December 5th, 2005


Emotional pornography

I'm not usually one for celebrating anniversaries, especially not anniversaries of deaths, and even less the deaths of celebrities. But the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death has produced, in the form of Lennon: The Wenner Tapes, a moving and hard-hitting radio document. I don't think I've ever cried listening to a Radio 4 programme, but this 1970 conversation between Lennon and Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner brought tears twice — once when Lennon talks about how there's nothing like being held by the person you love (and obviously I'm a sucker for the emotional pornography we could call Ono-ism) and once when he says he cherishes every day now "because you never know, you might get run over by a bus or something".

The reason Lennon is so compelling as an interviewee is the same as the reason he's great as a songwriter: there's not only a powerful directness here, an ability to get right to the heart of the things that matter in life, but also an extraordinary mixture of narcissistic arrogance (Lennon proclaims himself a genius, and gets very angry that his family and school teachers didn't recognize this) and vulnerability. Those qualities could cancel each other out, alienating everybody within earshot, but somehow that doesn't happen. Instead, the arrogance builds up the feeling that we're dealing with someone who lives on a scale of intensity and seriousness that few attain — that human endeavour, creativity, love, ambition, collaboration and competition all matter tremendously, and even their not-mattering matters. Then the vulnerability gives us our in, our proximity; it allows us to identify with and get close to that ego, recognize our own smaller one in it. It's all too high-risk to be a schtick; bridges—important ones—are burning in the rear-view mirror as Lennon, testily honest, assesses friends and collaborators with pithy phrases (George is "the invisible man", lucky to work with two songwriters as talented as him and McCartney), or notes with almost embarrassing candour his own two first reactions to Brian Epstein's death; a little thrill of thinking "Thank God it's not me", and then "What the fuck am I going to do now?"

In these days of the wooden tongue, very few people talk in public this way — gloves off, heart on sleeve. My own teenage hero, David Bowie, is particularly disappointing in interviews, retreating into surreal jokes and diplomatic parries, Tony Blair crossed with Spike Milligan. Lou Reed is aggressive but fusty and pretentious, his prickly ego failing to arouse the necessary empathy. Lennon, feisty yet frail, somehow gets the tone just right. Do download the interview — I think it's only up for a week.