The Complex Legacy of an Icon

Anyone worth talking about is sure to cause an argument. Charles Barkley said this past summer “When people talk about you, they are either gonna say ‘He’s a good guy, or he’s an asshole'”. But one could argue that the most compelling figures in the public imagination are more complex than that. As the NBA world mourns the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, it’s hard to ignore the complex reality behind the public image. It is often easier to sanctify or demonize a cartoonish version of a public figure than it is to accept both the good and bad of the actual human being.

John Lennon is one such figure whose iconic legacy is not easily defined in the saint/sinner paradigm. Lennon was murdered tragically by a deranged fan nearly 40 years ago in front of his apartment building in New York City.

Today’s cancel culture seeks to define people in those binary terms – good or evil, angel or demon. The reality of the human experience, fortunately, is often much more complicated. John Lennon was the leader of the iconic Beatles as well as the writer of Imagine, an anthem of peace and love. Lennon was also a domestic abuser, addict, and philanderer. Mostly, he was radically and extremely human, a raw nerve of visceral emotion both good and bad. Kobe Bryant was an inspiration to many young basketball players and athletes in general for his vaunted killer instinct and hard nosed approach to his craft. But Bryant also did not adequately atone or even address a sexual assault incident from 2003 in Colorado. As the world mourns, so too do women around the world who feel unheard and not believed.

John Lennon: Son 

The story of John Lennon and his relationship with his parents is a tragedy in its own right. If you dive into the catalog of Lennon’s solo work, it is only a matter of time until you hear the primal scream that is Mother. John’s mother Julia married Alfred “Alf” Lennon in 1938 after an 11 year relationship. Alfred was a bit of a vagabond and a rascal who bolted for the merchant marines almost immediately after the wedding. He returned in 1940 just long enough to get his wife pregnant before heading back to sea. John never met his father who deserted the merchant marine in 1943 and stopped sending support payments home. 

Father, you left me, But I never left you. I needed you, but you didn’t need me. So I just got to tell you, Goodbye
Julia meanwhile moved on with another man and raised the young John despite the protests of her family for living in sin with another man. John bounced around as a child between his aunt’s house and spending inconsistent time with his mother. Julia did introduce him to music, originally teaching him a few chords on the ukulele and banjo. She bought him his first guitar but was never a consistent motherly figure. John inconsistently saw Julia while living in the same town. His early life was chaotic until 1958 when Julia was struck by a passing car and killed.
Mother, you had me, but I never had you. I wanted you, but you didn’t want me. So I just got to tell you, Goodbye

Every complicated figure has a complicated past, but Lennon’s upbringing brings context to the maelstrom of the life that would come next.
 

John Lennon: Beatle

From 1956 to 1963, John Lennon worked as a struggling musician, working gigs first in the Quarrymen and then the Beatles. He recruited Paul McCartney, who brought in George Harrison to form the core of the Beatles band. They played basement clubs in Hamburg, Germany twice per night as they honed an aesthetic and sound that would eventually become the most commercially successful of all time. The early Beatles combined a sonic joviality with an undercurrent of vulnerability that had not been seen before in rock-and-roll. The juxtaposition of 1965’s Help! is perhaps the best example of this. A casual listen to Help! sounds like an invitation to a young girl by a young boy who is lonely. But upon a closer listen, you can hear John’s voice crack just a bit as he sings, “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down.”

1965 at the time of release was the height of the Beatlemania craze. A time where the world saw the group on top, inspiring many other bands in what would become known as the British Invasion. Bands like the Rolling Stones, a more grimy version came soon after. The Kinks, The Who, and The Yardbirds all took inspiration from Lennon and the Beatles. John and the Beatles represented a singularity in the history of music. There is the world before the Beatles and after. The impact on popular music remains undeniable in Nashville and Los Angeles.

John and Yoko 

The fame that the band endured in the 1960s was unprecedented. By 1966 John Lennon and the band had stopped touring, citing the circus atmosphere as a distraction to their art. The band shifted to a studio model and continued to write, record, and create. The music itself became more complex. The themes that McCartney and Lennon began to explore lyrically also started to take different directions. Paul McCartney had always been able to bring popular sunshine to Lennon’s emotional appeal. As the band explored more, Lennon began to talk about peace, love, and politics. McCartney was more personal in his songs of hope. Hey Jude, for example, was an appeal to a lonely child to never lose the light in a hard world. On the same album Lennon wrote Revolution, a condemnation of all sides of the Cold War debate.

Not coincidentally, by 1968 Lennon had begun a relationship with Yoko Ono. Ono is a New York based artist who was radically avant garde. They originally met in 1966 at a gallery opening for Yoko’s artwork. Yoko admittedly was unimpressed by Lennon’s fame, which probably explains part of his fascination with her. Ono was a staunch anti-war activist and that sensibility soon took root in Lennon’s songs. The pair wed in 1969 and within a year the Beatles had parted ways. Ono was blamed by many fans for being the cause of the breakup but that is probably a simplistic view of a very complex set of situations and people. 

Going Solo

The first solo album from Lennon included visceral raw nerves set to music such as Mother, God (God is a concept, by which we measure our pain) and Power to the People. The music was rudimentary, the mix was unvarnished. The emotions were unrestrained. In 1971 Lennon released Imagine, perhaps the defining album of his solo career. Imagine the song remains an iconic dream of a world unfettered by governments, war, religion and pain. On that album however, you get a glimpse into the darker side of John’s personality in Jealous Guy.

I was swallowing my pain. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry that I made you cry. I’m just a jealous guy.

The couple had a tumultuous relationship for many years. Lennon wrote Jealous Guy about the mindset that Yoko credits for driving her to send him to Los Angeles in 1973 for his “Lost Weekend”. Ono, ever the radical, sent their personal assistant Mei Pang, to be John’s companion (girlfriend) during that trip. In 1974 the messy Walls and Bridges was released including 4 minutes of self pity in Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out. 1975 saw the final release of his Los Angeles boondoggle, Rock and Roll. The album is as entertaining as being a fly in the wall in the studio as a bunch of ultra talented musicians drunkenly play cover songs. 

in 1975 Ono recalled her husband and Sean was born in October of that year. For all of the criticism that Yoko endured, she seemed to have a sense of what John needed and when. He dove into the final 5 years of his life as a father and a New Yorker with gusto. As one of the most famous people to have ever lived he relished his new identity as a local resident and fiercely defended his right to be a normal human. Lennon would finally return to the studio to record 

John Lennon: Father

The Duality of John Lennon is perhaps best summarized by his legacy as a father. Lennon had two children, Julian and Sean from two different marriages. Julian was born in 1963, just as the Beatles exploded onto the world stage. John met Julian’ss mother Cynthia at art school as a teenager. Cynthia stayed at home in England as John and the Beatles began the whirlwind tour of Beatlemania in the mid 60s. For Julian, John was an absentee father, while for Sean he was a stay at home dad. Each child had a very complicated and unique relationship with their father. 

Hey Jude

Julian is the spitting image of his father, despite having precious little interaction with John as a child. Cynthia and John finally divorced in 1968 two years after John met Yoko Ono. When John was murdered in 1980, a 17yo Julian voiced the complex emotions and frustration of a lost opportunity of having a solid relationship with his father.

“I’ve never really wanted to know the truth about how dad was with me. There was some very negative stuff talked about me … like when he said I’d come out of a whisky bottle on a Saturday night. Stuff like that.” Said Julian who expressed the kind of heartbreak of having lost a father you never really had “You think, where’s the love in that? Paul (McCartney) and I used to hang about quite a bit … more than Dad and I did.” Said Julian about Johns fellow Beatle, who penned the very famous “Hey Jude” as a way to console John’s 5 year old son in 1968 about his parents divorce. 

And anytime you feel the pain. Hey Jude, refrain. Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. For well you know that it’s a fool, Who plays it cool, By making his world a little colder

Julian Speaks

“We had a great friendship going and there seems to be far more pictures of me and Paul playing together at that age than there are pictures of me and my dad.” Said a mournful Julian who went on to have a hit of his own in 1984 with “Too Late for Goodbye”. In a 1998 interview with the Telegraph UK Lennon said “If you bring a child into this world, whether it’s planned or an accident, you’d better make sure you can care for it. You have to be around. You make time. It’s as simple as that.” 

Ever since you’ve been leaving me I’ve been wanting to cry Now I know how it feels for you I’ve been wanting to die But it’s much too late for goodbyes

Just Like Starting Over

John missed a real opportunity with Julian but resolved to avoid the same mistakes with his second son. Sean Lennon is the child of Yoko and John, who by the time of his birth in 1975 was essentially a stay at home dad in New York City. By the time of his birth John had settled into a domestic lifestyle where he had time to step back from the intense and unprecedented stardom of the Beatles as well as some of his addiction issues. He returned from a drug fueled three year period known as his “Lost Weekend” where he and Yoko had separated while John attempted to make music in Los Angeles. As Sean entered the world, John was putting his past behind him. Perhaps no verse summarizes the life changing turn John made then this one, from Beautiful Boy, released posthumously in 1981.   

Close your eyes Have no fear. The monster’s gone, He’s on the run and your daddy’s here 

Sean’s early childhood was spent with his father at home in NYC who woke at 6am every morning to dote on his young son. At the time of John’s murder, the public image of John was as a devoted domestic dad living a quiet life in the his chosen city next to Central Park. 

John Lennon in New York  

Lennon’s final 5 years were spent in New York City living at the Dakota next to Central Park. For the first time in his life he tried to live a stable domestic life. He was frequently seen walking in the park and would talk to people. New York in the 1970’s was a place of authenticity where celebrity worship was secondary to people generally being in a hurry. He did not have bodyguards, or hired security or a PR firm. He existed as a human, with a complicated past in a complicated city. 

In October of 1980 he released (Just Like) Starting Over, his first studio single since 1975. In November 1980 the Album Double Fantasy was released. Double Fantasy included the Song Watching The Wheels, a reflection on leaving stardom behind and living a normal life. 

Watching the Wheels
People say I’m crazy
Doing what I’m doing
Well, they give me all kinds of warnings
To save me from ruin
When I say that I’m okay, well they look at me kinda strange
“Surely, you’re not happy now, you no longer play the game”
People say I’m lazy
Dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice
Designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall
“Don’t you miss the big time boy, you’re no longer on the ball?”
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
Ah, people ask me questions
Lost in confusion
Well, I tell them there’s no problem
Only solutions
Well, they shake their heads and they look at me, as if I’ve lost my mind
I tell them there’s no hurry, I’m just sitting here doing time
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

On December 8th, 1980 John Lennon walked out of the Dakota Apartment building, autographed a copy of Double Fantasy for Mark David Chapman. Chapman waited around until later that day when Lennon returned from the recording studio and shot Lennon 4 times in the back. The murder took place in front of Yoko Ono. John Lennon was 40 years old. The world lost a complicated man of intensely human flaws and failings. It lost an artist who’s expression impacted billons of people worldwide. 

In a week where a father, husband, hall of fame athlete dies it’s hard to ignore the millions of women who have suffered from domestic of sexual assault. The question is, does the modern world have the capacity to accept both the best and worst of a person or are we forced to choose between hero, villain, angel or demon? 

“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.” – John Lennon

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