Submitted for your consideration and discussion: an excerpt from a forthcoming biography of Jann Wenner, specifically dealing with Wenner’s relations with John and Yoko in the period surrounding the “Lennon Remembers” interview:
This article isn’t foolproof — it states, for example, that Paul opposed the Two Virgins cover, when we have abundant primary sources proving that, while Paul may have not necessarily liked it, he defended John’s right to do it and actually went to a meeting with Sir Joseph Lockwood to ensure that it went through. But it does offer some information new to me – specifically, the pictures and “how do you sleep” postcard someone (possibly John) sent Wenner during The Lost Weekend, and emphasizes how crucial Wenner’s support was in allowing John and Yoko to dominate the breakup-era narrative. Given our recent discussion regarding journalism and Ray Coleman’s work, this excerpt demonstrates that evidence-based interpretation, while ideal in journalism and writing, often falls prey to favoritism, money, and politics.
13 thoughts on “How “Rolling Stone” Shaped the Breakup-Era Narrative”
Thanks for posting this, Erin. I want to digest it a little before I comment. What a gem.
There’s a lot to digest!
The angry letter John wrote to Wenner after Rolling Stone published LR as a book isn’t new; it’s in The Uncensored History of Rolling Stone, and I included an excerpt of the letter in my book. I was aware that Wenner’s decision to publish the interview as a book led to a break with John and Yoko giving extensive, exclusive interviews to his magazine: I didn’t realize how final that break ultimately was. More than a few authors – including The Beatles Bibliography – argue that John was incensed because he regretted some of his LR statements and found them somewhat embarrassing by the time Wenner had decided to publish it as a book. But it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that Yoko and John were, by this points, hardly novices to the P.R. game: there’s also the very real possibility that were angry that Wenner, not they, was now controlling their narrative by using tools John himself had given him.
Some of this Wenner/Rolling Stone/Lennon issue has been covered in other works, including The Beatles Bibliography, as well as an excellent essay, “The Solo Years,” by Michael Frontani in The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles. But this article was the first I’ve come across to explicitly have Paul acknowledging RS’s avid pro-Lennon bias and his assessment that RS was not an impartial publication. It was also the first I’ve seen with the account of the (presumably sent by John) anti-Wenner/LW-era postcard and happy Lennon/McCartney pictures. We’ll probably never know exactly who sent those pictures, but if they were sent by John, it would be very in-character – turning on a one-time valued ally, blaming said ally for John’s own decisions/statements. It also seems to indicate John was assigning some of the blame to Wenner for the decline in his friendship with Paul; by including the happy Lost Weekend era pictures, the message seems to be “You tried to drive us apart, but now we’re getting along fine – no thanks to you.”
I was aware of Linda’s connection to RS – she was the first female photographer to get a RS cover, after all – but not that she served as the initial liason between the magazine and Wenner; a relationship that then disintegrated once RS became a propaganda mouthpiece for John and Yoko in the breakup period. Wenner’s relationship with Yoko, post-John’s death, is also interesting; Yoko is now willing to re-grant Wenner access, so long as he pushes forth the image of John and the Lennon/Ono relatsionship that she wants him to. And he will continue to do so for years, to the extent that you have him, according to Jack Douglass, perjuring himself to support Yoko. Or him denouncing the Goldman bio in its entirety, to the extent of saying “There’s nothing mean or nasty in John’s life.” So much for journalistic integrity.
What I hope results out of this – the new book (which I intend to I.L.L). works like Frontani’s, works like The Beatles Bibliography, etc. – is that fans and Beatles authors incorporate that Wenner driven bias into their analysis when evaluating sources, articles, books and record reviews from RS. I didn’t delve too deeply into record reviews in TBATH – the only one I discussed vis-à-vis RS’s bias was the McCartney album, because of the letter we have declaring that Wenner pressured his editor and the album’s reviewer to change the review as punishment for Paul breaking up the Beatles. We don’t have any direct, primary source evidence regarding Wenner’s pro-John anti-Paul regarding other reviews, such as Ram. But the reality that one of the most influential, narrative defining magazines of its era was avowedly promoting one Beatle in the Lennon/McCartney split isn’t even debatable anymore; the real questions are 1. How much did their pro-Lennon agenda influence their output and 2. How much did it, in addition to the obvious example of LR, allow RS to shape the breakup era narrative in a way that may have gone beyond even John’s control? If John had given the equivalent of his definitive breakup era statement to, say, Ray Connolly, instead of Jann Wenner, how much differently would we regard Beatles historiography today? And what are the odds that some sort of Lennon/McCartney reconciliation would have been far more possible, without the obstacle of a sycophantic Wenner pushing LR as the definitive version of the Beatles breakup, even against John’s wishes?
Great point to ponder. Still, though, I wonder why John didn’t want any subsequent publications of his interview. Surely subsequent publications could only serve to bolster his narrative, regardless of who controlled it. It seems strange that he would be concerned about Wenner violating his “rights” when that book concretized his narrative in the public eye–or was John already attempting to change some aspect of the narrative at the time of the book’s publication in 1971, particularly since that was during the time of Paul’s court action against his bandmates?
The questions you ask at the end of your comment are compelling ones, Erin. I think they could form their own post.
I’d have to double check, Karen, but IIRC, Wenner published LR in bound book form in either 1972 or even 1973. (I think it’s 1972). By 1972, John was already retreating from many of his 1971 statements. Relations had improved somewhat: He and Paul were corresponding privately, had met privately, and were talking on the phone during the “Elephant’s Memory” sessions, and by that summer John was asking Paul to participate in the One to One Concert. Which Paul, of course, declined, due to Klein’s involvement.
I think its important to note (as so many failed to do, for so long) that, while John and Yoko were no strangers to P.R. and certainly wanted to control the narrative, my personal conclusion is that John didn’t intend for LR to serve as this timeless manifesto. There are many, many instances when John paints himself into corners in this interview. He gives false accounts of lots of issues/events, and he also attacks virtually everyone associated with the Beatles: the subtitle of the interview should be “Lennon Remembers: Everyone sucks but me and Yoko.” He also comes across as naïve on certain political issues ; equivocating on Charles Manson or praising Chairman Mao. In a presumably more rational, less drug-hazed and infuriated state of mind, by the end of 1971, John would have good reason to be embarrassed and/or aware of how much bile he had vented: The Beatles Bibliography accurately sums it up as “toxic, yet infantile.” I think both elements are true: John wanted to control the narrative, but that control also extended to him wanting and expecting that he should be able to dismiss his previous statements at a whim, and not to be held accountable for anything he said. It’s his same tactic regarding HDYS, and it’s profoundly adolescent. When Wenner published LR in book form, Wenner took that power of denunciation away from John, to a remarkable extent.
You could be right re the date. Once upon a time I had the original copy of LR, but that was when I was a wee lass and it’s been lost in the passage of time. 🙂
True enough. He surely didn’t like being held accountable for his words or actions and his control issues are almost the stuff of legend. However, I don’t know that the publication of LR would have, in John’s mind at least, prohibited him from divorcing himself from his previous statements. When he was interviewed by Playboy in the months prior to his death, he readily admitted to some of his more obvious exaggerations in LR (like the claim that he and Paul rarely worked together) without the slightest trace of embarrassment. For that matter, he typically has no difficulty worming out of crazy statements he just made two minutes earlier in the same interview. 🙂 The problem with John is that it’s hard to pin down his underlying motives because it’s like trying to hit a whack-a-mole. I think your theory is probably as close as we’ll get to understanding this particular situation. The man is an riddle wrapped in a mystery inside Yoko’s brain.
“For that matter, he typically has no difficulty worming out of crazy statements he just made two minutes earlier in the same interview.”
Very true. Robert Rodriguez argued that it was a shame that John gave these Beatles- narrative defining interviews to Rolling Stone and Playboy, respectively, when he wanted to focus on was promoting John and Yoko: This automatically puts him in a frustrated, dismissive frame of mind when answering the reporters questions. But just as crucially, and damaging to those interviews, is the lack of knowledge of and/or hero worship present from both Wenner and Sheff. Both ask leading questions, both fail to ask obvious follow-up questions (John, if you wrote 70% of Eleanor Rigby, why did Paul sing it on Revolver?) and both fail to address at times glaring self-contradictions from John. They’re both so awed to be in his presence — and John’s charisma must have been off-the-charts — that they’re too happy to swallow everything John said, uncritically.
Now you do see the beginning of secondary acknowledgements, during John’s 1980 press binge, that his LR comments were exaggerated and incorrect. Those acknowledgements, however, largely ended with John’s shocking death, although you did occasionally see them in more mainstream publications, such as Time.
the subtitle of the interview should be “Lennon Remembers: Everyone sucks but me and Yoko.”
I remember Lennon joking that a 1980 interview should be called “Lennon Forgets.”
I read (and re-read) the LR hardcover book in 1973, and frankly, looking back now I wish I hadn’t. I believe it was a bad influence on me (I was a high school freshman in ’72) and lacked positive role models. I was looking for wisdom, and instead unfortunately absorbed too much of Lennon’s “school is bullshit; teachers are stupid” philosophy.
IIRC, the “Lennon Forgets” quip was actually made by John referring to his 1974 “Crawdaddy” interview; the same one where he criticizes Klein and announces that everyone should just get over and forget his breakup-era comments, because he doesn’t agree with them anymore.
On the SATB podcast I did, both Robert and Richard acknowledged personally reacting the same as you did, to an extent, to LR: particularly for an adolescent male, its anti-establishment screed is incredibly powerful and utterly convincing. I don’t know what the age/gender demographic of RS was upon LR’s initial publication, but I’d take a wild guess and speculate that it was predominantly male, and predominantly skewed towards adolescents/young adults in their 20s. In my own high school, a bunch of my freshman classmates, all boys, were handing around LR in 1995, and I’m not exaggerating when I say they seemed to regard it as gospel; a guide to life and a call to arms.
My personal experience is very different from yours, Sam: I read LR for research purposes, as a 30-something year old wife and mother with a half-time history professorship and training in analyzing historical documents. I never viewed it as a source of wisdom, but I can very much see how other people, such as yourself or Robert Rodriguez, would. There’s no denying its power; even when I was analyzing it, and considering the numerous fundamental flaws with its credibility, I kept thinking of how compelling it was.
Ditto the welcome, Sam–so glad you’ve popped by.
I was 17 when LR was first published, and I remember that its effect was cataclysmic–like finding out your loving family were really serial killers. For some reason I didn’t buy John’s narrative, I don’t know why. Maybe because I wasn’t part of that key demographic–a young while male who thought thoughtless vitriol was honesty and unchecked hyperbole was truth. John was easily manipulated by parent figures who had a vested interest in decimating the Beatle legacy, and I think LR was living proof of that.
Thanks, Erin and Karen.
I never bought John’s vitriol about the Beatles. I loved the music too much. But unfortunately I was vulnerable enough to accept his anti-education hyperbole. If I’d had better role models at that age, I would have been less gullible.
I agree Lennon was being manipulated. I think he eventually recognized this, which is why he reacted so angrily at Wenner’s book version of the interview.
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your
efforts and I will be waiting for your next post thanks once again.
Thanks for the comment; I’m glad you liked the post.
The next post will hopefully be up soon: I discovered earlier this month that pregnancy and bronchitis don’t mix well, and that’s been a major reason there haven’t been any updates recently. But I’m on the mend now; feel free to comment on either the new post, when it’s put up, or any of the old ones.