John Lennon and Yoko Ono, May 1971. (Photo: Dennis Stone/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Imagine no John Lennon

Steve Braunias heads out to New Lynn to ponder two new books on His Holiness of the Church of Enduring Beatlemania, John Lennon.

There is a new, beautifully produced and monumentally pompous book about John Lennon, Imagine John Yoko, and the best and most impressive place to inspect this holy relic in Auckland, in New Zealand, most likely the world, is at LynnMall in New Lynn. New Lynn! It’s the Ponsonby of west Auckland. It’s got nice places to eat and drink – not many, but more than the west’s false capital, Henderson, and the shopping centre is nowhere near as shabby or poignant. It’s got a ping pong emporium – Rodney’s Table Tennis, suppliers of all you need for the beautiful game. It’s got the cleanest and best-designed underground train station in the city. And it’s got LynnMall, a long, bright space, where Whitcoulls quite often do interesting things out the front. Their idea for the Lennon book is to place it on a stand, a kind of plinth – really, an altar.

It’s at the perfect height for you to stand there and reverently turn the pages. Every fibre of it has been masterminded by Yoko Ono: the stiff pages, the somber tone. There’s a lot of white space, which is as it should be. The book covers Lennon’s White Period, 1971, when he made the Imagine album in the white, high-ceilinged rooms of his 28-room Georgian mansion, Tittenhurst Park in Berkshire, which he bought from the chocolate magnate Peter Cadbury.

It’s nice to stand at the altar and look at the pictures. It’s nice to see Lennon at his most handsome, a good-looking guy just turned 30, with his girlish haircut and trim shape, eating well (staff at the Tittenhurst kitchen prepared him mince on toast), sober and off junk for once. He tucked his shirt into his pants. He wore sleeveless pull-overs, wide belts, glasses with pink lenses. He looked confident, in his prime; McCartney left the Beatles as a nervous wreck, stoned off his gourd, secluded and unambitious (“I got a horse, I got a sheep/I’m gonna get me a good night’s sleep”), but Lennon strode around doing amazing things, his cock out on an album cover, playing a fantastic live show with Frank Zappa in New York, the whole “Give Peace a Chance” event in Montreal and Amsterdam, performing his great chant “Instant Karma” on Top of the Pops while Yoko sat on a stool, blindfolded. When he assembled his band to make Imagine, he was Mad King John, oracle, nutter, genius, important.

But let us depart LynnMall for a moment, and head further west, past New Lynn, past Glen Eden, past Henderson, and climb the hill to that miracle mile of fast food and furniture outlets, Lincoln Rd, where we may ponder a strange link with John Lennon. Robyn Hall is managing director at fashion house High Society, which has offices behind Burger King on 155 Lincoln Rd. Robyn is the widow of Bill Hall. I interviewed Bill a few years ago at his gracious home in Milford. Bill had an interesting story to tell about his friendship with Alf Lennon, “Lennie”, John’s father. The two were at sea together. They docked at Liverpool in 1945. Alf discovered John had been abandoned by his mother and was living with his aunt. He took his son to Blackpool for a few days, staying with Bill at his parents’ house. “Johnny” had a great time at the seaside and playing on the funfairs. Bill said, “I particularly remember how well-mannered and well-spoken Johnny was. He was such a tidy kid. He looked as though he’d just come out of a public school. And he was only four, but he seemed much older – you could talk with him almost like an adult. He impressed me no end.”

May 1969: “Having recently sold his Tudor-style mansion in Esher, Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono have acquired Tittenhurst Park, a Georgian Mansion at Sunninghill, Berkshire.” (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

A wildly different and much more dramatic account of the Blackpool outing was recorded by Lennon biographer Philip Norman. “Bullshit,” Bill said of Norman’s story, which is regarded as the official version in Beatle Studies. According to Norman, Alf was intent on kidnapping his son and emigrating to New Zealand with him; it was only an intervention from John’s mother, Julia, which put a stop to it. Norman writes in John Lennon: A Life, “His mother and father played tug of war with their son. Alf then told John he must choose between going with Mummy or staying with Daddy. If you want to tear a small child in two, there is no better way.”

Bill Hall’s version: “They [Lennon’s parents] talked for a while in the front room. There were no raised voices. And then Lennie came in and said that Johnny was going back to Liverpool with his mum. He said she was going to look after Johnny properly this time. As far as he was concerned, he’d sorted the mess out. He had to go back to sea – his leave was just about up – so he couldn’t give Johnny a home.”

Who had it right? Philip Norman’s epic drama (“tug of war”), or Bill Hall’s amicable melodrama (“no raised voices”)? Norman’s story has the suspicion of insincerity about it, but it’s more satisfying, lines up all the right traumatic ducks: in 1970, on the opening track of his first solo album, Lennon exorcised the grief, anger, and anguish of childhood abandonment. He sang, and then howled, over and over, as though he were ripping his heart out with his bare hands: “Mummy, come home! Daddy, don’t go!”

Well. Let us now return to LynnMall, and metaphorically brush the Imagine John Yoko book off its high and mighty altar onto the floor – it doesn’t belong there, it presumes to chronicle and immortalise the work of a great artist, a timeless masterpiece, but Yoko has chosen the wrong album to commemorate. Imagine stinks. The stupid conceit of the title track, the strings section smothering the powerless ballad “Jealous Guy”, the fillers and the padding and the mindless jams…It’s his first solo album, the so-called “Primal Scream” LP from 1970, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a three-piece band (John on guitar and piano, Ringo on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass) laying down the howling “Mother” and the howling “I Found Out” and the howling “Well”, every track a stripped-back psychodrama heavy on the reverb, which is the true and genuine work of a great artist. Put a book about that on the altar.

The one time Imagine comes alive is Lennon’s famous Paul-is-💩 song, “How Do You Sleep?” A new, uncut mix features on the recently released six-disc set Imagine: The Ultimate Collection – no smothering strings section attached, just Lennon and his band (George Harrison, Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins, Alan White) laying down a swampy voodoo blues. Lennon is in fine voice, sticking long, thin pins into Macca Doll: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead…You live with straights who tell you you was king…You must have learned something in all those years.” It’s even better than the version on the 1988 Imagine documentary, where Lennon turns to the camera, and ad libs: “How do you sleep, you cunt?”

At the altar of John Lennon: New Regent St, Christchurch (Photo: Steve Braunias)

Enter Yoko in Imagine John Yoko, doing her best to downplay the vicious attack, selecting quotes from John saying he didn’t really mean it, it was just a joke, him and Paul will always be BFF etc etc etc. No reference to the line that his manager, Allen Klein, demanded that Lennon remove from the song: “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday’/ You probably pinched that bitch anyway!” One thing to say Paul was lame, quite another to defame him as a plagiarist.

Yoko blathers in the book, “Imagine was created with immense love and concern for the children of the world. I hope you enjoy it.” What? He’d get shot of his own kid, Julian, and “love and concern” were hardly the only things he had on his mind in 1971. Another new book on Lennon, Being John Lennon by old-timey rock music hack Ray Connolly, is a reminder of Lennon’s violence. He writes about Lennon accusing Yoko of flirting with pop idol David Cassidy, in 1971, and his furious response; he writes about Lennon trashing their apartment, in 1971, in protest against Yoko wanting to perform with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh show at Madison Square Garden. (Albert Goldman, who always went too far, wrote of the Bangladesh argument in The Lives of John Lennon, “He [Lennon] attacked Yoko, who had evidently fought back savagely. John bore a deep gash over one eye that had probably been made when his glasses were torn off and thrown on the floor, where they were discovered later twisted up like a pretzel.” Lurid, unreliable Goldman! His “evidently” and “probably” do the hard lifting.)

Connolly’s book is a reliable, read-it-all-before exercise in Lennon Studies, with occasional fresh insights. Connolly knew Lennon pretty well. He tells the story of meeting Lennon after the Imagine sessions had finished; Lennon wanted his opinion on the single he intended to release from the album. “Imagine”, the song, was the B-side; the A-side was the hectic and belligerent “Gimme Some Truth”. Connolly advised it ought to be the other way around, and wonders whether Lennon presented it to him as a test, that he was always going to go for “Imagine” as the obvious A-side.

“He was one of a kind,” Connolly blandly concludes, at the end of his portrait of a guy given to wild mood swings, sensitive, awful, thoughtful, an oaf – he was a complex bunch of guys, and one of them made some of the best music of the 20th century.

But imagine a different Lennon: the one who might have been shipped out to New Zealand, according to Philip Norman’s account. It’s all very Sliding Doors. He likely would never have amounted to anything special, just another nasal Scouser with sharp, scornful views about politics and the bloody Maoris. He’d be 78 now, perhaps living somewhere indistinct, like Upper Hutt or….New Lynn. Picture the old duffer at LynnMall, looking down his long nose at his coffee in Starbucks, his plate of chicken at Oporto. Now he’s heading to Whitcoulls. He stops at the display of books out front. He notices something strange – a stand, a plinth, an altar.

There’s nothing on it.

Imagine John Yoko by Yoko Ono (Thames & Hudson, $70) and Being John Lennon by Ray Connolly (Orion, $38) are available at Unity Books.

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