JOHN LENNON Biography - Writers


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The murder of John Lennon, who in so many ways represented the heart and soul not just of the Beatles but of all ’60s rock’n'roll, was perhaps the most emotionally felt of all rock deaths.


Certainly there was an equal outpouring of emotion for Elvis Presley, and perhaps as much in some quarters for Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. But John Lennon’s death was more stunning than any of them.


He was just emerging from a long period of silence with a vigor as surprising as it was refreshing, and he seemed in command of his powers as never before, at a time when rock’n'roll and the world desperately needed his voice.


It was the time immediately following the first landslide election of Ronald Reagan, a discouraging prospect to so many who had embraced all that Lennon seemed to stand for and believe in. If the two events were unrelated, and clearly they were, they are indelibly linked on an emotional level. Not only had Ronald Reagan been elected president, with all his cold, brutal values coming to ascendance – but the one rock star who seemed the warmest and most human (much of that merely public image, as it turned out) had been summarily slain a month later.


Asked about Lennon’s death within days of its happening, Ronald Reagan cupped a hand to an ear and then shrugged and grinned, saying something affably inaudible toward the crowd of reporters. He obviously didn’t care.


But don’t get mixed up about John Lennon. His true genius, which he practiced all his life, was to make people love him. As a human being, he was seriously troubled, the result of a lifetime of festering pain. Separated from his parents as an infant (his father went off to sea and his mother on to good times, the next relationship, and eventually an early death), he was raised by his aunt, Mimi Smith, in a middle-class British setting.


He was a behavior problem all through school, but early on found something like salvation, or at least balm, in U.S. rock’n'roll, which he loved. He formed his first band at age sixteen. Paul McCartney attended a performance in 1957 and shortly afterward became a member. McCartney’s musical skills impressed Lennon – and Lennon’s savvy impressed McCartney. Soon they had agreed that everything written by either would from that point on be credited to “Lennon-McCartney,” a promise they kept for nearly fifteen years.


George Harrison eventually joined and, later, Pete Best, who was replaced on the brink of the group’s breakthrough by Ringo Starr. Known variously as the Quarry Men, Johnny & the Moondogs, and the Silver Beatles, they finally settled on the name the Beatles, after the Crickets, whom they idolized, with Lennon misspelling it to make the pun on “beat group.” In 1960, a four-month stint in Hamburg, Germany, playing some eight hours a night, helped them get their impressive performing act together and provided the physical endurance training they needed to survive Beatlemania when it hit. The last pieces to fall in place were a manager and a record deal, both of which had happened by mid-1962.


Lennon, who had been deeply involved with Cynthia Powell since 1957, married her in 1962 when she became pregnant with Julian. The Beatles’ enormous success, which followed almost immediately, was overwhelming beyond belief. As mere mortals, we can only try to imagine what it was like to be a Beatle between 1964 and 1970. Lennon on touring: “Oh, it was a room and a car and a car and a room and a room and a car.” Fast-forward to Lennon in a 1966 interview with British journalist Maureen Cleave: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.” He was to pay dearly for those remarks, which raised a stink some six months later in the U.S. and earned him and the group lasting enmity from many.


The Beatles retired from the road shortly after that, at the end of 1966 – in hindsight that was the beginning of the end. In November of 1966 Lennon met Yoko Ono at a gallery opening; almost immediately they hit it off, and she pursued him. But Lennon was not available yet. He was still married, and he was also busy making his contributions to the vastly celebrated Sgt. Pepper. In reality it was an album all too sorely wanting in concept and containing more filler than the two previous outings (Revolver and Rubber Soul) combined.


But still it has somehow insinuated itself as a lasting hippie totem and a permanent symbol of the times. Then the Beatles embarked on a very sad and a very silly time, with LSD adventures at home, TM adventures in India, the death of Brian Epstein, the dissolution of Lennon’s marriage, and the formation of Apple. Meanwhile, as the moral center of the U.S. dissolved the Beatles had somehow become an integral part of it, every step of the way. No one knew quite how or why or what it all meant, but few denied it. The White Album seemed to capture the sense of 1968. Abbey Road seemed to capture the sense of 1969. Let It Be seemed to capture the sense of 1970. It didn’t matter when any of them were really recorded. How did they do that?


And then, finally, the group broke up. Lennon, switching his psychic allegiance and expectations from McCartney to Yoko, was ultimately traumatized by it, as his public statements and behavior of the time made clear. But the overall impact of this difficult time on him nonetheless resulted in some of his most fascinating and enduring work: 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and 1971’s Imagine, both of them startling testaments to scathing self-disclosure. Somehow, when Lennon opened up and exposed all his running sores, everyone’s first impulse was to respond with love. There was his true genius again, the evidence of which really became obvious after his death.


Those gut-wrenching albums set the tone for Lennon in the ’70s, a decade that was not good to him despite the stories that claimed otherwise. He spent the first half fighting the U.S. Immigration Department for his green card, drinking heavily, and yawping non-stop for peace (for which we almost have to assume that Lennon, an unusually violent man in his personal life, was driven by his overwhelming need for the “of mind"- type even more than the end to armed conflict, despite his overt, conscious focus on war; he doubtless understood the interconnectedness therein at some level, or so we may hope). He spent the second half in seclusion after the birth of his son Sean.


Reports conflict on his activities then, some claiming that he baked approximately as many loaves of bread as Jesus distributed with the fishes in the miracle described in the Bible, others reporting a series of ugly psychotic episodes. The ("just gimme some") truth is no doubt somewhere in between, and we will likely never know it. Yoko, at any rate, was in charge of their financial affairs, and Lennon was mostly on sabbatical from life. Then a sudden creative fit in 1980 resulted in the material for Double Fantasy. The album came together extraordinarily quickly and was released in November.


Still in a creative frenzy, the couple were already at work on their next project when, coming home late from a session, Lennon was hailed by a fan to whom he’d given an autograph earlier that day, Mark David Chapman. Lennon turned and Chapman shot him five times with a .38 revolver. Lennon was rushed to the hospital but pronounced dead on arrival from a massive loss of blood. Chapman later claimed it was Lennon’s remarks in 1966 on Jesus that drove him to his act, but more likely he was in search of fame. He found it.