When you’ve got John Lennon to do it for you, why rewrite his story?

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John Lennon Nutopia
John and Yoko, embarrassing no-one, with their launch of Nutopia, a borderless, lawless new state, for which they requested United Nations recognition during a 1973 April Fool's Day press conference in New York.

I’ve just been listening to a ludicrous Radio 6 documentary on John Lennon’s New York years. It’s called John Lennon: The New York Years. Well, I never.

Part One (I haven’t listened to Part Two yet) initially makes great play of the freedom afforded to Lennon when he moved to New York, first to Greenwich Village, and later to The Dakota. To illustrate this artistic freedom, we first hear Power To The People, and then Instant Karma, both written and recorded in England before he moved to New York in 1971.

Honestly, if I want to hear my Lennon history twisted and distorted, I’ll just listen to John Lennon. Lennon reversed himself so many times, on so many topics, you simply cannot trust him as a reliable witness even to his own existence.

So what’s Susan Sarandon’s excuse? She narrates this garbage, apparently without noting the irony of FBI attendance on Lennon (two years of overt following by two agents) and Richard Nixon’s years-long attempts to have him deported back to the UK. Did none of this possibly affect his sense of freedom?

Neither does Sarandon notice, as she reads the ridiculous script, how Lennon’s artistic freedom was shut down within a year by both public and critics after an appearance at Madison Square Garden. The audience came for Beatle John, but they got rock’n’roll John, Quarrymen John, John Lennon as undisputed leader of the band. They weren’t much impressed. They also got Yoko Ono, and neither the audience nor the critics appreciated her interventions. John forthwith cancelled a planned tour.

Chancers and conmen

The truth is that John Lennon got carried away for about five minutes when he hit Greenwich Village. He met all sorts of chancers, conmen and hangers-on – from David Peel to Jerry Rubin and on and on. He fell in with Elephant’s Memory, a workaday rock band who perhaps reminded him of a rawer time. Whatever, they made an album together called Some Time In New York City, quite possibly the least of the Lennon oeuvre.

What he failed to realise – in typical Lennonesque style – was that had it not been for The Beatles, he most likely wouldn’t have been in New York at all. Certainly he wouldn’t have been feted and given the (metaphorical) keys to the city. His vicious rejection of The Beatles – in an interview with Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine – was perhaps our first encounter with revisionist John.

Funnily enough, John Lennon: The New York Years skips the first solo album, for which the Rolling Stone interview was preparatory publicity. Naturally enough, you might think. After all, it was recorded in England. So they skip straight to Imagine – because that is his signature work, a signaller of political posturings to come.

But, of course, Imagine, too, was recorded in England. Well, let’s not dwell on that. Let’s dwell on the more overtly political Give Peace A Chance. Except, whoops, that was recorded in a bedroom in Toronto in 1969.

In the end, then, John Lennon: The New York Years is not much to do with John Lennon and New York – certainly not Part One. It’s a muddled attempt to shoehorn Lennon’s early radical singles – Instant Karma, Power To The People, Give Peace A Chance, Cold Turkey – into a narrative that has nothing to do with these songs.

“Do you know who I am?”

And the celebrated ‘freedom’ that New York offered him was over and done with in a matter of weeks, really, when you come to look at it. After Some Time In New York City and the disappointing live comeback at Madison Square Garden, Lennon made two albums – Mind Games and Walls & Bridges – which are more fitting testaments to Lennon The Artist, as opposed to Lennon The Radical.

And then he embarked on his 18-month ‘lost weekend’, making a fool of himself on both coasts of America. In one incident, sitting in a restaurant with a Kotex (Tampax) on his head, he asked a truculent waitress: “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” she said. “You’re an asshole with a Kotex on his head.”

How much more interesting might John Lennon: The New York Years have been if, instead of shoehorning tosh into a premeditated and bogus theme, the makers had instead used the time (nearly two hours) to demonstrate what an unreliable witness Lennon was, and how embarrassing some of his ‘radical’ stands were, not to mention his lost weekend?

I’d put money that if he was around in 2017, John Lennon would have rewritten his own history several more times by now. Instead, he is feted as almost a saint (he certainly wasn’t), allowed to get away with rubbishing the most phenomenal achievements of his life (The Beatles) and taken at his word when his word suits whatever programme the makers feel like making to keep the legend alive. This is the world we live in; fake history as well as fake news.

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