’s diaries during that five-year period – which ended this past July 13th, only a month before the book’s publication – might constitute a violation of Seaman’s probation. The penalty: up to seven years in jail.
Admittedly, Seaman’s guilt might be difficult to prove in a court of law. But there is an entry in Seaman’s own personal diary from 1982 – which was turned over to Ono by mistake during the attempt to retrieve Lennon’s journals – in which he writes, “Doctoring diary to show L’s setting me up to write book. Build up to great intimacy.”
Attempts to reach Marnie Hair and Fred Seaman for this article were unsuccessful. As for his nephew, Norman Seaman says, “He’s not a bad person. He’s probably rationalized whatever he’s done.”
There is much about John Lennon In Goldman’s book that is true – that he took drugs, that he was obsessed with the memory of his mother, Julia, that he feuded with Paul McCartney, that he was self-destructive. But that’s hardly news. Lennon wrote graphically about his loves, phobias and excesses in his songs. He described his addiction to heroin in the 1969 single “Cold Turkey.” He rhapsodized about his mother in the touching White Album ballad “Julia,” then looked back in anger with “Mother,” from Plastic Ono Band. On Imagine, he skewered McCartney in “How Do You Sleep?” And his Lost Weekend of booze and debauchery was well documented in the press and in Loving John, the 1983 book by his former assistant and lover during that period, May Pang.
Indeed, Goldman admits in an appendix headed “Sources” that his primary source on Lennon was Lennon himself, through the many interviews he gave in his lifetime. Goldman also cites a “lengthy” interview he conducted with Lennon and Ono in 1970 for a magazine called Charlie. Then there are the many books, authorized and otherwise, that have appeared on Lennon and the Beatles in the past two decades; according to acknowledgments at the front of the book, Goldman was granted permission to reprint passages from eight of these. More than a dozen more are cited in “Sources,” including The Love You Make, co-written by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines. Brown says he refused Goldman’s request for a personal interview and claims that all quotations in The Lives of John Lennon attributed to him are taken from his own book.
But Goldman’s “dark genius,” as Steven Gaines puts it, is his talent for putting a malevolent spin on actual events, some of them quite innocent outside the context of the unrelenting sordidness of the book. Cynthia Lennon (who refused Goldman’s repeated requests for an interview) says the description of her wedding to Lennon, in August 1962, was based on her own book, A Twist of Lennon. “He’s taken a hell of a lot from my book,” she says. “And what he’s done is twisted a few words to make it sound disgusting, dark and dreary – which it wasn’t at all.”
One of Goldman’s sources for the Lost Weekend was the guitarist Jesse “Ed” Davis, who died earlier this year. According to his widow, Kelly, Davis was interviewed by Goldman and spoke to him on the phone frequently afterward. Yet Davis must have been concerned about how Goldman would retell his stories of Lennon’s party madness, because he subsequently wrote a letter to the author dated May 20th, 1985.
“Whatever lunatic asides John and I participated in or sometimes encouraged,” Davis wrote, “always remember that the vital connection between us was rock & roll. Sailing full tilt on a breakdown boogie beat was our passion fulfilled. All the rest was waiting. If the moments between could be livened up with a laugh or a tear, so much the better. That I loved the guy goes without saying.”
Davis had good reason to fret Kelly Davis claims her husband had told her that the story of Lennon’s kissing him on the mouth in the A&M Studios parking lot, a version of which appears in the book, was “absolutely not true” and that Lennon did not punch him “flat on his ass,” as Goldman puts it And contrary to a statement Dr. John made to Goldman that Lennon knocked out one of Davis’s teeth, Kelly Davis says her husband had all of his teeth when he died. Also, Dr. John’s claim in the same passage that Lennon bit guitarist Danny Kortchmar on the nose during the L.A. Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions is pure fiction. Kortchmar himself says it never happened; he didn’t even play on the record.
Another, rather decorated anecdote concerns Tony Monero, a young man from Brooklyn who ran into Lennon and the singer-song-writer Harry Nilsson on a Greenwich Village street during one of their spring 1974 drinkathons and who was then invited to tag along. Goldman writes, “Tony recalled that John went up to each girl and said: ‘I’m John Lennon. Suck my cock!’ Finally, he turned to Tony and said, ‘Hey, Tony, suck my cock!’ It was all the same to John – and it was all nothing!” There’s nothing subtle about the bisexual connotation there.
That account, however, doesn’t jibe with Monero’s taped copy of his interview with one of Goldman’s researchers. For one thing, at no point on the tape does Monero say Lennon told him to “suck my cock,” or anything remotely like it And the “suck my cock” exchange with “each girl” isn’t quite accurate, either. “On this tape,” Monero says, “you hear me stating that we were walking down the street and some chick came by and Lennon put his arm around her and said, ‘suck my cock, honey.’ Now boys will be boys, right? What did they do? They reversed it They took it all out of context”
Goldman is not above throwing a few zingers at past and present Lennon associates who declined to be interviewed for the book. He describes Tony King as “a charming but lightweight British PR man.” King, who is now Mick Jagger’s representative, was actually in charge of marketing and promotion for Apple Records in the mid-Seventies. King also vigorously disputes Goldman’s version of Lennon’s guest appearance with Elton John on Thanks-giving night 1974, in which Lennon allegedly snorted cocaine and vomited before going onstage.
“The day of the concert, John was nervous because he hadn’t been onstage for years,” King says. “But May [Pang] and I were backstage with him till he went on, and there was no cocaine, I swear to you.
“To everybody, that was a nice moment, when we went back onstage on Thanksgiving,” King adds. “Goldman spoils it with that, and it’s not true. He also said Yoko had harassed John for a week to get tickets. Not true. It’s true Yoko was at the concert; it’s true that she called up and asked for tickets. However, she did not call John. She called me. So fifty percent of the story is true.” King adds that Lennon had no idea Ono was even in the audience until she came backstage to see him.
“How many times has he done that with other people’s stories?” King asks. “How many times has he added his own little bit of embroidery, to make it just a little bit worse?”
In all fairness, Goldman has his defenders, sources for the book who told ROLLING STONE that the author was no more hard-nosed than a good investigative reporter should be. David Peel, the New York City street singer who recorded a 1972 album for Apple that was produced by Lennon and Ono, says that “I told Albert Goldman everything I knew” during their three-day period of interviews and that his reminiscences were reported accurately. In return, Goldman “gave me some good supper, he gave me some good wine, and he gave me a few of his old books.”
John Brower, one of the organizers of the stillborn Toronto Peace Festival and the promoter of the 1969 Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival concert, where Lennon and Ono made their live debut as the Plastic Ono Band, was also interviewed over a three-day period about two years ago. “Goldman had a lot of research,” Brower says. “He was interested only in my personal observations based on my personal encounters with John. He wasn’t interested in any hearsay. He was kind of like a cop who had done his homework.
“He made no bones,” Brower adds, “about letting me know he was not writing a flowery-greeting-card-type book.”
He did the same thing with May Pang, who had initially declined to speak with Goldman. “I said to him I probably wouldn’t agree with his commentary,” she says, “and he said I probably wouldn’t.”
May Pang had read only the People excerpts when she spoke to ROLLING STONE, but she says those concerning her were “pretty much” accurate. But even she doesn’t believe Goldman’s depiction of her former lover as a homosexual. She recently attended a Beatles convention in Liverpool and says that was the main thing in the book that fans asked her about. “I laughed when they asked me. I said, ‘Not during my time.'” John Lennon, she insists, “was as heterosexual as they come.”
Lennon also loved a good laugh, and he would have surely enjoyed the scenario of Goldman’s attempt to interview Harry Nilsson at the singer-songwriter’s house in Bel Air, right across the road from Elvis Presley’s old L.A. digs. It reads like an episode from one of Goldman’s own books. “He pointed out to me, ‘This is where I went through the garbage at Elvis’s house – I used to climb over the fence at night and dig through the garbage,'” Nilsson recalls.
“He came to the house and tried to ply me with alcohol,” Nilsson says. “Meanwhile, I get a phone call from Neil Aspinall, from Apple, who says, ‘Be careful, Harry – the guy’s a shit.’ So I took that advice, and when he left, all he got from me was that John was five nine and a half and had brown hair.
“I would like to add,” Nilsson says, “that my last image of him was when he tried to get me loaded, he ended up getting rather loaded himself, and I had to put a blanket over him in the bathroom off our game room, where his head was resting against a toilet.”
John Lennon’s Bedroom At The Dakota is a sanctuary befitting a man who campaigned so vigorously for peace in public yet, until the last few years of his life, enjoyed so little of it in private. From his seventh-floor window overlooking the intersection of West Seventy-second Street and Central Park West, Lennon could, as he lay in his wood-frame bed against the small room’s western wall, relish the view as the sun rose in the morning over the trees and the Manhattan skyline to the east Here he could read, think, smoke, listen to music and watch television in relative calm, far from the responsibilities of being a pop star and ex-Beatle.
It was a well-earned retreat after Lennon’s two decades of service in the rock & roll wars. But it was not, as Albert Goldman alleges in The Lives of John Lennon, “a tomb.” Nor was it, as Goldman claims, “a secluded chamber” in which Lennon was surrounded only by deathly quiet and his own fierce paranoia, where the bop and buzz of everyday life was so muted “that only John’s internal clock can wake him.”
For one thing, much of apartment 72, Lennon’s room included, reverberates with the stampeding rumble of the IND subway trains as they pass under the building along Central Park West. Even with the air conditioner going full tilt on a recent muggy August afternoon, the white noise of city life easily penetrated Lennon’s old room. And there was always the hum of vacuum cleaners in the apartment’s long, white-carpeted hallway. Lennon was often awakened by his own cleaning staff, since there was, contrary to Goldman’s description, no door separating his bedroom from the main hall, only a beaded curtain. The white door that now stands at the entrance was installed after Lennon’s death.
Then there’s the bit in the book that has Lennon yanking Ono by her long black hair, dragging her over to the kitchen stove and threatening to set her hair on fire. “That’s why there’s never a match in the kitchen,” Goldman concludes. If Lennon really wanted to torch his wife’s scalp, he hardly needed matches to do it. It’s an autopilot stove.
When asked about these inconsistencies in the first chapter of The Lives of John Lennon, Bantam’s Stuart Appelbaum replied, “I don’t know that Albert was per se in the apartment. I think any reporter ultimately is as good as the sources he uses or not uses, and what he intends to publish from.” There’s also the possibility that Goldman simply let his imagination run away with him in his fervent pursuit of Lennon as the sorry drug-pumped anorexic excuse for a man and Yoko Ono as the archetypal Oriental dragon queen. (Goldman makes a pretty specious case in the book for Lennon as an anti-Semite. At the same time, he makes racial slurs against Asians, even mocking their difficulty in pronouncing the letter r by titling one chapter “The Lennons Buy a Lenoir.”)
There are times when Goldman comes within striking distance of the truth. But he often stumbles with his penchant for florid storytelling, like his opening scene, in which Ono buys heroin from a mysterious drug peddler – “like a Zen arrow flying through the night” – named Kit Carter (a pseudonym, conveniently enough). Ono says, in fact, that she did have a “problem” at the tail end of 1979. “I don’t even want to admit it, because people will say, ‘Aha, the book is right!’ But everything in the book about it is wrong.”
Indeed, Ono and Lennon had been totally clean for the previous five years. Her “problem” barely lasted a few weeks (Goldman’s only reference to length and dates is December 1979 and that “Carter” had been making his rounds for all of six weeks). By the time she and Lennon started recording Double Fantasy early the next year, the “problem” was gone for good. And contrary to Goldman’s sinister flourish – “Fixing him with an imperious look cast through her dark Porsche goggles, she warns, ‘John must never know'” – Lennon knew all about his wife’s brief relapse.
“Okay, the end of ’79, I made a mistake,” Ono says. “And it was not a good thing to do, for myself. But at the same time, I’m proud that I conquered it”
It’s not too difficult to discredit many of Goldman’s other allegations and speculations, like Lennon’s life as an anorexic hermit. Indeed, during the period he was supposedly zombied out on his bed, starving himself into a toothpick, Lennon was often seen and photographed in Central Park walking with his wife and son, not just by paparazzi but by passing fans. “A lot of people sent photos to us after his death of John and me and Sean walking around in the park,” Ono states. “That allegation is very simple to clear.”
Norman Seaman also frequently accompanied Lennon to the theater in the late Seventies. “We spent a very exciting evening with Carly Simon and James Taylor at a Merce Cunningham dance performance,” Seaman says. “We talked for hours, everyone hanging on every one of John’s words. And they are not exactly people who are easily impressed.
“He was educating himself in that period,” Seaman explains. “When he was in that room, he wasn’t zonked out at all. He’d be all hopped up to talk about philosophy. He had a tremendous gift for gab. He wasn’t zonked out on drugs. He wasn’t anorexic. That’s all bullshit.
“He was,” according to Seaman, “a more fully developed mature person at the end of ’80 than he had ever been in his life.”
The one life conspicuously missing from The Lives of John Lennon is the musical one. Goldman said on the Today show that it was the Beatles who piqued his interest in pop music in the mid-Sixties and declared that, despite his depiction of Lennon, the “music stands up terrifically today.”
Goldman is rarely that complimentary in the book, and for someone who was a pop-music critic for Life magazine at the turn of the Seventies, he displays a woeful lack of knowledge about his subject, leaving a trail of real howlers throughout The Lives of John Lennon. In discussing “Love Me Do,” released in October 1962, he says that “the ten-inch 78 peaked at a disappointing 17.” A single call to the English trade magazine Music Week confirmed that British record companies stopped issuing 78s in 1959. Goldman drops a real bomb on page 312, crowning the admittedly brilliant Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim as “the Beatles’ most talented contemporary.” So much for Smokey Robinson, Jagger and Richards, Ornette Coleman, Pete Townshend, John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, to name just a few.
When Goldman does get around to discussing Lennon’s music critically, he does so with what the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani chastised as “the most overheated prose to be found outside a cheap romance novel” (“Lennon’s muse had always been a muse of fire, a howling devil that dwelt in a pit of molten lava at the bottom of his soul”). He betrays the worst kind of academic arrogance in his dissection of Lennon and the Beatles’ writing and playing. John Lennon would have been interested to know, for instance, that “A Hard Day’s Night” “is written in the mixolydian mode, an ancient vocal scale abandoned back at the dawn of modern tonality in the seventeenth century but preserved in British, Irish and American folk song.”
Goldman inadvertently confirms his own hypocrisy when he refers to Lennon and Ono’s 1968 avant-garde platter Two Virgins as “a soiled air filter.” On the next page, though, in describing the legal furor stateside over the cover photos of the duo in the buff, he refers to himself in the third person as a crusader on their behalf: “Professor Albert Goldman of Columbia University testified that the cover photos ‘were in the tradition of Christian iconography depicting Adam and Eve before the fall.’ ” One paragraph later he makes a snide crack about the images of “the simian-looking Yoko and the beat-looking Lennon” on the cover.
Goldman made no secret of his general contempt for pop in Freakshow, a 1971 compendium of his music criticism. “The truth is that pop music to-day is decisively inferior as music [his italics] to the jazz bands and show tunes of the Thirties,” he wrote in the preface. Apparently, he felt betrayed by Lennon himself as early as 1969, bemoaning his ability to build on the radical advances of a song like “I Am the Walrus,” “a pop song as ominous and absurd, as random and mystical as any product of the labs of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen…. Overnight, the visionary powers of John Lennon failed, and a wave from the time machine swept this generation’s greatest genius back to the safety of that childhood shore where Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard forever dig the dirty sand and shovel it into smutty buckets.”
Nearly twenty years later, Albert Goldman is the one with the shovel and the smutty buckets. John Lennon probably knew what he was in for once he shuffled off this mortal coil. He once told friend and interviewer Elliot Mintz (currently Ono’s media consultant) that “if you ever get famous, try to outlive your biographers.” His widow hasn’t been so lucky. Nor have his two sons, Julian and Sean. But while Goldman may have a best seller on his hands with The Lives of John Lennon, he definitely underestimated the pride and willpower Lennon passed on to twelve-year-old Sean.
“When I heard the book was coming out and I heard about the People excerpts,” says Yoko Ono, “I immediately called Sean at summer camp and told him there would be an article coming out in People which was quite detrimental to his mother and his father. And it might be hurting to him. I just wanted to warn him.
“And he said, ‘Mommy, let’s fight this one. I’ll do anything. Let’s fight this one.'” Albert Goldman, author of The Lives of John Lennon,’ during his appearance on the ‘Today’ show in Se John, Yoko and Sean aboard a private flight in 1979