John Lennon once thought himself Christ. Maybe we should, too?
We all know the joke about the Messiah and the naughty boy. We’ve all heard the story of the boy who took acid and thought he could fly. Well, put your hands together. You might find that the common denominator in this paradigm is a sensitive, bookish young man from a working class outreach of Northern England who couldn’t help but paint, draw and write for his own amusement; only to look back over his shoulder to find 2.2 billion* strangers behind him screaming, begging for more.
“It was like being in the eye of the hurricane. You’d wake up in a concert and think, ’Wow, how did I get here?’” - J. Lennon
Bill Hicks once joked that, when theorising to red-necked Americans about the assassination of JFK, they’d exclaim “Let it go, Bill, it was 30 years ago, man”. He’d reply “Oh? Then don’t go talking to me about Jesus, then. Wink-wink.”
Joseph’s step-son’s influence on global culture will likely never be equalled. He is perhaps the most beloved, despised, unifying & divisive man that ever lived. Or didn’t, depending on who’s side you’re on. His influence, however, isn’t in question. Putting the ‘Son of God’ thing aside we can see that He as a man, lived, and died, for humanity. He suffered. He sermonised. He suffered temptation. He brought beauty and truth to the masses in easily relatable ways. He healed. He saved. He didn’t belong whilst belonging to us all. He was heard and misinterpreted. His parentage was, er, questionable. He just wasn’t a normal dude. He pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable, challenged the satus-quo until finally, He was crucified; sacrificed by the deluded, instantly martyring him and making his influence more far-reaching, more impervious to doubt, eternal.
De-capitalise the ‘he’ and you could easily be describing John Winston Lennon, Woolton. Liverpool.
Ridiculous, right? That statement is so easily derided that it’s not something you'd expect a sane person to utter. I doubt I’d have the stones to say it to a hardened Christian. I’ve rarely said it out loud at all, but now I have…hear me out.
Context. There’s no doubt that there is a fevered reverence surrounding the Beatles. The older I get, the more objectively I have been able to perceive them. I can now see that not everything they did was perfect. I know that Lennon could be a cruel bastard. I know that Paul is a bread-head, George a withering misery and that Ringo is Brexit concentrate.
Following most Beatle related content on the internet, I see the idolatry the generations that follow me into Beatle-obsession possess. Each new wave tries to own the Boys their way, so their worship increases in absolutism: John becomes an angel sent to heal us, bringing peace. Paul looks like God, but with better tunes. George has THE secret, and only through solemn introspection and one-chord songs can we hear it whispered. Ringo can simultaneously be Brexit AND Thomas. And a bloody good drummer.
It’s hard to look past the version of the Beatles you create for yourself and, like religion, any conflicting interpretation of it can cause cries of heresy or, ‘ah, but you don’t know the REAL Beatles’. When was the last time you had a conversation with a casual Beatles fan? We all start off that way, of course….Until they save you. And they will. That’s how they get you. They have had multiple generations under their spell in this way — it’s not just hero worship. It’s Real Love. They save you, and you save them back. That’s the deal. And you have to buy the remastered deluxe cathedral every other year.
So...here it is. Put into this context, this ex-skiffle-combo now no longer has a history, they have mythology. People from all over the world don’t just visit Liverpool for a quick shoofty around, they make a pilgrimage. Google it — there are 1,200,000 results for ‘pilgrimages to the Cavern’ alone. I’ve made several. If you’re reading this, then likely so have you, or you’re planning one. When you get there, you’ll be met with religious monuments, Mecca becomes Macca, blue plaques are sprayed all over town & statues line the streets. I once took a cutting from Lennon’s Mendips hedge and kept it in my wallet for 10 years, for Christ’s sake. All we need is a nail from the one true cross.
1968AD. John Lennon fresh from the acid battle field of 1967, where so many didn’t make it back (looking at you Peter & Syd), called a meeting at Abercrombie & Fitch, Saville Row, of the ‘four young laughing freemen’ to announce his sudden epiphany that he was Jesus Christ. Not better, or greater, or comparing himself to God as a person or a thing etc, but Jesus Himself. Silly old Lennon.
But hang on…think about it. Yes, acid. Bad acid. Naughty Acid. But, really…think about it. You’re John Lennon. You have lived your life in emotional turmoil since you were able to comprehend and you’ve been having out of body, pseudo-psychedelic experiences since you weren’t. You see things other than most and that makes you feel separate. You’re on the outside looking in, cutting through the lies we tell ourselves and everyone else. That gives you power — a power that at once makes you both popular and forces people to cross the street. It makes you look like you've burst into flames and emerged 40 foot tall. People either flock to bask in your warmth or flee from fear of getting badly burnt. Your parents make you feel… forever. There must be a reason? You look in on yourself. You lash out. You don’t understand, so why should ‘they’? Why am I?
Suddenly, a hurricane takes you and you’re at the top of a mountain, looking toward the horizon and daring to peak over it. You’re the most famous, feted man on the planet and everything you do is fawned upon by everybody — literally, everyone. You write some songs, and they change the world. You write purposely offensive poetry on the back of a fag packet and they become global bestsellers. You try to burst the bubble, but you’re inside bobbing about and your screams just make it bigger, stronger and more robust. 12 billion eyes are on you, every minute of the day, looking for the answer. Yours turn everywhere else, hoping to find one in someone, anyone. You’re 27 years old and you look back at yourself. And you realise. You tell the world, half in secret, half wanting them to hear, that you’re more popular than Jesus now and they want to crucify you and stab you with pitch forks. Why, I am!
John Lennon didn’t think he was Christ incarnate. We know this. It was a momentary lapse of the senses that is understandable, considering he was likely having a trip with his cornflakes and several more with his tea & toast during most of the previous 18 months. Losing a sense of who you are when you are John Lennon at the peak of your popularity and creative power must be a terrifying experience, and I imagine he spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with the influence and fame he had thrust upon him. The band ignores the comment, silly ol' Lennon, and no one ever mentions it again. And this is where the real Jesus Christ comparison comes into play.
The real story of John Lennon, the one that makes him the most compelling human of the 20th Century to me, is the story of loss, fear, hatred and finally redemption. John lived the full human experience. He didn’t read about it, research it or write papers on it — he lived it, every permutation and to the extreme. Squalor, wealth, art, rock, dependency, independence, love, hate, peace, anguish. He was feared, adored, respected, ridiculed, feted, scorned, his words were dogma and dogshit. He lived 40 lifetimes, and all of them at break-neck speed. He was a sad, frightened adolescent who happened to be whip-smart and blisteringly funny — disguising the fact that he was exhibiting signs of depression. He likely suffered from PTSD from his early childhood experiences. Mother, sex, abandonment, inferiority and a desperation of approval with a rejection of it once achieved were all interwoven at an early age. Separating these later, unravelling the threads, become his life’s work — his muse. He’d eventually achieve something akin to a personal peace, and as he did his art lost some of its edge. Some see this as Yoko’s succubus influence, and it was — he was happy. That skin had been shed, and what remained was the sensitive young man he’d always been. That he had the platform and the talent to sing it to the world, to help us understand ourselves better was his gift to the us all. We can live & learn vicariously through him. He died, so we don't have to.
That he was the bravest of all the 20th Century pop artists, doesn't bare arguing against. He laid himself bare at a time when artifice and image were where it was at. He was a punk in 1960, and again in 1970 - crying about his mother with spiky riffs on his first solo album after leaving the biggest band on earth. Another Day this was not. This wasn’t the Beatle-pop the world wanted. It was the truth that he gave. And it cost him his status as pop star and created an icon. Sacrifice.
Make no mistake, John came out of the Beatles as THE Beatle; he’d just been voted Man of the Decade - and boy, was it was THE decade. There is not another man of his popularity and influence who didn’t chase more at this crucial stage of his career. Instead, he laid himself bare and dared the world to look at it. “Oh, look. You’ve even got the Times in there” said Ringo, not daring to look at it. Ringo is all of us. He told us the truth when no one else wanted to hear it. It remains his greatest work. His sermon on the mount: Plastic Ono Band.
Instead of financially capitalising on his influence, as all our ‘idols’ do so unashamedly today, he used it to campaign for peace and equality decades before it had been commoditised, and he was ridiculed for it. He spoke openly about his misdemeanours and juvenile misogyny at a time when it was still the norm. Airing his regrets honestly and publicly; sincerely wanting to be better. Some claim that he’d fall victim to the #MeToo movement today. No, he’d already outed himself on his own terms - his cupboards were bare. It did cost him his commercial success and his artistic direction, however.
He showed us another way. A way where a northern Englishman could marry his intellectual better in Yoko and let her lead the way. This wasn’t accepted behaviour in 1970 and he didn’t care (well, he did, but he did it anyway, despite himself). Jesus forgave those that sinned, John forgave himself and showed us the pain that kind of searing honesty generates.
Finally, he asked us to Imagine. And like the bible, 99% of the population misinterpret the holy Lennon text. He’s not asking you to imagine no possessions, he’s asking himself to. He can be better, he knows it. Can you? Don't let him be the only one.
John was crucified for his own sins and those of the killer (are we him?) at the very moment his message of domestic, not materialist, love was finally cutting through. At the precise moment of his resurrection. He was reborn, not as the touring hit-machine was all wanted, (we have Mr. McCartney for that) but as the eternally 40 singing prayer to humanity, John Ono Lennon.
* 2.2bn — total Beatle album & single sales
This piece was originally published in Teatles Book Issue 1 (@teatlemania). Reproduced with permission.