EMOTIONALLY TORMENTED AND PAINFULLY INSECURE -- THE UNKNOWN LENNON
By Philip Norman
Last updated at 12:04 AM on 04th October 2008
(extract from book: John Lennon: The Life)
Those whom fate decides to make rich and famous discover sooner or later it is not the storybook happy ending they had always thought, but merely a threshold to unimagined new problems, pressures and dissatisfactions. This was never truer than for John Lennon.
Once the Beatle from suburban Liverpool had all the recognition he could ever seek, all the sex he could ever desire, all the expensive food and drink he could ever consume, all the shiny new guitars he could ever play, the promised land was quicker than usual to reveal its drawbacks.
A psychiatrist who treated him declared that 'at the centre of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid'.
Being greeted by wilder acclaim than any other musical performer in history every time he stepped on stage might appear the ultimate artistic satisfaction.
But his response to the sheer mindlessness of Beatlemania - the moronic perverseness of people claiming to love his music, queuing up for hours to hear it, then drowning it in shrieks - turned from amusement to bafflement, frustration and anger.
Onstage, like the other three, Paul, Ringo and George, he virtually gave up trying to make himself heard against the screams. Sometimes, when playing the organ, he would crash both forearms down on his keyboard in sheer fury.
'He got to the point where he just hated the audience,' said his friend and confidant Klaus Voormann, whom he met in the carefree early Beatles days when they scratched a living in sleazy strip joints on the Reeperbahn, the red-light district of Hamburg.
'He couldn't stand the screaming. It became a complex with him.'
In his head, he'd always seen himself as a tough rock-'n'-roller, the Teddy Boy he had once dressed as, aggressive and out on a limb. All that had to be suppressed en route to success, and he felt he had sold out.
'It was all about pretending,' said Voormann. 'He was a Beatle, and he knew that a Beatle doesn't really exist.'
Even in Hollywood, he was disappointed, despite Dean Martin, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Palance, Jack Lemmon - faces that, as a lad, he had ogled on the screen at his local fleapit cinema - queuing reverently at a party to shake his hand.
He'd expected it all to be 'more fun', he complained. He was bored. Life as a Beatle was a treadmill, and all he wanted to do was get off it.
On the surface he still seemed the same incorrigible japester the public knew, ever ready with a daft pun and a spot of slapstick. But when Voormann visited him at Kenwood, the sumptuous, mock-Tudor home in the Surrey stockbroker belt that he shared with Cynthia, the art-school girlfriend he'd married because she was pregnant, the normally unbreakable Lennon facade cracked.
'It all came pouring out. He had a wife he didn't want to be with. He was really uptight. He wanted to disappear, just bury himself in the ground. We were in the garden and, as he was telling me, he started to rip the leaves off a bush and tear them to pieces with frustration.'
The only escape seemed to lie in drugs. But despite hundreds of acid trips, LSD never quite lived up to his expectations as a relief from the toils of everyday superstardom. Nothing gave him what he increasingly sought - 'The Answer' that would simultaneously explain the universe and put him at ease in his own skin.
Keeping boredom at bay required a constant turnover of people and in 1966 his favoured sidekick - they took LSD together - was John Dunbar, owner of a trendy art gallery and husband of singer Marianne Faithfull (though she had decamped to live with Mick Jagger).
From Dunbar he got an invitation to view the work of a new artist. 'This Japanese girl from New York was going to be in a bag, doing this event or happening,' John would recall.
'I thought "Hmm" - you know - "sex."'
His curiosity aroused, he dropped by at the gallery for a private preview, for once unaccompanied by any minders or followers. Yoko had no idea who he was, registering only that 'he was an attractive guy. Up to then, Englishmen had all looked kind of weedy to me. This was the first sexy one I met'.
At that first meeting, John was a scruff, in tatty clothes, unshaven and bleary-eyed after having not slept for three nights and stoned out of his head on drugs. Or so he always claimed.
But this was emphatically not how Yoko remembers the occasion. 'He was shaved - and he was wearing a suit. I thought he was rather clean-cut.'
That expression riled the man who revelled in the idea of being a 'working-class rebel', an eccentric who never conformed to the conventions of polite society. That was not his image of himself.
'Clean-cut!' he protested when Yoko told him later how he looked to her that evening, 'I was never clean-cut!'
But Yoko insists he was. 'He was visiting an art gallery and he'd taken the trouble to look good. He could do that dandy thing very well when he wanted to.'
This account of their meeting, so different from Lennon's own and so revealing about him, was told to me by Yoko in one of a series of interviews she gave to me after agreeing that I should be John's biographer.
She spoke with remarkable honesty and passion about the life they had shared from that first meeting in 1966 until his murder outside their home in New York in 1980.
I sent her the manuscript to check it for factual accuracy, as agreed, but to my amazement she was upset by it and would not endorse it. Her principal reason was that I had been 'mean to John'. I hope that in time she may revise this judgment because I don't think any other reader will share it.
In my new biography - on which this series is based - I have portrayed Lennon as both a massive influence on 20th-century culture and an ultimately adorable human being, while also being candid about his many flaws.
I've also been able to correct some of the myths about Yoko herself, which after all these years still make her a figure of hatred and ridicule for so many.
The story of John and Yoko has always been represented as that of a scheming, self-aggrandising woman who marked out the famous Beatle as her quarry and then pursued him with ruthless dedication until she got him.
In fact, no other pair of famous lovers in history can have come together in quite so roundabout a fashion, nor with so many mutual misgivings, as that initial meeting shows.
The exhibition of 'anti-art' that John had come to see was quintessentially Yoko. There was her so-called Ladder Piece, a white stepladder up to a card on the ceiling, with the single word 'Yes' written in script so tiny it had to be read through a magnifying glass. A plain green apple bore a price tag of £200.
With first wife Cynthia, whom he married
because she was pregnant.
It was the first time he had seen art like this, and to begin with he assumed he was being had. But then Yoko was introduced 'and she gives me a little card. It just says "Breathe".' So he exhaled loudly and she said: 'That's it. You've got it.'
Lennon was hooked. 'I got the humour - maybe I didn't get the depth of it, but I got a warm feeling.'
Again, Yoko's recollection is somewhat different. 'When he breathed out, he did it really hard and he came so near to me, it was a little bit flirty. Then he went to the apple, grabbed it and took a bite. I thought: "How dare he do that?" It was really gross and ill-mannered.' She was cross.
Another exhibit really did invite audience participation - hammering a nail into a piece of wood. But the show was not due to open to the public until the following day, and an increasingly irritated Yoko said Lennon would have to pay for the privilege: five shillings.
'And smart-a**e here,' Lennon recalled, 'says, "Well, I'll give you an imaginary five shillings, and hammer an imaginary nail in." And that's when we really met. That's when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and that was it.'
If this was his epiphany, then Yoko was quite unaware of it. 'He just left. Some art students were helping us, and one said: "That was John Lennon, one of The Beatles."
I said: "Oh, really?"'
She knew about The Beatles, of course, but, fixated on her own art, she took no interest in their music. His vast celebrity came from a world alien to her. Ethnically, culturally, temperamentally, above all aesthetically, he seemed her total opposite.
After that first meeting in the gallery, Yoko sent John a copy of her poems, but she insists that she had no ulterior motive. John was instantly enthralled by the haikulength poems in the form of instructions, such as 'Listen to the sound of the earth turning' and 'Make a key. Find a lock that fits. If you find it, burn the house that is attached to it'.
He kept the chaste little white book beside his bed, suspending all his other omnivorous reading in favour of the single, unrhymed stanzas - sometimes only single lines - that hovered so intriguingly between the mystical and mischievous.
This unknown woman was on a zany wavelength he'd always thought to be his exclusive preserve.
And it wasn't just that she was a 'real' artist, the first he had known since he had bunked off art school to go full-time with the group six years earlier. She also fitted his ideal.
From his earliest adolescence, his fantasy woman had been the sex kitten Brigitte Bardot - her picture had been taped to the ceiling above his bed. But then, on a Beatles-tour stopover in India, the vision changed to that of 'a dark-eyed Oriental'.
To most Britons of the time, Yoko looked outlandish. Long, unstyled hair crowded in on her face. In contrast with the vivid, skimpy Sixties styles that other women wore, her clothes were concealingly shapeless and funereal black.
But in her tiny frame, John saw not only the fulfillment of his desires but an audacity and imperviousness to criticism and mockery that he himself so much longed to possess.
Desperate to take their relationship to a different level, he invited her to the Abbey Road studios to watch a Beatles recording session. There, he remarked that she looked tired and asked if she'd like to 'lie down'.
One of The Beatles' entourage then drove the two of them to a nearby flat and, without preamble, began folding out a sofa into a bed.
It was clearly established procedure for John's conquests, and the fastidious Yoko was deeply offended. 'It seemed so crude. The minute a guy came on to me in a way I didn't like, I would just shut the door on him.'
She turned him down and went away to an arts festival in Belgium. Then she went to Paris to explore possibilities of showing her work there. 'I thought I would never go back to London.'
But her thoughts kept turning to John, despite his clumsy seduction attempt.
She was impressed by his books of parodies and poems, In His Own Write
and A Spaniard In The Works
'They showed me John's soul, a witty, funny and relentlessly romantic spirit with a taste for the grotesque. I realised I must be falling in love with this guy.'
She returned to London, resolved not to say no if he asked a second time. When she tried to open the front door of her flat, it was blocked by a deluge of letters on the mat. All of them were from John.
Yoko asked him later: 'When you wrote me all those letters, weren't you worried I'd run to a newspaper or something? You're a married man.'
His reply made reference to Stu Sutcliffe, his hugely talented friend from art school who had played with The Beatles in Hamburg and been a formative influence on him.
'I used to write long letters like that to Stu,' John explained. Sutcliffe was dead from a brain haemorrhage, and Yoko thought: 'Oh, I'm a replacement for Stu, am I? But he was a guy and I'm a woman. That's a little bit strange.'
Meanwhile, John's pursuit of The Answer had led to a new possible source. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a comical little Indian with lank shoulder-length hair and a giggly falsetto voice, suddenly seemed to offer what he had been seeking.
All four Beatles, kaftaned and beaded, sat at the yogi's feet to listen to his Buddhist wisdom. This was mysticism in an easily digested, tabloid form, instantly appealing to young earthly gods for whom real self-denial was unthinkable.
His route to spiritual regeneration involved no special training, no memorising of complex prayers or incantations, and next to no personal inconvenience. It was bliss without effort.
They travelled to his ashram in India in a huge gang of celebrities, including the folk singer Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and American film actress Mia Farrow.
John wanted to take Yoko, but since the pilgrimage included wives, he had no choice but to take Cynthia.
They stayed in a village on the banks of the River Ganges, looking towards the snow-flecked Himalayas, though their living conditions were far from spartan. Their bungalows had hot water and western plumbing, and a handful of two-rupee notes bought extra home comforts, from chocolate bars to booze and hash.
For all the Beatles, it was an enforced slowdown from the lunatic pace that had not let up for seven years, since they left Liverpool for Hamburg and their careers suddenly took off. Day after day, there was nothing to do but sit and think.
John seemed happy, strumming guitars with Paul and George in the balmy sunshine and even holding hands with Cynthia. She was convinced their difficult marriage was entering a new phase of companionship and mutual tolerance.
What she didn't know was that John was all the time receiving postcards from Yoko, which his minders had strict orders to forward to him in plain brown envelopes so she would suspect nothing. Often they consisted of a single thought, in Yoko's tiny, arty script: 'Watch for me - I'm a cloud in the sky.'
What kept him at the ashram for aeons beyond his normal attention span was his expectation that, from the Maharishi, he would finally receive that magic key to understanding. But time passed, and still the Maharishi uttered only vague, benign generalities.
Finally John decided to act. One day, a helicopter landed at the ashram to fly the Maharishi to Delhi for a meeting. One of the Beatles could go with him and John insisted it was him.
Paul McCartney remembers asking him later why he was so keen to go with the Maharishi. 'I was hoping he might slip me The Answer,' John replied.
But the guru didn't and, increasingly, in his mind, John realised that what he was seeking in life was waiting for him back in England. As he recalled: 'Although I'd had numerous interesting affairs, I'd never met anyone worth breaking up a happily married state of boredom for.' But in Yoko he saw 'escape, at last!' She was to transform the rest of his life.
When the world found out about John and Yoko, the unanimous public response was blank incomprehension. John lived a life that was the envy of millions. With clothes and cars and mansions and beautiful dolly birds at his disposal, what could he possibly want with a fiercely unglamorous Japanese woman from the art world's lunatic fringe?
John was later to maintain that Yoko saved his life. 'The king is always killed by his courtiers, not his enemies. The king is over-fed, over-drugged, overindulged.
'Most people in that position never wake up. They die mentally or physically or both. Yoko liberated me. She didn't fall in love with the Beatle, she didn't fall in love with my fame. She fell in love with me for myself.'
They were, of course, not quite the runaway orphans of the storm, living on love alone, that such imagery might suggest.
Whatever John's triumph at having finally 'broken out of the palace', he still had courtiers waiting to fulfill his slightest whim, a seemingly bottomless bank account and a chauffeur-driven Rolls.
The real change was in the attitudes imbued in him by his north-country upbringing and hardened by years of veneration as an earthly demigod.
He was used to being served by women, whether it was Mimi, the aunt who had brought him up in the absence of his runaway parents, or any of the subsequent girlfriends and hangers-on.
Yoko didn't buy into that. She was, as he put it, 'the only woman I'd ever met who was my equal in every way imaginable. My better, actually'.
But Yoko also had to do her share of adjusting. No man - and certainly neither of her two husbands - had ever impinged on her consuming preoccupation with her career.
Now here she was with someone who wanted - demanded - to spend every minute of every day with her, to be involved in every aspect of her life and to involve her in every aspect of his.
He asked her to write out a list of everyone she'd ever slept with. He was deadly serious. He regarded every man who crossed their combined path as an active and dangerous rival for her affections, and methodically set about cutting her off from all her existing male friends in avant-garde art and music, however elderly or gay.
Yoko was only beginning to learn what insecurity, even timidity, co-existed with John's rock-star egotism. Anything that took her attention away from him, even for a moment, counted as a threat.
He hated it when she spoke to Japanese compatriots on the telephone because it was a part of her he could not share.
'He'd always be saying: "What are you thinking? Why aren't you looking at me?"
I always had to look at him in the right way, straight into the middle of his eyes, or he'd get upset.'
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
She had her own hang-ups. 'I was self conscious about my appearance. I was too short, my legs were the wrong shape, and I used to cover my face with my hair and hide my hands because my fingers were so stringy.
'But John said to me: "You're beautiful. You don't have to hide your hands, your legs are perfect, tie your hair back and let people see your face."'
She was startled by the quantity and variety of drugs in his possession. 'Next to his bed, he had a huge glass jar of pills, acid, Mandrax. He used to grab a handful at random.'
She could do nothing about this nor his heavy consumption of French Gitanes cigarettes.
She was more successful against the junk food he mainly lived on and put him on a macrobiotic diet. Cutting out sugar and preservatives gave him a surge of energy and well-being. He could not get over how 'brown rice and a cuppa tea are the biggest high I ever had'.
He was completely open and uninhibited with her, as she learned to be with him, owning up to his deepest sexual fantasies - like making love to a woman in her 80s whose veined and wrinkled hands would be covered in diamonds.
If this took some getting used to, then so, too, did his style of backhanded compliment. 'Do you know why I like you?' he remarked on one occasion to Yoko. 'It's because you look like a bloke in drag. You're like a mate.'
Yoko laughingly inquired if he was 'a closet fag', but what he meant was that she was replacing the old mates in his life he used to knock around with. With her in his life, he no longer had any need for them.
The old gang, however, were slow to cotton on to this. To Paul, George and Ringo, Yoko seemed just another of John's passing fancies. And whatever John's inner thoughts, he remained a fully paid-up Beatle, subject to the remorseless manufacturing cycle that summoned them back to Abbey Road studios every year to make a new album.
This time, though, he brought Yoko with him. In the studio, John settled himself on his stool with his guitar, and there beside him on a matching stool, in matching all-over black, sat Yoko.
That all came from him, she insists. 'He wanted me to be part of the group,' she says. 'He created the group, so he thought the others should accept that. I didn't particularly want to be part of them. But he had got all the avant-garde friends of mine out of my life, so I had nobody else to play music with.
'I couldn't see how I would fit in, but John persuaded me. He was certain I would, and that the other Beatles would go for it.'
To begin with, the other three were relatively unfazed. But if they were reserving judgment, the British public's resentment of her for having abducted one of its four favourite sons grew daily more virulent and racist.
There was real animosity from female fans. Yoko was greeted by screams of 'Chink!' or 'Yellow!'. One day, a bunch of yellow roses was thrust at her, stems first so the thorns would prick her hands.
John, normally the one to be protected, had to shield her from the mobbing, the name-calling, the ill-natured jostling, the voyeuristic leering.
Back in the studio, it quickly became clear that having Yoko with him was no passing fad of John's. She was at his side for every minute of every session, throughout every related conference, conversation, tryout and playback, every meal and cigarette-break.
Even when he went to the toilet, Yoko went, too - proof to incredulous onlookers of how deeply she had her hooks into him.
But, according to Yoko, this was really just another manifestation of John's jealousy and insecurity.
'People said I - followed him to the men's room, but he made me go with him. He thought that if he left me alone with the other Beatles even for a minute, I might go off with one of them.'
It was not until The Beatles split up that she fully grasped what she had taken on in John Lennon.
The final business meeting descended into much bitterness between the old song-writing team of Lennon and McCartney as a wounded John accused Paul of always having overshadowed him. He took a swipe at what he termed Paul's 'granny music'.
At first this seemed more like the airing of mutual grievances before a marriage counselor, and Paul was all for burying hatchets and pressing forward.
He was convinced all would be well if they could free themselves from wrangles over money and office politics and return to a relationship that - he almost pleaded with John to remember - had not always been so fraught.
'When we get in a studio, even on the worst day, I'm still playing bass, Ringo's still drumming, we're still there, you know ...' It was the cue for the bombshell John had been contemplating for a long while.
'He hadn't even told me he was going to do it,' Yoko remembers. 'Paul was saying: "Why don't we do it this way and that way . . ." John said: "You don't seem to understand, do you? I'm leaving. The group is over." '
John himself would explain that: 'I started the band and I disbanded it. It's as simple as that. I felt guilty at springing it on them at such short notice. After all, I had Yoko; they only had each other.'
Yoko recalls leaving the meeting with him. 'We went off in the car, and he turned to me and said: "That's it with The Beatles. From now on, it's just you - OK?"'
She was a little horrified. 'I thought: "My God, those three guys were the ones keeping him entertained for so long - ever since they had first got together as a group. Now I have to take all the load." '
As she was to discover, it would at times be a heavy one indeed.I Wish I'd Slept With My Mother
Sharing one's history is a part of any new relationship, but with John and Yoko the process was almost entirely one-sided.
After months together, he still knew almost nothing of her early years in Japan, growing up in unbelievable luxury and privilege in one of that country's wealthiest and most patrician families.
Even as a small child, the 30 servants had to come into her presence on their knees and depart from it backwards.
She, on the other hand, knew every twist and turn of his infancy in grey, bomb-torn Liverpool: how his father had disappeared from his life when he was six, and how his mother, Julia, had handed him over to Aunt Mimi, then gone on to have two children out of wedlock with another man.
To the unshockable Yoko he made a shocking confession. 'He told me that when he was in his teens, he sometimes used to be at his mother's house with her when she had a rest in the afternoon. And he'd always regretted he'd never had sex with her.'
There was a particular afternoon he went on about when, aged 14, he had accidentally touched her breast. 'She was wearing a black angora sweater. It was a strange moment. I was wondering if I should do anything else and whether she would allow it. I always think I should have done.'
• Abridged extract from John Lennon: The Life
by Philip Norman, published by HarperCollins on October 6 at £25. Philip Norman, 2008. To order a copy at £22.50 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
More extracts from John Lennon: The Life
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. A Deeply Touching Side of John Lennon.www.mailonsunday.co.uk/femail/article-1070543/PHILIP-NORMAN-Lennon-painted-crazed-recluse-But-truth-different--deeply-touching-.html
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. John Lennon Spoke of Coming Home On The Day He Died.www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2008/10/17/john-lennon-spoke-of-coming-home-on-day-he-died-100252-22056836/www.mailonsunday.co.uk/femail/article-1068048/Emotionally-tormented-painfully-insecure--unknown-Lennon.html