The Sporadic Beaver

15 Years Ago Today...

May 27, 2015

Tags: The Times of London, Nigel Williamson, Nowhere Man, The Final Days of John Lennon, Uncut, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, Fred Seaman, Rolling Stone, Jan Wenner, Mark David Chapman, The Dakota, diaries

The author in his Washington Heights apartment, sitting in front of the IBM Selectric he used to transcribe John Lennon’s dairies. Photo by David Corio.
When Nigel Williamson interviewed me, in February 2000, he was preparing articles for both Uncut magazine and The Times of London. Though Nowhere Man had been garnering media attention for several months at this point, it was the one-two punch of these widely read British publications that set the book on a lunar trajectory; it would soon land on bestseller lists in the U.S. and U.K.

Fifteen years ago today, on May 27, 2000, this article ran in the Metro section of The Times. It marked a long-awaited turning point in my career, the moment when all the emotion and frustration I'd been carrying with me for 18 years had at last found an outlet. This was one of the first
Nowhere Man interviews I'd ever done, and I had a lot to say. Like many newspaper articles published in the early 21st century (or late 20th century, if you want to be technical), "Lennon Juice" is not available online. I’ve reproduced it word-for-word below.

The Times | May 27, 2000

BOOKS


Lennon juice

____________________________________________________
After John Lennon’s murder in 1980, Robert Rosen took brief possession of Lennon’s stolen diaries. Twenty years on, he has decided to publish a controversial new account of the legend’s final years. Nigel Williamson reports

Every fan knows the story of the last chapter of John Lennon’s life. The contented, if eccentric, days he spent in the apartment he and Yoko shared in New York’s Dakota building have become part of rock ’n’ roll legend.

While Yoko looked after business, Lennon was the happy househusband, baking bread and bringing up their son Sean. It was, Ono recalled, interviewed in Metro two years ago, “the happiest time” in their entire relationship.

At least that is the official version. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of Lennon’s death, New York journalist Robert Rosen is telling a far darker tale, an account of Lennon’s Dakota days based loosely on the intimate diaries the former Beatle kept between 1974 and 1980.

There are a series of leather-bound New Yorker desk diaries, in which Lennon recorded his every action, every private thought, every dream, even his every meal. And Rosen is one of the few people alive to have read them.

Sitting over breakfast in an East London café, Rosen admits the book is certain to cause major controversy among Lennon fans. He describes the character who emerges as “a dysfunctional, tormented superstar, disintegrating under the effects of fame and living in a high-rent purgatory of superstition and fear.”

Far from being lived in domestic bliss, Lennon’s last years, waited on by a retinue of servants whose appointments had been vetted by a tarot card reader, were characterized by “boredom and pain punctuated by microseconds of ecstasy,” he says. Rosen details a myriad of slavishly followed obsessions, from numerology to vows of silence to Billy Graham. In this account, Lennon is even responsible for Paul McCartney’s 1980 incarceration for drug possession in Tokyo, having asked Yoko to put a curse on his former partner.

Past biographies have either been uncritical eulogies (Ray Coleman’s 1984 Lennon) or have magnified Lennon’s weaknesses (Albert Goldman’s 1992 Sound Bites), Rosen states. Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon is, he says, simply the truth.

“It’s a three-dimensional portrait of John that’s as honest as I could possibly make it. I hope it tells you what the neurotic experience of being John Lennon was like. It’s a journey through his consciousness, the story of the last years of his life, as seen through his eyes.” But is it? Many, including Ono and Sean Lennon, would probably strongly dispute the accuracy of the portrait and questions Rosen’s powers of accurate recall.

They will point out that the author, by his own admission, has not read the lost diaries since 1982 and that even the notes he made at the time are no longer in his possession. For legal reasons, he is forced to declare in the preface to the book: “I have used no material from the diaries. I have used my memory of Lennon’s diaries as a roadmap to the truth.”

“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel guilt. When I met Yoko my heart totally went out to her. But I’ve got a story and I’m going to tell it.”

Yet there is no dispute that the lost Lennon journals exist and that for several months in 1981 they were in Rosen’s possession. And he insists his memory is perfect. “I spent 16 hours a day for weeks on end transcribing them, and I realized that I had huge chunks of the diaries memorized. I had worked so hard on them and run them through my typewriter so many times, I had them all in my head.”

At the time of Lennon’s death at the hands of obsessive fan Mark David Chapman in December 1980, Rosen was a 28-year-old cab driver with a master’s degree in journalism. He had never met the former Beatle, but he did know Fred Seaman, the singer’s personal assistant, from college. “Twenty-four hours after Lennon’s murder, Seaman told me that while they were in Bermuda together that summer, Lennon had asked him to write the true story of his Dakota days,” Rosen recalls. “It was to be the ultimate Lennon biography and he told me, ‘It’s what John wants.’”

Six months later, in May 1981, Seaman delivered Rosen the crown jewels of the Lennon archive—six volumes of stolen personal diaries. The would-be author began transcribing them. “I’d never seen anything like it. He got it all down—every detail, every dream, every conversation, every morsel of food he put in his mouth was recorded in a perpetual stream of consciousness. I thought the story was rock ’n’ roll’s Watergate.”

When he finished, Rosen sent a detailed story based on the diaries to various publishers, including Jann Wenner, the founding editor of Rolling Stone.

Wenner alerted Yoko, who was still unaware that the diaries had been stolen. After a court case they were eventually returned to her and Seaman was convicted of grand larceny. At the same time, Ono also persuaded Rosen to join her payroll and while he was in her employment he handed over 16 of his own notebooks based on the Lennon journals. They remain in Ono’s possession to this day.

Why he has waited so many years to write the book is not entirely clear. There were legal ramifications under American copyright law, further complicated by the fact that the diaries had been stolen. “Legally, I can’t say what I would like to say,” he says. “It took me all these years to put the book together in a form that I was happy with, but I’m not allowed to say it is based upon the journals. It is a work of investigative journalism, intuition and imagination. That’s the line.”

Rosen admits to having feelings of guilt about the book and he has never taken legal steps to recover his own journals from Yoko. “I did something that wasn’t 100 per cent kosher, even though my intentions were entirely honourable. Because the diaries were stolen, I feel that I owe her something. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel guilt.

“When I met Yoko my heart totally went out to her. But I’ve got a story and I’m a professional journalist. So I’m going to tell it. This is a great story that deserves to be told.”

Ask him if he thinks Lennon ever meant the diaries for public consumption and he hesitates. “I don’t know. I think it was the basis of something he wanted out. I think his diaries were a very early rough draft of what could have been the great memoir.”

What made Lennon such a compelling subject was less his money and fame and more the contradictions within his character, Rosen says. “Every facet of his life was a paradox. Part of him aspired to follow the way—Jesus, Gandhi and whoever. The other part of him just wanted sex and drugs. Part of him wanted a perfect macrobiotic diet. Another part of him wanted chocolate chip cookies.”

Gossip and cheap innuendo or the most complete and honest portrait of Lennon yet written.

Unless Yoko decides to publish the original diaries herself, perhaps we will never really know. But fiction or non-fiction, Nowhere Man is a gripping read that no Lennon fan will be able to resist.

Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon is published by Soft Skull Press on June 1, price £14.99/£11.99.

The Key to John Lennon's Consciousness

May 9, 2015

Tags: Uncut, Nowhere Man, The Final Days of John Lennon, Nigel Williamson, Yoko Ono, Fred Seaman, Rolling Stone, Jan Wenner, The Dakota, diaries

Fifteen years ago this month, in the May 2000 issue, Uncut magazine ran as its cover story a 5,000-word excerpt from Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. The following interview, conducted by Nigel Williamson in an East London café, served as part of an elaborate introduction to the excerpt. It has never appeared online. Here it is, exactly as it ran in the magazine.

Robert Rosen is a freelance journalist living in New York. He has written for a number of US newspapers and magazines, and studied fiction writing with Joseph Heller and James Toback. He won a Hugo Boss poetry award in 1996

UNCUT: What did John Lennon mean to you personally?

ROBERT ROSEN:
I was a fan but not a hardcore fanatic. I bought Sgt Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road. When they broke up, I didn’t follow their solo careers closely. Then John Lennon moved to New York, which made me sit up and take notice. It’s my town.

What was your initial connection to John and Yoko?

I was at college with a guy called Fred Seaman. In January 1979, he got a job as John’s personal assistant. The very first day on the job, he said to me we should collaborate on a book. He’d call me every day from wherever they were and tell me all the gossip. He also had access to Lennon’s Mercedes and we’d go out in the car and hang out. I was having a total blast. Fred would score dope for John and take a cut and we’d joyride in the Mercedes and smoke John’s best weed.

So what kind of gossip were you hearing?

Fred described this guy who was locked in his bedroom all day raving about Jesus, who was out of his mind and totally dysfunctional. I took notes on everything he told me and that’s all in the book. Then in June 1980, Fred went with John to Bermuda. He claimed that while they were there John had told him that if anything should happen to him, it was Fred’s job to tell the true story of his life.

How did Seaman react when John died?

He showed up at my apartment within 24 hours. That’s really when the book begins. Fred knew John’s life wasn’t what people thought it was. The portrait they were painting in the media wasn’t true. He said, “Now’s the time to do the book.”

So at this stage you were going to collaborate on it?

Yes. I had an informal contract drawn up. He started feeding me material—not the diaries at first, but slides, pictures, snapshots. One of the first things he gave me was the Double Fantasy demo tapes.

At what point did you become aware of the diaries?

He gave me the diaries in May 1981 and I was just blown away. He was still saying “This is what John wants.” And I believed that John wanted it all to come out because that’s what I wanted to believe.

How had Seaman acquired the diaries?

They were there and he took them. After John died, he was taking box loads of stuff out of the Dakota every week. But I knew the diaries were the key to John’s consciousness.

So did you transcribe them?

I spent about five months reading and dipping into them, and then I transcribed them. His handwriting was really difficult to read and a lot of it was in code. I spent eight weeks, 16 hours a day, transcribing them. I got inside John’s head and saw the light and the truth as he saw it.

What did you feel when you first read them?

It was profound. He was isolated. If you think becoming rich and famous is going to solve your problems, it isn’t. All it does is exacerbate them. Everything that was wrong before he became a Beatle was magnified. That was the message of the diaries for me.

Did Seaman carry on working for Yoko after John died?

Until one day when he crashed the Mercedes and Yoko fired him. But he said we were still doing the project. Then I took a vacation in Jamaica and when I got back everything connected with the Lennon project was gone. Fred had the keys to my apartment.

So he took the original diaries?

They were kept in a safe deposit box to which we both had the key, so he had those. But I had transcripts and photocopies and he took all that. But then I realized that big sections of the diaries were running through my brain. I had the diaries memorized. I had run them through my typewriter so many times that I literally had them all in my head. So I wrote it all down again.

Then you went to work for Yoko. How did that happen?

I thought I had a story that was rock ’n’ roll’s equivalent of Watergate, so I went to Jan Wenner at Rolling Stone. He checked it out with Yoko. She didn’t even know about the stolen diaries until he told her. He said there was no way he could publish it, but he said he wanted to save my karma. He said the only thing I could do was tell her the story.

So you did?

I had a meeting with the attorneys from the Lennon estate at the Dakota in August 1982. I told them the whole story. They were stunned and astonished and freaked out. There was high-grade paranoia going on. They thought that maybe Fred Seaman had hired Mark Chapman to set this whole thing up. That turned out not to be true, but that was the mind-set they were in. They even thought maybe Fred would try to kill me, so they put me in a New York hotel under an assumed name and I sat there watching TV for several weeks.

So when did you meet Yoko?

I walked out one morning to buy a newspaper and Yoko’s bodyguards were waiting on the corner. They said Yoko needed to talk to me and it was an emergency. I said, “OK, but no lawyers.” I met with her at the Dakota and she asked to read my diaries. She said there was stuff in there that even she didn’t understand. She told me John’s journals were sacred. It was calculated to play on my guilt. I had read the forbidden sacred books.

And she offered to put you on the payroll?

We negotiated a token salary in the bathroom, standing on opposite sides of the toilet. They were very into the metaphor of money being shit. I went back the next day with 16 volumes of my diaries and transcripts. We spent several weeks reading them, everybody picking my brains and putting the story together. She still has them.

Did she also get the original diaries back from Seaman?

They used the information I gave them to have Fred arrested. Which was fine by me, because I was furious at him. He was convicted of grand larceny and got five years probation or something. He’s still out there posting stuff on the web claiming Yoko hired Chapman and nonsense like that.

And Yoko still has the diaries?

As far as I know. There is some suggestion that the 1980 diary might be missing. It could be sitting around in some dusty box in the Dakota.

What does your book tell us about Lennon that we didn’t know before?

It’s a three-dimensional portrait that takes you inside his head. I hope it tells you what it was like to be John Lennon, which was a really neurotic experience. There is a lot more detail about what was going on in his head than has ever appeared before. It is the accumulation of small details, the tone and the perspective.

Have you been hassled by Yoko’s people?

No, but our lawyers are in touch with her lawyers. She wanted to see the manuscript before it was printed, but that was out of the question. I have nothing against Yoko and I’d like nothing more than to be at peace with her.

Let Us Now Praise Passionate Amateurs

May 6, 2015

Tags: Pulp Informer, Beaver Street, Headpress, Swank, reviews

It's not coverage in The New York Times that keeps books like Beaver Street alive and vital four years after publication. It's the passionate amateurs, writing about what they love, who spread the word. One such writer recently posted about Swank magazine on his site, Pulp Informer, and raised a number of questions about Beaver Street.

I contacted the writer, suggested he read the book, and told him that he was well qualified to receive a review copy. He reached out to Headpress and they sent him one.

His unabashed review, illustrated with a number of photos I’d never seen (like the two above), expresses his profound appreciation of Beaver Street.

If the publishing industry is to survive as a viable, profit-making institution, it’s the multitude of sites like Pulp Informer that they can thank.

Some Days I Think About Word Counts

May 2, 2015

Tags: Joan Didion, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Bobby in Naziland

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea: 24,191 words

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's: 26,433 words

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: 27,622 words

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: 28,770 words

Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays: 32,482 words

Albert Camus, The Stranger: 36,451 words (Translated from French to English by Stuart Gilbert)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: 37,746 words

Saul Bellow, Seize the Day: 38,816 words

Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John: 41,909 words

Robert Rosen, Bobby in Naziland: 44,527 words

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?: 45,361 words

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea: 45,499 words

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: 47,104 words

Paula Fox, Desperate Characters: 47,739 words