Analyzing Individual Source Credibility: Example Two: John Lennon

Assigning a general level of credibility to John is problematic for any number of reasons. Nonetheless, here is a list of general issues which should be accounted for when examining source material originating from John: Posts with your thoughts, questions and comments are welcome.

  1. Exaggeration. In A Guide to Historical Method, Gilbert Garraghan identifies exaggeration as a quality which diminishes the accuracy and credibility of a source. Many of John’s private and public statements contain a kernel of truth, but he inflates them 50 to 100% so that they lose a great deal of their accuracy.
  2. Emotion. This is a core concern with John, because a number of journalists, including Jann Wenner and Ray Coleman, have argued that the extreme emotion – particularly anger –displayed by John in his interviews augments his honesty; making him more willing to ignore the consequences of his statements and speak from the heart. This is the opposite of what source analysis tells us. According to Bloch, strong emotion lessens both a source’s observational skills at the time and their eyewitness/retrospective accounts. That’s a standard applied to primary sources in general: But we can also apply the standard to John specifically. We have an explicit admittance by John in the Playboy interview that his anger at Paul motivated his false statements in the “Lennon Remembers” interview regarding the Lennon/McCartney partnership. What is particularly interesting is the way John phrases it: “It was when I felt resentful, so I felt we did everything apart.” (Sheff, 137). (Emphasis mine.) That phrase is evocative because of how it illustrates the role extreme emotion plays in impacting source credibility: either John was so angry in December 1970 that A. He genuinely convinced himself that, all his own memories and evidence to the contrary, he and Paul had stopped writing together in 1962, as he claimed or B: he willfully and repeatedly lied about the Lennon/McCartney partnership being fictional because it suited his own breakup-era agenda (John was still repeating that the Lennon/McCartney partnership was a fiction in the St. Regis interviews, another interview where the interviewer notes John’s obvious anger). There is also, of course, the possibility of some unquantifiable combination of the two. In neither scenario does the extreme emotion reinforce John’s credibility; instead, it undermines it.
  3. Inconsistency. An issue which applies to all four Beatles. Again, we have the general issue of how repeated inconsistency in a primary source’s account lessens its supposed accuracy and credibility, and also how it specifically applies to and/or is demonstrated by John. It’s important to note, with inconsistency, that it’s absurd to expect any Beatle, or Beatles insider, to have perfect recall every time. Discounting a primary source simply because they tell inconsistent, differing accounts of how the 46th take of “Not Guilty” went in the studio is methodologically unsound and, frankly, lazy. (It’s also a tactic that has been abused by some Beatles’ writers and fans, which take a piece of relatively trivial minutiae, expose a specific Beatle’s incorrect accounts of it, and then extrapolate that incorrect version to encompass the source’s overall credibility: a primary source can never be wholly dismissed. Period). Where inconsistency becomes particularly crucial is when it appears to change due to agenda and/or narrative shifts rather than due to evidence. As I mentioned in The Beatles and the Historians, one of the elements that makes George Martin such a valuable primary source is the consistency of his version of events across every narrative of Beatles history. John, however, contradicted himself on significant issues not only from narrative to narrative or decade to decade, but also from interview to interview and sometimes, memorably, within the same interview. John also appears to have been able to tailor the message of his interviews depending on who his interviewer was: his 1980 comments to Sheff, for example, vary from his comments to Hillburn, the same as his some of his 1970 comments to Wenner differ from contemporaneous comments to Ray Connolly.
  4. Psychological instability. I’m not qualified to posthumously diagnose John. However, I believe we have enough evidence to conclude that John’s psychological issues impacted both his actions and his statements throughout Beatles history. If historians can now account for Abraham Lincoln’s depression when analyzing him as a source/historical figure, we can certainly do the same for John Lennon.
  5. Drugs. Again, this is an issue which applies to all four Beatles, to varying degrees. However, it is particularly relevant concerning John, given his own admittance that he took the heaviest amount of and hardest types of drugs. Drugs are doubly damaging to a source’s credibility: first, they impact the observational and reasoning skills of the individual during the events, lessening their comprehension: second, they impact all the interviews given while under the influence of narcotics.
  6. A pattern of self-promotion *which knowingly promotes an inaccurate version of events*. Another issue which applies to all four Beatles, and one that is particularly relevant during the breakup-period, as that’s when Beatles historiography split from a singular narrative into competing versions.

 

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9 thoughts on “Analyzing Individual Source Credibility: Example Two: John Lennon

  1. Karen Hooper says:

    Interesting list, Erin.

    It occurs to me that there might be another item for the list: John’s memory capacity, in general.

    There are some people who have great memories and some people who have lousy memories. John was known to have a lousy memory, even as a child. That would bring into question the credibility of his recollections, particularly for those events which are emotionally charged.

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    • Erin says:

      I thought about adding John’s reported memory issues, Karen; but I didn’t remember (ha!) the sources which discuss it, and didn’t want to assert it without evidence. I’ve seen it mentioned in various places/works, but can’t recall which ones.

      If we could provide the evidence that John had a notoriously poor memory throughout his life, (not just regarding song lyrics, which I think is well established, but recalling actual events) that could be a factor in his retrospective accounts/credibility. It would be a part of the puzzle.

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      • Karen Hooper says:

        The sources are so ubiquitous–like every bio I’ve ever read–it seems.

        Aside from that, though–would an established memory problem or bad memory qualify as a challenge to source credibility?

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        • Rob Geurtsen says:

          Karen, is there any specific source, among the ubiquitous, that states John’s memory problems in a way that is verifiable and valid?

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        • Erin says:

          It would, but to a rather small extent. Poor memory is a stone you could hurl at any of the Beatles (albeit to varying degrees) and without a significant amount of documentation verifying that John’s poor memory was demonstrably worse than George/Ringo/Paul, it wouldn’t be an issue I’d hang my historical methods hat on. 🙂

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  2. Rob Geurtsen says:

    In an earlier discussion on this blog (Source credibility example Yoko Ono?), I remember you acknowledged that the best methodological approach is to evaluate ‘source credibility’ interview by interview and then topic by topic. To conclude a source credibility on the level of a person in general is what media often do and unprofessional fans – for whom Beatle mania often is a like a steel scaffolding that protects them from the harsh, outside world (Simmons, Julie (2017). Magical Mystery Drum: The Quest for Ringo’s Ed Sullivan Snare. In Reverb, May 2nd 2017. Retrieved May 2017: https://reverb.com/news/magical-mystery-drum-the-quest-for-ringos-ed-sullivan-snare ).
    In your book you described clearly how Klein as a professional accountant dealing with entertainment clients, he prepares himself meticulous thru interviews in the social context of the future client and media coverage just to discover the personality traits and desires. He did evaluate source reliability in his own amateur way, on an interview by interview and statement by statement basis. When he designed his approach to get Lennon on board, he triggered a process that changed the intra/interpersonal dynamics of The Beatles forever – as he found fertile soil in the disturbed, drugged, and in need of an alpha role John Lennon.

    A blanket dismissal of primary sources John, George, Paul or Ringo, is about the level of evaluation most fans are capable of, and then there is their perception relevant, like the obsession of quite a few American Beatles’ fans with the possible erotic relation between John and Paul – or John’s gayness. The fantasy fans need cuts them off a, more likely than possible, boringly mundane reality.

    So as for a learning exercise I like you source analysis of Yoko and John, but the learning fun is in your examples, where you get down to the nitty gritty of source analysis: take into account attitude, consistency, agenda in those days, verifiability, etc. etc. However – while the theme is source reliability of an ‘example John Lennon’, the main lesson most readers on a fan level take away is the judgement call on Lennon personal credibility in interviews. I think that is a pity, we lose the perspective of nuance, which is a common way of thinking in media and politics under false pretenses of understandability.

    Historiography in the Beatles’ domain has a lot to offer. It can clarify if not objectify the discussions without the current polarization and fantasies.
    Historiography the way you describe in your book fits the current developments in the Beatles narrative. The current Lewisohn narrative, though not dominant yet, there is so much other unreliable stuff published, and your post-Lewisohn narrative. For the acceptance of the Lewisohn narrative and the transition to the next level your approach is a must. I can only hope that we find subjects and approaches unrelated to current persona oriented discussions but more theme/subject related, and, of course, avoid the old stories if these cannot be nullified in the analysis.

    As a footnote: I find the approach Candy Leonard choose in ‘Beatleness’ – to put the fans’ responses first, fascinating. How this illuminates or changes the Beatles narrative, I am not quite sure yet, but as fans’ responses are connected with other social/cultural/political developments it should give us a nice insight or even a new narrative. It seems more and more books appear with content like these.

    Thx for your inspiration,
    Rob

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  3. Erin says:

    “In an earlier discussion on this blog (Source credibility example Yoko Ono?), I remember you acknowledged that the best methodological approach is to evaluate ‘source credibility’ interview by interview and then topic by topic.”

    It is, certainly, preferable and more methodologically sound to go the “case by case” route, rather than the general assessment route, as posted here evaluating John – and, earlier, Yoko. And I want to stress that, for all of these issues I identified as factors in examining John as a primary source, none of his statements can be ignored. They can be contradicted, disproven, presumed to be exaggerated, taken as jokes, emotionally ‘letting off steam,’ etc. or any other number of factors which render them less than gospel truth. But John – or any other primary source – cannot be ignored.

    The primary reason for these general evaluations is two-fold: I did something similar with George Martin in the book – because I utilized him as a credible source, and wanted to explicitly explain how and why – and because some blog readers asked me.

    “(Klein) did evaluate source reliability in his own amateur way, on an interview by interview and statement by statement basis. When he designed his approach to get Lennon on board, he triggered a process that changed the intra/interpersonal dynamics of The Beatles forever – as he found fertile soil in the disturbed, drugged, and in need of an alpha role John Lennon.”
    This is a point that, as I see it, doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention it should in Beatles historiography. For all of Goodman’s faults – and I discussed them in a previous post – one of the valuable aspects of his Klein bio is that it demonstrates how much research and evaluation and homework Klein did on the Beatles, years before he ever managed to meet with any of them. And it provided him with the tools and information he needed to pitch to John exactly what John wanted to hear. The Authorized Biography, especially, was crucial to Klein’s understanding of John’s psyche. Which brings up an interesting point: did the writing of the Authorized bio – and the subsequent information it provided Klein with – helped lead to the breakup, or at least the way the breakup unfolded? Would Klein have been able to immediately appeal to Lennon’s weak spots without those numerous admissions in the bio of John’s clawing need for dominance?

    “A blanket dismissal of primary sources John, George, Paul or Ringo, is about the level of evaluation most fans are capable of”

    Which, when combined with Beatles historiography’s partisanship, is a severe shame which leads to inaccurate history. We know confirmation bias exists when people analyze political discussions; I think you could easily argue that confirmation bias also exists in Beatles fandom and among certain authors. So many interesting discussions and debates degenerate into “my favorite Beatle is better/cooler/greater/deeper than your favorite Beatle.”
    I agree: I think historiography and historical methods can offer a lot to Beatles fandom, and the Beatles can offer a lot to them. It’s almost completely unexplored terrain, and continues to appear that way: of the 35 presenters at the Michigan conference I’m going to, I think there are only three historians, including myself; most of the academic focus on the band continues to be musical/lyrical analysis.

    I have not had a chance to read Leonard’s work yet; I’ve been treading water regarding work and paper grading; hopefully I will have a chance to look at that this summer.

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