I’m not sure how long it was ago, but I began to notice that more and more people were writing negative pieces about John Lennon. In fact, nowadays it has become fashionable to be critical of him. It’s only natural I suppose, it is now 36 years* since he was assassinated, and his reputation has long been long subject to revisionism.
We now live in very judgemental times, and we particularly love to tear down those who are more wealthy, glamorous and famous than ourselves. John Lennon is many ways is the ultimate easy target; he belongs to another, less enlightened, time, and made some grand proclamations in his most famous song, Imagine, that seem nakedly hypocritical now.
I grew up during a time that The Beatles had long since broken up and the general feeling – certainly in Liverpool – was that they had all gone a bit strange, and that Lennon was possibly even mad. I don’t recall that his peacenik stunts with Yoko were ever taken all that seriously by most people, instead they were regarded with bemusement.
After Lennon died though, all of that changed. Lennon the ‘peacemaker’ became the definitive story and they defined him as thus from that moment onwards. Perhaps the media suddenly felt guilty for treating him like a joke for so many years, but the peacemaker tag was always going to be problematic.
Lennon was a complicated human being by any standards. He advocated for peace, but as he would freely inform people, he had a history of being very volatile and aggressive, and had even beaten women. He was an extremely vulnerable man who tried to mask it by being the most entertaining person in the room, even if that meant making somebody else had to be the butt of the joke. His temperament veered from soul-crushingly insecure to breathtakingly arrogant. He could be charming, thoughtful and witty one moment, to cruel and nasty the next. He was profoundly neglectful of one son, and doting and supportive of another.
We know about a lot of Lennon’s faults because he freely owned up to most of them, in an attempt to move on and improve himself. His entire personality was built on layers of contradictions, and a restless need to express his feelings. If he wasn’t doing it in songs, writings, or drawings, he would do it in some of the most candid interviews ever recorded. He often suffered as a consequence of that honesty.
Biographers have always referring us to Lennon’s difficult upbringing to explain him. At the age of six his parents had forced to choose between them, but was later abandoned by both shortly afterwards. He was later brought up in his middle-class Aunt Mimi’s house, but was left with feelings of guilt about what he’d done to make his parents leave. A further cruel twist is that his own mother was living only a few blocks away the entire time, which made him wonder why she hadn’t bothered to visit him. When he did finally reunite with her, she was killed while crossing the road shortly afterwards.
I remember talking to somebody who knew Lennon well, and he mentioned that he always got the impression that whereas other musicians on the scene loved to get back home to their families, Lennon felt that he didn’t have a home. This was particularly in evidence in Hamburg, where most musicians got homesick, but Lennon seemed relatively at ease with the situation.
This ‘lack of home’ is further exemplified by Lennon’s obsession with Strawberry Fields; a children’s home that was not far from his Aunt Mimi’s house. As a child, Lennon had an affinity with the children who lived there, would play in the grounds with them, and occasionally be found hiding under a bed in an attempt to stay the night. There seems to be some level of profound loneliness evident in such behaviour, and sadly that seemed to stay present in Lennon, no matter how wealthy and famous he became.
We all seem to need heroes, and some people seem to need to be admired in that way. However, when we elevate people to that status we are often not doing them any favours; nobody can stand that level of scrutiny. Very few of us actually knew John Lennon personally, so nearly all of us are basing our opinions on hearsay.
Lennon may have been a very flawed man, but his legacy to British popular music and culture is still virtually unparalleled. Let’s remember him for that. Maybe we shouldn’t sentimentalise him anyway – he would have hated that. – Andy Holland
*This piece was written in 2016, the author has since died
John Lennon 1969 photo credit Joost Evers/AnefoCC0 – via Wikipedia Commons
The Beatles 1965 photo credit By Iberia Airlines