What is John Lennon?
John Lennon is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. I’m sorry if you weren’t prepared for that eventuality. Indeed as of today, the 8th December, 2020, John Lennon would have been dead for nearly as long as he was alive and seeing as he’s not able to defend himself, now seems as good a time as any to reevaluate what and who this singular man was and what he means to the world now, through a 2020, post MeToo lens. Rock of humbug or the Rocker of Hamburg? There are many questions.
His mortal life is easily split into three distinct parts, with addendum: pre-Beatle, Beatle, post-Beatle and finally, postmortem. It’s the latter, the part that is now as large as the previous three, that raises the most questions, some of them problematic in origin and equally so in interpretation.
The four Beatles were easily caricatured during their time in the group and three were equally easy to characterise in the aftermath of the bands’ demise, often as four rather distinct cartoons: Cute Beatle Paul became anodyne, M.O.R. thumbs aloft solo Paul. Quiet Beatle George became serious, spiritual, ponderous solo George. Ringo the Clown became the Peace and Love anti-fan, pro-Brexit ex-pat Tank Engine. There is truth, though sometimes harshly, to all of these. John, however, though also easily to squeeze into a box, it’s rarely the right one despite the world’s best efforts.
Lennon was occasionally serious, but always the smart one. Before the Beatles and throughout their recording career he exhibited a host of different character traits before emerging as a political agitator, a friend of the extremest fringes that scared Western democracies, then Long Lost John and then losing us for five years before we ultimately lost him, forever in the winter of 1980 during a Monday Night Football broadcast. In the wake of his death, however, the nuances of his intention rather than his existence often get lost in myth, mirth, or downright contrary-ism.
Due to the nature of his demise, mercilessly cut down in the midst of what seemed like a rebirth, the dawn of a new era of creativity and perspective, namely and tragically, hope - the view of Lennon the man as well as his work and creative worth became irrevocably warped. The living victim of this being Paul McCartney; the victor, arguably, Yoko.
Paul, an equal partner in the creative force behind the Beatles bore witness to two tragedies in that New York winter. Foremost, he lost his friend and with it any hope of rekindling the creative partnership that he’d spent the best part of two decades trying to replace before finally giving up. He also had to watch dispassionately as the world placed his former partner on a pedestal, anointing Lennon as 3/4’s of the Beatles and a Latter Day Saint, the puppet master genius behind the world’s biggest group which simultaneously diminished his own role in the success and artistic feats they presided over in tandem. It was often said at the time, and many times afterward, that the wrong Beatle died. Personally and professionally, it was a difficult time to be Paul McCartney.
Alternatively, Yoko’s stock rose considerably after her husband’s death. She, with some skill and deftness of touch, became the torchbearer of the world’s grief in the months that followed and the gatekeeper to Lennon’s legacy and back catalogue in the decades that came next. In the period of interviews and press that came with the PR launch of Double Fantasy, the narrative the Lennon’s chose was husband and wife, just like you, facing the new decade together. Moving on, moving forward. So when that message of hope and love (a different, domestic but not necessarily romantic or universal love like the first two incarnations that Lennon wrote and sung about) got gunned down in front of her, the world held its breath and for possibly the first time, sympathised and crucially, empathised with her. Now, she was a victim and grief had a face. This didn’t stop her from shocking and challenging this good faith - her 1981 album, Season of Glass, had John’s bloodied glasses on the cover next to a half full/half empty glass of water. It still shocks now, 40 years on. This is what good art does, John would have approved.
Ono stage managed Lennon’s image and posthumous output rather skilfully over the next four decades, overseeing numerous greatest hit collections, anthologies of unreleased studio outtakes, remixes and charity outlets such as the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, memorials (Iceland’s Imagine Peace Tower and the Strawberry Fields circle, in sight of the Dakota building in Central Park) and events - the emotional highlight, if you’re British perhaps, being the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony where Yoko provided newly remastered footage of their Imagine performance, directed by Danny Boyle to soundtrack John’s face being pulled together jigsaw style by singing children. This writer has no shame in admitting it brought him to tears. It was a proud moment from a lost son.
There is little doubt that Lennon’s murder changed the literary and anecdotal history of the man. The narrative altered, his legacy has fluctuated in reverence. In his lifetime Lennon was widely ridiculed for his lifestyle choices, be they bed-ins, his choice of wife, his methods of peaceful protest or most hurtful to John and his ego, his mid-70s musical output. During the final phase of his life, pre-comeback, he was likened to famous hermit Howard Hughes via the occasional tabloid headline claiming he was now as ‘bald as a coot’ and had finger nails that could pick someone else’s nose. However, Lennon being Lennon, he rather enjoyed these fits of creativity that filled the void that his presence left and was known to bring them up with a smile to people he met. From December 9th 1980 however, he was genius former-Beatle John once more and his homely, anti-zeitgeist comeback album Double Fantasy began climbing the charts. It was the start of several incarnations of Lennon revisionism, some positive, some damaging, all lasting.
In 2020, there are a variety of hot takes on Lennon. The most common from non-believers, who usually fall into generation Millenial, is that he was little more than a pop singer with a penchant for domestic abuse. There is, of course, no excusing this kind of behaviour. This is where John Lennon the man and myth become difficult to separate. The facts are that in the months following the premature death of his mother, he became angry and unpredictable. He did, and is on record as saying so, slap his then girlfriend Cynthia Powell at a college dance, her crime being that she danced with a male friend. She wisely took her friend Thelma Pickles’ (a former girlfriend of Lennon herself) advice and left Lennon, separating from him for around three months. He begged forgiveness, and was only given it after promising to never lay a hand on her again, which by Cyn’s own account, he never did. Can you call this domestic abuse? Technically, yes. I’d call it a one off outburst of grief and an inability to comprehend his own feelings of insecurity. It doesn’t excuse him, but it isn’t what the commonly held misconception of him portrays. I have failed to find a reliable account of physically abusive behaviour to any other female and certainly not his second wife, who absolutely would not have tolerated this kind of behaviour. I have written extensively about his violence toward men however, which you can read here: Lennon & Bob Wooler.
Lennon himself complicates matters however, by claiming to ‘be a hitter, I couldn’t express myself and I hit’, going on to say ‘I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster’. He already was speaking publicly, which in the ‘70s was an enormous step forwards for a man born in 1940. His honesty about his personal road to redemption, at becoming a feminist and a husband worthy of the name is what makes him human, relatable and worthy of his claims. He found this most relatable state of enlightenment right before his death, which of course, makes it all the more tragic. He still faltered however and was famously unfaithful to Cyn (Beatle tours were likened by him to be ‘Satyricon, ok?’ Essentially amounting to exhausting barrage of travel and orgies) and Yoko, having noisy sex the night of the 1972 Presidential election with Carol Realini, Jerry Rubin’s flatmate, within earshot of the guests. According to numerous accounts, this is one example of many.
John and Yoko talked at length about his rampant sexual appetite and how he’d expected it to wither with age, but it didn’t. Easy to fulfil in a loveless marriage whilst a Beatle, he became difficult to satisfy and Yoko handled the situation like any wife would. She cut his balls off. No, sorry - she allowed him a period of sexual and personal reflection by kicking him out of their apartment and arranging a rather strange affair with an assistant, May Pang. This isn’t the marriage that they sang about on Double Fantasy, that was something they either had to work toward, or never existed at all, depending on what account you believe. When making your mind up, it’s worth remembering that no one outside of any marriage understands it, so I won’t pass judgement here.
A common and all too easy stick to hit Lennon with is his omnipresent mega song, Imagine. Many contrarians will profess to hate it or dismiss it as garbage, a serving of hypocritical syrup, laid on rather too thick to swallow. Imagine a millionaire rock star telling us to Imagine no possessions etc. I fear that the song suffers from overfamiliarity, more than most. It also suffers from a severe case of misinterpretation - Lennon as ever, was singing to himself. Quickly bored with material possession, it was Yoko who ran the family business, investing in livestock and property. John had no head for this kind of work, so here he was wondering if he could imagine what life would be like without these trappings. Surely he wasn’t the only one? Listen to the singer, listen anew. It’s a melody of simplistic beauty, and in 2020 its value is undiminished…if you try.
Though Millennials amongst others can be dismissive of the influence of Lennon and The Beatles at large, its typically when exploring the wider context that Lennon’s legacy comes into view. The Beatles weren’t merely a product of the 1960’s, more the 1960’s were a product of The Beatles. We know this now because in the 58 years since their emergence there’s yet to be another (it’s been rather a long time since X band was dubbed the ‘next Beatles’, we’ve largely given up hope, realising that this wasn’t a fluke or a sequence to be expected, instead something unique), but also because when exploring the societal norms of the 1960’s it’s often shocking to be reminded how, despite claims of Swinging London and all that jazz, society was fundamentally extraordinarily conservative; boys quickly became men in the image of their fathers and girls became their mothers’ with only the faintest glimmer of increasing opportunity. Things were changing, but not fast enough or with enough momentum to accept the emergence of The Beatles as a foregone conclusion. If that were the case, every generation would have had theirs, instead we all have to share or accept the original. The public at large, particularly in the USA, were utterly shocked at their appearance and lack of deference to the established order. If they weren’t what they were, they’d never have been able to knock the door down to allow the others to rush in.
John was at the very forefront of this vanguard. His cheek was really well times subversive rudeness. His lucid honesty would disarm before shocking and be quickly forgiven after a joke or observation. His personality was nearly enough to change the world, his songs and voice was all it took.
That he made what he did look so easy - it was enough to encourage generations of kids to have a go themselves - might undermine what he and his bandmates were able to achieve in such short time, with such limited tools, however Lennon suffered, of that there is no doubt. He was cruel, and accepted that about himself. He failed as a husband and father and knew himself lucky to have the opportunity of personal redemption.
Like the Ghost of Christmas Present, Lennon looked to be fading away toward the end of his life. Ageing very quickly and ravaged by smoking and who knows what else, he at different points, looked unwell. On the 8th December, after a haircut and in a photo shoot with Annie Leibowitz he presented as ten years younger. He told the world who he was, and wore it on his face. It is ultimately up to us whether we want to believe him or not. It’s not necessarily what he did by which we should judge him, but what he tried to do before his time was cut short, 40 years ago today. He saw his human flaws, and explored them, wanting to understand, wanting to be better and doing all he could to alleviate his own trauma in the process. I'm not sure how much he enjoyed it, but it made his art possible and this was his cross to bear. All we get is the story, the songs and lessons on how not to do it, to ourselves or our children. Imagine - we can be better, but sing the song to yourself.