Selling the Legend

The Age (Australia) July 11, 1998

Photograph Smile

flowers.gif (5111 bytes)

EVERY day at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, the pilgrims arrive at the Dakota apartment building. The truly reverential bring flowers to be left as close as the doormen will permit to the spot where John Lennon was cut down by a lunatic's bullet almost 18 years ago. Others place notes of grief and loss on the cast iron railings.

And every year, on the morning after the annual climax of emotion that marks the December anniversary of his death, the sidewalk bears a waxed and splotchy pallor from all the dripping candles that flickered the night before.

In New York, grief for Lennon has become the focus of a maudlin industry that touches not merely the rest of the country but indeed, the entire world. Those who revere the slain Beatle still find that fact hard to accept, while some - the ones who truly believe that all you need is love - may even be inclined to take offence at the very idea of anybody calculating their hero's worth in dollars and cents.

Yoko Ono, however, is not one of them.

While the faithful arrive at the Dakota to venerate their secular saint, the keeper of his flame is likely to be hard at work in a dark and gloomy ground-floor apartment just metres from the votive offerings. There is always another deal for Yoko to cut in the memory of her working class hero: mugs with images of his sketches, memorabilia to be bought up and resold, T-shirts to be hawked, auctions to be gingered, in-laws to be evicted. Or in the case of John's eldest boy, Julian, an aggrieved stepson to be kept at bay.

Julian was at it again last week. Peeved that a London concert had been ""screwed up major league'' by a faulty mixing system, the 35-year-old performer vented his anger not at the sound technicians but at his perennial target: the woman who took his father away from his own mother, John's first wife, Cynthia.

""To be selling off his art work in limited editions etched into marble and to take his other art work, which is on silk ties, is not what he is about,'' Julian snapped, explaining that the Thinking Man's Beatle was ""not about commercialism''.

That may seem a strange thing to say about one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, a man whose group spawned moulded plastic Beatle wigs, Fab Four chocolate bars - even Beatles Y-fronts. But there remains a certain truth to Julian's charge. By the time of his death, Lennon had surrendered full financial control to Yoko. While he spent stoned and solitary weeks watching TV through a pair of prismatic glasses, the Lennon household's bank balance became such a fixation for her that, as the late Albert Goldman wrote in his bitchy best-seller, The Lives of John Lennon, one of the couple's former lawyers openly feared she might ""kill herself if she ever went broke''.

Yoko's latest counter-attack on Julian was fast and sharp. Her PR team has had plenty of experience. He had slammed her in the past, growing particularly heated when she moved to boot two of John's relatives from the homes that he had bought for them. And three years ago, before Julian managed to prise his slice of the inheritance from the Lennon estate, which she controls, Yoko's mouthpieces were fond of citing her stepson's problem with drugs as the reason she would not loosen the purse strings. Now that he is clean and sober, that charge no longer washes.

Where did Julian come off criticising Yoko when he himself was receiving royalties from Free as a Bird, the ""new'' Beatles song released two years ago and based upon a recording of Lennon's vocals that Yoko had dug out of her archives? ""To the best of my knowledge he cashed the cheques,'' sneered Yoko's spokesman.

That put-down inspired Julian's return to a state of sullen silence. Still, one can't help thinking that his father's posthumous trips to the recording studio are not the issue. What Julian really detests is a rolling roadshow of Lennonism, a collection of posters and reproduced paintings that has been touring America non-stop since 1990. Touching down at shopping malls and college cafeterias, it's what Yoko calls a tribute to John's genius - an appraisal his fans endorse with millions of dollars but which leaves the critics unimpressed.

One art writer observed that it should have been titled ""Poor Julian'' since not one of the exhibits depicted the Beatle's first-born. Then there is Julian's lingering bitterness about his inheritance. While the contract he signed with Yoko prohibits him from revealing how much he received in his 1996 settlement, the sum was widely reported to be no more than $40million. If Yoko died tomorrow, her own son, 22-year-old Sean, would get 12 times that amount.

Nor is there any shortage of tales about Yoko's predatory manipulation of the booming market for Lennon memorabilia - not to mention the way her husband's relics have provided such a handy boost to her own recording career.

In 1985, for example, the piano on which Lennon was reputed to have composed some of his greatest hits was offered as the grand prize in a contest to promote the release of Yoko's latest album. Won by a Lennon fanatic in Minneapolis, the cigarette-scarred Steinway was later sold for $25,000 to a local bar owner, who made it the centrEpiece of a phone-in raffle.

Though the cost was $4.99 per call to a special toll line, 300,000 responses poured in - so many that the publican paid the winner a $25,000 lump sum in order to offer the piano for private sale. He won't reveal the final price, nor identify the buyer except to say that it went to ""Japanese interests''.

And why do Lennon's possessions command such a high price? Well, the London literary agent Gillon Aitken offers his personal experience to explain how Yoko plays the auction market.

In 1981, Aitken journeyed to New York with high hopes of getting Yoko to write a touching tribute to the love of her life. While his visit happened to coincide with the first anniversary of Lennon's murder, Yoko and her new lover entertained him in jolly style.

Back in London, Aitken had written off the trip as a wild goose chase when Yoko rang with a plea that he attend a Sotheby's auction of rock memorabilia. He was to bid on her behalf for a list of her husband's former possessions, including one she insisted was the most cherished item of them all - a small, medallion-shaped self-portrait Lennon had dashed off as a birthday card to a friend. ""We must have it! We must have it back,'' Aitken recalls her saying in a voice tinged with manic fervor. ""You must get it at any cost! At any cost!'' A dutiful Aitken did Yoko's bidding, pushing a bundle of Lennon's old albums to 650 ($A1700), and an old suit to an astonishing $7280. In both cases he lost his nerve and allowed the items to go to rival buyers. So when the birthday card finally came on the block, his zeal to make amends was palpable. Listed in the catalogue at just $520, Aitken went after it with a dedication that pushed the bids beyond all reason. By the time he once again dropped out, Lennon's simple cartoon of himself sitting cross-legged and naked had been knocked down for $20,800 (8000).

Dreading having to explain his failure, Aitken called Yoko to break the bad news.

""Jesus, Gillon!'' he recalls her exclaiming as he made his apologies. ""You're fantastic, fantastic. You're a genius. You're unbelievable. 8000 for a medallion! You got the other guy to pay 8000 for a medallion!

""Why,'' she added with immense satisfaction, ""we've got hundreds of medallions like that one!''