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'The John Lennon Letters': A Beatle uncensored

"THe John Lennon Letters" collects nearly 300 John Lennon postcards, doodles and letters. Photo Credit: Getty Images

THE JOHN LENNON LETTERS, edited by Hunter Davies. Little, Brown, 392 pp. $29.99.

"In a hundred years from now," John Lennon sang in a satirical home demo he recorded at the Dakota in 1978, "they're going to be selling my socks, like Judy Garland! And I hope they get a good price!" So the founder of The Beatles predicted this day would come -- and as editor Hunter Davies makes clear in his prefatory remarks to "The John Lennon Letters," even the ex-Beatle's unsigned grocery lists and skimpiest doodles now command five figures at Sotheby's.

A massive deposit of freshly excavated notes, screeds, asides and howls, each lavishly reproduced and carefully annotated, "Letters" is the most intimate book ever published about Lennon. In its revelation of the man's interior psychology, it far surpasses all previous accounts by wives, lovers, half-siblings, ex-aides and even the best biographers. This is Lennon unfiltered, and characteristically defiant, scrawling ferociously across lined paper, homemade Christmas cards, Indian novelties, fading Apple Corp. letterheads.

Those partial to The Beatles' early Motown covers may be pained to read Lennon's casual dismissal of them, on American Airlines stationery, in September 1971: " 'Money', 'Twist 'n' Shout', 'You really got a hold on me' etc. . . . I always wished we could have done them even closer to the original." "Letters" also delivers the earliest known explanation of why Lennon left his wife and son for Yoko Ono. "She's as intelligent as me (you can take that any way!)," he writes about Yoko to his Aunt Harriet in 1968. "She's also very beautiful -- in spite of reports in the press to the contrary -- she looks like a cross between me and my mother -- has the same sense of humour too!"

Captured here, too, are Lennon's views on creativity, as set forth in a 1967 letter to a cheeky student from Quarry Bank High School, the prototypical dehumanizing British institution where Lennon, a decade earlier, had honed his rebel persona. "All my writing," Lennon says, "I do it for me first -- whatever people make of it afterwards is valid, but it doesn't necessarily have to correspond to my thoughts about it, OK? This goes for anybody's books, 'creations,' art, poetry, etc. -- the mystery and ---- that is built around all forms of art needs smashing, anyway."

The present owner of that two-page gem is a dentist in Arkansas. Davies' detective work in uncovering the book's 286 entries, and tracing their complicated provenance, makes for an entertaining divertissement. Two of the letters reprinted herein were addressed to Davies himself. To research "The Beatles," the acclaimed authorized biography he published in 1968, he spent 1966-68 hanging out with the band.

Davies proves surprisingly error-prone here. He guesses 1970 as the year Lennon sent to Melody Maker's Ray Coleman an undated postcard that was signed "Them Beatles." Davies should have known better. By 1970, Lennon wasn't signing anything in the name of The Beatles.

Other problems: A tantalizingly incomplete poem that Lennon scribbled on a Japanese postcard circa 1965 or '66 ("When a girl begins to be a problem / Pretty soon the girl must go") Davies heralds here as previously unpublished. (It was reproduced in "Beatles Memorabilia: The Julian Lennon Collection.") Most egregious is the 1971 date assigned to a postcard that Lennon sent to Julian and signed "love / Dad Yoko Sean." Sean Lennon was born in 1975.

Our view of Lennon isn't changed by his letters, but sharpened. He emerges here a whimsical and irrepressible soul -- and a formidable scold. However, Lennon also betrays the touching desire to end even his angriest exchanges on a conciliatory note. At Christmas 1971, after spending the year hurling profane thunderbolts at Paul and Linda McCartney, in public and private, he sends them a short note. It accompanies what Lennon believes to be a bootleg copy of The Beatles' first -- and unsuccessful -- tryout for a major British label, recorded on Jan. 1, 1962. "Dear Paul Linda et al, this is THE DECCA AUDITION!!" he writes, with a fan's enthusiasm. "They were a good group / fancy turning THIS down! Love John & Yoko."

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