Lennon, John (1940-1980)

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Lennon, John (1940-1980)

Most famed as one of the members of the Beatles as well as the co-composer of the Beatles song catalogue which includes many of the most popular rock songs ever written, John Lennon is also notable for his solo career, his enduring status as a celebrity victimized by one of his own fans, shot dead outside his New York home, and as a celebrity who used his fame to draw attention to various causes.

Born in Liverpool, raised in a middle-class home that lacked a father and frequently a mother as well (she died in a car accident), Lennon was largely raised by his aunt Mimi, who warned him that while playing the guitar was fine, it was unlikely to earn him a living. Lennon attended art school where he formed a skiffle group, the Quarrymen, which would later form the basis for the Beatles.

Lennon was the initial leader of the Beatles and their most controversial member. At the 1963 Royal Command Performance, he told the audience, "On the next number, would those in the cheap seats clap their hands? The rest of you rattle your jewelry." Upon being awarded the MBE, Lennon observed, "I can't believe it. I thought you had to drive tanks and win wars." He prompted even more controversy when on November 25, 1969, he returned his MBE "with love" to the Queen to protest Britain's involvement in Biafra and Vietnam and [his song] "Cold Turkey" slipped down the charts.

In 1966, Lennon told Maureen Cleave in the London Evening Standard, "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus Christ," creating a religious backlash in the United States. A similar British backlash was created when Lennon appeared nude on the cover of his Two Virgins album. An exhibition of Lennon's erotic lithographs had to have eight prints removed under threat of possible prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. (Lennon's lithos were later declared "unlikely to deprave or corrupt" by legal experts and handed back.)

In addition to music and art, Lennon also dabbled in literature. Lennon wrote his first book, In His Own Write, which subsequently won Foyle's Literary Prize. This was followed by A Spaniard in the Works (a pun on the English expression "A spanner, meaning monkey wrench, in the works"). In addition to his film work with the Beatles (Help!, A Hard Day's Night, Let It Be), Lennon had a minor role in Richard Lester's absurdist black comedy How I Won the War. He was also the subject of the documentary film Imagine.

Lennon married Cynthia Powell on August 23, 1962, a union which produced a son, Julian Lennon, who later went on to have his own musical career. The couple divorced on November 8, 1968, a month after Lennon and his Japanese artist lover Yoko Ono were busted by the drug squad (they were also arrested again for possessing cannabis in September 1969).

Lennon and Ono became an inseparable couple and were wed on the Rock of Gibraltar on March 20, 1969. For their honeymoon, they conducted a "Bed-In for Peace" at the Amsterdam Hilton, and Lennon officially changed his name from John Winston Lennon to John Ono Lennon. Lennon proceeded to use his celebrity status to bring attention to all kinds of causes, from freeing Angela Davis to giving Ireland back to the Irish.

He also formed his first post-Beatles group, the Plastic Ono Band, which initially consisted of himself, Ono, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and Alan White, who threw together an under-rehearsed show for a live concert in Toronto which was recorded as an album and film. Lennon's next Plastic Ono Band effort, Plastic Ono Band with Voorman on bass, Ringo Starr on drums, and occasional piano by Billy Preston and Phil Spector, is one of rock's all-time classic albums. Sparse and powerful, the album was an outgrowth of Lennon's involvement in primal scream therapy techniques as he tries to exorcise his personal pain and rejection tempered by feelings of love and hope.

Ironically, following the break-up of the Beatles, even Ringo Starr initially had greater chart success than Lennon. If Plastic Ono Band evoked Lennon's agony, his Imagine album celebrated his ecstasy, and proved to be another rock classic. This was the most melodic of Lennon's solo albums, a quality he would downplay subsequently as his peace rhetoric gave way to rabble-rousing political statements as on his abrasive Some Time in New York City album. Lennon decided to emigrate to the United States, but Lennon's political activities brought him under investigation by the FBI and he was ordered to leave the U.S. by the Immigration Authorities. Lennon was able to successfully fight the deportation, and in January 1974, he asked the Queen for a Royal Pardon in connection with his drug conviction in order to be free to travel to and from the United States.

Lennon and Ono suffered a temporary split that found Lennon keeping time with May Pang and getting drunk. Lennon announced that the separation hadn't worked out and the couple got back together and would remain so for the rest of Lennon's life. Their marriage resulted in a son, Sean, who has also embarked on a musical career of his own. Lennon created the albums Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, Rock 'n' Roll, and the best-of compilation Shaved Fish before retiring from music for five years to spend time raising his son and becoming one of the world's most famous house-husbands. He announced in Japan, "We really have nothing to say. We've basically decided, without a great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside our family."

Then Lennon heard in the B-52s' work sounds much like that of Yoko Ono's and decided that it was time to re-enter the musical mainstream. He created a collaborative album with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy: A Heart Play, with the couple trading off songs, and the result was a welcome return to form, lacking perhaps the urgency of John's best works, but reflecting his personal growth and current perspectives. Another half-album's worth of material was recorded and later released on the posthumous Milk and Honey, which despite some worthwhile Lennon tracks ("Nobody Told Me" and "Borrowed Time"), does not hold up as well.

However, Lennon's commitment as an artist has left a lasting impression, from his commitment to political causes to his celebrated love for Yoko Ono in the face of public hostility and disdain. His solo music has been frequently repackaged, his demo tapes and home recordings formed the basis of a long-running radio show, "The Lost Lennon Tapes," a couple of these recordings formed the basis for the two Beatles reunion singles, "Real Love" and "Free As a Bird," and many of these pieces were collected together for release in late 1998 as the Lennon Anthology album. They offer a complete portrait of Lennon, from his happiness to his sadness, his anger and his humor.

Lennon realized years ago that what most people around him were most interested in was Lennon himself, and few artists have put so much of themselves into their art so that he and his love for Yoko became his greatest subjects.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

The Ballad of John and Yoko. Editors of Rolling Stone. London, 1982.

Beatles, Anthology. (video). Apple Corps, 1995.

Carr, Roy, and Tony Tyler. The Beatles: An Illustrated Record. Revised and updated edition. New York, Harmony Books, 1981.

Davies, Hunter. The Beatles. 1968.

Norman, Philip. Shout! New York, Warner Books, 1981.

Schaffner, Nicholas. The Beatles Forever. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, McGraw-Hill, 1977.