Shortly after John Lennon was assassinated on December 8, 1980, the critic Robert Christgau printed his wife’s lament in the Village Voice: “Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon?” she asked. “Why isn’t it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?”
It was a distasteful remark, but it’s hard to dispute. Paul has long been a cheerful purveyor of pleasing pop songs, but John was by far the wittiest, most audacious and most intelligent Beatle. He was also troubled, arrogant and fragile. He was a man of many moods, and those moods were always uncontainable. Even before he became famous, Lennon’s teachers and schoolmates knew him to be clever with a pen and paper, and (people sometimes forget) in the mid-’60s he wrote two well-received books: In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. It is little wonder, then, that Lennon’s collected letters—285 of them, richly contextualized and handsomely presented by editor Hunter Davies in the new volume The John Lennon Letters (Little, Brown, 392 pp., $29.99)—make for fascinating reading.
I greeted this book with a fan’s enthusiasm, but also with apprehension. In order to complete the project, Mr. Davies, who is also the author of The Beatles: The Authorized Biography, needed the cooperation of Yoko Ono, who controls the copyright to Lennon’s letters. Yoko is highly protective of her husband’s posthumous reputation, so there was the possibility that a collection like this one would not add much to Lennon’s legacy. But other than the disappointing fact that Yoko did not allow Mr. Davies to publish any of the letters that John sent to her (she claims that hardly any such letters exist), she seems not to have interfered with the project. This is a warts-and-all collection.
The quirks of Lennon’s prose style were evident from an early age. He was given to mazy wordplay, absurdist humor and nonsense verse, often supplemented by marginal drawings. By age 12 or 13, he’d started drawing his own handmade newspaper (today we’d call it a zine), “The Daily Howl,” which owed a fair share of its humor to the BBC radio program The Goon Show. In 1958, when John was 18, he made an adorable, modernist-flavored Christmas card for his girlfriend (later first wife) Cynthia Powell. “… I love you forever and ever isn’t it great? I love you like GUITARS,” he writes. In another letter to Cyn, he says he wishes he were on his way to her flat “with the Sunday papers and choccies and a throbber.” (By “choccies” he meant chocolate; a “throbber,” Mr. Davies helpfully explains, is another word for a boner.)
Lennon’s teenage writings are precocious, but it is not until after the Beatles went to Hamburg, Germany, in 1960 that his correspondence gives a glimpse into his troubled soul. Stuart Sutcliffe, John’s close art-school friend and the Beatles’ first bassist, is known to have received anguished, meandering epistles of up to 30 pages. None of them survives but one, which Lennon wrote but never delivered. “I usually write like this and forget about it, but if I post it it’s like a little part of my almost secret self in the hands of someone miles away,” he told his friend.
When the Beatles became world-famous, they closed ranks. Their inner circle became virtually impenetrable, lest anyone come in and disrupt their alchemy. Yet Lennon seems never to have given up his habit of occasionally answering fan mail. He could only reply to a fraction of his letters, and it is hard to know why he answered some over others. Sometimes it is clear that he was humoring teenyboppers. Other times, he felt that particular writers merited a thoughtful reply.
In 1967, for instance, he answered a query from a student at Quarry Bank High School, where Lennon had once been enrolled (and nearly expelled). The 16-year-old student was curious about the “real meaning” behind some lyrics on Sgt. Pepper’s. Lennon told him that this wasn’t quite the right kind of question to be asking (“the mystery and shit that is built around all forms of art needs smashing, anyway”) and he concluded on an elliptical note. “[S]ay hello to any of those teachers (not quite the right word), even [Headmaster William] Pobjoy who got me into art school so I could fail there as well. I can never thank him enough.” Possibly the last fan letter he ever answered was to Toli Onon (the name sounds a bit like “Yoko Ono,”) a 14-year-old girl living in Yorkshire who, like John’s son Sean, was biracial.
Lennon’s personality was erratic; he could be warm and impishly good-humored in one moment, and a right cranky bastard in the next. This tendency is frequently reflected in his letters. A 1971 missive to Paul and Linda McCartney teems with splenetic fury; John lashes out on a whole range of issues having to do with the Beatles’ legacy and their messy breakup. Toward the end of the letter, he writes, “GOD HELP YOU OUT, PAUL,” only to conclude, “Inspite [sic] of it all, Love to you both.” Then he adds a postscript, chewing them both out for addressing their letter specifically to him, instead of to John and Yoko.
Mr. Davies admits that for the purposes of this book, he has substantially “expanded the definition of the word ‘letter.’” To put that less euphemistically, he has printed just about any scrap of Lennon’s writing that he could find, including postcards, doodles, signatures and shopping lists. And so we learn that Lennon liked Grape-Nuts cereal, that he was particular about cat food flavors and that he and Yoko were early subscribers to HBO.
But even the most ordinary types of exchanges could be vaguely humorous in Lennon’s hand. To his housekeeper, Dot, he once complained that the dog “BARKED ME UP MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.” A note to his assistant Derek Taylor reads, in its entirety, “Degs, No fucking George yer cunt. Jack.” (Davies helpfully translated that as Lennon-speak for “Dear Derek – George, despite your promises, has failed to arrive. You have misled me. Yours sincerely – John.”)
In a recent piece in the London Guardian, Jarvis Cocker, the front man of Pulp, called the Beatles “the greatest creative force of the 20th century.” It’s a plausible assessment. And yet I can only imagine how boring and depressing it would be to read a lengthy collection of letters from any of the other Beatles. Paul’s would be too bland, George’s too self-serious, and Ringo’s … well, he probably didn’t write many letters. There is a reason that when the Beatles were at the very peak of their popularity, John was always typecast as the clever, intellectual one. As Mr. Davies puts it, John “always saw a blank piece of paper, however small, as a challenge.”