If he were alive today, John Lennon would be turning eighty this year. It’s also the fortieth anniversary of his death. Kind of amazing, isn’t it? Gee whiz, time flies.
Once the Beatles had a number one song in America, lives that were already on fast-forward went into hyperspace. In 1964 alone, the group toured America, made A Hard Day’s Night, released seven albums, gave numerous interviews and appeared on countless TV and radio spots.
In the midst of the melee, Lennon somehow found time to pen a book, titled simply John Lennon In His Own Write, a collection of stories, plays, drawings, and trademark Lennon whimsy. The book has been reprinted, quoted from, and occasionally produced as a play. I’ll let the man himself introduce it, ably assisted by his bandmates:
Lennon’s fellow Beatles weren’t kidding when they said the lingo is different in Lennon’s book. It’s really different. Instead of “author,” we have “awful,” instead of “pictures,” it’s “pidgers,” and instead of “now or never,” it says “now or neville.” That’s how things go all the way through the book.
The stories are pure troll. Many of them, like “The Wrestling Dog,” start and end just when something should be happening. Those answers Mr. Lennon supposedly has later on in the program? They never come. The Wrestling Dog forever waits for his first opponent.
Even the selections which have a middle and an ending tend to blindside the reader. Lennon calls two of his characters, “Frank,” and in one of the Frank stories, the title character is disappointed for some reason because he has no flies on him. No matter what he does, the flies avoid him. Despondent, Frank wraps his wife up in a sack to return her to her mother, but his mother in law won’t have him in the house. Why? Because of the flies.
Some of the poetry seems reminiscent of the classics. “I Sat Belonely” reminded me of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud,” and would be right at home at Walden Pond except for its generous twist of Lewis Carroll. The narrator is captivated by a female voice, but he can’t find where it’s coming from. Then he spies a tiny little pig sitting on a twig and singing with all its might. Could the pig be the lady? Maybe, maybe not, but knowing Lennon, this pig just might be able to fly.
Another poem, “I Wandered,” keeps the Carroll feeling and slightly recalls Yeats and Tennyson, with dreamy imagery and movement. The poem is a head-on collision between “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and Idylls of the King, with “Jabberwocky” caught in the middle:
Past grisby trees and hulky builds
Past ratters and bradder sheep
In a resus baby stooped
I wandered hairy as a dog
To get a goobites sleep.
—John Lennon In His Own Write, pg. 36
Then, of course, there are the drawings, which are simple line creations that are every bit as troll-y as the stories. Recalling Shel Silverstein, they show heads growing out of heads and a guy with flipper-like feet and a long Van Dyke beard.
Write messes with the head, it really does, and this can be frustrating or delightful. I like it. As someone who enjoys language and wordplay, Write had me grinning and chortling.
One of the interesting things about In His Own Write is that it was published when the Beatles were still relatively new on the world stage, so their image was comparatively tame at this point in time. Their manager, Brian Epstein wanted to present the band as being good boys, hence the matching suits and haircuts that they wore in their earlier days. Sgt. Pepper and Strawberry Fields were still two years in the future, and Write was a harbinger of what was yet to be.
How did Lennon come to write his little volume? Who knows. There’s not a lot out there about the history of the book. Pretty much nothing, actually, except for how much the book sold for on its initial release. My guess is that Lennon wrote Write during the times when he and the other three Beatles were on tour and they were basically prisoners in their hotel rooms. It might not be such a far-off idea, seeing as many of the drawings have a dashed-off air.
What I can say is that the book itself would have been typical Lennon to those who knew him. Lennon’s use of nonsense and quirk goes back to Lennon’s school days. In the introduction, Sir Paul McCartney mentioned that John’s Aunt Mimi told him John would pretend to be dumb. There are all sorts of takes among Beatles buffs about this, especially when it comes to Lennon’s formal education. I remember reading in some Beatles book in college that Lennon’s teachers attributed his poor spelling to bad eyesight. I can’t remember what book it was, but seeing as there’s a ton of misinformation about the Beatles out there, don’t quote me on that bad eyesight thing. Others have speculated Lennon may have been dyslexic, which he could have very well been. When I read books like Write, however, I have to wonder if Lennon used weird words purely for fun. Regardless of what the real story was, Lennon drove his teachers crazy and this was good practice for his later life.
Speaking of later, the stage version of Write premiered in 1968 at the National Theatre. It also included material from Lennon’s second book, A Spaniard In the Works and was co-written by director and actor Victor Spinetti. Very little is known about the production except that the premiere was attended by Lennon and Yoko Ono. How they made a coherent play out of a collection of random poetry and stories I don’t know, but from what I can tell the play is just a showcase of Lennon’s writings. This lack of structure could be why it’s never really caught on, although the play is still produced on very rare occasions.
Write is a short read, but it’s an unforgettable one. Lennon set out to raise eyebrows with it, and it’s pretty clear he succeeded. Sir Paul said it best in his Introduction:
There are bound to be thickheads who will wonder why some of it doesn’t make sense, and others will search for hidden meanings…None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough.
A big announcement will be dropping on Friday, plus look out for the 6th Annual Favorite TV Episode Blogathon on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all, and have a good one…
Lennon, John. John Lennon In His Own Write. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.