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You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away: The Mythic in the Life and Death of John LennonGo Back to Table of Contents
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Photography by: Douglas Sobers

By insulting Yoko, this dolt was insulting the memory of John, as well, I thought; and he was doing so in exactly the same fashion as all the forces that had derided and defamed John during the last days of his life. John was a sissy. He had been dominated by his mamma-wife, who had destroyed Lennon, the band, and the subculture as a whole in one overwhelming, stupefying act of henpecking. John should have smacked the Jap and made of her a good little Geisha, rather than an Oriental shrew. In short, all the little innuendoes typical of symbolic castration--composed in the dark, behind the back, and with cowardice.

Yet symbolic castration is one thing, murder another--and then I knew why I was avoiding writing about John Lennon. I did not want to think about all the moral transvestites who had taken over, without challenge, after his death. Those cultural forces had eliminated or otherwise destroyed every element in society that had challenged them; and these “macho” forces were still around, and Lennon was not. Although I wanted to believe in the Socratic credo that Good outlasts Evil, I was having my doubts. It was hard to write a eulogy or a panegyric for Lennon--or for that matter, the Kennedys, or Malcolm X, or King, or any of those slain in that disturbing period--because none of the contradictions had yet been resolved. The whole business had, and still, stunk.

The pain of that shot right into me across several decades, and all of it turned into isolation and then revulsion in a diner on the corner of Broadway and 71st Street. It all soured and came crashing down as the nitwit barked out the name “Yoko!” over and over. I couldn’t write about John Lennon because I didn’t have an answer to the riddle. Some piece of the puzzle was missing. So, like all writers and academics without a real answer, yet still haunted, I went home and made up a theory.

The theory had one essential axiom: Beneath every culture, as well as social or historical aggregate, there lies, unsaid, a “substratum.” Webster’s Collegiate defines “substratum” as “...the substance or base on which an organism grows”--or, simply and alternatively, “subsoil” or “foundation.” So although we hear a great deal about “environments,” “cultures,” and “societies,” we rarely hear about the foundational substratum out of which these phenomena develop.

The Genius of Mozart, for example, could have occurred only within the musical community of Vienna and a system of court patronage that comprised the substratum of that social order. Such a clime nourished such genius: a rich, music-making environment; a parent who, pedagogically and musically, was himself a near-genius; court patronage; thousands upon thousands of practicing musicians; the absence of electronic mass media--all formed the substratum sympathetic to the blossoming of Mozart’s talent. His fecund epoch--this vast, variegated and fertile musical subsoil--could alone have fostered, bred, and sired this genius.

Now, sometimes the substratum may be at odds with the official social and cultural order (as it was at the time of the Romantics or the Impressionists); but nonetheless, it was there--which is why, more than coincidentally, most who practiced art in those periods turned out to be “Romantics” or “Impressionists.” Coherent movements always require a vast, relevant substratum that encourages a certain way of relating to life.

It’s easy to understand the need for a social substratum to support and nourish creative activity, but how about destructive activity? Does this demand a substratum as well? Now, here’s the part of the theory that frightens me. I think so.

Just as, walking through the Vienna of Mozart, everywhere you turned you would hear the most merry music-making, similarly, in my walk back from the jazzy pizza joint through Manhattan, I was exposed, without respite, to the constant bombardment of the strains and images of major and minor acts of violence. That was when it occurred to me: The American substratum was in many ways rooted in violence--violence that had been challenged by the whole sixties’ peace and love movement, as well as all that John Lennon, at least in the popular imagination, had stood for.

And just as I could not get away from the haunt of writing about Lennon, I could not get away, once I bothered to take notice of it, from the influence of the recurring image of violence: it was on television--on billboards--in the newspapers--on the radio--in the voice of the thug at the pizza joint--in the street--and in the eyes of the homeless who now were camped out in front of the Dakota long after the mourning, hippie candle holders had become yuppified stockbrokers. Not even while eating an eggplant parmesan sandwich could I escape from either symbolic or literal violence. In the subways of Manhattan, it rushes out at you in vibratory crescendos. It occurred to me that the violence had a direction, an intention--and that it was, like the curses against Yoko, counter-feminine.

When I say “counter-feminine,” I do not mean, necessarily, simply activity against women. It is more insidious than that. And although it expresses itself in physical brutality, it is, in its sophisticated form, an energy directed against that side of the psyche, common to both sexes, which nurtures. For lack of a better perspective, we associate this side of ourselves with the female because it is more sensitive, kind, anti-violent, and caring (in short, “motherly”). Now, “motherly” is precisely what some cultures neither are nor want to be. Some cultures do not value the archetype of the mother because they do not value the archetype of a nurturing, caring father. Their prescribed male image is one of dominance that controls, that masters, and that, in the process, may intimidate--but not the image of a father who nurtures. Male-dominated cultures do understand, however, what it is to ritualistically, symbolically, castrate men--and also what it is to violently dominate, browbeat, and otherwise abuse the mother into obedient domesticity. So essentially these cultures understand hunting. The man-child hunter also understands, intuitively, that power is territorial and achieved, implicitly, through acts of violence.

Perhaps this is why the assassination of John Lennon suddenly struck me, above all else, as a gender-related crime. In his brief life, Lennon had been forced to come to terms with the risk of expressing the nurturing side of the psyche. He had even spent several years at the Dakota exclusively nurturing Sean. Perhaps this is why as well, in his last interview, he remarked, “I was always torn between the two (masculine and feminine) sides, mainly opting for the macho side because if you showed the other side... ,” as he put it, simply, “... you were dead.”

No theory is complete if it remains uninhabited by the poetry, or the tragedy, of a real person’s life. As Aristotle reminds us in the Poetics, “The poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e., what is possible... Hence, poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature... of universals.” Hence, I reminded myself, to write a real poetic theory, and not a history, I must disturb the dead, face my dread, examine the corpse of John Lennon while begging both his and Hades’ pardon.

And it was thus, in the midst of theorizing, that my mind came to fall in on itself as I explored by the dim, and questionable, illumination of my theory, the dark labyrinth of my own fears and suspicions. I disturbed the Lennonic corpse. I entered the fab womb and dug the ground. The bloody rags of pop myths, the laconic Lennonisms and the sardonic glossy photos all enshroud the sepulcher. I penetrated and probed the mythic tomb and did science, at my own risk, without gravity. The grave was shallow. One does not have to dig deeply to find an epic journey in the Sixties running from the fecund god, Dionysus, to the disaster of Narcissism.

As my torch dimly lit the cavern, I thought I had uncovered the whole mythic epitaph of the decade. It was a time that had started with the exhilaration of Dionysus and ended with the death of Narcissus--and that, it seemed, was that. There were so many corpses in the desert tombs: Elvis, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison (not to mention the countless masses of doped-out, overdosed, radicalized and raped victims who passed on unnoticed). But here was the anomaly. It was precisely because Lennon did not ultimately succumb to the capital, drugs, sex, and exhibitionism--or precisely because he did not become something even worse, viz., a hanger-on, an embarrassing, slobbering drunk, repeating the orgiastic rite, the revel; and with each repetition, becoming weaker, more flaccid, more insipid, finally fading away into the pipsqueak apocalypse of the whole thing--that he had been killed. That was what had made him different. If he had just Dionysiated himself to death, it all would have been fine. Instead, he had outgrown the revel.

It had not always been that way. In the beginning, Lennon was cast in the image of the adolescent, living phallus, suggesting an unlimited power of infantilism. He--along with Capitol Records, General Motors, Wall Street, Ringo, Paul, and George--spoke the word to the world that the insatiably striving pelvis was pure power, omnipotence, unending seduction; and this was absolutely vital to certain consumer, not to mention social, power structures. That kind of power sold things and kept people relatively thoughtless and relatively speechless as they remained mesmerized by the Dionysian power of commercial seduction. But there is a limit to how far one can go as a disciple of the Judas god, Dionysus.

The road to Thanatos, the god of destruction and death, is through Dionysus, the god of the party--as any drunk, coke head, debauchee, rocker, or venture capitalist could tell you. The horror of the Dionysian is the empty return. After the orgiastic ecstasy, the binge, the rock concert, or the market surge, ennui precipitates. It is inevitable. Eric Fromm could not have said it better: “. . . after the orgiastic experience, you can go on for a time without suffering too much (but)... Slowly the tension of anxiety mounts, and then is reduced again by the repeated performance (of the orgiastic).” With each “repeat performance,” with each return, with each orgiastic rite, the victim grows increasingly insipid, weak; and so the Dionysian dose must be increased. But with the first increase, the Reveler, the Devil, has got you. And even as you become his very incarnation and the beneficiary of his beneficence, you’re busted, trapped--because the bigger the surge, the bigger the bust. The chains of alienation are riveted to the black iron ball of vacuity. Up the ante or lose the effect--the higher the high, as they say, the lower the low--until the market bottoms out, the inevitable crash occurs, leading to the inevitable overdose. The cycle’s acceleration is inexorable. For Lennon, “It was like being on a train. I couldn’t get out.” Shake it--shake it--shake it--UP--Baby, Now!--Ohhh--Twist and Shout!

Lennon bottomed out in 1974 after an infamous “lost weekend” of an eighteen-month drunk in LA. Emerging from the stupor, he decided that “Rock’n’Roll was not fun anymore.” And for Lennon, his dilemma was clear: It was either “. . .going to Vegas and singing your greatest hits, if you’re lucky, or going to hell, which is where Elvis went.” And rather than going to hell, or Vegas, Lennon returned to New York City--returned to the mamma-Goddess, Yoko, and quit Rock’n’Roll cold turkey. Yoko, the elitist Sarah Lawrence graduate, caused the Beatles to cool their wailing libido in Oedipal lamentations--but in the process, she may have saved John’s life. If he had died then, still shaking it up Baby, his loss wouldn’t have been nearly so haunting--or so significant.

Lennon dropped out. Not the Leary “drop-out”--in order to drop in--but a real drop-out. He was out of sight. Or, as John put it, “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round. I really love to watch them roll. No more riding on the merry-go-round. I just had to let it go.”

But everyone was angry with John Lennon. The Dionysiacs were angry because the party was over. The political element was angry because he refused to try to recover his balance by organizing an ideological allegiance; or as he put it, “It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘power to the People’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t... That’s the hardest one.”

John stayed out of the limelight, out of the public eye, for several years. And for any pop star or public figure, as far as the American public was concerned, that should have been that. “Out of sight, out of mind.” But Lennon was different. He had moved a sizeable portion of the population, and they were still fascinated with him.

He was in fact trying to stay in the country and rear his son, Sean, while sensitizing his art with a new dimension of spirituality and nurturing--but you and I would not have known that then. The FBI, however, with its extensive surveillance of Lennon, would have known that. Lennon’s activities had awakened greater forces than merely the disapproval of his fans.

The government did not want him in the United States. The government did not want him opening his mouth. The government did not want his art. The government, in short, resented John Lennon with a passion.

Now, would all that surveillance and wiretapping and dogging his trail have been so important if Lennon had been a Kierkegaard--or a Van Gogh--or a Rimbaud, Cezanne, Renoir? I think not, mainly because such artists didn’t reach that many people in their own lifetimes. They were artists who grew up independently, alone, recording their development and perspective silently, absorbed in their own growth, development and expanding consciousness. So their growth was private business. But Lennon was public business, and even though he tried to get out and develop privately, he couldn’t. Yet it was public life that had nurtured him. And whether he denied it not, it was that public he was again trying to reach.

Lennon, like many artists of the sixties, had come to know intimately a kind of “pop” universalism--real people in disparate places hooked up by international media syndication. The pop culture it makes possible, as a marketable and lucrative narcotic, is tolerable, even useful, as long as it stands in lieu of any real culture and remains trivial. Lennon was a king of this pop culture in a very crucial way: He was international. He was not only a universal pop figure, but was also, for lack of a better term, “pop-Cosmopolitan.”

Yet when Lennon hooked up with Yoko, he was introduced to a rarefied art-world that under normal circumstances excluded his version of pop culture except in a sort of kitchy, miming, sardonic way. But Lennon, through Yoko, a Sarah Lawrence graduate, vicariously gained all her exposure to an elite and esoteric New York art scene. Put the ingredients together, and you have pop culture starting to meld with the contemporary avant-garde--a potentially volatile concoction. International pop culture in the process of becoming real culture? If a pop-artist of Lennon’s stature could fuse pop culture with “serious culture,” he might produce a potent social force. Just Imagine all the people living in the world! So Lennon, in trying to grow as an artist, was caught somewhere between public consciousness and private development, high avant-garde and low-pop effluvia, esoteric and exoteric exposure; and in that great subterranean hippie grapevine, his people knew--and waited. Now, you may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one--for if John Lennon could transcend the whole pop-culture business, get out of that morass and grow as an individual and as a father and an artist, then maybe others could, too--and then all the forces that had kept this culture running in place, scared out of its wits for so long, might lose their grip on society’s vitals. Can’t have that! If this guy had reached so many previously, what if he reached them again with the message that one in fact could grow up with sensitivity, discernment, tenderness, understanding, and compassion? Such a message was a direct attack on the violent cultural substratum (remember the theory?) that conveyed the open condescension and hidden animosity of many cultural hierarchies.

This animosity is exercised, I think, in the power that is maintained over certain forms of human activity (such as social welfare, artistic development, education, and consumer spending). Think of all the literary critics, for example, who hate literature; theatre critics who hate the theatre; welfare administrators and politicians who hate people; lawyers who hate justice; clerics who can’t stand their flock; advertising and media personnel who believe that the people they are trying to sell to are sincerely, insipidly, hopelessly, jerks. All these hierarchies are in place less to support or develop the activities they are supposed to sponsor than, simply, to control them. Thus human qualities and activities are appropriated as possessions; possessions become property; and when property is involved, power is involved. To any generation that holds power, the prospect of a generation of independent adults is a real danger. Adults can develop relationships, make choices, and perhaps even avoid manipulation, through autonomous thought, emotion and mind.

Unlike most mythic heroes, Lennon was unique in his complete marriage to a woman. He could be considered one of the few mythic heroes in Western Civilization, in fact, who had established a sincere and equal relationship with a woman. Not Christ, not Socrates, not Kennedy, not Churchill, not Hercules, was so completely married with his entire body, mind and soul to a woman. We don’t even have a mythic archetype for that. We don’t even understand it. So what better point of vulnerability for the low blow? Sissy, womb-whipped, mamma’s boy. And by finding the Oedipal connotations of the myth of John Lennon, the whole sixties peace-love-flower business itself could be shown up as perverse. Now the theory was really cooking. The whole thing was perfect. When J. Edgar Hoover decided he was going to get a hold over the Kennedys, he reportedly told his agents that the Achilles’ heel of the Kennedy clan was sex; therefore, follow, dog, wiretap and document their sex lives--which is part of the reason that you and I know about them today. Now Lennon’s Achilles’ heel, oddly enough, was monogamy. What could be more fun for any anti-Lennon faction than to scorn his monogamous, nurturing relationship and carefully document Yoko’s influence upon, and feminization of, John? Why, then, they would have him because Yoko’s influence was one that John willingly confessed to and embraced--and one that he had undeniably lauded in all of his later interviews.
At this point, the theory started to alienate even me, its originator--for if it were in any way even remotely correct, the tactics used against John by the media and political interests from both the Left and the Right (he’d pretty much alienated them all) were so pathological that their commentary on the perversity of the everyday was more than I could stomach.

What John Lennon was suggesting at the time he was cut down--and the Sixties laid to rest--was that in order to grow as a person, an artist, and a human being, one had to first develop the opposite gender’s perspective within oneself. One had to come to terms with one’s own opposite side. And furthermore, he made it public that Yoko was making him aware of this and that it was the luckiest thing that had ever happened to him. In order to become human, one had to confront all the repressed elements in the psyche, introduce them to each other, and make a whole covenant with oneself, with other humans, with one’s spouse, and with the world. One had, in short, above all else, to learn what it was to be fully human, in all its manifestations--and all the other bravado, the Dionysian and the macho included, was so much blather. Yoko was the luckiest thing that had ever happened to John. Yoko could have been the luckiest thing that had ever happened to a generation. She should have been. She pointed a way past everything that was going sour in the Sixties--and toward a new life. For John, Yoko was lover, wife, partner, guru. As he put it, “I learned everything from her.”
Now, in the “Theory,” such sentiments are direct assaults on the collusion of the hierarchical and the infantile that holds sway in the violent cultural substratum. The sexual expression of that collusion is sadomasochistic, the dominant and the dominated changing place in various postures of “Who’s on top?”--the sucking-up metaphor of office politics becoming, behind closed doors, literal sucking up in the culture’s hysterical swing between self-righteous repression and downright voyeuristic decadence. So when Lennon is openly heterosexual, monogamous, and unashamed, he is accused of perversity. When he holds press conferences from their bed, he is labeled deviant. It is here that society reveals a normative inversion, for it is precisely when Lennon is the most “normal” that he is most indicted for breaking social norms. (What?) It is when he talks about peace that he is indicted as a stranger. (What?) It is when he values fatherhood that he is called “effeminate.” (Double What?) Nobody attacked the guy when he had looked like a black-leather sadomasochist himself. That was somehow okay. But this peace-and-beauty introspective stuff--that had to go. John was a sissy, castrated by the Oriental Lady MacBeth, whining in primal screams. John was no man! John had no pride! John had no ticket to ride.

So Yoko remains half the tragedy of John Lennon’s life. Without her, there would have been no moment of real transcendence in his life, no epiphany, no reversal of fortune. The drugs, the orgiastic sprees, the quick highs and lows, meant nothing compared to the epiphany of the process of becoming fully human. Yoko was for Lennon “everything.” She could have been a goddess to a generation. Now she remains infinitely out of touch. Her life is not tragic, but insanely lonely. Lennon, on the other hand, remains tragic, for the essence of tragedy lies in the quest for transcendence. The American Playwright, Maxwell Anderson, puts it this way: “Greek tragedy was dedicated to man’s... unending, blind attempt to lift himself above his lusts and his pure animalism into a world where there are other values than pleasure and survival.”

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