It’s a little too easy to ridicule the absurd premise at the heart of The Lennon Prophecy (New Chapter Press, 2008), Joseph Niezgoda’s examination of John Lennon’s death. In 1960, the author says, 20-year-old Lennon, in the depths of desperation and despair over a musical career going nowhere fast, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 20 years of unprecedented success, fame, and fortune. And in 1980, when Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into Lennon in front of the Dakota, the killer was not acting as a lone nut or a CIA-programmed Manchurian candidate. Rather, Chapman was an agent of the devil himself, ending the ex-Beatle’s life so that Satan could drag his soul to hell, thus fulfilling Lennon’s Faustian contract.
But I’m not going to ridicule this book for two good reasons. The first is that I enjoyed reading it—as a work of entertainment (which is more than I can say for a lot of other “mainstream” Beatles books that critics have treated far more respectfully). Niezgoda, who describes himself as a Beatles “fan, collector, and scholar,” kept me intrigued and—with the exception of an incomprehensible chapter on Finnigan’s Wake, in which the author claims James Joyce predicted Lennon’s death—turning the pages.
The second reason is that Niezgoda is a decent writer who, though he didn’t interview any of the people he wrote about, did an enormous amount of research into all kinds of arcane subjects, like numerology, a passion of Lennon’s. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he did more research on numerology than I did for Nowhere Man, and that’s saying a lot.
Though I can’t say he convinced me that Lennon sold his soul to Satan, Niezgoda did make me stop and reconsider a number of things that I’ve always attributed to Lennon’s hunches or instinct—his acute sensitivity and ability to perceive what less sensitive people couldn’t. Why, for instance, was Lennon so sure he was going to die, as he told his assistant, Fred Seaman? And even if you don’t take literally the lyrics of one of his last songs, “Living on Borrowed Time,” the fact of the matter is, five months after he wrote it, he was dead.
Niezgoda’s modus operandi was to take all the “Paul-is-dead” clues—I’ll not enumerate them here; there are hundreds, and they’re all over the Internet—and reinterpret them as clues that predict Lennon’s death.
Anybody of a certain age who got caught up in this elaborate game as it was happening, circa 1969—yes, I was one of those people who spun “Revolution 9” backward—is going to get a nostalgic kick out of The Lennon Prophecy. It amazes me that such a multitude of Beatles fans became so obsessed with these clues that 40 years later some of them continue to write books about them.
But to take this book seriously, as something more than a work of entertainment, would be to overlook the profound problems with the logic of Niezgoda’s premise—even if one accepts the existence of Satan. For example, Niezgoda doesn’t explain why Lennon didn’t go solo after he sold his soul to the devil. Why did he need Paul, George, and Ringo when he had Satan on his side? Is the author suggesting that the other Beatles got a free ride to fame and fortune on Lennon’s soul, which would be an extraordinarily generous gesture for a man who traffics so intimately with The Evil One?
And what about all the other groups who rose to prominence around the same time, like the Rolling Stones? They were certainly more “satanic” than the Beatles. (See the LP Their Satanic Majesties Request and listen to “Sympathy for the Devil.”) Did the Stones sell their souls? If so, why didn’t they achieve an equal amount of fame and fortune? Was John Lennon a better negotiator than Mick Jagger?
Finally, Niezgoda ignores a well-documented fact that would have blown his whole premise: Toward the end of his life, Lennon briefly accepted Jesus—he was “born again.” According to Niezgoda, the power of Jesus Christ can overcome the power of the devil. If Lennon could have avoided eternal damnation by accepting Jesus, why didn’t he stay with it for more than two weeks?
It’s only one of many questions in this short but intriguing book for which Niezgoda provides no answers—because there are no answers. Like God and the devil, when it comes to The Lennon Prophecy, you just gotta take it on faith.