Culture

The Complex and Tortured Genius Who Imagined a Better World

What would John Lennon the dreamer make of our world today? Would he have made his peace with his old bandmates? Remembering the man who left behind all that great music, on his 75th birth anniversary

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the Bed-In-for-peace in Amsterdam in 1969

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the Bed-In-for-peace in Amsterdam in 1969

‘The more I have, the more I see, and the more experience I get, the more confused I become
as to who I am, and what the hell life is all about.’  – 
John Lennon, 1965

I never met John Lennon. I came to the party a little too late. I was only just out of college and working for Chrysalis Records in London when the news broke that John had been killed. The ground floor of our West End building housed the production offices of AIR Studios, Beatles producer George Martin’s recording business. The entire staff gathered in shock to mark the moment. I will never forget the look on George’s face.

 George had weathered with dignity, throughout the 1970s, endless public vitriol from his former charge. Lennon belittled George’s ‘influence’ and input, and denied him credit, while McCartney, Harrison and Starr, George revealed, ‘were always sweet.’ Implacably loyal, George was of course distressed by the news of John’s murder. There would not even be a funeral at which to pay his final respects. In the end, he fled to Montserrat, where he had opened his dream residential studio the previous year. He sat for hours, staring at the ocean, he later told me, while listening to Lennon in his head. The recording complex, indeed the whole island, would be flattened by Hurricane Hugo within the decade.

Only after John’s death did I begin to cross paths with others who had shared John’s life, and who shaped my understanding of him. Paul, George and Ringo. Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s first wife, who became a good friend. Linda McCartney, with whom I collaborated briefly on ‘Mac the Wife’, a memoir which never progressed. Cynthia Lennon, who invited me to discuss a new book. Her first, ‘A Twist of Lennon’, published in 1978, had left a bitter taste. She had been so frustrated at not being able to communicate with John after he left her that she had written the book as a ‘long, open letter to him, pouring it all out.’ With hindsight, she said, she would have done it differently. Now that the dust had settled on John’s death, she was keen to have another go. But she became immersed in a doomed restaurant venture, and the project was shelved. Years later, in 2005, she published ‘John’, a second memoir, which was much bolder and more confessional than her first.

As a journalist, I accompanied their son Julian to the Montreux Rock Festival during the mid-Eighties. I met Yoko numerous times in London and New York. Like everyone else, I read Philip Norman’s ‘Shout!’, Peter Brown’s and Steven Gaines’s ‘The Love You Make’, that infamous Albert Goldman biography, Hunter Davies’s ‘The John Lennon Letters’, and of course Marc Lewisohn’s matchless ‘Tune In’. Thus, like everyone else, I formed and borrowed opinions of a man I never knew.

An inner void

Who can imagine what it was like to be a Beatle? Not even John Lennon, or so it seemed. All he had, at the height of the band’s Sixties fame and significance, was a terrifying awareness of his own inner void. He was dogged by a deep sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction over the material things that fortune had afforded him. Neither recognition nor reward provided the answers to the questions that had tormented him since he had first begun to think about the meaning of life.

Sickened by his fear that ‘this is all there is’, John considered religion. At one point, he even asked God for a ‘sign’. When nothing was forthcoming, he withdrew into his imagination, concluding that ‘God’ was simply energy that vibrates endlessly throughout the universe, and that it was probably benign. Still, he longed for a theme, a code to live by, that would shape his existence and give it a point. It was through drugs, principally LSD, that he landed on love.

An invitation for the Beatles to perform for the first live international satellite TV broadcast in June 1967, to an audience of four hundred million people around the globe, provided the perfect opportunity to promote his new theme to the world. Having fallen for his own publicity, John embarked on a mega-mission, to ‘improve humanity’. This decision, however deluded, inspired the penning of the song they performed for that historic broadcast, ‘All You Need is Love’. You want to save the world? Fit your own oxygen mask first. For what else is love but wanting to be loved?

But his stance chimed uncomfortably with the personality trait that had long kept him sane: his inherent cynicism. He clung to it nonetheless, a limpet to a rock, until Yoko Ono arrived and became that rock personified. Despite both the world’s and the Beatles’ rejection of this curious interloper, she was his constant, his one true thing. Into the sunset they strode, hand in hand, in search of world peace.

A different era

They would never get away with it today. But those were different, pre-politically correct times. One could still denounce the self-serving great and good and expose them for corruption, and go unpunished. John the peace-seeking missile hailed the human imagination as the key to salvation both collective and individual. His most famous and best-loved song, ‘Imagine’, took the three hottest taboo subjects, religion, patriotism and materialism, and coaxed us to consider them from alternative perspectives. In the absence of heaven and hell – it’s easy if you try – there would be no fear of repercussion in the afterlife. Without frontiers – it isn’t hard to do – we’d become citizens of the world, and could choose to live more harmoniously. As for overcoming our materialism – I wonder if you can – wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could do what we were taught to do as children, and simply share?

 

‘Imagine’ was the distillation of everything that had hitherto preoccupied John Lennon. It reached for the stars in its attempt to inspire people from all walks of life, all over the world, and to transcend barriers of every kind. It succeeded, to a point, but was idealistic in the extreme. Look at us now.

Convicted assassin Mark Chapman aside: who, or what, really killed John Lennon? And when did the ‘real’ John Lennon die? For what is clear is that the four bullets which penetrated his body that fateful night in New York City on 8th December 1980 were just, so to speak, the final nail.

Was it his tragically dysfunctional upbringing, during which John was deserted by his father Freddie and virtually abandoned by his bohemian mother Julia into the care of her older sister, ‘Aunt Mimi’? He subsequently lost his head to music, his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe to a brain tumour, his reckless mother in a car crash at the end of his street, and his heart to fellow student Cynthia Powell, who relieved him of his boyhood by getting pregnant and ‘having’ to marry him, long before he was ready for responsibilities. Consider his sexual dalliances with Beatles Svengali Brian Epstein; his self-damning declaration that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ; his secret true-love affair with British popular singer Alma Cogan, whose early death from cancer rendered him suicidal; how he was hijacked out of his ill-fated marriage by Yoko, a manipulative Japanese artist who decided to become his second wife, virtually giving up her daughter Kyoko in order to ensnare him, and destroying the band that had made her Intended a superstar.

Or was it John’s own cruel, collapsible, convoluted personality that had been destroying him since early childhood? Had the women in his life emasculated him, and drained him of all but the will to live? How withered was he in later years by the guilt he felt over first wife Cynthia having to debase herself when her paltry divorce settlement ran dry, penning tawdry tell-alls, opening eateries, designing cheap bed linens, marrying chauffeurs to make ends meet? Was his left-wing activism, all that giving peace a chance, some cynical smokescreen for how little he really cared about mankind? Imagine no possessions, while owning planes and boats, infinite farms and multi-million dollar real estate? Do any of the tangled conspiracy theories that have gained traction down the decades hold water? Could the CIA and the FBI have been to blame?

Breaking all the rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Was music John’s salvation? Probably not. He was a rod for his own back, in so many ways. In ‘personalising the political, and politicising the personal’, he made music too complicated for his own good. Never less than an artist of integrity, he challenged everything, even his own song writing. He was the first to admit that his early lyrics were sexist, adjusting his approach to reflect his feminist side in later years. He believed fervently in the notion that popular music had a far more important job to do than simply entertain. He took risks, and often fell short, but seemed always true to himself… or as true as he could be. The Beatles excelled because they broke the rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll, both in song structure and in lyric-writing. The icing on their cake was John, whose sharp wit and sardonicism, whose love of riddles and puns and plays-on-words lifted their music into hitherto unheard realms. He experimented with the impossible, cramming mere pop songs with subliminal messages and layering them with clashing sentiments until they were almost too much. Listen to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ for proof. To the psychedelic ‘Across the Universe’.

The Beatles

The Beatles in happier times

The so-called ‘White Album’, ‘The Beatles’, may be John at his most bitter, furious, frustrated, committed, mad, sad, vituperative, political and reflective. Then again, what about the ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono’ band album, delivering his devastating denunciation of the Beatles – ‘the dream is over’ – and featuring the irresistible acoustic ballad ‘Working Class Hero’, John’s gutted acknowledgement of what, thanks to global fame and unimaginable fortune, he was no longer able to be. Finally, from the last LP of his lifetime, ‘Double Fantasy’, ‘Watching the Wheels’: admitting why he stopped making music during the ‘house-husband’ years. Having found his own heaven on earth – domestic bliss, such as it was, with Yoko and his second son, Sean – ‘I just had to let it go.’

What if he were here today? What sense might the seventy five-year old ex-Beatle have made of what our world has become? Would he have made the peace with McCartney that he denied his childhood friend towards the end? Might there even have been a Beatle reunion before George Harrison’s death in 2001? I don’t need to answer that one, do I.

John Lennon did the most important thing that a rock star can do: he died young. Instead of becoming a bloated, bitter, self-important old has-been with no new inspiration to share, rehashing the hits, busting a gut to write relevant songs and traipsing out endlessly on last-ever world tours, he was cut off in his prime and became a legend. He is preserved at that age, and for all that he stood for, into eternity.

Much of what we remember him for today may well be little more than an illusion. But from where I’m standing, it is not a bad way to go.

The author is a music writer and the biographer of Queen’s Freddie Mercury and T.Rex frontman Marc Bolan. Her website is  www.lesleyannjones.com.