Lennon Lives Forever

Twenty-five years after his death, his music and message endure

MIKAL GILMOREPosted Dec 05, 2005 1:56 PM

It has been twenty-five years, and it can still stop your mind.

It had been a good night. John Lennon had just finished making music with his wife, Yoko Ono, that he regarded as some of the best music of his life, and his judgment wasn't off the mark. He had also learned, just a bit earlier, that his and Ono's album Double Fantasy -- the first collection with new music from Lennon in five years, following a mysterious sabbatical -- had gone gold that day. Now he and Ono were on their way back home from the studio to see their son, Sean, the five-year-old whom Lennon had devoted himself to more than to his career. Their car pulled up to the Manhattan apartment building where they lived, the Dakota, and Lennon got out. It was a balmy night, for December. He moved to the Dakota's entrance, then he heard a voice call his name.

Nothing made sense that night. John Lennon was murdered, shot five times in the back, in the presence of his wife. It was a murder of madness.

A future was gone -- Lennon wouldn't make music again, he wouldn't get to kiss his son -- but also, the past suddenly made no sense. A story that had started in hope had ended in blood. It was an awful payoff. Lennon had constructed the Beatles -- the group that in its time meant everything -- and then in his work after he left the band, he had strived for an honesty and an idealism that was unlike anything rock & roll had produced before. In doing so he threatened not just cultural conventions but also unforgiving powers, because he had an unusual command: He had made music that had moved the world. This violent ending ruined the epic.

Nobody ever pushed the possibilities of rock & roll like John Lennon, and nobody in the music's history has really mattered as much. This isn't to say that Lennon was the primary reason for the greatness of the Beatles, though the Beatles are, of course, unimaginable without him. Nor is it to say that after he left that group he necessarily made better albums than the other former Beatles -- though he made more interesting and consequential ones, and he took greater risks. And it isn't to say that he led a life of uprightness or sanctity, because -- and this is the important one -- he didn't. With songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine," Lennon idealized optimism and compassion, but he realized those ideals in himself only fleetingly. He had a notorious, biting temper, he wasn't always fair to the people who loved and trusted him, and he sometimes lashed out viciously at an audience that simply believed in him.

What John Lennon did, above all else, was look after himself. He wanted love and validation, and he wanted those things on his own terms -- the only terms he cared about, and after he had become so legendary, the only ones he needed to accept. Fortunately for us all -- fortunately for history -- Lennon's terms involved high standards. He was prideful enough that he wanted to improve his art, both in and past the Beatles, and he succeeded in that ambition. He was also self-important enough to believe that he could wrestle with the times he lived in and make a difference -- and the difference he made was immense. Lennon was looking after himself when he made art and proclaimed hopes that would outlast his being. He was looking after himself when he made a family and nurtured and preserved it as his most meaningful legacy -- when he looked into his son Sean's face, and wanted to be worthy of the veneration he saw in that face. He did it when, after all his fuck-ups and all his years of silence, he believed enough in the purpose of what he had to say that he was willing to start over.

Maybe it's surprising or simply incidental that all this self-interest affected us in such wondrous and valuable ways. Or maybe it isn't incidental at all. The marvel of John Lennon's story is that all he really wanted was peace for his own interests -- he hated feeling hurt, and he felt it his whole life -- and in pursuing that end, he changed the times around him and the possibilities of the times that followed him. Deep-running hurt drove him. It's what made his story.

"You're born in pain," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, after he had just left the Beatles, "and pain is what we're in most of the time. And I think that the bigger the pain, the more gods we need."

Lennon's pain reached back to his earliest memories -- and cut through his entire life. Without it, his most memorable and lasting artistic creation -- the Beatles -- would likely never have happened, or at least would not have accomplished what they finally accomplished.

Lennon was born in Liverpool, in northern England, on October 9th, 1940, during the days when Britain was the primary major democratic force willing to stand up against the advancement of fascism in Europe. Liverpool was one of England's leading port towns and a frequent target of Nazi bombing raids. On the night of Lennon's birth, air-raid sirens announced an impending attack, and the city shut out its lights. John Lennon was born that night into darkness. Though the city was hit hard and often, Liverpudlians were resilient people, with rough manners, harsh humor and a spirit of proud individualism. They needed those qualities, since much of southern England -- particularly London -- regarded the city as a plebeian backwater. "We were looked down upon by the Southerners as animals," he said in 1970. "We were hicksville."

Whereas the other young men who eventually joined Lennon to form the Beatles -- Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- grew up in housing projects and tougher parts of Liverpool, Lennon was raised in relative comfort, in his aunt Mimi's home in the cozy suburb of Mendips. But that benefit didn't shield the young boy from other deprivations. His father, Alfred, was a ship's steward and liked to drink; his mother, Julia, was impulsive and rebellious -- traits that Lennon inherited. Julia and Alfred married young, in a burst of passion in 1938, and John Winston Lennon was born two years later. Alfred, however, was often at sea, sometimes for a year or more, and in 1944, Julia became pregnant by another man. Alfred returned home in 1946, and when he couldn't put his family back together, he told the five-year-old John to choose between his father and mother. John at first chose his father, but when he saw the pain this was causing Julia, he relented, crying, begging his mother not to leave him. John would not see his father again until well into his fame in the Beatles; in 1970, when he severed his relationship with Alfred, Lennon still felt rage over the neglect from years before. "Have you any idea what I've been through because of you?" he screamed at his father. "Day after day in therapy, screaming for my daddy, sobbing for you to come home. What did you care, away at sea all those years?"

As it turned out, neither of Lennon's parents raised him. Julia's family was offended by her extramarital conduct, and Julia's sister Mimi took custody of the boy. Mimi was stern -- nothing like Julia. She tried to give Lennon a steady home and firm direction, though she was often unwilling to accommodate his youthful enthusiasms, and she withheld love unless he pleased her judgments.

Julia's influence, on the other hand, was immense. Whether she meant to or not, Julia provided her son a model of social defiance; she didn't feel bound by proper conventions and easy morals, and neither would John. She also encouraged his fervor for rock & roll.

In the mid-1950s, Lennon and much of English youth were in the grip of a passion for skiffle -- a rhythmic mix of the British music-hall tradition and American folk music, popularized in Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line" -- when a harder beat emerged from America, led by artists like bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, R&B singers Ray Charles and James Brown, and fierce new stylists such as Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Lennon loved this music immediately -- he sought it out nightly on Radio Luxembourg, an early form of British pirate radio. But the class-conscious Mimi saw rock & roll as entertainment for commoners, and she wouldn't let Lennon learn to play it in her house. When John purchased a guitar anyway, Julia allowed him to have it sent to her home, where she taught him some chord patterns and rhythms, and gave him room to practice with friends.

Julia was killed in 1958 -- hit by a car driven by a drunken off-duty policeman -- and Lennon was left with the sense of an unfinished relationship that forever haunted his memories and longings. "I lost her twice," Lennon told David Sheff in a lengthy 1980 Playboy interview. "Once as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie. And once again . . . when she actually, physically died . . . The underlying chip on my shoulder that I had as a youth got really big then. Being a teenager and a rock & roller and an art student and my mother being killed just when I was re-establishing a relationship with her . . . it was very traumatic for me."

The adventure of the Beatles was forged by John Lennon's temperament and needs. He formed the group to make his way through the world un-alone, in a partnership that might lessen his sense of anxiety and separation. Later, he would end the group for the same reasons.

As a teenager, at Quarry Bank High School and later at Liverpool College of Art, Lennon was seen as unusually bright, imaginative, creative -- and as a constant troublemaker. He wrote clever prose and drew skillful caricatures, but he had no patience for conventions of form and showed little respect to school authority for its own sake. Though Lennon struck some as a nasty character, he was also in serious pursuit of the securities and union that could be afforded by love and family. He found a romantic form of that quest in Cynthia Powell -- who married him in 1962 and bore him a son, Julian, the following year -- but Lennon's true effort at building a family came in the communion he formed with the Beatles. Indeed, the Beatles proved the great love story of the 1960s -- love was their main theme, first as a romantic ideal, then later as a social and political end -- but love wouldn't save their family.

The group debuted in 1962 with "Love Me Do" (a song by Paul McCartney) and first hit Number One on the British charts in 1963 with "Please Please Me" (a song by Lennon that was also a clever plea about oral sex). Within a year, the Beatles were the biggest event in British culture since the Second World War. A year later, after the group's breakthrough in America on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles were simply the biggest thing in the world, short of nuclear fear. They represented a sea change -- in music, in culture, in democracy itself. They weren't always comfortable with having that effect. "People said the Beatles were the movement," Lennon later said, "but we were only part of the movement. We were influenced as much as we influenced." True, but the Beatles were a key part of that movement. They represented youthful hope, and they represented the new social power that rock & roll might achieve -- a power not only to upset but to transform. The world was changing -- or at least it felt that way -- and the Beatles served as emblems of that change.

As wonderful as all that may have seemed to the Beatles' audience, the group's internal reality was rather different. Lennon called life with the Beatles "a trap." In part, he meant the confinements and pressures that came with their fame and the fears -- such as the dread they felt traveling America in 1966, under constant death threats in the wake of Lennon's controversial statement that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus now." Certainly, Lennon reveled in the money and fame, the hedonistic opportunities that spilled forth every place the Beatles turned, but he hated the touring. He resented making nice for private audiences with local privileged officials, and he felt the concerts offered no chance for musical growth. He also lamented that all these obligations kept him from time with his son Julian, though, according to Cynthia in her recent book, John, her former husband's emotional investment in his son was often strained even in the best of circumstances. The truth is, Lennon had inherited more of his mother's spirit than he understood. He lived intensely in the moment -- he threw himself into attachments with real ardor -- but when those moments and the infatuation had passed, he liked to move on. Quickly.

Lennon's first diversions came in the way of drug experiences -- a pursuit that he shared with the other Beatles, as their experiments with marijuana, then LSD, affected the growth of their music on Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- followed by a devotion to Eastern mysticism and meditation. During a meditation seminar in Bangor, Wales, in August 1967, the group learned that its manager, Brian Epstein, had been found dead in his London apartment at age thirty-two, of a drug overdose. "I knew we were in trouble then," Lennon said in 1970. "I didn't really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music. And I was scared. I thought, 'We've fuckin' had it.'"

But another event that would figure just as much into the Beatles' fate had already transpired. In November 1966, during the recording of Sgt. Pepper, Lennon visited London's Indica Gallery for a preview of an exhibition by Yoko Ono, a Japanese-born woman who had been a key player in New York's influential Fluxus avant-garde art movement in the early 1960s (she had helped conceive performance art). Her works were unlike anything Lennon had seen before. They were playful and intellectual at the same time, and all of them offered the viewers conundrums but also invited them to become a part of the art by addressing the conundrum. There was no such thing as a false answer to the riddles in Ono's art.

Lennon was puzzled, even annoyed by some of the challenges in Yoko Ono's art, but he got it, and he was captivated. Ono represented possibilities to him -- certainly romantically, but more important, the possibility of growth as an artist and the prospect of a new kind of partnership. In May 1968, Lennon sent Cynthia away on a vacation to Greece, and the night before her return, he invited Ono over to his country home in Weybridge. He and Ono talked for hours and made a remarkable experimental recording, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. At dawn they made love. When Cynthia returned home that afternoon, she found the two sitting together in robes, drinking tea, and she was startled by their quiet intimacy. She later said, "I knew immediately [when] I saw them together that they were right for each other. I knew I'd lost him." For his part, Lennon knew there were other losses to come. "That's when I started freeing myself from the Beatles," he said. "And that's when everybody started getting a bit upset . . ."

Ono knew nothing about the rock & roll world and wasn't particularly impressed by the Beatles. Lennon's relationship with her was inspiring a new adventurism, and he felt that the Beatles would stifle that spirit. "What I did," he later admitted, "was use Yoko . . . It was like, 'Now I have the strength to leave, because I know there is another side to life.'"

Lennon began bringing Ono into the group's recording sessions during the making of The Beatles, popularly referred to as the White Album. Ono performed on a couple of Lennon's tracks and worked with him on "Revolution #9," and her participation was seen by some as a violation of the group's self-contained ethos. Lennon felt that the Beatles and others at Apple actively disliked Ono because she was a strong-willed woman and Japanese, and that they judged her "like a fucking jury." Ono said, "I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked, and suddenly the next morning I see these three guys standing there with resentful eyes." The disparagement that Lennon perceived wounded and outraged him, and he continued to reflect on it even in his last days.

In 1969, during a business meeting around the time of Let It Be, McCartney was trying to persuade the group to return to live performances. This suggestion had been coming around for some time, and Lennon and Harrison hated it. With McCartney's hopes running so high, Lennon felt he had to come clean. "I wasn't going to tell you," he said, "but I'm breaking the group up." A shocked McCartney and Lennon's manager, Allen Klein, persuaded Lennon to hold off making any public announcements. The band still had to finish Let It Be, and there were two other albums to promote: Hey Jude and Abbey Road. Lennon agreed to the delay. On April 10th, 1970, close to the date the Beatles were set to release Let It Be, McCartney released his first solo album, McCartney, along with a press release announcing that he had quit the group and wouldn't miss it. Lennon was dismayed and furious. He had held off on his own announcement at McCartney's request, and now McCartney had gotten the jump on him.

In a famous, lengthy 1970 interview with Jann S. Wenner in this magazine, Lennon largely held McCartney's wiles to blame for the group's dissolution, but he also had plenty to say about the Beatles in general and the audience that claimed them. Among those statements: "We sold out. The music was dead before we even went on the theater tour of Britain . . . The Beatles' music died then, as musicians." "I didn't become something when the Beatles made it or when you heard about me -- I've been like this all me life. Genius is pain too. It's just pain." "Fuckin' big bastards, that's what the Beatles were. You have to be a bastard to make it, man. That's a fact, and the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth." "One has to humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were, and that's what I resent . . . About all we can do is do it like fuckin' circus animals. I resent being an artist in that respect, I resent performing for fucking idiots who won't know -- who don't know -- anything. 'Cause they can't feel -- I'm the one that's feeling, 'cause I'm the one that's expressing what they are trying to. They live vicariously through me and other artists."

It was difficult to read his words without feeling that Lennon was indicting not just the band but those who had placed a stake in the Beatles. No other major artist ever razed his own image so devastatingly.

However -- not surprisingly -- when Lennon applied his hurt and vitriol to his music, the result was transcendent. He had been active in Los Angeles in an experimental form of treatment, primal therapy, authored by psychologist Arthur Janov. The therapy's premise was that to heal oneself, you had to go into your deepest repressed pains in a cathartic way, and when you hit the center of that pain, you would erupt in a cry -- the primal scream -- and would know yourself better. It seemed tailor-made for Lennon. "I was the male who never cried, you know," he told Playboy in 1980. "I would never have gone if there hadn't been this promise of this scream, this liberating scream." Lennon brought some of that practice to bear on his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in December 1970. The singer recruited Phil Spector to produce the record. Spector had formulated the orchestral-like Wall of Sound style for his famed recordings with the Crystals, the Ronettes, Ike and Tina Turner and the Righteous Brothers, and he had applied some of that sensibility to the Beatles' Let It Be and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Lennon, though, wanted an altogether different sound for his first album: minimalist instrumentation -- just guitar, bass, drums, piano and voice. The result was startling. Lennon sang about the most painful memories and undercurrents of his life -- the death of his mother, the failures of faith and fame, the betrayals in misplaced ideals -- in such a way that there was nothing to shield a listener from the resulting raw anger and anguish. He later said that he decided, for this album, to "shave off all imagery, pretensions of poetry, illusions of grandeur . . . Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme and put a backbeat on it and express yourself as simply [and] straightforwardly as possible."

The album's crowning moment was "God," a litany of all the systems of belief and mythology and history that Lennon was now turning his back on, until at song's end, in a mesmerizing and aching voice he pronounced, "I don't believe in Beatles/I just believe in me/Yoko and me/And that's reality." A short time later he told Jann S. Wenner, "I don't believe in the Beatles myth. I don't believe in the Beatles -- there's no other way of saying it, is there? I don't believe in them and whatever they were supposed to be in everybody's head, and including our own for a period." But Lennon was taking the measure of more than his former band. "God" caught the wonderful and terrible sense of a generation in its time -- romantic, shattered, reeling as hope dissolved all around it, and now left on its own. "The dream is over," he sang at the song's end, in the loveliest voice he ever summoned. "What can I say?/The dream is over/Yesterday/I was the dream weaver/But now I'm reborn/I was the Walrus/But now I'm John/And so, dear friends/You'll just have to carry on/The dream is over."

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band would be the most powerful work of Lennon's career -- the only album by a former Beatle that can stand in its entirety alongside the best of the band's recordings. It didn't, however, sell as well as any of the Beatles' releases, nor as well as McCartney and Harrison's solo debuts. With his next album, Imagine, Lennon tried to present his concerns more accessibly. Spector produced again but this time brought his more familiar warm, lush style to the new songs. Lennon's lyrics still chased troubling themes -- his hatred of deceitful political leaders, jealous insecurities in his marriage, a bitter disdain for his former songwriting partner (he loved beating up on McCartney) -- but this time he wrapped them in a savvy pop sensibility. The album's title track, in particular, put forth some daring notions -- "Imagine there's no heaven . . . no hell . . . no countries . . . no religion . . . no possessions . . . imagine a brotherhood of man" -- and it did so in a beguiling and haunting way. The song was a prayer, the most radical prayer that ever played widely on radio. "'Imagine,' both the song and the album," Lennon said, "is the same thing as 'Working Class Hero' and 'Mother' and 'God' on the first disc. But the first record was too real for people, so nobody bought it . . . 'Imagine' was the same message but sugarcoated. . . . 'Imagine' is a big hit almost everywhere -- anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted. Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey."

Lennon's gambit worked. Imagine reached Number One on Billboard's album charts, and it produced an unorthodox anthem that has never been equaled in popular music. It was also the last great album Lennon would make until the last few weeks of his life.

In 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York. Lennon felt vitalized by its art and music and politics, and he and Ono became friendly with some prominent radical activists, including Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies. Lennon had been politically concerned for some time, but in New York his politics grew more radical and outspoken. For years, starting before the end of the Beatles, Lennon and Ono had pursued a media-directed campaign for the cause of peace -- which at that time meant promoting an end to the war in Vietnam, though they were also advocating the larger philosophy of nonviolence that had guided India's Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In March 1969, following their marriage in Gibraltar, Lennon and Ono flew to Amsterdam, where they staged a "bed-in" for peace. For seven days they sat in bed in their pajamas at the Amsterdam Hilton and gave hundreds of interviews, discussing their views that true peace begins as a personal pursuit and talking about intersections between activism, popular culture, ideology, and Eastern and Western religion. In May, they staged a similar "lie-in" for peace in Montreal, where they recorded the enduringly popular "Give Peace a Chance" in a hotel room with several friends and visitors. Lennon later said that he was trying to change his own heart as much as anybody else's. "It's the most violent people who go for love and peace," he told Playboy. "But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I'm a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence."

After arriving in New York, the couple played some political benefits on the East Coast and appeared at demonstrations for social justice and against the war, though they still refused to take part in anything that might result in a battle. "We are not going to draw children into a situation to cause violence," Lennon once told Rubin and Hoffman. "So you can overthrow what? And replace it with what?" Lennon and Ono capped their political activity with a double album, Some Time in New York City, which addressed concerns like harsh drug laws, feminism, the Irish conflict and justice for black radical Angela Davis (a philosophy instructor tried and acquitted in a death-penalty case for the shooting death of a California judge). It was . . . well, it was a truly awful album -- the worst work of Lennon's career. The problem wasn't his political stances but instead how he expressed those concerns: The songs lacked any of the lyrical originality or effectiveness of Lennon's prior writing. He later said he was aiming for a journalistic style of immediacy, but other artists -- most notably Bob Dylan -- had done better with the same tack by humanizing their subjects, drawing portraits of people who embodied the pains of war and injustice. For the first and only time in his life, Lennon demeaned his material. There was nothing threatening or inspiring about Some Time in New York City. It worked only as a parody of itself.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government, under the administration of President Richard Nixon, saw Lennon's politics as a serious hazard. In 1972, a Senate internal-security subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee sent a memo to Sen. Strom Thurmond, noting Lennon's political activities. The letter suggested that Lennon intended to interfere with Nixon's renomination at the Republican Convention in San Diego. Thurmond then wrote Attorney General John Mitchell, hinting that Lennon should be deported. The Immigration and Naturalization Service informed Lennon he must leave the country within weeks, due to a guilty plea he had entered in a 1968 marijuana-possession case in England. Lennon fought the order and managed to win an extension, but he had to fight the matter for years. It wasn't until 1975, after Lennon had sued the federal government, that he finally prevailed and the government withdrew its case. Later, when the matter was all settled, and Nixon and much of his administration had been forced out of power over their criminal actions in the Watergate matter, Lennon told journalist Pete Hamill, in a Rolling Stone interview, that he didn't want to talk about the president's fall: "I'm even nervous about commenting on politics. They've got me that jumpy these days."

But Lennon faced other trouble during this period. In October 1973, he and Ono separated, after four years of marriage. Lennon claimed she threw him out. Ono said she was feeling lost as an artist. "What am I going to do?" she said. "My pride was being hurt all the time." Lennon moved to Los Angeles for a time, accompanied by his and Ono's secretary, May Pang, who became his lover. At first, Lennon asserted a delight at leading a single person's life. He caroused and drank heavily with Harry Nilsson (a favorite songwriter of Lennon's, who died of heart failure in 1994), the Who's drummer, Keith Moon (who died in 1978 of an overdose of medication he was taking to treat alcoholism), and Ringo Starr (whose alcohol addiction in those days sometimes resulted in blackouts). It became apparent that Lennon was miserable without Ono. He begged her -- often calling many times a day -- to take him back, but she said he wasn't ready. Lennon fell apart. He behaved horribly in public, and he smashed up a friend's house where he was staying. Nilsson later recalled Lennon crying while drunk at night, wondering what he had done wrong.

Lennon's depression and bravado ran alongside each other in his 1974 Walls and Bridges. The work was essentially an open plea to Ono -- indeed, parts of it, such as "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)" and "Bless You," were heartbreaking. Interestingly, the album yielded Lennon his first Number One single as a solo artist, the spry "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," which he recorded with Elton John. On Thanksgiving night that year, Lennon appeared at Elton's Madison Square Garden concert in New York, one of his rare appearances before a large audience, and it was a triumph. Ono attended the concert, and within a few weeks she allowed him to return to the Dakota. Almost a year later, on October 7th, 1975, Lennon finally won his deportation battle. A U.S. Court of Appeals Judge declared, "Lennon's four-year battle to remain in our country is a testimony to his faith in the American dream." Two days later, the forty-two-year-old Ono -- who had suffered three miscarriages before with Lennon -- gave birth to a son, Sean. The date was also Lennon's thirty-fifth birthday. That was when he decided to quit the world.

John Lennon's infant son transformed his life as nothing else ever had. His wife had offered him a deal: "I am carrying the baby nine months, and that is enough. You take care of it afterward." Lennon took his charge seriously. Just as his father and mother had, in effect, abandoned him, Lennon had also forsaken his first son, Julian, during his years with the Beatles, and only spoke with him sporadically since his divorce from Cynthia.

This time he was ready for parenthood. He turned his business over to Ono, who attended to managing their fortunes as if she were undertaking a new art form. Lennon, though, had little room in his days for art. He became Sean's primary nurturer, with the help of a domestic staff. He designed the boy's play routine, cultural education and diet, and when Lennon learned to bake loaves of bread, he viewed the accomplishment with the same sort of excitement that once greeted the release of the Beatles' albums. Lennon and Ono also became adherents of destiny systems like astrology and numerology, basing major decisions -- including business, travel and relationships -- on how the stars or the numbers looked. Elliott Mintz, a former ABC radio interviewer who became one of the couple's closest friends, saw much of their private life firsthand. While he kept his humor about it all, Mintz was also convinced that the family's belief systems and rituals helped transmogrify Lennon. He told Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo in 1981, "We sometimes joked about the paradox of [Lennon] singing 'God' and 'I don't believe in I Ching and I don't believe in magic and I don't believe in Buddha and I don't believe in Krishna' -- but let me tell you, he believed in all of it." Lennon also studied feminist history and theory. "It's men who have come a long way from even contemplating the idea of equality," he told Playboy. "I am the one who has come a long way. I was the real pig. And it is a relief not to be a pig. The pressures of being a pig were enormous. They were killing me. All those years of trying to be tough and the heavy rocker and heavy womanizer and heavy drinker were killing me. And it is a relief not to have to do it."

Lennon said he didn't listen to much popular music during those years. He played Hank Williams and Bing Crosby records, watched a lot of TV (primarily The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson) and did a lot of reading. He composed only sporadically in these years (though two of his rough demos, "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love," became the Beatles' final two singles, when McCartney, Harrison and Starr expanded on them for the Beatles Anthology project in 1996). One of the few musicians Lennon allowed himself contact with in this time was McCartney, who sometimes dropped by unannounced with a guitar, to Lennon's minor annoyance. When the Beatles' legal matters were settled in 1975, Lennon and McCartney were able to re-establish a cautious but respectful relationship. Each sometimes praised the other's solo work, and in one of his last interviews, Lennon paid McCartney his highest compliment. "Throughout my career I've selected to work with . . . only two people: Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono . . . That ain't bad picking." Overall, Lennon's feelings about the Beatles had turned warmer -- he knew they were unrivaled -- but he never once considered any of the many demands or invitations for a reunion of the group. "Why should the Beatles give more?" he said. "Didn't they give everything on God's earth for ten years? Didn't they give themselves? Didn't they give all?"

In the summer of 1980, Lennon abruptly decided that he and Ono would resume recording. Ono had sent him on a sailboat trip to Bermuda, but a three-day storm had made the captain and the boat's two deckhands sick. Lennon was forced to steer the ship for a night, keeping it on course as waves lashed at him. He sang sea chanteys and Beatles songs as he held the wheel tight. "I arrived in Bermuda," he said. "Once I got there, I was so centered after the experience at sea . . . all these songs came to me." He called Ono back in New York. It was time, he said, for them to make a new pop record together. In August, Lennon and Ono entered Manhattan's Hit Factory and produced a duo album, Double Fantasy, and Ono's single "Walking on Thin Ice" (a dark and brilliant piece of dance music). The new album was, in a sense, the most shocking music Lennon ever made. In the Beatles he had written and recorded some of the most daring pop of the 1960s, and he had taken numerous risks -- well beyond pop -- in his solo and experimental work. But Double Fantasy was a departure in unexpected ways that disturbed and disappointed some fans and critics. It was a collection of songs about marriage and family, about domestic affirmation, and it featured the most polished musicianship and professional production of any of his works. To some it sounded as if Lennon had made an easy peace, philosophically and aesthetically. But Double Fantasy ran deeper than that; it was, as Lennon and Ono saw it, a work about how modern capitalism aims to undermine the family. It was no less defiant, for them, than the music of the Clash or any of the other punk bands making brave music in that time. It was all music about a better world. "In one sense," critic Stephen Holden wrote, "Double Fantasy literally fulfills the dream of 'Imagine' by describing a real utopia." Or to put it in other terms, John Lennon was finally making good on an old claim: All you need is love.

In any event, Double Fantasy proved a hit. The night of December 8th, David Geffen -- the head of the label Lennon and Ono had signed with -- visited the couple at the recording studio to tell them the album had just gone gold. Lennon and Ono finished that night's work on "Walking on Thin Ice," which Lennon called the best song they had recorded in their re-emergence. He left the studio a happy man -- probably as happy as he'd ever been. He had wrested a satisfaction and purpose from life that had long eluded him: He had established a secure family, and he was making music he believed in. On that night, as he and his wife arrived back at the Dakota, Lennon carrying the tape of Ono's "Walking on Thin Ice," anxious to see their five-year-old son, he had found a balance. Then, as the singer walked to the entrance of his apartment building, a man stepped from the shadows. "Mr. Lennon," he said.

After his death, things changed around us. America entered the years of Ronald Reagan; Britain, the years of Margaret Thatcher. Modern history was reversing its hopes. Rock & roll, and later hip-hop, has still pushed against that reversal, but it has never pushed as hard as it did in the years of John Lennon. That isn't simply because Lennon was killed. Rather, it's because he lived. The Beatles set something loose in their time: a sense of generational transformation that moved quickly from the blissful to the artistic to the political, and for a few remarkable years, it seemed irrefutable. The story of our times since then has been the product of a determination to make sure that nothing like that could happen again. While "Imagine" can still be played on radio because its music sounds familiar and comforting, there's little -- if anything -- with that sort of nerve in today's mainstream pop. The free market of ideas just isn't that free right now. A pop star as popular as Lennon proclaiming similar ideals in our current environment would run the risk of being judged a heretic.

So we got something when we had John Lennon, and we lost something when his voice was killed. We lost somebody as fucked up as us, who worked his whole life to overcome himself, and, in doing so, his creativity would help us overcome the madness of our times -- at least for a while. Through it all, he told us to keep faith, to keep courage, to defy our hurt, our fear, to find love and hope and to fight for their meaning.

I remember that for about two years after Lennon's murder, I couldn't listen to "Imagine." That blighted message was just too heartbreaking. Instead, I was drawn to Lennon's brave performance of a song he hadn't written, Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," from Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album. "If the sky that we look upon," Lennon sang, "should tumble and fall/And the mountain should crumble to the sea/I won't cry, I won't cry/No, I won't shed a tear/Just as long as you stand, stand by me."

The mountain crumbled, and we shed tears. We were on our own. We had been for a long time. The dream was over.

[From Issue 989 — December 15, 2005]


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