In fact, it seems that Paul considered going a very different route with Ram: I recall reading that he made demos of Dear Friend when he was working on Ram - making Dear Friend initially a response to Lennon Remembers rather than How Do You Sleep? But Paul decided not to go that route. Maybe he was just too angry. Instead, he went the round that he must have known would lead to a massive, public breakdown on the part of his ex-partner.
(When insisting that Paul really had sent him messages on Ram, John once said: If one knows a person, one knows what is coming down. The same applies to Paul: he must have known How Do You Sleep? was coming.)
One of the songs John heard as being about him was a weird little nonsense piece called 3 Legs. Listening to lyrics, John's reasons for thinking that are clear. "When I thought you was my friend[...]But you let me down, put my heart around the bend", the lyrics go.
There is one section that is of particular interest to me:
"A fly flies in (a fly flies in), a fly flies out (a fly flies out)
Most flies they got three legs, but mine got one
Well when I fly when I fly when I fly, when I fly above the cloud
(When I fly above the man in the crowd)
Well when I fly when I fly when I fly, when I fly above the crowd
(When I fly above the man in the crowd)
You can knock me down with a feather, yes you could
But you know it's not allowed (but you know it's not allowed)"
Here, Paul seems to be admitting to his vulnerability. He's on his own while John has George and Ringo on his side. He is telling John how easily it would be for John to hurt him - but ends with a line that is almost a dare, or a taunt. That John would be cheating if he lashed out at Paul when Paul was feeling so vulnerable. The line seems to be implying that there were rules about the ways they could and could not attack each other, but bringing it up in that way is almost a dare. Almost like he's daring John to break the rules and come at him.
Backing up a little: I find it interesting that John never, at least in public, blamed Paul for the mess of the Beatles finances and Apple. The "Western communism" that was Apple was Paul's idea (though John was more than enthusiastic), and Paul was the one who did the most (unsuccessful) work to salvage Apple when everything went sideways. I know there's at least one early '70s article about George where George blamed Paul for the Beatles' financial situation - but John never did. selenak[Unknown LJ tag] suggested to me that John may have been unwilling to admit that Paul, the conservative one, was the one to dream up Apple, that it would have gone against the image of himself and Paul that John was trying to project. But that doesn't seem a sufficient explanation for why John wouldn't blame Paul for the chaos of the Beatles' finances. John was actually pretty all over the place about his attitude towards money and business in interviews, and more to that point, he was not above outright lying or failing to mention specific details. John could easily have blamed Paul for the Beatles' finances while eliding the "Western communism" aspect of Apple, and his own enthusiasm. He could have. He didn't.
Here's what I think: I think John knew that no one was beating Paul McCartney up more for the Beatles' business chaos than Paul McCartney. We have a tendency to see Lennon and McCartney as enemies during the break-up period, and I think they often feared the other felt that way. I think they both felt at times as though they were facing an unrelenting foe who knew all the weaknesses and wanted only to destroy them. But in reality, that Lennon/McCartney relationship never broke. Or, as Paul once put it, it never "snapped". "but you know it's not allowed" implies that even in 1971, there were rules of engagement. They were pushing each other to the limit, but there was a limit.
When Paul tried to convince his fellow Beatles to accept his in-laws as managers, he must have known what he was asking. He knew George felt he was too controlling ("whatever it is that will please you, I'll do it"). He knew John was suspicious that Paul cared only about himself (I remember once, at a meeting to discuss Let It Be, John saying, "Oh, I get it. He wants a job."). He knew what John was like. He must have known John would flip upon meeting the Eastmans. The Eastmans were surely worldly enough to know that asking a band to accept one of the bandmates in-laws as managers was asking a lot - surely they could have helped Paul find someone else to help the Beatles with their finances if Paul had pushed for it. I think Paul knew exactly what he was doing when he brought in the Eastmans, and I think he was trying to save the band's finances - but I also wonder if, maybe, he was deliberately trying to piss off John. Maybe he was trying to use John to punish himself.
And maybe Paul to some extent wanted John to lose it with the Eastmans - because he couldn't. Paul didn't like how Linda's father talked to her. He may have had a lot of issues with Lee Eastman, in particular, that he didn't feel comfortable expressing within the bounds of their relationship. John's biggest criticism of the Eastmans was that they changed their last name from Epstein. It is beyond hypocritical for a man from a middle class background who is playing at being working class to hold such an opinion - but maybe Paul didn't entirely disagree. After all, once upon a time Paul McCartney was a boy who made fun of his mother for speaking the Queen's English. And then she died, knowing she was sick, and never gave him the chance to apologize. Maybe John could speak the things that, for Paul, had become unspeakable and unforgivable.
But back to Ram. So Paul sent John an album full of subtle messages, and John replied openly and viciously. But How Do You Sleep? is not the only song on Imagine that references Paul. It's not a coincidence that How Do You Sleep?, Jealous Guy, and Imagine are all on the same album. I don't know if Jealous Guy is only about Paul, but I am sure it is in part. Jealous Guy doesn't offer a change of behavior, but it gives a clear message of: This is my fault, these are my issues, it's not you. Similar to what John later said publicly about How Do You Sleep?: That he was really attacking himself. The song right after How Do You Sleeps? is entitled only How? It contains chords that are strikingly similar to The Long and Winding Road, and is a song of uncertainty and frustration. "How can I give love when I just don't know how to give>" John wonders. Cripple Inside* includes the lyrics "You can shine your shoes and wear a suit / You can comb your hair and look quite cute /You can hide your face behind a smile / One thing you can't hide /Is when you're crippled inside". This certainly sounds like a reference at least in part to Paul. But the song is a touch ambiguous. "You can live a lie until you die / One thing you can't hide / Is when you're crippled inside". Is the person John is singing about someone who is unsuccessfully trying to hide that there is something wrong with them...or someone who is trying to hide because they believe, incorrectly, that something is wrong with them? John's plea in Gimme Some Truth "All I want is the truth, just give me some truth" seems like it may be directed at Paul, as well.
Imagine, the song, was heavily influenced by Yoko Ono: The song was originally inspired by Yoko's book Grapefruit. In it are a lot of pieces saying, Imagine this, imagine that. Yoko actually helped a lot with the lyrics, but I wasn't man enough to let her have credit for it. I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to sort of take her contribution without acknowledging it. I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with the guys all the time, having to share everything. But I think the mental state that John got into when he wrote that song and put together that album - that was Paul.
And in fact, in November 1971, Paul said in an interview: John's whole image now is very honest and open. He's alright, is John. I like his 'Imagine' album but I didn't like the others. 'Imagine' is what John is really like but there was too much political stuff on the other albums. You know, I only really listen to them to see if there's something I can pinch
Imagine is what John is really like? The album with the five and half minute long song openly and viciously attacking Paul?
There's more going on here than appears on the surface.
*John once defended his tendency to make fun of handicapped people by saying, I would never hurt a cripple. It was just part of our jokes, our way of life. If John really thought hurting someone emotionally didn't count as hurting someone...while, he certainly didn't apply that to his life when other people hurt him emotionally.
ETA: One more thing. John Lennon once said of the song Let It Be: Nothing to do with The Beatles. It could've been Wings. I don't know what he's thinking when he writes Let It Be. I think it was inspired by Bridge Over Troubled Waters. That's my feeling, although I have nothing to go on. I know he wanted to write a Bridge Over Troubled Waters.. In fact, Let It Be was released before Bridge Over Troubled Waters. John was mistaken.
selenak suggested to me that maybe it was John who always wanted to write a Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and he was projecting. Bridge Over Troubled Waters was released in January of 1970, when Paul had retreated to depression in Scotland. The song offers love and support to someone who is going through a hard time. "I'm on your side", the song says. "I'll take your part".
But at the end of the day, John could not do that for Paul. And I think How Do You Sleep? is the song that he wrote because he could not figure out how to write Bridge Over Troubled Water.