Uptight, Short-Sighted, Narrow-Minded Hypocritics
By Michael Macrone
The Ballad of John and Yoko
Edited by Jonathan Cott and Christine Doudna
ALL THE OLD INTERVIEWS, GLORIFIED record revues (sic), and Annie Leibovitz portfolios Rolling Stone can muster do not a biography make. Compiled by critic/editor Jonathan Cott and ex-editor Christine Doudna, The Ballad of John and Yoko is hodgepodge disguised as a major statement, as “the first complete and definitive book on the lives of John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono].”
Of course, such a book will never exist. Even if The Ballad of John and Yoko were not so coyly sensationalistic, necrophilous, or self-serving, it would remain brashly self-contradictory. The book pretends to encompass a relationship that it describes as self-contained. Forget the Yoko stuff: she is only a tangent to this Ballad of John; he was a man always on the defensive (except with Ono, thus our fascination with her), always vague, and never truly accessible—especially to the press. Consider the original “Ballad of John and Yoko,” a 1968 collaboration with Paul McCartney and billed to the Beatles, which is largely aimed at the fickleness of journalists and culturemongers in general. Later, on the album Imagine, Lennon laid it out straight: “I’m sick to death of reading things/by uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics” (“Gimme Some Truth”).
Like the product Rolling Stone has become, The Ballad of John and Yoko is a pronouncement that “We are there, thus we define it.” Rolling Stone, with Jann Wenner at its fore, would like to preside over the “Lennon Generation” and capture its faith, to replace its visionary with a vision that is materialistic and manipulable. We are important, we are hip, we tell you what to think, our products are important to your life. The spontaneity of the music is driven before the business that grew to direct it, with Rolling Stone as its organ, peddling a consumerist lifestyle with all the accoutrements.
The Ballad of John and Yoko comprises of seven roughly chronological sections, the second through sixth of which are almost wholly reprinted from the magazine. The quality of this material is widely variable. If you haven’t read it all before (some pieces make their fourth appearance here), the most revelatory reading is Jonathan Cott’s “The First Rolling Stone Interview” and Jann Wenner’s “Lennon Remembers” (in both of which most of the prose flows from Lennon’s mouth); Chett Flippo’s ambivalent “The Private Years” (suggesting that Yoko “managed,” that is, tyrannized, every last detail of John’s seclusion); and Barry Ballister’s “Who and What Killed the Toronto Peace Festival” (a marvelously deadpan thrashing of the addling hippie movement circa 1969).
The meat of the text falls in the seventh section, for which Cott and Doudna have compiled six new articles. Here the editors trot out the “real” heavyweights: “Dean of Rock Critics” Robert Christgau and the New York Times’s (and Rolling Stone’s) John Rockwell, Robert Palmer, and Stephen Holden.
Christgau’s first piece, co-written with John Picarella, comes very close to defining the experience of Lennon’s music: It posits John’s simultaneous alienation and faith in rock ‘n’ roll as communication as the synergistic source of his electrifying solidarity with a generation acclimated to loneliness. But as insightful as Christgau and Picarella can be (for example, in their championing of the early “There’s a Place” as the first flower of “modernist” rock music), their piece builds no momentum and fails to cohere; it is ultimately tiresome in its hyperanalytic ramble.
Unfortunately, the situation does not quickly improve. J. Hoberman’s “The Films of John and Yoko” and Rockwell’s “Rock and Avant-Garde: John and Yoko’s Record Collaborations” are well-intended but very limited explorations of the mutual influences of husband and wife.
Worse is Stephen Holden’s “Gimme Some Truth: The Songs of John Lennon,” a wrongheaded, clichéd, and painfully gauche survey. (Holden, you may recall, once insisted in Rolling Stone that Andy Pratt’s Resolution had “forever redefined” the course of rock music.) Regarding Plastic Ono Band, John’s 1970 solo masterpiece, he writes: “This primal shocker didn’t come out of the blue.” Unenlightening. inaccurate, and a poor stylist. Holden is a true hack.
The last two pieces are substantially better. Robert Palmer delivers a succinct and on-target analysis of Yoko Ono’s solo recordings, which have culminated in the riveting “Walking on Thin Ice” and the deft, haunting Season of Glass (both released in 1981). And, finally, Christgau returns with perhaps the only contribution to this alleged biography that manages to capture the spirit of John and Yoko’s partnership/friendship/relationship.
Despite its pretenses, The Ballad of John and Yoko falls far short in delivering the goods. As a whole, and despite some fine individual inclusions, the book has nothing to say. But then, what did we expect? Whatever might be written about John Lennon is academic to what he said and how he said it. As Christgau points out, Lennon’s visceral certainty that rock and roll could “say it all” was the foundation of a life inextricable from art. Conclusion: a mile-high stack of Rolling Stone magazines won’t balance five good minutes with “She Said She Said” and “I Found Out.”
Michael Macrone ’82 is a freelance writer living in Providence.
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First published in Issues magazine (December, 1982)