John Lennon’s Alter Ego
On the anniversary of the Beatle’s assassination, turning to his wild, controversial biographer for enlightenment
Later defining himself as “one-half New York intellectual, one-half Brooklyn-Broadway wise guy,” Goldman found academia both irresistible, insufferable, and inevitable. And just as Lennon had McCartney, Goldman, who worked as an adjunct professor of English at Columbia between 1963 and 1972, had Lionel Trilling.
Trilling, the department’s éminence grise, was everything that Goldman was not. He, too, was Jewish, but, born in Queens to a British mother, he graduated from high school at 16 and entered Columbia, where, with few exceptions, he would remain for his entire career. Trilling was elegant and graceful, “a quietly dominating figure,” as one critic later described him, “sensitive, sensible, and reassuring in his emergence from 1930s radicalism and his nuanced Freudianism.” When it came to describing Goldman, the best his observers could do was comment that he sounded a lot like Bette Davis, which is to say a voice that is neither sensitive or sensible and very far from reassuring.
Trilling was cognizant of his influence; his circle of New York Intellectuals—Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt—was, he wrote, “busy and vivacious about ideas” and as such was a class onto itself whose “assiduity constitutes an authority.” Authority repulsed Goldman. As far as he was concerned, all authority had ever done was keep his people from buying nice houses in town, pluck him out of school just as he was about to become an actor, and suppress him in other subtle but meaningful ways. When he quoted John Lennon saying that “you want to belong, but you don’t want to belong because you can’t belong”—a negation not only of authority but, really, of society as a whole—it isn’t hard to imagine Goldman nodding enthusiastically. He wouldn’t be a member of any club that would admit anyone like him, and he would always rage against those that wouldn’t. No record remains of Goldman’s feelings for Trilling, but one wonders if, seeing his colleague, Goldman might have felt the same thing Lennon did when he saw Yoko for the first time, perched on a ladder in an art gallery, a figure so different from himself and the source of much future consternation but also, in her drive and organization and quietly executed self-assertion, a source of tremendous comfort and great allure.
Where else could such a mind as Goldman’s turn, in the mid-1960s, but the counterculture? He wrote about rock and pop and jazz and turned an essay about Lenny Bruce into a massively popular and critically acclaimed biography. It’s easy enough to imagine him graying into respectability, but to have done that he would have needed to learn the trick that made rock’s greatest critics great—namely the spell of alchemy that turned the dross of pop culture into intellectual gold by finding hidden virtues in men who spent their days grinding their crotches against their guitars as tens of thousands of teenagers clapped them into a frenzy. That was too much to ask of Goldman. Like Lennon—who, even as a child, would grow upset if strangers failed to recognize him on the bus—Goldman wanted fame. Not the kind of fame Trilling had, which was considerable but expressed softly and reverentially, as is befitting an intellectual of his stature. Goldman wanted the kind of fame that made audiences scream, and if he, unlike Lennon and Elvis, didn’t have what it took to make them scream in adulation, he could certainly, as a first-rate mind, make them scream in rage. This was more than merely an act of intellectual vandalism: If there’s one thing Goldman and Lennon shared, other than their fierce distrust of authority, it was the hunch that the only way to save pop culture from ossifying was to do violence to anything it considered sacred, from its basic tempos to the taboos protecting its most luminous stars from scrutiny.
Goldman was the master of shattering rock’s taboos, an art form that, like rock itself, required endless chutzpah to practice properly. “With the counter-culture, “ Goldman told an interviewer later in life, “I had found a great field that needed a great mind like mine to explore it.” The interviewer then noted that Goldman, finishing his immodest thought, picked up an artfully placed copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and remarked that he would have written it better.
Instead of Johnson, though, he turned to Elvis. His subsequent biography, for which he received more than $300,000 in advance, portrayed the King as a sexual deviant and a drug addict who, toward the end, had grown so lethargic and fat that his aides frequently had to shove fingers down his throat to save him from choking during his many spells of falling asleep while consuming gargantuan portions of food. Then came the Lennon book. It earned Goldman a million-dollar advance, a parody on Saturday Night Live, and, finally, the kind of renown he’d always craved. “The rock establishment hates me because I’ve upstaged them time and again,” Goldman told an interviewer after the book came out. “In their simple minds, that’s a terrible affront. I often have more exposure than they, and it troubles them that this old gray-haired fart is getting more attention than they.”
But the master biographer forgot how the lives of the furiously talented and incandescent usually ended. In the spring of 1994, flying from Miami to London to appear on a television show, he suffered a heart attack and died on board the plane. He was 66 years old. Hearing the news, Phil Spector, Lennon’s close friend and producer, rejoiced in a jubilant letter to Rolling Stone. “The first thing to do,” he wrote, “is to make sure he is dead. I don’t trust him. … Albert Goldman was truly an evil man. He knew the least yet was the most vain about his opinion. In Goldman’s case, death was not an end, but rather a very effective way of cutting down on the pollution. My dearly beloved friend John Lennon once paraphrased an old proverb that I believe to be very apropos to the death of Albert Goldman: ‘Time wounds all heels.’ ”
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