John Lennon at 80: imagining the Beatle today
John Lennon 80th birthday
You know the Beatles story. Liverpool, Hamburg, the cave, Beatlemania, Ed Sullivan, "More popular than Jesus", stop touring, Sgt Pepper, Epstein's death, India, arguments, Yoko, appearance on the roof, a bad-tempered separation.
It's a compelling story because it has a clear ending. You can make a case for Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones, who have similar cultural influence, but Mick, Keith, and Bob are still vacillating around the world. The December 1980 murder of John Lennon made a sad point for the Beatles. This tragedy gives her bow a special resonance and turns it into a fable of the 20th century.
John Lennon films Magical Mystery Tour, 1967 - John Rodgers / Redferns
Such worn-out stories flatten their protagonists. Ringo is gentle, George is calm, Paul is happy but chippy. Lennon is, at least in the public imagination, the man who wrote Imagine, one half of an epochal marriage, a prophet for peace. Lennon was beatified after his death and has been thoroughly misunderstood in recent years.
Death flattens people again and captures them in amber at a certain age or in the mild iconography of tragedy. Lennon's unchecked reputation harms its complexity.
How did the events of his childhood, youth, the dizzying journey of the Beatles and the difficult decade that followed shaped him? And how do we think of him now, almost 40 years after his death? Has his image changed since 1980 and are we at risk of losing sight of the truth that he has pursued through his art?
We start in October 1950.
John Lennon Rickenbacker 325 - John Loengard / Life Magazine / The LIFE Image Collection via Getty Images, David Redfern / Redferns, Nigel Osbourne / Redferns
Lennon at ... 10
On his 10th birthday, John Lennon had already experienced abandonment. "You'd think 1940 to 1950 would be a disposable decade," says Jude Kessler, who wrote four books in a planned nine-part biography of Lennon. “But that's really the decade that matters.
“It is the one who shapes him permanently and who will have the greatest influence on him. When I started hearing the stories of what happened in those first 10 years and for the next 10 years my question was, "How did this man ever move on?" It was enough tragedy to prevent anyone from being dead. "
Lennon's relationship with his mother Julia was complicated. Her older sister Mimi, Lennon's aunt, reported her to Social Services after she learned that the child Lennon was sharing a bed with his mother and her boyfriend at the time. Shortly afterwards, Lennon was taken into Mimi's care in her Mendips house, where he lived from the age of four.
When he was six, Lennon's father, Alf, was back on site after casting spells at sea during WWII. He had missed the birth of his son. In 1946 he brought Lennon von Mimi to a friend in Blackpool. This trip would bring one of the most formative experiences in Lennon's life.
The apocryphal account, now viewed as exaggerated by Beatles scholars, says Lennon was asked to choose between staying with his father and possibly emigrating or returning to Liverpool to live with his mother. Lennon, the story goes, initially chose his father, but changed his mind after seeing how annoyed Julia had been.
We'll never know exactly what happened in Blackpool, but Lennon was scared for decades. Julia took him back to Liverpool but he was taken straight back to Aunt Mimi where he would continue to live. He wouldn't see his father again until he was one of the most famous people in the world.
John Lennon with his mother Julia - Jeff Hochberg / Getty Images
Lennon was a war baby born October 9, 1940 at Liverpool Maternity Hospital. Mimi enrolled him in Dovedale Elementary School, a four-minute walk from Penny Lane. Friends and relatives talk about the youth's natural charisma. He was the automatic leader of every group, a child to whom both boys and girls were drawn.
He was also wanton, curious, precocious, and disruptive in school. This strip collided with Mimi's stultifying correct feelings. She was dedicated to her sister's son, but never tried or failed to act as a surrogate mother. "What she doesn't give this little boy, and that's the heart, the core of John - she doesn't give love," says Kessler.
She and Lennon fell out often throughout his life, but Lennon maintained an affection for her until the end. Her husband George was his surrogate source of parental love and a father figure. He taught Lennon how to play the harmonica, an instrument he would use on the Beatles' first hit, Love Me Do. Lesley-Ann Jones, author of a new book, Who Killed John Lennon? Says, “George was the one who taught him how to do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper and who got him sketching, drawing and painting.
“He was a gentle, friendly, open-minded, loving person, Mimi was the opposite of all of that. She threw away John's drawings, sketches, and poems. He said to her with an incredible sense of fate at this young age: "You throw away my work, you will be sorry when I am famous." He knew that he was meant for great things. "
By the age of 10, Lennon's mother was a regular visitor to Mendips and he had reconnected by letter to his father, who was in jail and released from the merchant marine. Lennon was in desperate need of love, but was six years away from starting the first great romance of his life with rock and roll music.
The early Beatles with Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums - Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images
Lennon at ... 20
On October 9, 1960, Lennon celebrated his 20th birthday as Beatle in Hamburg. His band played their sixth night of 56 at the Kaiserkeller Club with their original line-up of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and drummer Pete Best.
The group had come together bit by bit after a happier formative moment for Lennon when they first heard Elvis Presley in 1956. When he discovered Little Richard months later, he felt so overwhelmed that he could not speak. But it was the short-lived skiffle boom that inspired his first group, the Quarry Men, named after the Quarry Bank secondary school he attended. In July 1957, his band played at a church festival where he first met McCartney. Two months later, he became friends with Sutcliffe at Liverpool College of Art.
Lennon remained a one-off. Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn describes a 1957 recording of the Quarry Men in his important book Tune In: “It's unmistakably John Lennon… Singers always start out as impersonators, mimicking whoever made the record they are performing , some may develop their own voice further. That John Lennon was ... so audible himself is the mark of a true original. "
Between the ages of 10 and 20, Lennon continued to create and produce his own newspaper, the Daily Howl. He would write his first songs. He was so short-sighted that he couldn't see the crowds in front of a stage, but he rarely wore his glasses in public until the mid-1960s. There were also darker features. He had developed a persistent macabre interest in deformities. He became an insatiable drinker and avid drug user who used the appetite suppressant Preludin because of its stimulating properties to drive off long sets in Hamburg. He had also hit women at least twice, including art school friends Thelma Pickles and Cynthia Powell. He would admit that in interviews and texts in the following years.
Grief was never far away. The death of his surrogate father figure, Mimi's husband George, was devastating. Not least because Lennon had been sent away without knowing that George was sick. When he came back the funeral had already taken place.
He had grown closer to his mother Julia and lived with her occasionally, but never as a permanent arrangement. She taught him the banjo, his gateway to the guitar. She was killed and hit by a car outside Mimi's house in July 1958 after visiting her son. Lennon believed it was being driven by an off-duty drunken cop who cemented an anti-authoritarian phase that would last his entire life. "Liverpool is a very strange place because there is a real culture of disregard for authority," says Dr. Mike Jones, Lecturer in Music at the University of Liverpool, "and Lennon had that in their spades."
His mother's death understandably left deep scars on Lennon, who was 17 when it happened. "He was a boy when he was 17," says Lesley-Ann Jones. “And I think he never really grew up, he stayed a boy, a late teenager who's been a criminal for the rest of his life. And that has to do with the fact that he was robbed of his mother so young that you always have to cling to someone.
"The worst part was that he stayed in that bedroom [with Mimi] and had to draw the curtains every day at this point where she was killed. His way of dealing with it was getting angry and blaming everyone else . "
24-year-old John Lennon in iconic suit - John Rodgers / Redferns, John Loengard / Life Magazine / The LIFE Image Collection via Getty Images
The Beatles' first of five Hamburg residences ended in December 1960. Lennon returned to Liverpool on December 10th, unsure of his future with the Beatles and not knowing that he had less than half his life left.
Was Hamburg the creator of him as a musician? "Absolutely, also as a performer and as a personality," says Dr. Mike Jones. “John Lennon's personality is quite challenging. Anyone who has interacted with him will say that he was difficult to be with. He's a very angry, very angry person.
“What Hamburg does because the conditions are so extreme and he plays for hours in a tough place in front of a tough audience, has enabled him to let go of a lot of his anger. It made a person for him. "
On his return to Liverpool, Hamburg's chastening experience made him doubt his self-defined fate as a musician. "I've always been some kind of poet or painter and thought, 'Is that all? "Lennon said later, as mentioned in the Beatles Anthology book." Nightclubs and shabby scenes being deported and weird people in clubs? Nowadays they call it decadence, but back then it was only in Hamburg, in clubs where groups played "Strip clubs. I was wondering if I should continue."
But for the Beatles in Liverpool, things quickly started to fit. They built a loyal audience around Merseyside and first performed at the cave in February 1961. Sometimes they yelled at their crowds. On March 27, Hamburg waved again, where the band spent 92 nights in the Top Ten Club and spent hundreds of hours on stage. They were recorded on a single in June as a backing band for singer Tony Sheridan. Back in Liverpool, Lennon once again had doubts about continuing for fear the band had hit plateau. For his 21st birthday he hitchhiked to Paris with Paul McCartney, where his Hamburg friend Jürgen Vollmer gave them both forward-facing hairstyles, which were known at the time as "Exi" after "Existentialist". The world would know it as a mop top.
Lennon at his home in Weybridge, Surrey - Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images in the 1960s
Lennon at ... 30
The years between Lennon's 20th and 30th birthday spanned the Beatles' entire career. He had Come Together, Revolution, One Day in Life, Tomorrow Never Know, In My Life, The Night of a Hard Day, She Loves You, written and that's just one song from every year the band released an album. At the end of 1970 he wanted to leave it all behind.
When Paul McCartney announced the split of the band on April 10th of that year, the Beatles had achieved an influence that is difficult to exaggerate. Lennon's joke seemed to be knocked out of him by endless tours and strenuous research. Fame had given it a number, and the refurbished "fabulous" image shaved off its rough edges. Drugs didn't help, first marijuana, then LSD, and finally heroin.
He married twice, first to art student Cynthia Powell before the birth of their son Julian, then seven years later to Yoko Ono. He was a distant father to Julian at best, born in 1963, although he regretted his shortcomings in letters to Cynthia at the time. He would try to fix that relationship later. Lennon saw his own father, who had rocked his house for the last time on his 30th birthday at the height of Beatlemania and occasionally after.
At the beginning of the year, not long after the Beatles broke up, he underwent primary therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov, to relive the pain of his childhood and to scream better himself. He turned 30 while recording his brutal first solo album, Plastic Ono Band.
He had won so much in 10 years, but the losses kept coming. First Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg after a brain hemorrhage, then the eight-year-old singer Alma Cogan, with whom he allegedly had an affair. Finally, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who is the subject of similar rumors. Recordings from Bangor, where the Beatles were on a meditation retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and had just heard the news about Epstein, show the devastation Lennon has written on his face. He looks like a little boy and he wonders why it happened again.
The Plastic Ono Band performed on Top of the Pops in 1970 - Ron Howard / Redferns
Yoko Ono saved him. In love with his new wife, he called her "mother" and spent their honeymoon preaching about peace through hotel beds on a trip around the world. "Cynthia told me that she had a very strong feeling that John didn't really care if he lived or died," says Lesley-Ann Jones. “He had absolutely no respect for his own life. And that made her mother him.
“Yoko is not a fake. She was a guru to him in many ways because she managed to change his mind about children, spirituality, feminism, world diseases and think further to expand his reach. She turned him around. I think he would have died much sooner if he hadn't met her. "
Yoko had a child from a previous marriage, Kyoko, but suffered a miscarriage while pregnant with Lennon's child. In September 1971 they moved to America, never to return to England.
A month before his 31st birthday, Lennon released his second solo album, Imagine. His theme song is without a doubt the solo work he remembers the most. "There are a lot of things to blame Lennon for, and it's very rare that hypocrisy is one of them," said Jack Pelling, co-host of the Beatles podcast, Your Own Personal Beatles. "But I think if you sing" Don't imagine possessions "on an ivory white piano in your massive mansion, it is going to do you no great favors.
"I wouldn't suggest that it didn't come from the heart, but maybe it was just a phase that didn't last too long."
Maintaining the calm mood of this song would not be easy for Lennon for the next decade.
Lennon at ... 40
After the turbulent 1970s, Lennon found peace in 1980. There have been solo albums, collaborations with Ono, declining commercial and artistic returns, then the birth of his son Sean on Lennon's 35th birthday. This led to a withdrawal from public life. In the company he focused on fatherhood and learned how to bake bread.
There had also been a generously dubbed "lost weekend" in Los Angeles, apart from Ono and in a relationship with her former assistant May Pang. Lennon spent the time drinking too much with a rotating cast including Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, and Keith Moon. It was a bit longer than a wild 48 hours. "His bender, his lost weekend, is 18 months," says Dr. Mike Jones. “It practically killed Harry Nilsson. You imagine getting drunk for so long. Without break. "
The losses slowed, but not completely. Beloved stepdaughter Kyoko was taken out of Ono's custody by her father and Lennon never saw her again. Father Alf died in 1976, but not before he and his son had partially improved their relationship over the phone. A Beatles reunion is the first thing everyone asks Lennon about, but it doesn't seem imminent.
But Lennon was ready to return to his solo career. Shortly after his 40th birthday, he published Double Fantasy. A few months earlier he was sailing the yacht Megan Jaye from Rhode Island to Bermuda when it encountered stormy weather. Lennon was in charge of the boat and, at first scared, managed to steer it through difficulties. Like his father, he felt at home at sea. "I think this is one of the happiest moments of his life," says Jude Kessler. “I think he made it and felt good. For most of John's life, he wasn't feeling well. He knew he was smart, he knew he was unique, he knew he was different, but nobody was in his tree. "
Double Fantasy was received in a friendly, if not rhapsodic manner, and a tour was planned for the following year. A return to public life seemed assured. It was felt that Lennon had come through the storm.
John Lennon with Yoko Ono in New York - Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images
On the day Lennon was killed on December 8, 1980, he was photographed by Annie Leibovitz curled up naked next to a clothed Ono. He also signed a copy of Double Fantasy in front of the Dakota building for a man named Mark David Chapman. Hours later, Chapman murdered Lennon.
It was a brutal murder that was fired from behind with four hollow bullets. Anyone would have been enough to kill him alone. It took place in front of his house, where Sean and Ono would live on, a grim echo of Lennon's life with Mimi as he looked out the window at the spot where his mother died. His death was hard. Hundreds gathered outside the Dakota to light candles and sing songs.
His ascent to saint was almost instantaneous. In the days that followed, the Telegraph wrote in a ladder column: "A man who lived with a philosophy of peace was killed by the weapon".
Where would he have gone next? "Yoko Ono said Lennon was very much into the formative years of hip-hop," said Robin Allender, Jack Pelling's co-host of Your Own Personal Beatles. "The John Lennon hip-hop album, I'm not sure if that would have done any good to his legacy. But everyone had a seedy 80s, Neil Young, David Bowie ..."
All artists grow and shrink, both in terms of the quality of their work and in terms of their perception. Lennon's murder meant his reputation was secured, safe from any harm he had done him in the years he had stolen.
John and Yoko at Hit Factory recording studio - Mark and Colleen Hayward / Redferns
Lennon at ... 50
In 1990, 10 years after Lennon's death, he and the Beatles were not yet the cultural force they would become. Lennon's legacy, burnished immediately after his assassination by several of his songs returning to the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, was still being formed. Ono extended his discography with the release of Milk and Honey, a sequel to Double Fantasy with songs recorded during and after the sessions of that album.
What would have been his 50th birthday was marked with a 4-CD box set of his solo work, a worldwide broadcast of the song Imagine, and a limp tribute concert in Liverpool without the Beatles. Tickets weren't sold out. "They found their feet, Yoko and the organization in what remembering John is," says Jason Carty, co-host of the Nothing Is Real podcast.
In the 1980s and ever since, Lennon's birthday was commemorative. A statue of him was unveiled in San Francisco in 1981, and the Strawberry Fields Memorial opened four years later in New York's Central Park.
The most important step in codifying the idea of Lennon came in 1988 with the release of the documentary Imagine John Lennon. It took advantage of the crippled self-portrait that has become Lennon's posthumous logo and helped cement its image in other ways. There are footage of the artist working on Imagine, strolling with Yoko through his home in Boetthurst Park and inviting a haunted fan into the kitchen to get bread and butter after patiently trying to explain that he didn't do all of his lyrics wrote specifically for him.
Britpop band Oasis, alongside whom Lennon appears symbolically - JOERG KOCH / DDP / AFP via Getty Images, New York Times Co./Larry C. Morris / Getty Images
"I think John Lennon for the man on the street is the caricature of who he was as a Beatle," says Jack Pelling. "He's the Lennon of an era that's the glasses, the long hair, the bedtime. I think when you close your eyes and think of John Lennon you think of the scrawl he drew of himself. It was pretty much his intention of trying to turn himself into more of a symbol. This type of iconography is very self-proclaimed. "
The film doesn't quite flatter him. He eventually poses for the camera using the "crippled" face that he has adopted with unfortunate regularity throughout the Beatles' career. It's hard to imagine a moment like this making the cut today.
In 1989 the Beatles' old litigation was on the way to being resolved. This meant that their catalog could now be completely re-advertised for the first time. Lennon was rehabilitated, sanctified, and commercialized and ready to be resold to the world.
Lennon at ... 60
Lennon's 60th birthday was a global event. The albums Plastic Ono Band and Double Fantasy were re-released, planes wrote “Remember Love” in the skies over New York City, Ono opened an exhibition about her husband in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, an entire museum was inaugurated For him in Japan an ice sculpture of his head was exhibited in front of the Sydney Opera House.
The nineties had anointed The Beatles and Lennon as incontestably great. A large part of this was thanks to the 1995 Anthology project, a documentary film with eight episodes and three accompanying double albums with rarities. It struck at a random time.
"Even if you didn't hear or pay attention to it, Anthology couldn't really be ignored," says Jason Carty. "The Beatles said it's a big thing, we're a big band, the biggest thing there is." ever was. We were different from everything else. Anthology recaps the story. "
They also benefited from the little help from their friends.
"Oasis really talked a lot about the Beatles," says Carty. "Jesus Christ, like non-stop."
The Beatles 1 album followed shortly after Lennon turned 60, a compilation of all the songs that reached number one in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a winning lap to crown a triumphant decade for the group and remains the best-selling album of the 00s.
Lennon's shares had rarely been higher, but some voices of disapproval could be heard, not least from his sons. Julian made a statement in December 2000 saying, “I was very angry with Dad for his negligence and his attitude towards peace and love. That peace and love never came to my home. "
Benefiting from a quieter version of his father, Sean said in 1998, “I see my father as a huge asshole. He was a macho pig in many ways and he knew it. The only thing that made it okay was that he could admit it. That was his saving grace. "
Journalist Charles Shaar Murray wrote for the Telegraph in 2000: “We honor John Lennon as the composer of a library of great songs, and we mourn him as the emblematic martyr of the darker side of contemporary celebrity culture ... John Lennon was a man was in many ways Deeply flawed in respects, but his greatest gift was his ability to speak so directly to our dreams. "
Speke Airport, officially renamed Liverpool John Lennon Airport - Anwar Hussein / Getty Images, Vinnie Zuffante / Michael Ochs Archiv / Getty Images / Mark Williamson
Lennon at ... 70
In 2010, it felt like those who wanted to pay tribute to Lennon were left with no means of expressing themselves. A photo was projected onto the Albert Dock. Google released its first video Doodle. Imagine the inevitable backdrop. Julian lifted the veil of a strange monument in Liverpool. Three years earlier, Ono designed the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland, a circular memorial with searchlights that, on a clear night, shine a light tower thousands of meters high into the sky.
Where else can tributes go after an airport is named after you? Speke Airport became Liverpool John Lennon in 2001, the first such commemoration in Great Britain, placing Lennon internationally in the same class as Charles de Gaulle, Indira Gandhi and John F. Kennedy.
His work had remained robust, adaptable, and economically viable. Between 2000 and 2010 there was the Gray Album by Danger Mouse, a mixture of the White Album by the Beatles and the Black Album by Jay-Z. There's the Cirque du Soleil Love Show, which is accompanied by the idea of Beatles Songs as Mashups from 2006, chaired by George Martin and his son Giles. There's even a video game, The Beatles: Rock Band, that lets gamers act out their Lennon fantasies as long as they have a Playstation and a plastic guitar controller. The evolution of Lennon into a literal caricature is complete.
"War is Over" poster reading "Lennon is Over" - Frank Barrett / Keystone / Hulton Archives / Getty Images
More and more people are now discovering his mistakes. The violent lyrics to Rubber Soul's last song Run For Your Life are scrutinized: "I'd rather see you dead, little girl / than be with another man." Recordings of him mocking disabled people, a set piece of the Beatles' stage show for years, are making the rounds. Those horrific impressions of clapping hands and stamping feet haven't aged well, but, according to Jude Kessler, shouldn't change how we think of Lennon now: “I think he scored a goal by standards that didn't exist then he was there. "
Maybe we should be grateful that Lennon didn't see some of the regalia of 2010? "The worst person who was ever on Twitter would have been John Lennon," says Jason Carty, "it would have been a disaster." It is easy to imagine that online cancellations are quick and thousands are gathering behind the hashtag #LennonisOver.
Lennon at 80
Where would we find John Lennon today at the age of 80? McCartney, able to argue his corner from nearly 40 years of experience, now seems implicitly perceived as the dominant partner of the greatest songwriting team of all time. Richard Curtis' juicy rom-com Yesterday was dominated by McCartney compositions. George Harrison's Here Comes The Sun is a leader in Spotify's Top 10 Most-Played Beatles Songs, heard 150m more than Lennon's Come Together. With every new remastering of the back catalog, McCartney's (admittedly brilliant) bass game gets a little louder.
Did we pass Lennon Summit? Some of his legacy is preserved in unexpected places, says Jason Carty. “You look at the politics of the last few years, it has been moved to the online organization.
“I think the truest thing John ever said about his activism was,“ We're a campaign for peace. ”There is some reflection in modern activism where someone like Greta Thunberg can say,“ Look at this thing on, I'm not going to fix this thing, but I'm going to bring your attention to this thing, get you to think about it and see which side you are on. '
“John and Greta are fired for gesturing, but even firing is an answer. Today more than ever, the most valuable resource is people's attention. "
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