Monday, 6 December 2010

Book Review: John by Cynthia Lennon

There are few 20th artists that have been the subject of such concerted revisionism as John Lennon in the 30 years since his death. Both his character and the quality of his post-Beatles work have been so airbrushed that if there was such a thing as secular sainthood Lennon would certainly have been canonised by now.

Which makes this book both disturbing and refreshing. I am tempted to say that if you revere Lennon's memory don't read this book. But then if you do buy into the Gospel of St John then you probably need to read this more than anyone.

There is a sub genre of character assassination biography out there which is unedifying and despicable, but Cynthia Lennon's book does not fall into that category. It is written by someone who loved Lennon and continued to love him but isn't afraid to show us the warts.Any there are lots of warts.

A blogger recently suggested commemorating Lennon's death by doing "something that he might’ve done, if he were still here with us like...spending some extra time with a kid." Sadly this is something Lennon didn't do.  

"After the age of five...I saw him only a handful of times" say Julian Lennon in the foreword. He goes on "Dad was a great talent, a remarkable man who stood for peace and love in the world. But at the same time he found it very hard to show any peace and love to his first mother and me".

The book chronicles the early years when Cynthia was the 'secret wife' hidden from the fans, alone in a £5 a week bedsit, to her post-divorce life as a single mother working hard to support the son of one of the richest musicians in the world.

The apple doen't fall far...

The book gives heartbreaking insight into why John was so messed up, both parents seeming highly dysfunctional in totally different ways (to say nothing of the domineering Aunt Mimi & the early deaths of his mother and his beloved Uncle George). It was sad too to see the transformation from fearlessly humorous iconoclastic mickey-taker to the po-faced moralist who took himself way too seriously. Arguably the more seriously he took himself and his art, the worse his art became.

You won't learn anything new about his songwriting but you will be reminded that great art is made by ordinary people with feet of clay, and that children as well as songs often outlast the people who gave them birth.

Read more Beatles book reviews


  1. People like to believe that great artists are also great people.

    Also: all of that person's creative output is perfect and flawless.

    The binary "This person is either holistically great or they aren't" view may be mentally easier, but it's not very nuanced or interesting, and it's not possible to learn much from--which is why I appreciate your critical dissections of Beatles songs, Matt! :)

  2. Thanks Nick.

    I personally find it humbling to have to reconcile myself to the fact that person X was a "nazi/wife beater/self obsessed douche bag" or whatever it happens to be, and yet still made great art.

    I think it's because I'm still hoping to create that one piece of transcendant art that will cancel out all my personal and moral failures. But the only thing that will make me a great man is being a great man.