October 9, 1940– John Winston Ono Lennon:
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
Lennon is probably the most celebrated songwriter of all time. He is certainly one of the most famous people of the 20th century. He was murdered. He died a revolutionary and a martyr. I love him very much. 57 years have gone by, and I still listen to his music.
The Beatles story is a huge chunk of the last century’s popular culture history. Lennon was at the center of that story. He was the de-facto leader of the band for most of their time together. He was the artistic force who pushed Paul McCartney, and to some degree George Harrison and Ringo Starr, past their teenage idol status and into a sort the music that brought all other Pop Music into the future. The Beatles were bigger than Pop Music. Lennon knew it and that didn’t make him happy.
Lennon was just 20-years-old when The Beatles played dingy clubs in Hamburg. His father was a sailor who abandoned his son shortly after his birth, as Liverpool was being bombed by those damn Nazis. Lennon’s father later did time in jail for desertion, but when he came out, John’s mother, Julia Lennon (née Stanley), had already found a new man. John was sent to live with Julia’s married sister, Mimi Smith, whose husband was a milkman.
His mother lived nearby and was a sort of shadow figure. Lennon slowly emerged from his loneliness. He became a leader of a street gang, shoplifting and hitching rides on trolley cars. He also began to draw and write books when he was just 8-years-old. Art helped him express his sense of humor and the absurd. When he was 12-years-old, Lennon’s report card read:
“Hopeless. Rather a clown in class. He is just wasting other pupils’ time.”
“I felt different. I always felt different from the rest. But I didn’t know what the hell to do about it.”
His Aunt Julia showed him the way. She gave Lennon a guitar as a gift. She showed him a few chords. Skiffle music was all the rage in England at the time. It is a simple, casual, shuffling style that uses one-string bass and washboards. Lennon began playing Skiffle at the same time that Elvis Presley was playing a new kind of music in the USA. Rock ‘n’ Roll changed Lennon’s life. The same year, Lennon’s mother died of cancer.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll was a place to put everything. You could have pictures in your head and make pictures into words, and the music would carry the words along, like a big bloody boat. That’s what everybody started to do.”
Rebellious Lennon possessed a special acerbic wit that was revealed in his music, writing, drawings, and later in appearances on television, film and in interviews. He was controversial his entire adult life, even more so because of his Political, Social and Peace activism. Controversy seemed to have always found him. In 1966, Lennon faced a fierce backlash from religious and social conservatives, including the KKK, because of a comment had made in an interview:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first, Rock ‘n’ Roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright but his disciples are thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The Vatican issued a protest and radio stations banned The Beatles’ songs. Young people were urged to burn their records. Lennon countered:
“If I’d said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it. If you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”
Young Lennon had wanted to get out of Liverpool, make music, and become rich and famous. He managed to do all of that. He grew to want something else: a purer sound and a more profound art. He felt he could never do that as one of The Beatles.
He dropped acid, studied Eastern Mysticism, and attempted to adjust to his incredible wealth and fame. Lennon was also very unhappy. He was married to Cynthia and they had a son Julian when he met and fell in love with Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, who was seven years older. His relationship with Ono was a challenge for The Beatles and they all moved apart. After 1970, with the release of Let It Be, The Beatles were over. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr all released solo albums later that year. Because of lawyers, the group was not officially disbanded until 1974.
“Everybody wants to blame someone for The Beatles’ breaking up. They want to blame Yoko most of all. But it was already over musically before I met her.”
After the breakup of The Beatles, Lennon recorded solo and with collaborators. He made some good music and some not-so-good music. He dropped out for half a decade to be a house-husband. In his recordings with Ono, together they pushed the limits of what could even be defined as Pop Music. He was devoted to protesting war and he was hounded by that dick Richard M. Nixon, cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover and the U.S. Department Of Immigration because of it.
On a snowy evening on December 8, 1980, riding together in his car, my new boyfriend (now my husband) and I had to pull over to the side of the road as we heard the announcement on the radio that Lennon had been murdered in front of the Dakota Apartments where he and Ono lived with their son Sean Lennon. We wept.
Lennon had only returned to making music that year, with the album Double Fantasy, a collaboration with Ono. Lennon never had a chance to experience his career resurgence.
The world grieved, and musical tributes poured in for years, even from the other Beatles, who all appeared on George Harrison’s single All Those Years Ago (1981).
But mostly, fans found solace in Lennon’s music. After his murder, Double Fantasy‘s single (Just Like) Starting Over went to Number One on the charts. Roxy Music covered Jealous Guy. And Lennon’s posthumous album Milk & Honey (1984) included the great Nobody Told Me, with the lyric about “strange days, indeed” that was both bittersweet and comforting.
My favorite Lennon song is Julia, recorded 50 years ago today. It is not a rock anthem or a message song. It grew out of the guitar lessons Lennon took from the ethereal Donovan during their time in India in 1967, studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Julia has no soaring melody, no harmonies, no clever arrangement, no discernible chorus, just Lennon on guitar and his heartbreaking voice. The song lacks everything that made The Beatles the most famous band of all time.
Lennon said that telling the truth in his songs was more important than anything else. Julia has no social cause or great message. It is the song of a broken man still coping with a childhood with no mother. The mood is sad and low-key.
Lennon would have celebrated his 79th birthday today, probably with Yoko, Sean (they share a birthday) and his other son Julian. Maybe Paul and Ringo would be there, with Harry Nilsson, in spirit. They might have all enjoyed some vegan carrot cake together. But, instead, on Lennon’s birthday today, Ono will be in Iceland to light the Imagine Peace Tower, an outdoor work of art conceived in memory of Lennon. It is situated on Viðey Island outside Reykjavík. Ono:
“I hope the Imagine Peace Tower will give light to the strong wishes of World Peace from all corners of the planet and give encouragement, inspiration and a sense of solidarity in a world now filled with fear and confusion. Let us come together to realize a peaceful world.”
“Imagine all the people, living life in peace…”