John Lennon (October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980) once remarked, “It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”
Lennon gave us some of the greatest rock songs about love and peace, songs like Imagine, All You Need Is Love, The Word, Happy Xmas (War is Over), and Give Peace a Chance. However, he admitted in interviews and in songs like Getting Better that he had been a rebellious schoolboy and schoolyard bully, an angry young man, a troublemaker and an abuser of women.
The Beatles started with boy-needs-girl love songs that were filled with monosyllabic words. As their audience grew older and more mature, Lennon paved the way for the Beatles’ lyrics to grow more mature by stressing the peace-and-harmony form of love that fueled the era. This transition allowed the Beatles to remain relevant by going from the Fab Four, teenybopper Beatlemania period to the counterculture, antiwar phase. Whereas other groups faded away, the Beatles did not remain stagnant and did not stick to the same formula. Lennon and the Beatles became cultural icons of the 1960s, defining the era but also being malleable enough for the era to define them.
After the period of the innocent love songs, Lennon’s lyrics became highly literate, profound and informed by art. “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you Julia,” are the opening lines to Julia from The White Album. The lines are taken from Sand and Foam, a collection of proverbs by the Lebanese-American poet and writer Kahlil Gibran. “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you” was in Gibran’s work. I Am The Walrus was taken from Lewis Carroll’s great poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. The words to Tomorrow Never Knows, the final track on the Revolver album, are adapted from the Book of the Dead, an ancient Tibetan work Lennon learned of through reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary.
John possessed most, if not all, of the classic traits of an artistic personality type: complicated, disorderly, emotional, expressive, idealistic, imaginative, impractical, impulsive, independent, introspective, intuitive, nonconforming, open, original. His introspection manifested itself in such Beatles songs as There’s A Place, In My Life, Strawberry Fields Forever and I’m Only Sleeping, and from his solo work in Watching The Wheels from the Double Fantasy album. His imagination and idealism revealed themselves in numerous Lennon efforts.
John acknowledged having a jealous streak and this showed up in his solo work in Jealous Guy and in his Beatles work such as You Can’t Do That and Run For Your Life.
An argument can be made that Lennon produced some of his finest work while in a drug-altered state of consciousness. But this period of his alleged heavy drug use was also the time of his laziest work. In an interview in 1966, Lennon confessed that he was “physically lazy. I don’t mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with anymore.”
Laziness, however, should not be taken to mean mediocre. Many of his best songs were composed during this “lazy” period. He simply started relying on the things immediately around him for inspiration rather than expending the energy of leaving home. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was taken from a painting his son Julian had brought home, although some still contend the song was a reference to LSD. Much of A Day In The Life came from events taken from reading the newspapers. The title to Good Morning, Good Morning was taken from a TV commercial. The names and actions in Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite were taken from a Victorian-era poster promoting a circus act popular at that time. John at least had to venture from his home to find this poster, locating it at an antique shop.
John Lennon and the Beatles were big fans of Motown and helped tear down racial barriers in music by encouraging white teenagers to listen to music by black artists. The Beatles helped the fledgling Motown Records directly by covering some of their songs: Money, Please Mr. Postman and You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, with John singing the lead on all of these cuts. Motown founder Berry Gordy said in an interview with Record World in 1964, “It helped when we had several songs of ours recorded by the Beatles…We were absolutely delighted.”
Lennon and the other Beatles gave credit to Little Richard and Chuck Berry for being major influences on their music at a time when white artists were reluctant to pay such tributes. Yet Lennon also caused great misunderstanding and controversy as a solo artist by cutting a track called Woman Is The Nigger of the World. Although well intentioned, the song forfeited much of the good will John had created in the area of race relations.
And speaking of controversies, John had his greatest dispute in 1966 when in an interview with Maureen Cleave that appeared in The Evening Standard, Lennon said, “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.” The remarks didn’t seem to disturb the British public that much, but his comments caused a firestorm in America, especially in the Bible Belt.
John Lennon and the Beatles had a tremendous impact on culture, including fashion and hairstyles. Men abandoned the crew cut and grew their hair longer in large part because of the Beatles. Lennon also recorded many politically charged songs such as Revolution, Power To The People and Working Class Hero. A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War who staged “bed-ins” for peace, Lennon was considered subversive enough by the U.S. government that President Richard Nixon tried to have him deported.
Lennon had poor relations with his father and was mostly raised by his mom and his aunt. Feeling that he had not spent enough quality time with his first son Julian, Lennon decided not to make that mistake when his second son Sean was born. From 1975-1980, John dropped out of the limelight and retreated to become a househusband, taking an active part in the rearing of his newborn son. As soon as he returned to his art in a public way, he was taken from us in a senseless act of violence. The man who recognized the violence within himself and had overcome it to become an advocate of peace and love, was taken by the violence of a deranged fan. We lost a great artist and great thinker.
Ten undeniable masterpieces John Lennon left behind are:
2. A Day In The Life
3. I’m Only Sleeping
4. In My Life
5. #9 Dream
6. Strawberry Fields Forever
7. I Am The Walrus
8. Across The Universe
10. Nowhere Man
The Complete Beatles Lyrics, Hal Leonard Corporation, Omnibus Press, 1982
A Hard Days’ Write, the stories behind every Beatles’ song, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1994
Self-Directed Search, Psychological Assessment Resources Inc., John Holland, 1994 edition
Interview in Playboy Magazine, January 1981, Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
The John Lennon Collection, CD, Capitol Records, 1989