Tag Archives: death of John Lennon

Life Is What Happens

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”   John Lennon (“Beautiful Boy”)

This is an interview with John M. Borack, author of John Lennon: Life Is What Happens: Music, Memories & Memorabilia (Krause Publications; $26.99; 256 pages).   The book was released in late October of this year.

1.  Tell us a bit about your own background and what led you to write a book about John Lennon.

I’ve been a Beatles fan since the tender age of five, when my dad bought me my first Beatles record (the “All You Need is Love”/”Baby, You’re a Rich Man” 45).   Their output is what helped to shape my musical tastes, and when I first began writing about music in 1985 (for Goldmine Magazine), I was somewhat fixated on songs and artists that took their cues from the sound and spirit of the Fab Four.

Fast forward 25 years, and I received a call from the former editor of Goldmine, Peter Lindblad, asking if I’d be interested in being considered to write a book on John Lennon for Krause Publications, which is the same company that publishes Goldmine.   I practically jumped through the phone, I was so excited.   A few weeks later, Krause made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and the rest is history!

2.  What will readers find in John Lennon: Life Is What Happens that they haven’t seen in the myriad of other tomes about Lennon?

Well, the account of rare/previously unpublished photos in the book is pretty impressive, for starters.   Also, I tried to keep the focus of the book on John and his music, and tell a relatively straightforward story of a complicated mans’ life, steering clear of most of the unnecessary drama that surrounded him.   To me, it’s a very nice-looking, coffee-table-style book, and one that can serve as not only a biography but also a critical look at Lennon’s music.   And did I mention that the photos are pretty cool, too?

3.  The amount of memorabilia and photos in this book is staggering.   Any personal faves?

As far as memorabilia, I love the shot of the Beatles pinball machine from 1966.   I’ve loved to play pinball since I was a kid, so this is one item I wish I had in my rec room – if I had a rec room.   I also like the personal letters and notes from Lennon that we included; I think they give an insight into John as a person and also showcase his awesome sense of humor.

4.  There was a photo of John and George Harrison on the banks of the Ganges in 1968 that stood out for me.   It’s so personal…  and tranquil.

That’s one of my favorites, too; I had never seen that one before.   I think it captures the two of them at a moment in time when they were coming out of the psychedelic scene and searching for something more in their lives.   It’s really a beautiful shot.

5.  What are some of the kookier things you came across?

I think the wax heads of John and Paul (from The Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool) are pretty wacky, as is the John Lennon Halloween mask from 1964.   It’s still fun to look at, though.

6.  As you accumulated the mass of material in this book, what did you learn about the man?   Did your research alter your impression of Lennon in any way?

What impressed me most during my research was the reinforcement of the fact that John Lennon was a true renaissance man.   Singer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist, poet, peacenik, author, social activist, husband, father – John was all of those and more.   He packed a lot of life into his 40 years, and he poured his whole heart and soul into everything he did.

7.   There’s a quote in Life Is What Happens taken from The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1980 where Lennon says, “I really thought that love would save us all.”   For a guy so famously cynical, that seems rather beautifully naive.   I don’t mean that in a bad sense of the word.   But do you think he really believed it?

John was a paradox; one minute he was singing about “Revolution” and “Power to the People,” and the next he was proclaiming, “All You Need is Love,” and imploring us to “Give Peace a Chance.”   I think John really believed in what he was singing (and saying) at the time he was singing (and saying) it.   The contradictions were part of who he was, but he wasn’t the type to say things he didn’t mean.

8.  This year has marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.   What are your reflections on the man and his career?

John Lennon was a true original, the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.   The rock music world, and the world in general, is a bit less interesting without him.   Like many others, I really wish he was still here to lead us in new directions, flash his rapier wit and sing us some new songs.   Imagine…

Copyright 2010 John M. Borack, author of John Lennon: Life is What Happens.   John M. Borack is a Beatles collector and a Southern California-based music journalist whose reviews, columns and feature articles have appeared in periodicals such as Goldmine and Amplifier.   Courtesy of FSB Media.

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All My Loving

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Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $16.99, 384 pages)

“Take a sad song and make it better…”

Peter Ames Carlin wrote what was likely the second-best biography of Brian Wilson, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.   It was very good but a bit dry in places, especially when compared to The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White.   White’s earlier biography masterfully blended the migration of the Wilson family from the Midwest to Torrance with the history of Southern California itself.   (The title referenced the phrase used by Brian’s mother whenever she wanted to escape to the not-so-close and not-too-far-away community of Ventura.)

This time Carlin has come closer to fashioning a definitive, lively and warmly human account of the man they call Macca in Great Britain.   More than half of this bio covers the story of the Fab Four, which seemed to have had its last good moment with John Lennon and Paul – just the two – recording The Ballad of John and Yoko.   Said Paul, “It always surprised me how with just the two of  us on it, it ended up sounding like the Beatles.”

This is far from a totally fawning tale of Sir Paul, and Carlin does well in picturing the band as a dysfunctional family.   In Carlin’s eyes, John was the wild husband, Paul the responsible mother figure trying to keep the family on track, George the often brooding and secretly rebellious son, and Ringo the “What, me worry?” older brother.   And yet…  Yet they all came to realize – in one way or another – that they had destroyed the household too soon.   The break-up came too early.

Carlin illustrates several times how much Paul came to miss John once he was suddenly gone:  “I really loved you and was glad you came along/and you were here today, for you were in my song.”   This is the Paul who was subsequently again destroyed by George Harrison’s untimely death:  “To me he’s just my little baby brother.   I loved him dearly.”

The one caution with Carlin is that you should certainly feel free to disagree with his musical judgments, as when he praises the disastrous – to this listener’s ears – remixes of the Beatles songs on albums like Yellow Submarine, 1s (Ones) and Love.   They’re louder and brasher, but not better nor true to the original recordings.   He also fails to understand the simple genius of the album called McCartney – which contained Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night (the alternate version of You Never Give Me Your Money) and That Would Be Something.

But in the end, we see here a musician who carried on quite, quite well even after the loss of his two quasi-brothers and two wives (one by death, one through a bitter divorce).   If you love Paul McCartney, you will feel the same way about him once you’ve finished A Life.   If you’ve never much liked Beatle Paul, you may grudgingly make your way through this bio and find that he’s earned a bit of your respect.   “Take it away…”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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On the Road Again

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale; $14.99; 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of Java.   Hilburn makes very clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses, he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him.   Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s great figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

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I’m Down

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup by Peter Doggett (Harper, 400 pages, $24.99)

“We were four guys in a band, that’s all.”   John Lennon

Rock ‘n roll writer Doggett provides the reader with a Magical Misery Tour in this inexplicable rehashing of the Beatles story, especially its sad ending (Hey Jude).   Now really, what’s the point of retelling a story that’s already been told in at least 75 other versions, and by the Beatles themselves in Anthology?   Well intended or not, Doggett appears to want to make the point that these were four not really very nice young men; except for the fact that the author is clearly partial to The Legend of John Lennon.

And yet even Mr. Lennon comes off as a crass ruffian in this account.   For example, here is Lennon talking about the band members’ treatment of George Harrison:  “It’s only this year that (George) has realized who he is.   And all the f—— s–t we’ve done to him.”   Positively charming.

John Lennon, however, is treated with virtual kid gloves compared to Doggett’s agenda-driven need to attack Sir Paul McCartney (probably the most commercially successful musician of our lifetime), George Harrison (who wrote what Frank Sinatra called the most beautiful love song of the last century), and Ringo Starr (whose upbeat personality and drumming literally bound the band together).   It is all very, very tiresome.

The point of this exercise is further called into question when one realizes that there’s nothing in this account that one has not read about before.   Even if you’ve read no more than two or three or a handful of books about the Beatles’ storied if marred career, you’ll be bored by the same old stories here.   The author seems to admit as such as he often quotes multiple earlier accounts of the same material.   For example, when he writes about the evil manager Allen Klein he quotes six other sources before providing his own perspective.   Yawn.

There are far better alternatives out there.   If you want to read a true story of a highly talented band’s sad demise consider reading the excellent account, Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger by Peter Matovia about Badfinger, the Beatles’ alter-egos band (sometimes referred to as The Junior Beatles).   Each of the four members of Badfinger worked with each of the Beatles at some point – and each of them looked like one of the Beatles – and two of their members died by their own hand.

If you wish to read an account of a band that will succeed in making you hate all of the band members, there’s Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival by Hank Berdowitz.   After reading this unofficial history, I lost my aural appetite for listening to the music of John Fogerty and/or CCR.

One final advisory, and it’s an appropriate one.   I recently discussed this book with a music-loving friend and he asked me what the complete title of the book was.   When I told him that it was supposedly about the Beatles “after the breakup,” he wisely responded:  “Well, after they broke up they weren’t the Beatles anymore, were they?”   No, and it’s a point well taken.   We stand adjourned.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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