The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

The Ballad of John and J.D.: On John Lennon and J.D. Salinger

Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye when he shot John Lennon. The murder was a collision of cultures.


“A local crackpot.” That’s how a New York City cop, quoted by a TV reporter, described the man who had just been arrested for shooting John Lennon at the entrance to the Dakota. The cop turned out to be only half right: Mark David Chapman had come from Hawaii.

I can’t find the remark in any of the accounts of December 8, 1980, but it has stuck with me for thirty years. The cop didn’t appear on camera, but the way the reporter quoted him still makes me think that I’d heard the remark straight from his mouth. Cutting through all the breaking-news urgency, through the anchors and reporters who, having failed to rise to an unthinkable occasion, fumbled for shopworn lines about the man whose music united a generation, the policeman’s words conveyed disgust, dismissiveness, a determination to keep this killer, whoever he was, in his place. Who, the cop was asking, was this nobody to have murdered John Lennon?

Chapman’s identity, as it was pieced together through the following day, was slotted into a narrative predicated on his being a nobody. He was a fat loser who couldn’t hold a job, the newscasters said, who drifted from place to place, who wrestled with mental problems. Killing John Lennon was Chapman’s shortcut to fame—just as shooting Ronald Reagan would be John Hinckley’s a few months later.

But to Chapman, the nobody was Lennon. Chapman later reportedly said that in the week before the assassination he’d been listening to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the raw and abrasive 1970 record on which Lennon purged his music of the gorgeous harmonies and studio lushness of the Beatles. And yet for everything that was stripped down about the record, it is, like the music it turned its back on, magisterial. The penultimate track, “God,” builds to a close with Lennon’s rising list of denunciations: “I don’t believe in Bible … I don’t believe in Jesus … I don’t believe in Beatles.” “Who does he think he is,” Chapman remembered thinking, “saying these things about God and heaven and the Beatles?”

“I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it…. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody.” That’s not Chapman talking, though he had wished that it was. The voice belongs to Holden Caulfield, the name that Chapman signed in the paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye that he was carrying with him when he shot Lennon. The signature appeared under the words “This is my statement.” After murdering Lennon, Chapman began reading from J.D. Salinger’s novel, which is what he was doing when the cops found him. A few months later at his sentencing hearing, asked if he wished to give a statement, Chapman offered these lines from Catcher:


Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.


Using Caulfield’s words to explain himself was taken as more proof that Chapman, who instructed his lawyer not to mount an insanity defense, was crazy. In any event, at the time it was easier to think Chapman was nuts than to think about the collision of two totems, easier than asking how many members of the American generation that had embraced John Lennon could also feel their adolescent angst was given voice by a book so opposed to everything Lennon and the Beatles had stood for. No one dwelt on that side of the story.

* * *

In the months and years after Lennon’s murder, it was as if the secret life of The Catcher in the Rye came aboveground for the first time since the book’s publication in 1951. It was found in Hinckley’s hotel room after he was arrested, and in 1989 Robert John Bardo had a copy of it on him when he murdered the actress Rebecca Schaeffer. The next year, in John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, the con man protagonist holds forth on the book’s attraction to the violently disturbed, quoting Holden’s remark that his ever-present red hat is a “people-shooting hat.” In Richard Donner’s 1997 thriller Conspiracy Theory, the mere purchase of the book at a Barnes & Noble is enough to trip a signal to the computers of an unnamed government agency. Whoever reads Catcher, it seems, is up to no good.

You could say that those events are signposts on the novel’s journey from shared totem to shared joke, or that the journey is part of the postmodern irony we’re all drowning in, when we’ve become too cool to be affected by Holden’s open wound of a psyche. But Catcher has become something even less harmless than a joke or postmodernism: a classic. The generations that once had to read it on the sly, or who saw their teachers face the ire of school boards and parents for assigning it, are now senior citizens or entering late middle age. While the book has retained its status as one of the most-censored books in American schools, that distinction now seems almost quaint. But God help The Catcher in the Rye should it ever stop being persecuted. What better confirmation for Holden’s disciples of the threat still posed by the phonies?

It’s axiomatic that Holden Caulfield is the patron saint of adolescent sensitivity, that Catcher shows the cruelty with which the world treats such sensitivity and that the novel ends with a saddened, bruised Holden poised to re-enter that world and thus aware that, to make his way in it, he has to leave his sensitivity behind. What makes it hard to sustain that image of the book is reading it. “The cruellest thing you can do to Kerouac is to reread him at thirty-eight,” says a character in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. The cruelest thing you can do to Salinger, who died a year ago, on January 27, is to reread his fiction when an adolescent’s sneer and perpetual outrage over perceived injustice no longer seem an adequate way to view the world.

If Holden Caulfield, that relentless hunter of phonies, hadn’t been there for Mark David Chapman to discover, Chapman could have invented him. Chapman’s claim that the book was his statement is disarmingly honest. Chapman, like many of us, heard the hypocrisy in John Lennon’s singing “Imagine no possessions.” But Chapman couldn’t chalk that silly line up to rock-star folly or, as Neil Young did many years later in a telethon performance to raise money for 9/11 families, rewrite the line to point it back at the person singing it: “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if I can.” Chapman, a 25-year-old with the zero-sum ethics of the most self-dramatizing adolescent, saw it as the inevitable betrayal. How dare Lennon sing about imagining no possessions while living in the Dakota?

* * *

Salinger and Lennon may each have been a touchstone for youth culture, but Lennon’s sensibility could not help irritating the preciousness of Salinger’s. Lennon was hungry, ambitious (“I came out of the fuckin’ sticks to take over the world”). His vision, even with his slashing, acerbic wit, was exclusive, expansive. (“Love you every day, girl … Eight days a week,” as if time itself could expand to encompass the parameters of his love.) He argued for living in the world openly, even foolishly. You could send two acorns to world leaders and ask each to plant a tree for peace; or spend your honeymoon in bed with your bride, invite reporters over to talk about peace and even record a new single at your bedside. Or you could do something as petty and self-serving as returning your MBE to the queen, conflating Britain’s presence in Nigeria with your new single, “Cold Turkey,” slipping down the charts.

Lennon dropped out of the public eye for five years or so after the birth of his and Yoko Ono’s son, Sean, and his victory over the witch hunt begun by President Nixon to deport him. But if you want to cut yourself off from humanity, you don’t decide to retreat to New York City. “I can go out this door now and go into a restaurant,” Lennon was quoted as saying in Jay Cocks’s Time magazine cover story on his murder. “Do you want to know how great that is?” What Lennon was saying is that, after unimaginable, isolating fame, New York offered him what might be called companionable anonymity.

As a public figure, Salinger was due the kind of freedom and anonymity Lennon enjoyed in Manhattan. But in the small town in New Hampshire to which Salinger retreated in 1953, you really can withdraw from the world. Yet for Salinger, retreat was immersion in a familiar point of view. Withdrawal—physical, emotional, spiritual—is the overriding preoccupation of his fiction. There are few authors who argue so strenuously, so consistently for exclusivity and insularity, who are so repulsed by human imperfection, especially the physical kind, as Salinger. In his fictional world compassion is extended only to those who have made the cut or whose need of compassion—like the mythical Fat Lady at the end of Franny and Zooey—can provide a vessel into which the characters can pour their higher sensibility. Empathy, a new fragrance by Chanel.

Nothing Salinger wrote takes place on as large a physical scale as Catcher, in which Holden roams over New York City. The first half of Franny and Zooey occurs in a crowded restaurant, the second half in the Glass family’s overstuffed New York apartment—and most of that in the bathroom. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is set in an uncomfortably crowded and sweltering hired car (there never seems to be enough air in any of Salinger’s locales), and then that crowd transfers to Buddy and Seymour Glass’s small, sweltering Manhattan apartment. “Seymour; an Introduction,” from 1959, never leaves the confines of Buddy’s head. Even if it did, where would we be? In his cabin in the woods, a place to squawk over the inanity of the papers his job as a college professor obliges him to grade, and a meaner version of the home his creator had retreated to six years earlier.

Just as the stories constrict physically, they retreat emotionally into realms of Eastern mysticism that, for all the words Salinger lavishes on them, remain vague astral paths to some presumed higher state of consciousness. It all starts with Way of the Pilgrim, the book that unhinges Franny; and though it’s a Christian tract, Zooey likens its aim of automatic incessant prayer to the Eastern concept of the seven chakras, the opening of the third eye and such. It’s a short hop from there to Buddy (in “Seymour; an Introduction”) saying that the true poet or painter is “the only seer we have on earth” and that Seymour’s aim, the “hallmark, then, of the advanced religious,” was to find Christ in the most unimaginable places, Seymour’s preferred spot for Savior-sighting being loaded ashtrays. Some people take those spiritual preoccupations very seriously. In his new Salinger bio, Kenneth Slawenski suggests that the reason Mary McCarthy couldn’t abide Franny and Zooey is that her memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, revealed “her disgust with religion, her descent into atheism, and the transfer of her faith into her own intellect.” The crude reduction of McCarthy’s book aside, it’s clear that acolytes, not apostates, are the ones qualified to enter Salinger’s higher realms.

The attempt to move beyond the corporeal is always, in the most fundamental sense, inhuman. In Salinger, though, it’s a pretense for a tone that’s overwhelmingly judgmental, sneering and cruel. Consider the kind of people who don’t merit sympathy in Salinger. The cracked guru Seymour Glass permanently scars a little girl’s face by throwing a stone at it because “she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway” with his sister’s cat. There are also fleeting hints that Seymour held up an impossible standard for his younger siblings to follow. “Is he never wrong?” Buddy asks on the last page of “Seymour; an Introduction.” (“Seymour; an Intervention” might have accomplished more.) But the people whose life Seymour makes hell are afforded no sympathy. Certainly not Muriel, the bride he leaves at the altar in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, because he’s “indisposed by happiness.” Muriel’s bridesmaid, worried for her friend and angered at how she’s being treated, is presented throughout the story as a meddling bitch. Salinger ends “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” before we have to register Muriel’s shock and horror at waking from her nap to find Seymour has blown his brains out. Earlier in the story we learn that Seymour calls his wife “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and by that point Salinger has already spent pages characterizing Muriel as a vapid bimbo—washing, primping and reading a crummy women’s magazine.

Salinger’s characters don’t want higher knowledge; they just want to be left alone. Franny and Zooey—which ends with Zooey’s plea to his sister, Franny, to recognize the holy in the everyday, “a cup of consecrated chicken soup”—isn’t an argument for experiencing life on a higher plane but for being superior to it. Zooey tells his sister about how Seymour chastised him for disdaining the audience of the radio show the Glass brood were all on as children by telling him to remember the Fat Lady, listening at home. “This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind,” says Zooey. “I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night.” Seymour told Franny, too, it turns out, and she pictured the Fat Lady with “very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full-blast all day!” Neither Franny nor Zooey is expected to engage with the Fat Lady, to talk to her, to get beyond her tacky furnishings or veiny legs or cancer, to see her as a person. They are performers, she is the audience, and they are expected merely to lavish their presence on her. For someone whose characters loved to talk about the phoniness of Hollywood, Salinger was outdone by the movies. In 1950, seven years before “Zooey” appeared in The New Yorker, Billy Wilder ended Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson’s crazy Norma Desmond lauding “those wonderful people out there in the dark.” The noblesse oblige Wilder satirized is what Salinger holds up as salvation.

The Catcher in the Rye, written before Salinger started larding his work with quotations from The Way of a Pilgrim and koans from the Mu Mon Kwan, can’t fall back on higher aspirations to disguise its misanthropy. The book squirms with a physical revulsion that is far too consistent and far too strong to belong merely to Holden—and besides, it remained a staple of Salinger’s writing. Salinger couldn’t get through the first paragraph of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” without having Muriel tweezing hairs from a mole. Franny imagines the Fat Lady as not just having veiny legs but cancer. Catcher has a puerile, disgusted fascination with nose-picking, toenail clippings, grotty teeth, razors clogged with hair and lather. The essentials of a prep-school wardrobe can’t disguise the unkempt bodies they adorn. At times, the novel is all pimples and tweed.

* * *

John Lennon was not above that kind of physical disgust. In the “Lennon Remembers” interviews he did for Rolling Stone in 1971, he told Jann Wenner about the nightmare of having crippled children foisted on the Beatles, as if they were capable of healing them. He said of the group’s first American tour, “When we got here you were all walking around in fucking Bermuda shorts with Boston crew cuts and stuff on your teeth…. The chicks looked like fuckin’ 1940s horses. There was no conception of dress or any of that jazz. I mean we just thought, ‘What an ugly race.’”

But Lennon was also one of the most frankly sexual rock ‘n’ roll singers, the man who was capable of bringing an erotic urgency to the Beatles’ cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” that wasn’t present in the original, and to the wry reverie of “Norwegian Wood,” his tale of a one-night stand that should have been. He was a man who, in one of the gestures of foolish bravery that caused Norman Mailer to mourn, “We have lost a genius of the spirit,” put the imperfect bodies of himself and his new lover bollocks-naked on an album cover.

It’s that kind of openness that both Holden Caulfield and his creator are incapable of imagining. In Salinger’s work, when people are not physically ugly, they are spiritually ugly: old Sally Hayes, who says “grand” and “marvelous,” and her Ivy League friend whose verdict on the Lunts is that they’re “angels.” There are the cabdrivers who can’t be asked a question without taking it as an invitation to a fight, hotel elevator operators who are pimps, bartenders who won’t talk to you unless you’re a celebrity, tourists dumb enough to think Gary Cooper has just sauntered into a shabby nightclub, and the “flits” (Salinger has a special distaste for homosexuals).

Because so many of the people who repulse Holden are Ivy Leaguers or preps or the sort who might get fawned over by a snobbish bartender, it has been easy to talk of Catcher as a book about being an outsider when really it’s the exact opposite. There are so few people who make the cut—not just in Catcher but in all of Salinger’s work—that the reader who surrenders is reduced to hoping he or she is cool enough to be admitted to this club. This is what Mary McCarthy meant when she said that the book reads us.

John Lennon read us a little, too. He couldn’t possess sarcastic wit without some sense of superiority. And yet he chose to work in the most populist art form, rock ‘n’ roll, always touting it above all the avant-gardisms and political trends he fell for. As part of the Beatles, he delineated a utopian vision that nonetheless admitted contingency, ambiguity and heartbreak, a vision in which camaraderie and love colored every aspect of life, made the work of living worthwhile: “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’d been working like a dog … But when I get home to you I find the things that you do/Will make me feel alright”; “Life is very short, and there’s no time/For fussing and fighting, my friend”—those last two words asserting the bonds always present in Lennon’s work, whether the friend was Paul McCartney or, later, Yoko (“My best friend’s me wife,” he said in a radio interview on the day he was killed).

These human bonds are denied by Holden throughout Catcher and are what Salinger had no use for in any subsequent work. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” the book ends. “If you do, you start missing everybody,” affirming silence over an admission of need. Only disconnect. It’s an attitude that puts Catcher in opposition to the great American coming-of-age novels—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Member of the Wedding, True Grit—all books in which the protagonist is brought into close contact with people very unlike the protagonist, people whose humanity he or she can’t deny.

* * *

For all the books that have been called descendants of The Catcher in the Rye, to me the closest relative to Holden Caulfield is Patrick Bateman, the serial-killer protagonist of American Psycho (1991). The sadistic torture killings Patrick inflicts on the trendy girls he picks up feel like the logical extreme of the contempt Holden shows the girls he meets in the nightclub, a demented echo of the way he recoils from the vulgarity of the prep crowd. The pages near the beginning detailing the products Patrick uses to clean and groom himself could have been inspired by the pages devoted to Zooey’s near-ritualistic ablutions.

There is, too, a connection between the era Bret Easton Ellis attempts to satirize in the book, the greed-is-good ’80s, and the time of Lennon’s murder, one month after the election of Ronald Reagan, the man who would make that era possible. In Lennon’s Rolling Stone obituary, Greil Marcus was the first person to note that “nothing like Lennon’s killing has happened before.” While Marcus was careful to say that Reagan’s election did not inspire Mark David Chapman—any more than Salinger did—he did note the confluence of Chapman’s actions with the “secret message” of Reagan’s election: “some people belong in this country, and some people don’t; that some people are worthy, and some are worthless; that certain opinions are sanctified, and some are evil.” He went on, “Such a message, which tells people they are innocent and others are to blame, can attach a private madness to its public justification.”

In 1980 John Lennon was far from the canonized figure he has become. The people who grew up with the Beatles had not yet moved into controlling positions in the media. In his Time cover story, Jay Cocks was talking about himself and his contemporaries when he wrote that some people “wondered what all the fuss was about and could not quite understand why some of the junior staff at the office would suddenly break into tears in the middle of the day.” It’s easy to dismiss Cocks’s piece for its openness of feeling. For all the things that Cocks had to do, and did exquisitely, in that piece—it was a news story, an obituary, a career retrospective—what still comes through strongest is shellshock, his disbelief that he is writing the story. Which is why it was a risk, and essential, for him to insist that the shooting was an assassination. Putting Lennon’s killing in the company of the killings that had preceded it in the previous decades is not, though, a contradiction of Marcus’s claim that this had never happened before. It had—but not to a popular artist. What both Cocks and Marcus understood was that Lennon’s murder was a symbolic murder of what he represented. Chapman was disturbed by the denunciations that ended “God,” Lennon’s brutal elaboration of Dylan’s line “don’t follow leaders.” But the Beatles, for all the adoration they inspired, stood for a vision in which people, as Marcus wrote, did not lose their identity but found it.

A vision that tells you it’s possible to live a good life and to live it your own way holds out possibilities that other visions—Reagan’s or Salinger’s—deny. Those visions judge who belongs and who doesn’t, who shuns contact with the wrong kind of people, chooses to withdraw from or tries to control the world rather than embrace it. Reagan’s America gave us the dimwit Forrest Gump as a fount of wisdom. Salinger gives us Phoebe Caulfield, and all the other little girls who turn up in his work, children who have not yet been contaminated by knowledge or experience.

Mary McCarthy called Salinger’s work a closed circuit. It can just as easily be an exclusive club, a nation drawing psychic borders around a false vision of itself, a monastery whose holy relics are those spare, monkish volumes designed by the high priest, Salinger himself. Because really, what is there to read after you’ve prostrated yourself before Salinger? What wouldn’t seem like a regression back to the dirty world? Better to immerse yourself further in the book, as Salinger’s perfect reader, Mark David Chapman, did, to open the book and turn from the still-warm body lying a few feet away.

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