“And so it’s John’s birthday / It’s time to cash in”. Were the Barron Knights still around, they might have pastiched the lyrics to Happy Christmas (War Is Over) thus. Sixty-five years after the man was born, the John Lennon heritage industry rolls on, with ex-wife Cynthia joining the gravy train while Yoko Ono seems content to shrewdly continue squeezing the memory of her murdered husband for any juice that might be left in it.
This would not have bothered John Lennon too greatly. He was always pragmatic about money, as his Aunt Mimi revealed when she was asked by a publisher to write her memoirs. “Take the money, Mimi!” he told her. “Tell them I was a juvenile delinquent who used to knock down old ladies!” When Mimi asked him why he talked like a Scouser when he’d been brought up to speak ‘correctly’, he responded: “It’s about money. The fans expect me to talk like this.”
There is still, however, something quite modern and unpleasant about the way Cynthia Lennon’s book has been promoted in the press. Journalists have jumped on her argument with the 18-year-old John where he hit her as evidence of his wife-beating character (ignoring, two pages later, the less non-newsworthy sentence “he was deeply ashamed of what he had done… he was never again physically violent to me”). Similarly shocking has been the apparent bullying of eight-year-old son Julian which has “traumatised” him (perhaps hiding an explanation as to why his music career sank without trace).
Lennon as violent, cruel and bullying man has become the key selling point…
Lennon as violent, cruel and bullying man has become the key selling point for this new set of memoirs. Funnily enough, though, this is not really news. Lennon is well-documented as being a man with a viperous tongue who would often overstep the mark between humour and offence. His fierce defensiveness about his upbringing, and desperation to fit in may well have led to the rebelliousness he demonstrated at school. His dark sense of humour and his obsession with poking fun at those with a deformity (“cripples” and “spastics” were his favourite targets) may well have had something to do with a desire to deflect criticism to more vulnerable sections of society. But who died and made any of us psychoanalysts? And ultimately what does it gain us to know that Lennon was not the world’s best father, being in a rock’n’roll band for 10 years?
Not much is probably the answer. Our contemporary tendency to try and find the seamier side of our former heroes, artists and statesmen may be all very well for the pages of Heat magazine, but in a broader sense it diminishes the contribution that they make to the world, reducing them to the sum of their foibles and weaknesses rather than celebrating their contribution to culture and society.
Is it really necessary to restate Lennon’s contribution? Possibly not, but it is certainly worthy of some discussion. Yoko Ono’s latest compilation of his material, Working Class Hero, is noteworthy for the fact that it is a pretty comprehensive stab at bringing the best material together. It is not chronological – in fact the track order may owe more to Ono’s obsession with numerology and astrology than anything more useful. Altogether, though, it reveals how far Lennon retreated into musical infantilism after leaving The Beatles.
“The Beatles were finished when Eppy died.” – John Lennon on manager Brian Epstein.
Most are familiar with Lennon’s oft-quoted quip on Elvis Presley‘s death, which was consistent with his laudably life-affirming “get over it” view of death. As he told the grieving Astrid Kirchherr after his best mate Stuart Sutcliffe’s death from a cerebral haemorrhage: “Come on, make up your mind – live or die”. Insensitive but true, no-one could accuse Lennon of pulling punches.
Without wanting to go too far into the “did she/didn’t she split the Beatles” debate, Lennon really died musically when he met Ono. His musical explorations with her on Two Virgins, coupled with his sessions with primal scream therapist Dr Arthur Janov, demonstrate this new obsession with finding the inner child and returning to a ‘pure state’ of innocence. One of the results was the heartfelt yet horrendous track Mother. Not for nothing was this also the nickname he gave his wife.
The trouble with children is that they make lousy muses. Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), written to celebrate son Sean’s birth in 1975, is a cloying piece of sentimentality, the pop music equivalent of passing round the baby pictures and expecting everyone to coo. There is a world of difference between a song like that and a song such as Hey Jude. McCartney’s anthem, which is, by all accounts, about Julian Lennon, works mainly because it is really a song about Paul’s relationship with John. Who, after all, could take one of McCartney’s sad songs and make it better than Lennon?
The relationship between Lennon and McCartney, their sparring, their rivalries and their competitiveness, produced some of the best pop music in history. As their producer George Martin described it, “one without the other would have been unthinkable in terms of The Beatles’ success.” Without this, neither were able to produce the kind of music that would move people to dance, to cry or to dream.
Lennon didn’t “believe in Beatles” after he left the band. He really felt that the project he started for fun, fame and profit had turned him into a puppet, unable to be himself. This, coupled with his rebellious streak, meant that he was always likely to do something rash that suited him more than his mates in the band.
It does not seem fair to blame Ono for the break-up of The Beatles. It seems, simply, that Lennon got bored of being screamed at, and fed up being around McCartney and “doing what he had to do to be a Beatle”. The death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 meant that potential rifts could no longer be kept in check. As Lennon himself said, “The Beatles were finished when Eppy died.”
As he broke up The Beatles to spend more time with his family and his primal screaming, Lennon left behind the creative tension that had been the musical backbone to his best work. He turned further in on himself, bathing in the love he had for Ono and celebrating the warmth their relationship gave him. Having worked so hard and so fruitfully as a Beatle, it would have been churlish to deny him the right to be happy. The trouble was only that he wanted to remain an artist and a songwriter.
Lennon is not a legend…
Regrettably for all of us, as he retreated from the real world, his output became more childish. Songs such as Happy Christmas, Imagine and Woman may well continue to appeal to the naïve romantic in all of us, and in some ways perfectly capture a child’s way of looking at the world. It would, however, surely be a mistake to treat such songs as profound or insightful.
The line “Life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans” (from Beautiful Boy) rings with typically Lennonesque faux-depth. From the perspective of trying to purify his life and make things simple, it makes perfect sense. Scratch the meaning however and it is a recipe for giving up – forget about ambition or trying to make something better than you have, because, in actual fact, what you have is your life and you’re stuck with it. Ironically, had Lennon believed this at sixteen years old, he would never have been able to achieve what he did.
Lennon’s politics were always a rag-bag of nonsensical, contradictory and jumbled up ideas. His mastery of the bon mot and his acerbic wit did not make him into a great thinker. He occasionally described himself as a “Christian Communist” – two more opposite philosophies it is difficult to imagine – and felt that staying in bed and growing his hair might bring about peace. Neither of these ideas showed a great deal of insight into the complexity of the world’s problems.
Our interest in his Fisher Price philosophising today is more a reflection of the absence of any inspiring ideas than anything intrinsic to his thought. Lennon himself would not want to have the quasi-messianic status he has today. Nor, however, would he take kindly to the idea that perhaps he was not a perfect role-model for the modern husband or father. He was always “doing the best that he could” with the limited opportunity life offered to him, and ambitious enough to make things happen – no more, no less.
Lennon is not a legend. Nor does he need to be a working class hero. He ought, however, to be a musical inspiration. Despite his later work, I will love him as much as I love Paul McCartney for the creative partnership that gave rise to Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am the Walrus and Tomorrow Never Knows. It still brings a lump to the throat, 25 years on, to think of the writer of these songs bleeding to death on the steps of the Dakota building. “Make your own dreams and do things for yourself,” he said. Rock’n’rollers of any age should need nothing more than this to inspire them.
John Lennon – Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon is out now through Capitol. Cynthia Lennon’s book John is out in September 2005 through Hodder & Stoughton.