The Historian and The Beatles

Analyzing Individual Source Credibility: Example Two: John Lennon

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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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