Monday, November 8, 2010

(Hideous) Silver Commemorative John Lennon Coin Issued by United Kingdom Royal Mint; Two Cleopatras

"Imagine" John Lennon's face pictured on an English Five Pound Silver Coin.........

Previously, I would have said that I would have found that extremely difficult to do, but last week the United Kingdom Royal Mint removed  the agency of imagination from the equation by actually awarding Lennon a graven berth on official silver and gold UK currency, joining previous "special coin" honorees William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale.

Sadly, the Mint has created a totally pedestrian image of the great man.

I think everyone probably has their favorite mental picture of the leader Beatle.  Lennon was a flamboyant man in a flamboyant business and provided during his career a variety of hair, clothing and accessory styles and attitudes suitable for memorialization, to choose from. 

Personally,  I would have preferred a coin pose based on Lennon's "Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus" television performance of  "Yer Blues", showing John clad in proto-Working Class Hero denim, still looking youthful, totally engaged and incredibly cool.

Possibly something from the long hair and beard "Bed Peace" period would have conveyed the essential, transgressive Lennon, hiding in plain sight amid bedclothes and an aureole of hair and glasses, but always projecting a deliberate, aggressive image. An engraving of the iconic photograph showing an exuberant John giving the "V" sign in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York City after resolving his Nixon-era immigration problems would have been incredibly cool and "disruptive" (as they like to say these days), although this obviously would have been an unlikely choice for the Mint.  (Money connoting stability probably hews closer to their party line.)

Regarding the question of John Lennon appearing on money at all, I'm ok with that.  Lennon's version of  Barrett Strong's  "Money" (written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford) on the Plastic Ono Band's Live Peace In Toronto lp is killer (Yoko Ono's idiotic writhing around in the large bag notwithstanding).  And in "Revolution", John wrote an exceptionally fine, somewhat enigmatic song, that still has me saluting his brave and thoughtful qualities as a writer and reveling in his talents for melody and rhythm.  Because John apparently could live with many contradictions and provided such pleasure and, to a degree, guidance in my life, I feel that I can endeavor to struggle through the odd sight of his visage on a piece of medium-denomination metal money.

Unfortunately, the Mint's selection and rendering of its John Lennon image is Dumb, Dull and Inert -- all anti-star, anti-John Lennon qualities. The Mint, of all people, should know that Money Portraits need to be the "Money Shot" every time.

Cleopatra VII coin, ca. 40 BC

I was reminded of this recently when I visited the Cleopatra exhibition currently on view at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  This is a fascinating and extremely moving show showcasing the results of recent archeological excavations conducted in and around Alexandria, Egypt, whose goal is to enlarge our understanding of the remarkable life of Cleopatra VII (b. 69 BC -- d. 30 BC).   The exhibition includes some remarkable sculptural and numismatic portraits of the queen that depict a beautiful, highly intelligent looking woman -- images that contradict later, revisionist post-Actium Roman renderings intended to present the vanquished Egyptian ruler as physically unattractive and unformidable.

Cleopatra VII coin, ca. 36 BC

I've included above pictures of some interesting Egyptian Cleopatra VII coins produced by her Royal Mint in Alexandria. Below are pictures of currency showing her remarkable daughter, Cleopatra Selene II (b. 40 BC -- d. 6 BC), who later ruled as Queen of Mauretania in North Africa, along with her husband King Juba II (b. 52 BC -- d. 23 AD), who was born a prince of Berber descent prior to becoming an important Roman ally.  I'm fascinated by Cleopatra Selene's story and intend to explore it in depth in the future.


Juba II and Cleopatra Selene II coins (both coins show Juba II portrait and Latin inscription "Rex IUBA" on face; top coin shows  Cleopatra Selene II portrait on reverse, bottom coin shows Cleopatra Selene II symbol and Greek inscription "BACILICCA KLEOPATRA" on reverse).

Cleopatra Selene is buried along with her husband in the Mausolium he erected (on the road between Algiers and Chercell in contemporary Algeria).  The edifice bears a moving inscription, composed by the queen herself, reading:

The moon herself grew dark, rising at sunset,
Covering her suffering in the night,
Because she saw her beautiful namesake, Selene,
Breathless, descending to Hades,
With her she had had the beauty of her light in common,
And mingled her own darkness with her death.
As a self-portrait in death composed by a still-living person, I struggle to decide whether this is elegiac or funerary.  I'll go with the former because it keeps memory alive and vital.

Royal Mausolium of Mauretania (erected 3 BC)

The tearing, harsh recollection of John Lennon's murder is still with us, but so are the art and the warm memories he left.  No amount of journalistic blather or raking-through-the-ashes-for-commercial-purposes-more-pointless-remix-ventures-surely-to-come (I'm certain that John had highly developed and severe editorial judgement and would be appalled to see his deliberate discards fished from the trash) can erase those.  

I feel very lucky to have experienced The Beatles' career in what they now like to call "real time".  

In retrospect, that era  -- its beginning, its middle and its end -- seems really exceptional and affected me so deeply that it continues to define in many ways my reality.


  1. Always afraid of looking "fat," JL would have been mortified by the chipmunk cheeks he is made to sport here. And those prim humorless lips! This resembles George Will more than John.

    It looks like they worked from a photo circa Imagine, when John had traded his primal-scream buzz cut and denims for upper east side chic.

    Not his most original look, maybe, but beautiful as always. And even his changes in a more prosaic direction made you think. Adoption of 1970s hip urban normalcy reminded one of Dylan's shift toward stability, though Dylan's was bucolic not citified, a few years earlier.

    One of the things I loved about shopping at Madonna on 59th Street was that John shopped there too.

    It's okay to look nice and be happy, thank you John.

    After all he's only sleeping.


  2. He DOES look like George Will! Horrors. Agree with everything you say.

  3. Let's not forget "Taxman", a song that speaks to me for a variety of reasons. It's an example of the kind of redefinition only the greatest artists are capable of -- an expansion of the universe that musicians are only beginning to explore, 50 years later.

  4. I never ever forget Taxman. It is my hope that the Royal Mint takes a second bite at the proffered apple (sadly; I don't believe that, apart from the current monarch, the living are ever pictured on currency)and issues a George Harrison coin with the famous All Things Must Pass front cover image of extravagantly long-haired and bearded George on the front and a nice engraving of the Exchequer chancellery on the reverse surmounted by the Hare Krishna symbol. Incidentally, the Bank of Jamaica had more artistic success with their 50 Jamaican Dollar (about $.60 USD) Bob Marley coin, which was also rendered by the United Kingdom Royal Mint. It's quite striking.

  5. Chipmunk cheeks indeed.

    He looks as though he has something foul in his mouth, and would spit it out directly, were he not numismatic.

    (Let this not mar the memory of Taxman, however, which shall always remain pure coin of the Realm of Genius.)

  6. Hi Tom. Agree not to mar the memory of Taxman (a Realm of Genius song and record), although I do think George Harrison would have loved to see his face on money. Apparently, having been raised in a loving household by an intelligently cautious father, George was a serious believer in cash who knew where his first pound was and deeply suspicious of credit. He paid cash for everything until that fateful day he entered the motion picture business, listened to his "business advisor" (whose castle on Fishers Island we once spied from Long Island Sound), and things got complicated (especially for his compromised business advisor, who didn't have Beatle earnings and talent to fall back on after the frauds were uncovered). Speaking of Taxman, I have always thought that George's earlier, slighter and less portentous You Like Me Too Much provides equal evidence of the man's reach and grasp. George was "my" Beatle. A marvelous gardener too. A terrible loss. Curtis