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Reading: Lennon Mania

Are we really upset with Albert Goldman, who wrote the despicable biography, or with John Lennon, who lived the lamentable life?

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The central irony of John Lennon's life, it has always seemed to me, is that the Beatles, the group he created, was at once the best and the worst thing that ever could have happened to him. A born bad boy, a genuine talent with a particularly destructive capacity for leadership--a genius, by his own admission, before he reached his teens--Lennon endured a fatherless, all-but-motherless youth that despite all of the foregoing seemed marked for mediocrity. He got into art school only by the whisker of a very small mouse, and aside from a certain notoriety among certain of his peers--and being considered something of an asshole among certain others--he did little there to distinguish himself. As he proceeded through adolescence, he had reason to fear--whether or not he feared it in fact--that he might end up being a first-class loser, or possibly a happy-go-lucky one, as his father had been.

Meeting Paul McCartney, who possessed a talent that in some superficial ways was almost a match for his own, and who would go on to become the most successful songwriter and second most successful performer (after Elvis) of all time, was a double-edged sword for Lennon: on the one hand, it practically guaranteed him lasting superstardom and a place in history. On the other hand, it practically guaranteed him lasting superstardom and a place in history. McCartney--(and the duo's two sidekicks, Ringo and George) leavened Lennon's tendency to overreach and to run off half-cocked; their mutual reinforcement helped create the group's success in the first place and unquestionably sustained it; and even as their relationship was coming apart (as it most certainly was during the Beatles' peak Rubber Soul-Revolver-Sgt. Pepper phase), a heightened competitiveness produced "John songs" like "Strawberry Fields," "She Said She Said," "Norwegian Wood," and of course "A Day in the Life"--songs that fundamentally rewrote the rules of rock 'n' roll in a way that still spurs it on today.

At the same time, however, Beatledom yanked Lennon out of leathers and put him in those collarless Pierre Cardin suits; it suppressed his rebellious tendencies for more than five crucial years, and forced him into the role of a pawn in a worldwide marketing scheme that enriched almost everyone in Beatleland far more than it enriched the lads themselves. When the group broke up, with Lennon not yet 30, he might have realized that not only had he endured nearly a decade of guilt by being cast as (and, basically, until the very end, playing the part of) a performing flea that minted money, but also that he had ended up with very little, relatively speaking, of the money he had minted. He had sold himself out, and other people had received most of the proceeds. His respect for both the industry and his fans had been squandered; his leadership capacities, which might have bonded the group further or at least have made their experience with Apple something less of a debacle, disappeared into drug addictions, petty jealousies, and a growing, unfortunate cynicism; and his spectacular, seminal talent for songwriting had declined and would continue to do so (with some exceptions, like the one-of-a-kind masterpiece The Plastic Ono Band) for the rest of his life.

Now the Beatles didn't "destroy" John Lennon, and even if he could have seen the future spread out before him as he sold his soul to the devil, he would have been quite right to close the deal; to be a Beatle would have been worth it. But we who envy him should look at the other end of the deal as well: after ten years of a groupthink existence, Lennon left the band not only permanently, but with a reunion of any sort forever out of the question. Unmoored and, indeed, egged on by his new love, Yoko Ono, he made avant-garde films, adopted a revolutionary vocabulary, put out a couple of OK records and one supremely silly one (Some Time in New York City), publicly embraced drugs (an admission that has to be considered definitive when you consider that previously--before the embrace--he had acknowledged thousands of LSD trips), and generally started acting the part of First Hippie.

If, like me, you grew up in the 70s, this was the John Lennon who introduced himself to you: not the pursed-lipped mop-top of the Fab Four, or even the intellectual (if no longer musical) center of the Late Beatles, or even the fearless psyche-burner who produced Plastic Ono Band (a record that over decades still scorches). No, we had John the Hippie, who produced genuinely bad album (New York City, Mind Games) after genuinely bad album (Walls and Bridges, Rock 'n' Roll). Who produced bad records for other people (Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats). And who put out his least interesting record (and, it turned out, his last before a long silence), Walls and Bridges, even as his former partner was putting out his best, Band on the Run. In those days, even people who'd loved Lennon for years could have been tempted to rethink their attitude toward him. And for those of us who had just met him in person, as it were, as the embodiment of certain achievements in the previous decade but never as the actual producer of them, it was difficult to reconcile the image with the reality.

But somehow we did. Our feelings went far beyond tolerance, came close, in fact, to love. Where Ringo was dismissably cute, George disturbingly strange, Paul sometimes OK but suspiciously maudlin--indeed, where Dylan was depressing, the Stones boring, and the Who moribund--John Lennon, retained our affection and somehow, particularly during the quiet years, earned more of it and gained our respect back as well. Some people liked him because of that natural glint of leadership; others because he was "the clever one," the conceptualist and barrier breaker; others as an antidote to Paul. I liked him because he was honest: deliberately, self-laceratingly, hurtfully, painstakingly, and gleefully honest. He wasn't without his moments of self-delusion, cruelty, or wrongheadedness, but he said what he believed and put himself out on the line when he said it. Such forthrightness was much more common then; even Paul the diplomat could be quite trenchant. Still, Lennon stood out, and today he stands out more. The Beatles' legacy is a largely musical one, and it is formidable; Lennon's legacy is one of sensibility, and for all its vacillations, self-indulgences, impulsiveness, and inconsistencies, it is as important, kept alive today in personalities as diverse as Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, and Bono. When, after a silence of five years, Lennon gave us a new album, Double Fantasy, we cared less about its quality (interesting lyrically and textured musically, but marred by a bunch of stuff from Yoko) than the fact that Lennon was communicating again with at least a few senses intact. In interviews as on record (particularly in the definitive Playboy session), he was a quieter John Lennon, true, but he was still edgy and self-important, funny and honest. As a teen in Liverpool, it is said, he would stick his face into those of bus passengers and shout, "I'm John Lennon!" He could have done the same thing the day before he died. Some people mistakenly believe that that is what killed him, but I don't think that's so. He wasn't shot because he was John Lennon; he was shot because he was a Beatle--sadly enough, the identity he'd spent the last ten years of his life trying to throw off.

Eight years after the murder, Lennon's sainthood is a bit tarnished, particularly by Yoko Ono's continuing exploitation of his name and music. Milk and Honey, the posthumous successor to Double Fantasy, was touching but rough; like Fantasy, it disperses Ono songs evenly among the Lennon. Me, I don't like many of Yoko Ono's excursions into pop (I don't like much of anything she does, to tell you the truth), but John did, and before his death he'd planned the Fantasy follow-up that way, so fine. But Menlove Avenue--an album of outtakes and alternate takes from Rock 'n' Roll (John's oldies album) and Walls and Bridges--was pushing things, as was Heart Play, a record made up mostly of John and Yoko talking. Live in New York, another posthumous release, was interesting, though not as compelling as Live Peace in Toronto. (Albert Goldman, in his new biography of Lennon, says that Ono tinkered with the film made to accompany Live in New York, reediting it to boost her profile; she's seen playing an electric piano that a band member said was unplugged.) Ono's use of her husband's bloody eyeglasses on the cover of Season of Glass was patently tasteless, and her initial approval of the use of "Revolution" on a Nike commercial was way out of line. I'd be happier if we didn't hear anything at all from Lennon for a while.

But that is wishful thinking in 1988. We have been inundated with a flood of Lennoniana. Most notoriously there is Goldman's new and very hostile biography, The Lives of John Lennon, the work of an exhumer-author who has done similar, though nowhere near as hostile, jobs on Elvis and Lenny Bruce. As an antidote, reportedly, Ono has OK'd the preparation of a film-book-record ensemble called Imagine John Lennon, featuring a lot of never-before-seen footage and photos and music. Elsewhere we have The Lennon Companion, which sounds like an encyclopedia but is actually just a collection of articles and reviews, and the soon-to-be-released The Beatles: Recording Sessions (The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes 1962-1970), of which I've read only a scintillating excerpt in Musician about the Revolver sessions. This book's author, Mark Lewisohn, also gave us the extraordinarily detailed The Beatles Live a couple of years ago. Finally, we have former Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo's silly McCartney bio, Yesterday.

On the Goldman book more in a minute. What unites the other entries is frivolity. Chet Flippo's book may or may not contain some significant reporting about the Beatles' early years; the first few chapters seem substantial to me, but the rest of the book is a rehash, slight even by the standards of the quickie rock bio, which leads me to suspect that in the early chapters Flippo is simply copping from a couple of books that I've never read (or seen, to tell you the truth: Pete Best's Beatle! and Alan Williams's The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away; both titles, incidentally, are a bit overstated). Flippo was at one point a relatively respected Rolling Stone writer; this book, particularly as a follow-up to his even slighter, look-here's-a-picture-of-me-and-Mick On the Road With the Rolling Stones, isn't going to do his career any good. Yesterday is written in a dopey, hokey fashion; about a third of the way through, when your interest starts waning, you realize that Flippo thinks it's a style:

"[The Beatles] were instant pop royalty. They quickly got used to the sharp intakes of breath--'Gasp! There's a Beatle!'--when they would appear anywhere. So they had to quit appearing anywhere.

"Within a year or so they would be truly graven into stone when they would each be awarded England's MBE, thus being named Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire--a really big deal. Paul insists that they didn't actually smoke a joint in the john at Buckingham Palace. It was just a quick cigarette and of such clouds of smoke are Beatle rumors wafted."

Thin, thin, thin--and John Lennon looms over the book like an avenging angel.

The Lewisohn book on the Abbey Road sessions looks like it might be one of the most important books ever on the Beatles. The "Official" in the title means that Lewisohn had access to alternate takes and to most of the engineers and producers (as well as to George Martin); these recording sessions are the great final frontier in Beatleology. John and, to a lesser extent, Paul have told us why they wrote certain songs, but no one, not even George Martin in his book All You Need Is Ears, has told us how in this detail. Watch for it.

The Lennon Companion, edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman, has a mock academic tone (by which I mean not that it lacks seriousness but that its highfalutin footnoted introduction is inappropriate to the olio of print excerpts that follow) and prides itself for being the first Beatles compendium from Britain. What it actually is--cuttings from the Times of London and the odd article from Cosmopolitan, the UK radical organ Red Mole, the Observer, and so forth--is dull, unless you're really truly, interested in what Martin Amis had to say about Lennon's death, which turns out--surprise!--to be a lot about Martin Amis. What we need along these lines is a genuine compendium that could trace, for example, the critical reception accorded to both Beatle and Lennon albums over the years in the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, and other serious publications. The Lennon Companion isnt it. (Closer to the mark, incidentally, is the exploitive but more thorough Ballad of John and Yoko, a compilation volume by Rolling Stone published shortly after Lennon's death.)

As for the Yoko-sanctioned project, Imagine John Lennon, I haven't heard the record or seen the movie as yet; the book has some genuinely distinctive photographs from the Lennon-Ono vaults. The "text," by Andrew Solt and Tim Egan, who together "wrote" the movie, leans toward reinforcement of most of the Lennon mythology, particularly and unsurprisingly the part of it that covers John and Yoko's eternal love. The movie, which is said to include "home movies" from the Dakota and a lot of rarely seen footage, might be nice; I've got a thing about coffee-table books, however, and can't recommend the volume.

Which brings us to Albert Goldman. As I write this, the predictable attacks on him are just beginning; Rolling Stone's full-scale barrage, however, is pretty unconvincing. If you're unfamiliar with Goldman's work, you should know that he is a longtime pop-culture maven, old fogy division; he wrote in the 60s for Life and other mainstream publications, and he has spent the last 15 years or so on a trio of biographies of (dead) stars: Lenny Bruce, Elvis Presley, and now Lennon. It took people a while to catch on, but it's now clear that Goldman specializes in hatchet jobs on long-dead people whom he professes to admire; also clear is his modus operandi, which is to latch on to a couple of disaffected employees, debrief them, and then ratchet up their horror stories and downplay anything positive. In Elvis's case, it was his onetime gofer Lamar Fike; in Lennon's, it's a number of people, but predominantly it seems to be a dismissed assistant, Fred Seaman; a dealer with the pseudonym "Kit"; and a onetime friend of Yoko's named Marnie Hair. The three combine to give Goldman's breathtakingly vicious first chapter a dark, dark portrait of life at the Dakota--an astonishing kick.

Anyway, that's what's causing all the ruckus, and indeed Goldman is a very unpleasant person. I'd like to take a minute, however, to approach Goldman and The Lives of John Lennon from a different angle. First of all, it does none of us any good to sanitize the lives of our heroes; it's unhealthy and dumb. Second, Goldman, unlike most rock biographers and almost anyone who's ever written about the Beatles, does his homework. The respectful books we've seen on Lennon--from Ray Coleman's benign, two-volume Lennon to Anthony Fawcett's One Day at a Time--are unbearable in their lack of distance from their subject. The racier ones--May Pang's Loving John and Dakota Days, by Yoko's seer, John Green--are more interesting, but they're still superficial and, because they are generally written by disaffected hangers-on, necessarily one-sided. Here, finally, we have a book about Lennon that has not been expurgated (like Hunter Davies's The Beatles), not been Yokoized (like Imagine), is not the product of a divorce (Cynthia Lennon's A Twist of Lennon), and has been written by something approaching a practicing journalist-scholar-author who, however distasteful his style, can actually write (unlike, among others, Coleman). This is not the only serious look at Lennon we have--The Love You Make, splendidly written by Stephen Gaines from the recollections of longtime Beatle business associate Peter Brown, was the first book to focus on Lennon as the center of the Beatles and is searingly perceptive on his life generally--but you have to give Goldman, who says that his book is the product of six years and 1,200 interviews, credit for going out and doing the work. The same goes for his Elvis book: sure it was nasty, but Elvis deserved it, the jerk, and so did all the teary-eyed worshipers who helped kill him.

So when you read about this book--as you continue reading here--remember that it is a well-detailed, 700-page volume that may well become the definitive gathering of information on John Lennon. You, like me, may be quite unhappy that a slimy dog like Goldman is the one who did it: that's life. But it is a serious book, and before all of us Lennon fans get upset about it, we should question whether we're really upset at Goldman, who did the work, or at Lennon, for leading a life that could be construed in this way. Or at ourselves, for doubting whether the life of John Lennon is a match for Goldman's Lives of John Lennon.

That said, you should know that Goldman goes quite beyond the pale. A sneering, almost nauseating bile coats nearly every page. The first chapter, which opens with John and Yoko in their respective universes--she taking her daily heroin, he padding around naked, anorexic, drugged-out, and infantile, abusing his wife and children, obsessed with marijuana, porn magazines, and food--is particularly sharp, Goldman's effort to start the book off with a bang. During a visit by Marnie Hair, Yoko's friend, John comes sauntering down the hall nude--his preferred mode of dress, Goldman says. "He can sit naked by the hour with his feet up on the butcherblock table and his dick lying in his lap like a sleeping pet . . ." Goldman says that John is obsessed with cleanliness and bathes "a dozen times a day" and washes his hands and face "twice as often." (With Lennon spending almost every waking moment in the bathroom--a total of 36 trips over, say, 16 hours--one wonders when he had a chance to beat his wife or take drugs. Perhaps it was to save time between baths that he walked around naked, a practice, one can be sure, that author Goldman studiously avoids in the privacy of his own home.) John rants about assassinations, is cruel to his help, is pathetically deferential to Yoko (when he isn't beating her), and is pathologically concerned about food. At chapter's end, for no reason, Goldman switches to a description of one of Lennon's most powerful songs, "Mother," from the Plastic Ono Band album of nearly a decade before. The cut, the first of Lennon's primal scream efforts, is about his separation from his mother; as it ends, Lennon gets some of his primal anguish down on tape. This is how Goldman describes the moment and ends his first, dizzying chapter:

"Suddenly, though, the voice changes. A terrifying uprush of emotion, like a hysteric's fit, comes bursting out. Lennon screams first for his mother, then for his father. Then he just screams and screams! But his screams aren't the open-throated hollering of a gospel singer or the abandoned shrieking of the horror movie. His screams are so strangled they sound like retching. John Lennon is struggling to throw up his past. But no matter how hard he heaves, he can't get it out of his system."

That is a sufficient example of the tone of the book as a whole. Goldman's making no particularly profound point, here or elsewhere; he's just being cruel and rather repulsive, which is why he describes John and Yoko's first sexual encounter as "mating" and revels in hints that John was not only bisexual but into rough trade (with Brian Epstein) as well. The Love You Make broke the John-had-an-affair-with-Brian story, and big deal. Goldman discusses Epstein's interest in S and M, more old news, and then goes on to say: "There is nothing to suggest that John Lennon was mixed up in this part of Brian's life; but, on the other hand, virtually nothing is known about John's private adventures of this period"--a charming innuendo. John also gobbled groupies like, well, the world's biggest rock star, and, yes, slept with other women while he was married to Yoko. Still, he was "sexually ashamed."

For a professed expert on pop culture, Goldman gets a lot of things wrong. Pink Floyd's producer is Bob Ezrin, not Ezra. (There are about half a dozen major typos in Lives.) All Things Must Pass is a three-record, not a four-record, set. It was Ringo, not John, who when asked, "Are you a mod or a rocker?" replied, "I'm a mocker." Goldman spends a big paragraph explaining why "Drive My Car" is an essential John Lennon song, apparently unaware that Paul wrote it. (Paul sings it, it's a typically superficial McCartney "story song" a la "Lovely Rita," and John himself attributes it to Paul in the Playboy interview.) This error of fact doesn't deter Goldman from attributing to John a groundbreaking talent for "song parody"--again, far more a characteristic of Paul, with his dance-hall arrangements and his supple, protean voice.

There are also indications that Goldman doesnt know much about pop music. A case in point is the way he passes along one of John's more farfetched utterances, that groups like the B-52s (and by extension other dance-oriented new wave bands like Talking Heads) were inspired by Yoko's experimentalism in the early 70s. This claim was prompted by the song "Rock Lobster," which Lennon heard once in a disco; it featured squeaks and squeals just like Yoko's. But those were just "lobster sounds," ancillary to the song; Yoko Ono was of little inspiration to the new wave, and a pop-culture "expert" like Goldman ought to know it.

OK, so people make mistakes. Unfairness, thoroughgoing unfairness, is different. After a bad crowd scene, Yoko "claims" to have been hit with a rock. John and Yoko "demand" a huge bed--in Piccadilly Circus? on the White House lawn? No, in their new home. (Another case, one assumes, of the very rich being different from you and me.) Goldman says that Lennon "squandered" money; in the same paragraph, after being advised to cut down on spending, Lennon is a "skinflint." Lennon is given credit for nothing. When Cynthia becomes pregnant, Goldman cackles at the blanching of John's face, but doesn't dwell on Lennon's difficult decision to marry her. Similarly, he twits at Lennon's immigration lawyer, who operated under the delusion that his client was "an innocent victim of the antidrug zealots of the government," which seems to me to be exactly what Lennon was in his four-year battle to stay in the U.S.

And if Goldman's affection for Lennon is strained, it is entirely absent for his wife, Yoko Ono. Unlike most of the people who hate Yoko Ono, I'm familiar with most of her work. I don't hate her, but I think most of her output in the rock idiom is rather lame. And, again, her ostentatious cloak of widowhood, even while churning out the product and the merchandising, is disappointing. All of which is fair comment. But Goldman's prose drips with hate. The opening scene of a 700-page book on John Lennon features Yoko Ono buying heroin; it's an interesting fact, but not a central one. "Yoko's fear of bearing children," Goldman writes, "was also closely connected to her art, which was all conception and no delivery." It's a funny line (one of about three in the book), but it's also remarkably prudish and, again, finally quite cruel when put in the context of Ono's several miscarriages. Goldman relishes Yoko's moments of pain: At one point, after a long bout of negotiations in a bitter, drawn-out custody battle with a former husband, it seems that Yoko will finally be able to see her child, Kyoko, again. Goldman sneers when the meeting falls through: "Their dream was over," a reference to the line on Plastic Ono Band.

A consequence of Goldman's disgust for Yoko is his utter inability to explain the couple's relationship. Goldman meticulously details their infidelities and periods of separation; if you werent familiar with their story you'd spend the last two-thirds of the book eagerly awaiting their breakup. For songs like "Drive My Car" we get a page of analysis; hardly mentioned are the dozen or so songs John wrote specifically for Yoko, and the fact that half of them were recorded in the last months of his life, and the repeated protestations of love between them, and the affectionate poses they'd strike for any photographer around. The assertions and suggestions fall over one another. Yoko wanted to divorce John. John wanted to do a solo album, but Yoko wouldn't let him. But John is quoted as saying he wanted Double Fantasy to make Yoko a star. And if John really didn't like Yoko anymore, how come all of his songs are about her? If their relationship was over, what was to be gained by continuing the myth of it? For PR's sake? But most of the world hated Yoko! Goldman's portrait of the pair just doesn't hold water. His mountain of muck on Yoko can be dissipated in a single sentence: But they stayed together, worked together, lived together, made records together, and publicly proclaimed their love together almost continuously for dozen years. John loved her; she loved John. It's as simple as that, and nothing in Goldman's complications addresses those facts.

I said there were two other funny lines; I'll mention them so you won't have to get the book. The first occurs at the Toronto Live Peace concert, with John strung out. "Can you get us some coke, man?" he asks the young promoter.

"No problem!" the promoter says, snapping his fingers. "Dennis, six Cokes over here right now!"

The other occurs during Lennon's "lost weekend," his alcoholic nine-month hiatus from Yoko in LA. Lennon and his roving gang are destroying his manager's apartment. Suddenly the cops bust in, brandishing shotguns. There's a moment of silence, then one young cop breaks it with a surefire way of provoking John's rage: "Do you think the Beatles will get back together?" "You never know," said John. "You never know."

"Lies, lies, lies," say Goldman's critics. That's not the point. It's likely he exaggerates, but a biography telling us that John did heroin, acted oddly after having been a Beatle for ten years, supped on the fruits of groupiedom, or fought with his strong-willed wife is hardly something to raise our eyebrows about. And yeah, Goldman's a sleaze, but we knew that too. Debating the sensational aspects of the book is falling into Goldman's trap.

What's important is what's not there, an important part of which is Goldman's above-mentioned failure to deal with John and Yoko's relationship on any level. Unlike most biographers, he doesn't feel compelled to try to explain to us why John Lennon, notoriously flighty and cruel when it came to women, would fall in love with the aggressive and uncompromising Yoko Ono, or why she, the Sarah Lawrence alum who rejected Scarsdale for the Manhattan underground scene, would reciprocate it.

If he did that, you see, he'd have to follow up with a larger, more important question, one that he assiduously avoided or, conceivably, that simply never occurred to him in his hate-filled researches. If he began to wonder why Yoko Ono loved John, he'd have to wonder why we did--why we did and continued to, through bed-ins and silly pronouncements, through good albums and bad, through heroin and reclusion. Now audience identification with media heroes isn't news, and infatuation hits Patrick Swayze, Jackie Collins, and David Cassidy as well as Lennon. But that doesn't explain why the world mourned Lennon's death, or why sometimes it still hurts to page through a picture book like Imagine. Wasn't there something about John Lennon? People bought more of Paul's records, lots more by a factor of ten, probably, but they loved John more. Paul was the quintessential Beatle; John couldn't bear the restriction.

John Lennon was, in fact, something more than a Beatle. Albert Goldman doesn't talk about things like love, for all the reasons I've listed and more. If he'd cared at all about Lennon, or thought about why other people might have, he would have been led to some compassion for his sad end. It's not that the book lacks a few closing lines about the world's loss (which it does), but that it fails to put its subject's life in perspective--to acknowledge in some way the forces that society applies to people like the young John Lennon, or the price the terrible art of superstardom extracts. This is all John talked about the last decade of his life: his disorientation as a child; the sacrifices made by the Beatles; his conversions to feminism, to something approaching political awareness, to peace work, to relative stability in the last half of the 70s. Lennon talked openly about his cruelty, his drugs, his bad records. He was still John Lennon. He knew that; we did, too. Only Albert Goldman seems to have been left out of the secret.

The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman. William Morrow, $22.95.

Imagine John Lennon by Andrew Solt and Sam Egan. Macmillan, $39.95.

The Lennon Companion, edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman. Schirmer Books, $19.95.

The Beatles: Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn. Harmony Books, $24.95.

Yesterday by Chet Flippo. Doubleday, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. Nelson.

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