The Lennon Companion: Twenty Five Years of Comment
edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman
Da Capo Press ($18.95)
Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon
Chronicle Books ($40)
by Steven Lee Beeber
Joyce-inspired writer; heroin-drenched, black-cloaked troublemaker; self-appointed imaginary saint—John Lennon was all these things and more. Like Whitman's America, he contained multitudes. Yet, if we compare two recent books on the man, we can see how his legacy, for the most part, has been flattened into a one-dimensional commercial for complacence.
Let's begin with the good news.
In The Lennon Companion, originally published in 1987, the "literary Beatle" is presented in all his inspiring contradictions. A compilation of essays, diary entries, poems and more by some of the best writers of the second half of the 20th century, this is a fitting tribute to the man who introduced "yellow matter custard" to the rock lexicon.
On page 31 you can spy along with a pre-Ms Gloria Steinem as she peeks behind the scenes at the wit of a not-yet-sexually-liberated Lennon ("women should be obscene and not heard"). Or flip to page 20 for a martini-dry exploration of mother love and loss amongst the triad of manager Epstein, Lennon, and Lennon's friend Stuart Sutcliffe (the original Beatle artiste). Now hop forward to page 99 for hip classical composer (and Paul Bowles associate) Ned Rorem's dissection of The Beatles's more Lennonesque music. Or better yet, just read the whole damn 200-odd pages; you'll enjoy Philip Larkin on how fame and fortune fucked up The Beatles, Mike Evans on the surreal-mystic experiences of the pre-teen Lennon (he saw the face of God in the fireplace), Martin Amis on the meaning of his death (a simulacrum of our desires), and the working class hero himself on revolution and the need for political violence.
In short, these pieces, and dozens of others, offer a fascinating, multi-faceted portrait of Lennon that should hold a few surprises for even obsessive fans.
If only the same thing could be said for the all-too-aptly titled Lennon Legend. Here, rather than the real John (or Johns), you get the post-mortem, pre-fabricated, polythene-perfect icon so often seen on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and mouse pads. This Lennon—wearing his trademark granny glasses and spouting abstract messages of peace and love—is the preferred representative for the Starbucks generation. Easygoing, passive, hiding in his well-furnished home, he's the worst sort of secular saint, a legend who lives on because he threatens nothing—least of all the ability to "imagine all the people living life in peace" though the papers each morning tell you otherwise.
Still, before you discount the Lennon Legend completely, bear in mind that as a compliment to Companion, this box-set-like extravaganza of a coffee table book is in some ways perfect. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in hyper-stimulation: there are numerous inserts that turn flipping the pages into a kind of multimedia experience.
Ever wonder what it would have been like to attend a Beatles concert? Here, you can remove a facsimile of a Beatlemania-era ticket from a flap and pretend you're on your way to scream your lungs out. If you're a bit more avant-garde and want to relive John's introduction to the artwork of Yoko Ono, remove a duplicate of the card the Fluxus artist gave her man-to-be on their first meeting—the one inscribed with the simple instruction "breathe." Other inserts include three pen and ink drawings from the "househusband" period; handwritten lyrics from "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"; Lennon's report cards (complete with teachers comments!); and, perhaps best of all, numerous examples of his self-published high school newspaper "The Daily Howl," each filled with mocking caricatures and mad wordplay. There's also a CD containing interviews from throughout the post-Beatles years—the track in which John hijacks a DJ's mike and begins delivering his own special station identifications and weather announcements is alone almost worth the price of admission.
So if you've got the cash, get both books and switch back and forth. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004