Warning—there’s a lot of rant here, most of it to do with
Albert Goldman but some of it just my articulated flailings about the nature of
biography and criticism, writers and readers. But Michael asked, I answered, this is our blog, and we make the
rules. So strap on your poncho and feel
free to skip around.
As a writer—more a critic than a biographer, but a critic who’s written at least one book that played by the rules of biography—I look at the book somewhat differently now. In 1988 I was 22 years old, a righteously pissed-off Lennon fan and Rolling Stone subscriber (Goldman had been preemptively attacked in an epic cover story). So my notes allow AG only a few positives. I highlight his factual errors and quarantine [with brackets] his frequent outbreaks of wretched style; where the text is inoffensive or passable, the margins are blank.
I still agree with most of my notes, but now find a number of them reactive, snarky, and unfair. For example, an early-pages observation: “G[oldman] accepts John’s self-analysis when it fits his own thesis, otherwise not.” What I see now is that anyone who wishes to reach a conclusion, favorable or unfavorable, slanted or equitable, will do that—biographers, critics, scientists. You start out, if you’re honest, by ingesting information and impression without preconception. But comes a time you have to go with your gut on what is true or false, sturdy or flimsy, what works and what doesn’t, what is the unwilling self-revelation versus the canny self-promotion. You have to venture any number of hunches about where your real story—i.e., your subject—is hiding. That means following certain avenues of inquiry and rejecting others; that means leaving out what you find to be unimportant, tangential, unproductively evasive, or simply false to the subject’s character as gleaned from your overall research. In a word, if you want a thematically shaped response to a subject’s life, you have to select—thereby leaving yourself open to charges like the one I made against Goldman in 1988.
The Lives of John Lennon is rich in factual errors (some listed below). I have more sympathy for biographers and their mistakes since learning for myself how easy it is for the stupidest, most obvious and confounding of errors to simply escape notice, even in the course of numerous drafts and countless hours of concentrated labor. I was fortunate enough to have a copy editor with an unbelievably keen eye, so 99% of the errors in my Henry Fonda biography were caught, many to my cringing embarrassment. But I know that others, as yet undetected (at least by me), and probably attributable to nothing but a momentary lapse of focus, managed to survive. We’re human, and that simply happens.
Goldman has a near-obsession with the subject of plagiarism, especially unconscious. “A whole book should be written about plagiarism in pop music,” he writes parenthetically in The Lives, “not only to expose the thieves and give belated credit to their victims but to illuminate the fascinating processes by which ideas are spawned and spread in the mental incubator.” This gives a sotto voce shout-out, as it were, to Goldman’s first book, The Mine and the Mint, all about the uncredited borrowings then-Professor Goldman dug up in the work of 19th century English memoirist and opium addict Thomas de Quincey. So I hopped with excited memory (or memoir) when I read, many pages later, Goldman’s description of a 1968 John and Yoko art installation where the entire contents of a room were cut in half. Goldman refers to the room’s putative “half-witted decorator”—and I said, wait a minute! Sure enough, I’d seen that joke before, in a contemporary London newspaper report on the show. See it quoted in Nicholas Shaffner, The Beatles Forever, p. 105.
But here too I have to give Goldman the benefit of my older-and-I-hope-wiser doubt. Unconscious plagiarism happens, conscious plagiarism happens, and if it amounts to a few words as in the above example, that means only that the writer had the sense to swipe a good line. Referring to the editing of Eat the Document, a D. A. Pennebaker-filmed record of his 1966 UK tour, Bob Dylan said he cut the film “fast on the eye.” Many years later, that exact phrase, which I have encountered nowhere else, turned up in an essay by Greil Marcus, Dylan’s most famous critic, about the best movies of the 1980s, in reference to Walter Hill’s editing style in 48 Hrs. So what. It’s intertext, interchange, intercourse, and when confined to a few words it’s mostly okay. Closer to home: a sentence in my third paragraph above—about a critical study “playing by the rules of biography”—is a not-so-unconscious lift of a near-identical line in the first chapter of Norman Mailer’s “novel biography” of Marilyn Monroe.
Similarly, I now grant Goldman the license to do certain things, make certain surmises, cross certain lines that others, both writers and readers, honor to the point of sacrosanctity. This may be mainly because I, unlike many people, take it for granted that biography is simply another form of creative writing. All writing is creative, since writing literally creates something that wasn’t there before those words were structured in that way, to that purpose. (Is it good writing? Totally different question.) But obviously it’s trickier in biography, because a) you’re writing about a real person, not a fictional character; b) the people most inclined to read what you write about that person are also likely to have the intensest personal investment in seeing them depicted in a certain way; and c) what no one realizes until they try to write a biography is that the biographer has, in every sense, to create his subject. That act of authorial creation, the passing of blood between the author and his or her absent obsession, is what makes the subject come alive for the author—and needless to say, the subject has to live first in the author’s mind before he can live for a reader.
What fact-mongers and the terminally literal-minded never understand is that facts alone will not bring a subject alive. To pretend that a biography is, or should be, nothing but a data dump, free of opinion, point of view, personal prejudice, or creative temperament, is to willfully ignore how human minds work—let alone the very things that tend to make a biographical subject important to us. The biographer is not a mommy bird gathering, chewing, dissolving, and regurgitating fact food for direct deposit into the open throats of her blind, squealing babies. For a biographer to pretend to that role is insulting. For readers to ask so little credit for being sentient, processing beings is stupefying. Yet many readers claim to want just that. I want nothing to do with them.
Facts can take you up to the surface of the subject’s skin. You need them to even find where the skin is. But you don’t stop there, because you’re stopping at the level that anyone can see. You’re stopping at the OBVIOUS, and it’s not the job of creative writing to stop at the OBVIOUS, and merely confirm our mythological Average Reader in his or her preexisting opinions. To get any deeper, to venture near the hidden parts of genius or insanity, beauty or murder, where the prize of the NOT OBVIOUS waits, you have to allow yourself license and latitude. Using fact, informed opinion, the evidence of the subject’s work and the public record, and finally your own intuition, you have to decide what comprises your subject’s character, values, patterns of good and bad behavior, weaknesses and strengths. You have to grant yourself the license to indulge in some amateur psychologizing—provided you accept (as many readers of biography seem not to) that psychology is a real thing, and a determinant in human affairs. You have to form valid opinions based on clinical research, and remain ever skeptical of your own BS, making sure your psychobabble hews as closely as possible to contemporary DSM authority and is not just whiffed out of some poetic ether, or a teenage reading of Sybil. (Goldman would certainly fail this test.)
At each point, you have to monitor your biographical creation for human plausibility, adherence to evidence, and thematic consistency—while holding in mind as you write each sentence that human beings can be and are radically implausible, defiant of evidence, and comically inconsistent. Even then, you’re not guaranteed that anything—least of all aesthetic and financial success—will come of your having lived in these varied states of pretzel logic for however many years you’ve foolishly devoted to the enterprise. But you have to take that chance to come up with anything other than a waste of trees.
I have to acknowledge that Goldman—along with biographers I admire, from Janet Malcolm to David Thomson to Nick Tosches—begins from the premises described, and advocated, above. What distinguishes him, if that’s the word, is that he takes his license and latitude to such implausible extremes, going beyond a defensible use of defensible premises through a combination of arrogance, ineptitude, morbid compulsion, and really tortuous rationalizing. From my notes:
First, the pros, since they are relatively few. The main gain for me, as for Mike, is the background on Yoko, which simply didn’t exist at that time and to my knowledge still doesn’t. It amazes me that no one has yet completed (or even attempted?) a serious, comprehensive biography of one of the later 20th century’s best-known, most controversial, most well-connected and self-defined women. But when they do, Goldman’s research will be the foundation. (This is comparable to the investigative work AG and his stringers did on Colonel Tom Parker for the Elvis biography—also a case of a hate-filled book with an undeniable wealth of hidden history.) More generally, I felt there was a very nice, gritty sense of Liverpool given in the “Artist as a Young Punk” and “Mersey Beat” chapters, both of which moved well and were powered by precise imagery. Goldman can write well when he wants to (his Lenny Bruce biography has an incredibly vital sense of place, event, explosion, stagnation), but he so seldom wants to.
There are also good observations sprinkled throughout the book. “The Beatles’ primary achievement was to lift American pops [sic] off its foundations and transport it to England, where they transformed it into another music entirely.” True, that “transformed . . . entirely”; obvious, but true. And much later on: “Though John extolled spontaneous composition, adoring those songs like ‘Across the Universe’ that were ‘given’ to him, his best work was usually the product of slow, accretive gestation.” A point which is not only true but seldom made.
On to the cons. They call for bullet lists:
— Goldman calls Two Virgins a “soiled air filter” of an album. He’s not wrong, but the point is that he then extols himself (in the third person) for testifying in court against the banning of the nude cover—despite having already testified (to us) that the record had no redeeming social value.
— Goldman lists his own interview with Lennon for a publication called Charlie (June and July 1971) as one of Lennon’s “major statements” on “his own character and history” (two of the others being the Rolling Stone and Playboy interviews). I’ve tried to locate this interview and haven’t found it reprinted anywhere. Major statement? According to p. xxii of The Lennon Companion, the interview as printed in two issues comprised only eight pages.
Poetic license to kill
— John hears Elvis for the first time: “Never has a writer or performer received a more powerful and compelling summons to his profession.”
— John had dyslexia, “a common neurological complaint”—and coincidentally a very trendy disorder at the time.
— Hearing “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” for the first time, Phil Spector shouts, “That’s a direct steal from my 1961 hit with the Paris Sisters, ‘I Love How You Love Me’!” That’s not human speech, that’s uninspired rock writing!
— “Perhaps [John] would complain of sexual deprivation, demanding that if [Yoko] didn’t want to fuck him, she should at least provide suitable substitutes, like some nice young girls—or boys!” Why not!
— On a late ‘70s trip to the Far East, “John might have also indulged himself with a Thai boy . . . it is likely he had a nice long layout in the cathouses of Bangkok.” Yet later on in Tokyo, John, living “like a turtle”—withdrawn, in a shell—is said to be “indifferent to the garish pop culture of Japan, the ‘floating world’ of geisha girls, the porn shows…” Damned if you fuck a teenaged prostitute, damned if you don’t.
— Defending Dakota-era aide-de-camp Fred Seaman’s thefts of machinery, tapes, journals: “It is characteristic of many rich people to conspire with their retainers to be cheated rather than to confront their true indebtedness to these invaluable people by paying them what they deserve.” That is sophistry for the ages. It’s at least as characteristic of many skulking functionaries to feel they have been shafted by the star-employers they pretend to worship and serve, and to get their revenge by stealing and selling the scraps of private life with which they’ve been entrusted. At least as characteristic. Seaman, it goes without saying, is a chief AG informant on the Dakota years.
Errors of fact
— What G calls “John’s most celebrated exchange with the press” was actually a Ringo scene in A Hard Day’s Night (“I’m a mocker”). Ironic that this piece of fiction got into AG’s memory as real-life speech, since he goes on to denigrate the Beatles’ first film in the harshest terms.
— “I’m All Shook Up” (Elvis’s “All Shook Up”)
— “Mary Lou” (Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou”)
— Moon Dogs (Johnny and the Moondogs)
— “Hello Little Girl” was John’s song, not Paul’s.
— Ronnie and the Ronettes (The Ronettes)
— “I Want to Be Your Man” (“I Wanna Be Your Man”)
— “(We All Live in a) Yellow Submarine”
— AG calls “Any Time at All” “the most exciting song in the Beatles’ first film score.” It wasn’t part of the film score.
— “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love A-way” (probably a typo, but bad proofreading abounds)
— “(Baby, You Can) Drive My Car”
— “Drive My Car” is Paul’s song, not John’s.
— “She Said She Said” is given as merely “She Said” (so he’s half-right).
— There are no “hoedown fiddles” on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
— Maharishi is not on the Sgt. Pepper cover.
— “One After 9:09.” The title refers to the train number, not the time of day.
— The Ruttles
— The Rutles was not a Monty Python project.
— John and Paul’s songwriting company was Maclen, not Lenmac.
— All Things Must Pass was released as three LPs, not four.
— “A. J. Webberman” should be A. J. Weberman. The once-notorious “Dylanologist” (known for scouring Dylan’s Greenwich Village garbage cans for proof of … something) is also one of AG’s chief sources on Lennon’s radical chic period. Which doesn't save him from being misspelled.
— The 1978 Bee Gees/Peter Frampton musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is referred to as “the Beatles’ film.” The Beatles, of course, had nothing to do with it.
— Bob Dylan’s “You Gotta Serve Somebody” (“Gotta Serve Somebody”)
— “Serve Yerself!” (John's “Serve Yourself”)
Goldman, unlike myself, clearly did not have the services of a good copy-editor/fact-checker—or maybe even a bad one, from the evidence. William Morrow, a major publishing house with a stellar reputation, seems to have abrogated all editorial responsibility for this project.
Crimes against style
— “Before he heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ John Lennon was a Nowhere Boy.”
— John meeting Paul: “a meeting destined to influence the whole future course of pop music.”
— Lennon “presents himself in song exactly as he did in life: as a hard case with a demand on his lips and a threat in his throat … [He] will do whatever it takes to get that little girl out there on the hook where she can cop the cash he craves. There’s no sexual heat in this guy and no congregational fervor around him. He’s a mack man, lean and mean, with a voice like a knife made of cold-rolled steel.” Mickey Spillane lives! But why here?
— Goldman insists on the weirdly outdated plural “pops,” as in “pops music.” So old-fogey, it’s like a whiff of mentholatum every few pages.
— Exclamation points are out of control!
o “John catches her in the act! … threatens to set her hair afire!”
o “So Freddie took off with John, intending never to return!”
o “He had become Beatle John!”
o “…the Dutch!”
— His jargon is wack, yo!
o “to the max”
Unsupported, self-contradicted “sellout” theme
— The Beatles were ruined by “the emasculating hand of Brian Epstein.” This is part of a larger antipathy toward Epstein (“spoiled rich kid”; “Nobody in the history of show business ever took such a screwing” as did the Beatles by their manager).
— “Lennon succumbed to the enticements of commercial success. Rather than work to bring the public around to his vision, he adapted himself to the tastes of the mass audience.” Goldman never comes closer than the Spillane-evoking pimp fantasy above to telling us what he thinks Lennon’s sacrificed vision was, or would/should have been.
— “‘Selling Out’ is the missing chapter in the history of the Beatles. It’s the chapter that nobody has ever wanted to write.” Including Goldman, who says the words but never writes the chapter.
— “By going commercial, the Beatles had reduced themselves to a formula.” But then this, a couple of chapters later, on Revolver: “The eclecticism of the Beatles, always one of their most striking features, explodes here in a dazzling display of artistic diversity.” So they sold out to what—eclecticism, explosion, dazzle, artistic diversity? Fine! The world has enough knife-wielding pimps.
Finally, for the best part-by-part disassemblage of Goldman’s shoddy craftsmanship and sleazy techniques, see Luc Sante’s multi-Beatle book roundup from the New York Review of Books. Luc is a friend, and has been more than generous with me professionally and personally. But I think he’d appreciate the irony if I point out that in his essay’s very last line, he, like Goldman, mistakes a line from A Hard Day’s Night for a real-life exchange. See what I said—mistakes will always slip through!