“The world revolves, not around the creators of new noises, but the creators of new values,” said Frederic Nietzsche.
Adds John Lennon: “And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on.”
Peace and love. If we are able to take anything from the tragic death of Lennon – and god knows the senselessness of his murder defies meaning – then it must, paradoxically, be these values we take away from the slaughter on New York’s 72nd street on December 8, 1980.
It would be comforting to say that Lennon died for peace and love, but his death was not that of a martyr, even though this was a role he seemed to relish at some points of his life.
No, he died without reason at the hands of a madman in a city and country where psychosis, violence and assassination are virtually a way of life. Another celebrity in his position would have had a bodyguard, but that was not Lennon’s way. His trust, his willingness to stand naked before the world – sometimes literally – probably cost him his life.
But if Lennon did not die for peace and love, then those were certainly the value for which he lived, which underpinned his work and which, by the close of his forty years, he seemed to have finally realized in his personal life. He did not die a vexed and tortured genius, as the myth of the modern artist seems to demand – it was a myth to which Lennon himself was totally opposed, “I worship the survivors,” he said – but as a fulfilled and humble family man approaching middle age.
Many rock stars have striven to grow old gracefully, but Lennon managed it better than any, and in the last in-depth interview he granted before his death – to Playboy magazine – he spoke with contempt of those of his peers such as The Rolling Stones who were “still surrounded buy by a gang that means you are still 16 in your head.”
Never mind that his last record, ‘Double Fantasy’ lacked the creative urgency and inspiration that characterized his best work – though it shared its scrupulous and sometimes embarrassing honesty – his life was in better shape than ever, and the impression given by the man’s last flurry of public statements and appearances was that of a mind not out of touch, feeding on former glories and addled by bad living, but alert, hungry and ready to confront and embrace the world from which he had for several years consciously retreated in order to be with his son Sean and develop what he saw as the weaker side of his character. He was cut down in his prime.
In today’s growing climate of pessimism, disillusion, and a newly exalted brutalism – be it economic, physical or emotional and spiritual brutality – it is difficult to understand, or even to recall accurately, the optimism of the ‘60s and its massed calls for peace and love. Most of it was, in any case, willful escapism or what now seems an almost pitiful naivety. None of that negates the times underlying idealism, the belief in a saner, more just, dignified and rewarding order of things – and the struggle for the realization of the values was something Lennon maintained until the end of his life.
Over the last five years he had come to see the struggle in a more domestic setting, in the need to create a more equitable and balanced relationship between the sexes, a relationship more suitable to the modern age. Ono and Lennon both felt they were still, albeit in a more suitable and understated way, trailblazing a new set of values. Lennon became a ‘house husband’ while Yoko assumed a traditional male role of dealing with and manipulating the world of commerce and money.
It was this very fusion of the personal and the political, the religious and the artistic, that gave Lennon’s work much of its resonance, and that set him aside from the many fellow travelers who turned out to be merely gifted artisans or self-destructive visionary obsessives. It was not merely that his songs provided the soundtrack for our lives that made Lennon the ‘voice of his generation’ of current media cliché, but that they so often crystalize the mood of the times, and to do so with an honesty that was apparent in the way the man lived out his life.
That is one reason why his loss has hit the world so hard. Like most of us he was often selfish and unpleasant, but he was never miserly with himself or his soul, at least not in the latter parts of his life. He gave. He shared. And now he’s gone we too seem diminished. The part of us that responded to the man’s essential goodness, his dignity, his openness, and his optimism will be that much more difficult to locate without him around.
To say he is destined to be judged as one of the great men of his age is not mere emotionalism or fan adulation. Greater tributes have and will be heaped on the heads of ‘great statesman’ who in reality are bitter and unrequited humans believing in little beyond their own powerlust and expediency of a single or mass murder. But Lennon was more loved more than any politician and was feared only by the hypocrites and false demagogues who frequently tried to belittle his life, hid beliefs and his work and to whom he remained utterly opposed from first until last. There was never any real reconciliation between him and the establishment, no matter how rich or famous he may have become.
For though it would be unwise to be too cynical about the multitude of tributes that are now being tossed after him, few of Lennon’s fans will not taste the smack of hypocrisy in the media’s gushing reaction to his passing.
Alive, he was all too often mercilessly ridiculed, sneered at and worst of all, smugly patronized. The world liked him most when he was buttoned up in the comparative safety of a Beatle suit, where his non-conformism, vitriol and disdain for straight society could be conveniently overlooked or passed off as a contemporary twist on the hallowed traditions of show business. Once the initial outrage at the four rather effeminate, long haired young men with raucous music, provincial accents and disrespectful scouse wit had passed, it was welcome to the fab world of our lovable moptops, and no cause for concern. At least until acid.
But Lennon often hated his Beatle suit, though he doubtless relished the fame and fortune it brought him. Later he would say that he never wanted the group to wear suits, to be groomed: “it was all Paul and Brian [Epstein’s] idea.” In any case, the image of The Beatles that was projected was largely phony; “the never talked about the orgies” he told Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. “The Beatles tours were like Fellini’s Satyricon.”
The conflict between Lennon and society that had been a major feature in his life up until Beatlemania was, however, temporarily muted, channelled into oblique lyrical statements in his songs, or, more obviously, given free reign in his collections of satirical cartoons, stories and sick jokes that he released as two books, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works. Elsewhere his acid tongue and irreverent wit still made his elders and supposed wisers uneasy and occasionally landed him trouble, as with the infamous claim that the group “were bigger than Jesus Christ”. But basically, he was tamed.
“All that business was fucking awful,” he said later. “It was fuckin’ humiliation. One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what The Beatles were and that’s what I resent; I didn’t know, I didn’t foresee. It happened bit by bit, gradually, until you’re doing exactly what you don’t want to do with the sort of people you cant stand – the sort of people you hate when you’re 10.”
Before Lennon had donned Beatle garb he had been Lennon the art school tearaway, Lennon the gang leader, Lennon the rock and roll lout, Lennon the man who pissed on nuns from the balcony of his Hamburg digs. He was variously admired, feared, loved, loathed and tolerated. He never bothered about acceptance beyond his peer group and his standing as a musician.
He met Yoko during his acid-gobbling period, in 1966, and two years later the couple finally came together. His decision to abandon his first marriage to his first wife Cynthia for Yoko seemed to signal the resumption of hostilities with society – or rather society’s hostility with Lennon. Yoko was certainly attacked and lampooned both among Lennon’s inner circle and among fans and followers of the band. She was after all, a “foreigner”, an avant-garde artist of the sort Britain had always been unable to accept, and what was more, she was a fiercely independent woman. Later she would be tarred as “the woman who broke up The Beatles” – this was probably true, but then, so what? Can the institution of a rock group really be so sacrosanct that it becomes more important than the welfare of its individuals?
When Lennon began to take the offensive, returning his MBE “in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria Biafra war, against the support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts” and generally speaking out against the moral corruption and hypocrisy that surrounded him, the full force of British moral indignation was turned against the pair.
They were busted for cannabis. (“I said to Yoko, ‘Quick call the police, someone’s trying to get in. Then I realized was the police.”) The full frontal shot of the pair on the cover of the ‘Two Virgins’ was held up for scorn and forced into brown paper bags for marketing. As for crawling around together in bags onstage, staging ‘events’ , spending their honeymoon in bed to launch a campaign for world peace … it was worse even than The Beatles dalliance with psychedelics, and the woolly eastern mysticism of The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (alias ‘Sexy Sadie’).
Lennon seemed able to soak up the pressure being brought on him from inside and outside The Beatles without trouble – he was, though extremely sensitive, also an extremely tough nut. “You have to be a bastard to make it.” he said in 1970. “And the Beatles were the biggest bastards of all.”
In fact, the drugs, the constant insatiable expectations of the fans, the need to preserve a unified Beatles front when the quartet were privately bickering, the demands of the newly emerged hippie movement for an impossible Peace and Love Apocalypse Now – perfectly expressed the immature demands of Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’ – the grisly spectacle of the Vietnam war and the collapse of a projected Peace Festival in Toronto, the whole psychic confusion of the times as our optimism foundered on the inhospitable reefs of reality; these amounted to a to a load that not even John and Yoko with their newly discovered love shield of invincibility could carry.
The result was a withdrawal from drugs and a course in Dr Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy that reground the duo in the here and now and possible. On ‘Plastic Ono Band’ Lennon owned up; he confronted and exercised his personal past, quit kidding himself and others about the possibilities of the public present for the ‘Alternative’/’Underground‘/‘Hippie’ movement. The album – possibly the finest, the most harrowing, most compulsive work of his career – ended with a mantra of defiance to the world: “Don’t believe in Krishna, don’t believe in Jesus, don’t believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. Yoko and me. That’s reality. The dream is over.”
It was not a popular record – most people didn’t want to wake up. But it was the watershed of Lennon’s career, as an artist, just as meeting Yoko had been the watershed of his life. In either case nothing would be the same again.
The hostility was not ill-judged. Lennon had an acute understanding of British society and its process, and in particular the class system. He’d seen it from top to bottom. Though not particularly working class himself, unlike Ringo Starkey and George Harrison, he had always assumed the mantle of the underdog and the outsider. He came from a broken home, he had never known his father and had been handed by his mother Julia to an aunt for his upbringing, and had lost his mother while still a teenager. No wonder that, even at the age of forty, he would still say, “there’s a part of me that thinks I’m a loser.”
But there was another, equally strong and perhaps more indelible mark on the young Lennon than familial status, the mark of the artist, and if he didn’t match that other great British visionary, William Blake, in seeing visions of Angels in trees, as a child, then by his own admission “There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I saw things other people didn’t see. I would find myself seeing hallucinatory images of my face” or “it caused me to always be a rebel, but on the other hand I wanted to be loved and accepted.”
If the dislocation of sensibility in the young Lennon became one of the driving forces in his rebellion and search for identity, then childhood itself always occupied a special place for him. His work is full of references to childhood, its magic and innocence.
“When I was younger so much younger than today/I never needed anybody’s help in any way,” he sang in ‘Help’ and in the sentiment as to re–occur in many different forms. “When I was a boy, everything was right.” He wrote songs to his own children, even getting the eleven year old Julian to play drums with him on a version of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ya Ya’, and always seemed to have a natural correspondence with children – one of the most memorable photographs of him was, for me, with a kid on his knee in the Magical Mystery Tour film. Two innocents abroad.
Lennon never lost that innocence, never lost the vision of the child who saw right through the Emperor’s new clothes, even if at times he seemed to be the emperor himself, leading his troops into cul-de-sacs, or merely marching up the hill and back down again.
At the height of his bed and peace antics he was dubbed a ‘Fool’ and he seized upon the term with fierce glee. “Everybody had a good year, everybody put the fool down,” he sang on ‘Let it Be’ with tongue firmly in cheek, and again, more pertinently, on ‘Instant Karma’: “How on earth you gonna see? Laughing at fools like me? Who on earth do you think you are? A superstar? Well alright, you are.”
His fondness for looking back, for remembering, for re-evaluating the past in his songs, his interviews, was part of his constant search for self-discovery, self-awareness, self-control. He came to understand his own complex nature intimately, to recognize the fiercely competitive sides of his nature. “It is the most violent people who go for love and peace,” he said in his Playboy interview. “I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and who regrets his violence.”
The conflict between Lennon the fighter and Lennon the peacemaker was always apparent. Even his peace campaign gave way to a period of agitprop militancy when the Lennons appeared in Japanese riot gear to promote ‘Power to the People’ and walked the streets of New York with loud hailer and Red Mole posters on a demonstration in opposition to British policy in Northern Ireland. He engaged in a lengthy dialogue with Tariq Ali’s left wing magazine Black Dwarf about the words to his song ‘Revolution’. “The lyrics stand today,” he said before his death. “Don’t expect me to be on the barricades unless it is with flowers.”
He’s gone now, anyway, that Lennon. Gone, gone, gone. People will say his spirit and works live on, as indeed they do; somebody will start a ‘Lennon Lives’ campaign, but the brutal truth is that he’s gone. Nothing could have emphasized it more than the sudden cremation of his body without ceremony or the grand slam funeral usually reserved for mortals as popular as he was.
In the last interview before his death – to RKO Radio in New York City – Lennon confronted those who were angry at his having spent the last five years in seclusion:
“Why were people angry with me? For not working? You know, if I were dead they wouldn’t be angry with me. If I’d conveniently died after ‘Walls And Bridges’ they’d be writing this worshipful stuff about what a great guy I was and all. But I didn’t die and it just infuriated people that I would live and just do what I wanted to do.”
So let’s not allow our grief to turn into a misplaced despair. That was not what Lennon’s life was for; just the opposite. He said that if The Beatles had any message it was to learn to swim… “Don’t expect Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself.”
If you really loved and believed in Lennon, that’s exactly what you’ll do. He made something good and valuable and enduring from his life. We should all try and do the same. Goodbye Hello.
- Neil Spencer, NME