LONDON — John Lennon never minced his words.
Paul McCartney should “get off his gold disc,” he once wrote. On another occasion, he was irked by producer George Martin’s boasts about being the brains behind the Beatles: “For the cameraman to take credit from the director is a bit too much.”
To one critic, Lennon wrote: “People like you still exist, of course, in small towns across the world.” To another, he messaged, “Yoko’s been an artist before you were even a groupie.”
Lennon was bitter about some admirers too: “I was reading your letter and wondering what middle aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it,” he replied to correspondence from McCartney.
These waspish barbs come in “The John Lennon Letters,” the first compilation of his postcards, notes and telegrams, some with “JohnandYoko” doodles. Heaven knows how big the volume would be had Lennon lived long enough to use email. He’d have just turned 72: The first Beatles single came out 50 years ago.
The detective work in sourcing the material was carried out by Beatles biographer Hunter Davies. As Yoko Ono writes in a foreword, he has done well. When Lennon had a brainwave, or felt happy or sad, he tended to jot it down and often enough shared it with others, Davies writes.
Lennon hated pretense. He had strong opinions on just about everything. He sang “All You Need Is Love” and wanted world peace. Yet he was far from a pacifist or diplomat in his own life. He shot his mouth off in interviews. He also shot from the hip in angry memos to Beatles PR man Derek Taylor. Some of those are unprintable streams of abuse and vitriol.
The book contains Lennon’s most famous impulsive letter, when he returned his British MBE medal to the queen, saying it was in protest against British inaction during the Nigerian Civil War, support for the United States over Vietnam, and his single “Cold Turkey” slipping down the charts.
There’s also the infamous original LP sleeve for “Yesterday and Today,” showing the Beatles in bloodied butcher smocks. It was sent by Lennon to an unknown correspondent with the note: “My original idea for the cover was better — decapitate Paul — but he wouldn’t go along with it.”
Amid the putdowns and the brisk notes firing his chauffeur and the backing band Elephant’s Memory, there are affectionate postcards to Ringo Starr and love poems for Ono. On his first wife Cynthia, there’s rather less.
Other scraps show Lennon’s everyday concerns: “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans,” as he once put it.
Davies pretty much throws in everything including the kitchen sink. There are shopping lists (Margaret Trudeau book, marmalade, cat food, grapenuts); “to do” agendas (books in Sean’s playroom, Yoko dentist, wall hooks for guitars); a childhood thank-you card; complaints to the laundry over a white shirt that came back yellow; and Lennon’s last autograph, signed just before his death.
Fans will lap it up. Everyone else will go, “Too much information.”
There are some heartbreaking missives to his cousin Leila written in the 1970s. In one, Lennon says “I’m 40 next year — I hope life begins.” In another, he says that he’s thinking of having piano lessons, is as healthy as a bull, does yoga most days and is food-conscious. “I bet I live to a ripe old age.”
- ”The John Lennon Letters” by John Lennon and Hunter Davies is published by Little, Brown and Company at $29.99 in the U.S.