Friday, March 04, 2005
Jill Sobule, Robin Eaton
Why are all our heroes so imperfect
Why do they always bring me down
Why are all our heroes so imperfect
The statue in the park has lost his crown
William Faulkner drunk and depressed
Dorothy Parker mean, drunk and depressed
And that guy in Seven Years in Tibet turned out to be a Nazi
The founding fathers all had slaves, the explorers slaughtered the braves,
The Old Testament God can be so petty
Paul McCartney jealous of John, even more so now that he's gone
Dylan was so mean to Donovan in that movie
Pablo Picasso cruel to his wives
My favorite poets took their own lives
Orson Welles peaked at 25, ballooned before our eyes
and he sold bad wine
Heard Babe Ruth was full of malice
Lewis Carroll I'm sure did Alice
Plato in the cave with those very young boys
T.S. Eliot hated Jews, FDR didn't save the Jews
All the French joined the resistance after the war
Raymond Chandler drunk and depressed
Tennessee Williams drunk and depressed
Think I'll just get drunk and depressed.
Just finished reading the memoir that May Pang wrote with Henry Edwards back in 1983, originally titled Loving John, but retitled John Lennon: The Lost Weekend upon its rerelease in 1992, why only God knows. And y'know what? It was a dismaying and depressing experience.
Now don't get me wrong here- I know that Lennon was not perfect, and he often went out of his way to remind us of that very thing almost every chance he got. And as someone who has read everything he could get his hands on about all the Fabs (except the Goldman book- more on that later), I was fairly knowledgeable about the quirks, foibles, and misadventures that they chose to make public. But even as steeped in Beatlelore as I am, I wasn't quite prepared for this account of the emotional dysfunctionality of not only John but Yoko as well.
As the title suggests, Lost Weekend is Pang's first-hand account of about 18 months (and a few years after that, encapsulated) in Lennon's life, from the period that began with the recording of the Mind Games album, and ending in 1975 when Lennon returned to Ono and sequestered himself in the Dakota. Pang was working for ABKCO, the Allen Klein- helmed management company which managed Apple and the Beatles' affairs for a few years in the late 60s and 70s, when she was assigned to work with John & Yoko, assisting them with the filming of some of their early 70s avant-garde movies. The pair took a liking to her because she was able to surf the wave of craziness that always accompanied them, so she was soon assigned to handle their affairs full-time. That dynamic changed one day, according to Pang's account, when Yoko approached her with a proposition: She and John had grown distant, and were considering a trial separation; Yoko asked May to become Lennon's mistress and keep an eye on him. At first, she says, she was reluctant and didn't want to get involved in J&Y's problems, but John (who had taken a shine to her) wouldn't take no for an answer and in spite of her better judgment, she soon was accompanying John everywhere, and they fell in love. She went out to Los Angeles with John when he wanted to get Phil Spector to produce an album of oldies for him; and the pair eventually took up residence in a series of apartments and houses loaned by friends. Didn't take long for things to go insane after that- the sessions for what eventually became the Rock 'n' Roll album, with Spector at the helm (John just wanted to kick back and sing, and let Phil do the rest with his famous "wall of sound), soon devolved into a drug-and-liquor-fueled melee, and one thing this book makes clear is that the late Mr. O'Boogie was not someone that should be encouraged to drink alcohol to excess. It made him a paranoid, infantile, raving, violent maniac more often as not, and there are several accounts of housewrecking and violence towards Pang and others. We get detailed accounts of the chaotic and booze-soaked next year and a half, as John literally behaves in Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion- when sober, he and Pang are happy as can be whenever they're together; only the constant phone calls from Yoko, checking up on John, mar their life together...but when John's out drinking with the likes of Harry Nilsson and Jesse Ed Davis (Pang had little use for the late guitarist), anything could happen, from the notorious heckling incident at the Troubadour to a violent interlude in a Palm Springs hot tub in which Nilsson saved Pang's life, and a brutal housewrecking in a house formerly owned by record producer Lou Adler. Eventually, Lennon and Nilsson decide to work together on an album and begin to dry out and settle down. John and May stick together through thick and thin, and for the first time in years John seems happy and eager to record music, even to the point of planning a trip to New Orleans to record with Paul McCartney during his Venus and Mars sessions. But late in 1974, Ono decides that this has gone on long enough, and summons John back to the Dakota, ostensibly for a "smoking cure", and the upshot of this is that he returns to Pang, disconcerted and ready to break off their relationship. What happened that caused Lennon to return to his wife is a mystery. Perhaps she tied John to a chair and forced him to listen to "AOS", who the hell knows. Anyway, Pang is left to get on with her life, now single, still in love with the ex-Beatle, and now out of a job and on top of that, dealing with her apparent blackballing in the industry by Ono. And the kicker is that John still continues to see Pang on the sly, until he eventually retires from the public eye in 1977. The rest of the book details her few and far between encounters with John until his murder in 1980, her job search, and her eventual relationship with T.Rex and Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
Pang pulls no punches in her accounts of the behavior of Mrs. Lennon; It's always been fairly apparent to anyone who's cared to pay attention that she could be manipulative and eccentric; but in this book she's portrayed as a scheming harpy, constantly manipulating John through labyrinthine head games and deceit; sometimes hateful and cruel, sometimes impish and flighty, sometimes giggling like a maniac when confronted with the latest accounts of infidelity or drunken mishaps- in the context of Pang's account, it's easy to see how she could have wormed her way into Lennon's head as she saw a way to further her ambitions on the coattails of one of the most famous men in the world, then become unhappy and jealous as her art was greeted with indifference and tolerated only because she was John's wife. One could easily see her suggesting to John that the other Beatles were jealous of him, that he was the only true artist of the four, and they were holding him back. Even the separation which brought Pang into the picture was apparently a plan of Yoko's to further her career as a musician and an artist; she had become infatuated with Mind Games guitarist David Spinozza and had taken up with him, and had played several solo dates in New York while Lennon was in California. I had always been inclined to give Ono the benefit of the doubt in her role as an artist and John's companion; I have enjoyed a lot of her music, and she has done her share of innovative things in her performance art. I even rationalized her role in the Beatles' breakup; John was, after all, a grown man and the other Fabs were growing tired of the grind as well, except perhaps McCartney. I still think that you could no more point to Yoko as the one who "broke up the Beatles" than you could blame Woodstock for showing George that he didn't have to play second fiddle anymore and had the respect of the Band and Bob Dylan. But my higher-than-many regard for Yoko has taken a serious hit.
John, for his part, behaves erratically throughout the whole book; unable to cut the cord with Yoko, insecure, unpredictable, paranoid, jealous, violent when drunk...even though Pang loved John deeply and in spite of everything, one still can't help but wish after a while that she would pack her bags and get the hell out of LA when nobody's looking. It's never been a secret that Lennon was equal parts good and bad, and he was always quick to remind us all of this when he had the opportunity- but nobody, but nobody (except for the surviving Beatles, and maybe not even then) will be able to understand or appreciate what this man had been through. Still, I suppose I just wasn't quite prepared for the Lennon we get here- he's very hard to admire or even like as he behaves boorishly, even when he wasn't intoxicated. I don't think this was May's intent- she's always quick to point out John's good side as often as the bad, but she doesn't paint a very flattering portrait of the man she loved either.
Pang, for her part, portrays herself as the longsuffering, levelheaded victim; often she seems too good to be true as she deals with the Lennons and their insanity. Even though she cops to what she's doing, essentially sleeping with a married man, and admits to some drug use, she mostly comes across as the center in the eye of a rock'n'roll hurricane. Some of John's drinking buddies she gives more slack than others; sometimes she has no use for Nilsson but seems to like him more towards the end, and recognized his musical talent from the start; and it's a fact that he did sober up and get his life in order not long after his time with John in LA. The other Fabs pass in and out of the narrative as well- Paul shows up a few times to re-connect with his former bandmate and friend, and usually Pang describes these meetings in with a humorous tone, even getting a dig in at Linda McCartney, the American girl who acquired a clipped English accent when she married a Beatle. George is described as having a love-hate sort of thing going on, and this comes to a head during his disastrous 1974 tour, when John offers to make an appearance during his two New York shows and Harrison angrily declines, seething with resentment and spite. Eventually they reconcile, but the encounter is telling. Ringo is treated nicely, apparently he's always likable. She doesn't seem to know what to think about Phil Spector, whose predilection for firearms and chaos has taken a recent nasty turn. I give her account more credence than the likes of Albert Goldman; she was there and didn't have to rely on second-hand, often bitter sources, and doesn't seem to have a particular axe to grind one way or the other, except perhaps towards Yoko. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but after this book's over I found myself wishing that John could have remained with Pang, could have kept his enthusiasm for making music, and could have somehow found contentment and happiness. And perhaps, in caring for his son and his eventual comeback before his death, he did...but we'll never know.
I picked this up looking for insight on a period of John's (and Nilsson's) life which has always fascinated me, and certainly got more than I bargained for. To say I'm a bit disheartened after reading this wouldn't be unfair- and it's going to be a while before I dig out Mind Games, Fly, Feeling The Space, Pussy Cats, or Walls and Bridges and give them a listen. Of course, all these events took place over 25 years ago, and hell, this book is 22 itself. My copy was released with an added coda in 1992. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, what John was like as a person in the end; the music is what we should remember him by. But I'm afraid it's gonna take me a long time to listen with pleasure. As George once wrote, "It's All Too Much".