About John Lennon
written by Anthony DeCurtis
‘Gimme Some Truth’ appears on John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine, and in a sense it serves as the aesthetic and ideological counterbalance of that album’s legendary title track.
‘Imagine’ evokes a utopian world in which our heightened consciousness would make everything that oppresses us wither away, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ looks our real troubled world square in the eye and demands answers right now. If one song floats like a feather on a piano melody as gentle as an evening breeze, the other rides a droning, distorted guitar line and a searing slide-guitar solo. If one vocal sounds as intimate as your good angel speaking to you from someplace inside your own mind, the other pins you against the wall, so impassioned that the singer can barely take the breaths he needs to spit out his lyrics.
Those are two of the many sides of John Lennon, two expressions of the many truths that he came to know. These days we live in a world that to value an unthinking consistency above all other virtues. If you hold an opinion that contradicts something that you said twenty years before, it’s not assumed that you’ve simply matured or reconsidered your earlier views for perfectly good reasons. No, you’re a waffler, a hypocrite, a flip-flopper. People are not encouraged to ‘contain multitudes’, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortal phrase. They are encouraged to be as small and one-dimensional as possible if they want to avoid controversy.
Lennon did not see himself or his world in those terms. He thought of his songs as snapshots of what he was thinking and feeling at the moment of composition. He believed that the one quality his calling as an artist demanded of him was complete emotional and intellectual honesty. And from his earliest years, he had no interest in disguising what he had to say to bring it into conformity with what anyone else thought his ideas should be, or even with points of view he may have felt at one time himself. If he was true to the emotion that had given birth to the song, that was enough.
‘I made the decision at sixteen or seventeen that what I did, I wanted everybody to see,’ Lennon explained in 1980. ‘I wasn’t going after the aestheticism or the monastery or the lone artist who supposedly doesn’t care what people think about his work. I care a lot whether people hate it or love it, because it’s part of me and it hurts me when they hate it, or hate me, and it’s pleasing when they like it. But, as many public figures have said, “The praise is never enough, and the criticism always bites deep.”’
From his undying love of rock’n’roll to his songs of social consciousness, from his devotion to women and family, to his eventual understanding of the fragility of all our lives, Lennon devoted his genius to chronicling the unvarnished experiences of one man’s journey through life. Whatever truths he found, he shared, and they are embodied in his songs. Well beyond his own tragic end, and even our own lives, they are his unending gift to us, and to everyone who comes after.
John and Sean Lennon playing frisbee, Japan, Summer 1977 Photo by Nishi F. Saimaru ©1977 Nishi F. Saimaru & Yoko Ono
John and Julian Lennon, 1970 Photo by Richard DiLello ©1970 Richard DiLello
For better or worse, very few things remained constant in John Lennon’s life. In his early years that was not his fault. His mother and father bolted unpredictably in and out of his life, and then his mother was killed in a car accident when he was seventeen. After that he trusted very few people, fearful that they would leave him, so that truly loving anyone was an enormous risk, until he fully settled into his marriage to Yoko Ono.
But one love that lasted throughout Lennon’s life was rock’n’roll. In December of 1970, Lennon did the interviews with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that would eventually be published as the book Lennon Remembers. Having just undergone primal-scream therapy and completed his fiercely autobiographical Plastic Ono Band album, Lennon was subjecting every aspect of his life to unforgiving self-examination. Rock’n’roll, however, emerged unscathed.
When Wenner asked him, ‘What do your personal tastes run to?’ Lennon replied, ‘“Wop-bop-a-loo-bop”, you know? I mean I like rock’n’roll, man, I – I don’t like much else… That’s the music that inspired me to play music.
There’s nothing conceptually better than rock ’n’ roll. No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones, has ever improved on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ (Goin’ On)’ for my money.
Maybe I’m like our parents, that’s my period. I dig it and I’ll never leave it.’ It’s no surprise then that when Lennon attempted to communicate the depths of despair in his song ‘Yer Blues’, he sang, ‘Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock’n’roll’. From his standpoint, what could be worse than that?
Earlier in that Rolling Stone interview, Lennon explained that ‘I only liked simple rock and nothing else.’ However, for Lennon, there was really nothing simple about rock’n’roll. For him, it was a style of music that got directly to the essence of things, without pretence or affectation. As ambitious as he became as an artist and activist, there was always part of him that grew impatient with overwrought complexity – whether embodied in the tangled, allusive lyrics of Bob Dylan; the semi-classical aspirations of George Martin (and Paul McCartney); or the endless realpolitik arguments of the best and brightest in government for why nations couldn’t achieve peace.
A product of the tough port city of Liverpool, Lennon prided himself on his no-nonsense demeanour, and he eventually became a New Yorker, a breed not exactly known for restraint in their opinions. In interviews and conversations, when he encountered overly elaborate explanations, Lennon would start to wonder if he was being conned. He came to view obscurantist “literary” writing as a form of dishonesty, a means of shielding yourself from the consequences of just saying what you mean. If everything in a lyric was open to interpretation then you didn’t have to take responsibility for it. Apart from a brief psychedelic period in the mid-to-late Sixties, Lennon always strove for honesty and directness in his lyric writing. He inherited that standard from the rock’n’roll songs he grew up loving. They were the core of his musical DNA.
‘I remember the old rock songs better than I remember my own songs,’ Lennon said in a 1980 Interview. ‘If I sat down in a room and just started playing, if I had a guitar now and we were just hanging out singing, I would sing all the early and mid-Fifties stuff – Buddy Holly and all. I remember those. I don’t remember the chords or the lyrics or anything of the Beatles stuff. So my repertoire is that. I still go back to the stuff the Beatles performed before they wrote, you see. I would still enjoy doing it.’
Still from the 'Ten for Two Concert' footage, Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor, Michigan, December 10, 1971 ©1971 Yoko Ono
Still from the 'One to One Concert' footage, Madison Square Garden, NYC, August 30, 1972 ©1972 Yoko Ono
But simplicity was far from the only gift Lennon received from early rock’n’roll. Even if lyricists like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Buddy Holly didn’t write lyrics that aspired to the sort of literary effects typical of the poetry Lennon might have read in school, they helped teach him about playfulness and a love of language purely for its own sake.
Lennon loved children’s poems, fairy tales, Mother Goose rhymes and the zany nonsense literature of such writers as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. He read them voraciously as a child, and retained his fondness for them into adulthood. They are primary sources for the punwielding, wild and whirling words of his two splendid books of stories and drawings, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard In The Works (1965).
So no wonder Lennon answered ‘Wop-bop-a-loo-bop’ when Wenner asked him about his ‘personal tastes’. Songs like Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula,’ Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ya Ya’ and Larry Williams’s ‘Bony Moronie’ all revel in silly rhymes, light-hearted neologisms, and childlike, sing-song syllables. It was music that seemed to Lennon at once innocent and rebellious. In their playfulness such songs evoked the freedom of childhood, and in their raucous rhythms and refusal of adult language and decorum they posed an implicit – and occasionally explicit – threat to the established order. That grown-ups not only mocked the music but tried to stamp it out only provided undeniable proof of its power. That was another lesson from the early days of rock’n’roll that Lennon never forgot.
The insurgent force of rock’n’roll originated as adolescent rebellion – anything that kids did was good, anything adults did was bad. As bracing as it was, the culture surrounding the music even had a nihilistic strain. It was associated with juvenile delinquency, and an appetite for destruction. Teenagers became a social class of their own, and youth was not merely a chronological time period, but a state of mind and a set of values, even if that mostly consisted of rejecting the tepid conformity of Fifties post-war life. Rock’n’roll’s attitude was best summed by a line tossed off by Marton Brando in his role as Johnny Strabler, the leader of a motorcycle gang in the 1953 movie, ‘The Wild One’. When a girl asks him, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” Brando offhandedly replies, “Whaddya got?”
Such scenes were thrilling and Lennon constructed much of his early identity on their basis. But as the Sixties counterculture began to take shape, and Lennon found himself as one of its leaders, it became evident to him that a more sophisticated approach to changing the world around him was necessary. At first the Beatles were encouraged by their handlers to avoid controversy at all costs, but their intelligence and desire to engage the issues confronting their generation finally made that patronising strategy impossible to sustain. Lennon’s insistence on speaking his mind, beginning with his correct observation in 1965 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’, generated shockwaves, and he came to understand that if his words were going to have such an impact, he needed to learn how to use that power to advance the ideals he believed in.
But first he needed to understand who he was, and that process of social, political and psychological self-discovery that makes such songs as ‘Working Class Hero,’ ‘God,’ ‘Isolation’ and ‘I Found Out’ absolutely gripping. Those songs all appear on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970), Lennon’s first solo album after leaving the Beatles. It’s an undeniable, acknowledged masterpiece, widely recognised as one of the greatest albums in the history of rock’n’roll. But even at that, its true significance is often not fully understood.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band front and rear covers
Among the album’s many sources, Lennon’s scarifying dive into the depths of himself in primal-scream therapy is the most obvious, which has lead to the album being heard almost exclusively in personal terms. But part of Lennon’s daring was his willingness to explore how social forces shaped him as fully as the terror of abandonment he experienced as a child. In the absence of more substantive options for forging an identity, accepting the chains that society provides seems like a worthwhile choice – or, as Lennon succinctly put it, ‘a working class hero is something to be.’ Still, Lennon’s songs didn’t simply indict “the Man” or “the system”, as so many protest songs did. Lyrics like ‘Keep you doped with religion, sex and TV/And you think you’re so clever and classless and free’ exploded the pretences of counterculture hipsters, and challenged them to question how “liberated” and free they really were.
Of course, Lennon also understood that every movement needs its slogans, and he made use of and even coined some of the best of them. ‘Give Peace a Chance’ ‘Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)’, ‘Power to the People’ and the lovely ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ are all intentionally meant to preach to the progressive choir, to keep the spirits of activists up and their hopes high. But even those songs are often more complex than they are thought to be. The conviction that ‘War is over if you want it’ suggests that if war persists perhaps we have not sufficiently desired its end, or done enough to bring that end about. (Just this year Robert Randolph and the Family Band recorded a torrid cover of Lennon’s anguished ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die’ about very different armed conflicts than the Vietnam War that Lennon had in mind.
Similarly, ‘Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)’ is going to get friend and foe alike. If you want to “shine on” you need to make sure your actions keep you on the uplifting end of karma’s ever-turning wheel.
Finally, ‘Imagine’, too, is not merely a pastel vision of a utopian world. It is a challenge and a responsibility, a sentiment akin to Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that ‘We need to be the change we wish to see in the world’.
Sometime in New York City (1972) is Lennon’s most overtly political album, and its opening track, ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World,’ is one of its most compelling songs. Co-written with Yoko, It is perhaps the first feminist anthem recorded by a prominent male rock star, and it marks both the impact his marriage to Yoko had on his evolving political consciousness, but also the deepening of his own understanding of women’s role in the world – and in his life. John and Yoko use of the charged term ‘nigger’ in the song was both a provocation and a deft bit of political analysis and guerilla marketing. Comparing the political oppression of women to the plight of blacks, and using the most racially incendiary term in the language to underscore the connection, incited heated and necessary debate, as it was intended to.
Some Time In New York City album cover
Woman Is The Nigger Of The World Single Sleeve
Woman Is The Nigger Of The World advertisement
Lennon knew as well that no truth is absolute, and that the presence of love can excite our deepest fears.
Many songs have been written about jealousy, but none match Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy’ for insight and honesty. Declarations like ‘I was shivering inside,’ ‘I was swallowing my pain’ and ‘I began to lose control’ are rare in any style of popular music, let alone a delicate ballad. Lennon’s ability to plumb the depths of himself and state his fears so directly – with such a raw, eloquent beauty is one of his most profound gifts.
Meanwhile, ‘I’m Losing You’ explores those feelings of desperation in a musical context that reflects those emotions rather than soothes them. And, as always, Lennon could be caustic.
The fear of being abandoned and alone drives ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)’, to its bitter conclusion: ‘I’ll scratch your back, and you knife mine.’
The serrated rhythms of ‘Well, Well, Well’ capture the mood of a couple – guess who – who are “nervous, feeling guilty” and talking about revolution ‘just like two liberals In the sun.’
Such moments of dread and self-doubt require the gentleness and encouragement of ‘Hold On’ – ‘hold on, John; hold on, Yoko; hold on, world: It’s gonna be all right.’
The hard-fought optimism that love provides, the rock-solid conviction that, however difficult the struggle, you’re not in it alone, leads to the sweetness of ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ – a paean to a true love child and the awareness, in one of Lennon’s most memorable lines, that ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ That acceptance of the world and its inevitable changes is the ultimate gift of love. The inability to control life makes it more precious, because it requires knowledge of life’s evanescence, even as love has made life so much more desirable.
Which is the beauty and poignancy of ‘Grow Old With Me’, Lennon’s lovely, deeply felt wish for a long life with Yoko. The song was inspired by Robert Browning’s poem ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’, and replies to a song Yoko had written called ‘Let Me Count the Ways’, drawing on the well-known sonnet that begins ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ by Browning’s wife, Elizabeth Barrett. The nineteenth-century marriage of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is among the most moving love stories in literary history, and John and Yoko clearly identified with them. Among the many reasons why ‘Grow Old With Me’ is notable is how strongly it counteracts the rock’n’roll mythology of living fast and dying young. It is a hymn to longevity, to the possibility that love can deepen and grow, that romance never has to end.
In one of his final interviews, Lennon described the central aesthetic question of his and Yoko’s life this way. ‘In a way,’ he told the New York Times critic Robert Palmer, ‘we’re involved in a kind of experiment. Could the family be the inspiration of art, instead of drinking or drugs or whatever? I’m interested in finding that out.’
While one of the innumerable tragedies of John Lennon’s death at the age of forty is that he never fully got the opportunity to answer that question, the fact that he asked it in the first place suggests that as far as he was concerned the ‘experiment’ he referred to had already reached an irrefutable conclusion. The life he had built with Yoko and their son Sean had provided plenty of material for great art. But as life became richer and more satisfying, its ephemeral nature became more apparent. When you’re experiencing so many moments that you wish would last forever, you are inevitably haunted by the awareness that they can’t.
The solution, Lennon understood, was a calm awareness that we are all living on ‘Borrowed Time.’ That song’s gentle reggae lilt lightens the weight of its ideas, and captures the sense of wise acceptance that had increasingly come to be part of his world view. Lennon still lived his life with passion and intensity, still committed to his beliefs with conviction, but the anger that had been with him for so long had eased. Without question, there are many complex reasons for that welcome development, but the simplest reasons perhaps are the most determinative ones. He had settled into his marriage; he was enjoying fatherhood; he had come back refreshed to his music, and as he entered his forties, he had matured. He had discovered that many things could and should be important, but not everything had to be a matter of life or death. In short, he was happy.
Humour, always an under-appreciated aspect of Lennon’s music, was still very much a part of his new vision, hilariously, ‘Crippled Inside’ takes the serious theme of the lies of the world – and ourselves – to hide our vulnerabilities and fears, and sets it to a tinkly, honky-tonk beat. The song in that sense mirrors its subject – a cheerful surface genially concealing a scarier reality.
Similarly, the jaunty ‘Nobody Told Me’ comments on the confusion of living in confounding times (‘Most peculiar, mama!’) with such panache that it remains perfectly relevant as a soundtrack for today. ‘Scared’ and, particularly, the hauntingly beautiful ‘How?’ address the internal version of such confusion and terror, with characteristic honesty.
Perhaps Lennon’s greatest philosophical song is ‘Watching the Wheels’, which appears on Double Fantasy. It can be thought of as his explanation of his life to fans who had wondered what he’d been doing since 1975 when he had stopped making albums and devoted himself to his life with Yoko and Sean. ‘Ah, people asking questions, lost in confusion’ Lennon sings. ‘I tell them there’s no problems, only solutions.’ Given the tumultuous life he had lived to that point, that optimism was earned.
Without being at all self-righteous, the song also has a strong spiritual undercurrent. The wheel, being a circle, is one of the oldest symbols of unity in human history. The karmic wheel, the mandala, the wheel of fortune all spin, and, as the song suggests, peace of mind comes from neither panicking nor growing complacent with their turnings. That is the state of mind Lennon had achieved by the end of his life.
Acceptance is not necessarily passive. Lennon still believed the world could – be made a better place in both personal terms and for humanity at large. Speaking about Double Fantasy on the very day he was killed, Lennon describes himself as reconnecting with his audience in this way: ‘I’m saying “Here I am now, how are you? How’s your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Weren’t the Seventies a drag? Here we are, well, let’s try to make the Eighties good, because it’s still up to us to make what we can of it.”’
Double Fantasy album cover
Watching The Wheels single cover
The confluence of those crucial events had a decisive effect on the remaining years of Lennon’s life. For the next five years he would disappear from public life almost completely, devoting himself to raising Sean and re-immersing himself in his life with Ono. It was an unprecedented move for a rock star of his fame and stature, and he characteristically threw himself into it without reserve. When he re-emerged again in 1980 to do interviews for Double Fantasy, an album dedicated to the ideal of family and domestic bliss that he had embraced with Ono, Lennon delivered spontaneous lectures on feminism and the importance of sharing gender roles in relationships.
When a reporter from Playboy asked if Lennon had been working on any ‘secret projects’ during this period, Lennon made it decidedly clear that his personal life was the only project he had been interested in – or had any time for. ‘Are you kidding?’ Lennon replied. ‘There were no secret projects going on in the basement. Because bread and babies, as every housewife knows, is a full-time job…And it is such a tremendous responsibility to see that the baby has the right amount of food and doesn’t overeat and gets the right amount of sleep. If I, as housemother, had not put him to sleep and made sure that he was in the bath by 7:30, no one else would have…Now I understand the frustration of those women because of all the work. And there is no gold watch at the end of the day.’
As strong a personality as you could encounter even on his most cooperative day, Lennon couldn’t stand the idea that some people viewed him as passively under Ono’s spell. ‘Listen, if somebody’s gonna impress me, whether it be a Maharishi or a Yoko Ono, there comes a point when the emperor has no clothes,’ he insisted. ‘There comes a point where I will see. So for all you folks out there who think that I’m having the wool pulled over my eyes – well, that’s an insult to me. Not that you think less of Yoko, because that’s your problem; what I think of her is what counts! But if you think you know me or you have some part of me because of the music I’ve made, and then you think I’m being controlled like a dog on a leash because I do things with her, then screw you. Because – fuck you brother or sister, you don’t know what’s happening. I’m not here for you. I’m here for me and her and the baby!’
For John Lennon, the truth was not a fixed category, but a shifting one that took into account all of the factors that determine the circumstances of our lives. He lived by a code of honesty, of self-revelation, of the belief that the best songs he could write were the ones that communicated a clear picture of who he was at the moment of their creation. That process of speaking person-to-person is how the truth took shape for him. His life and his work were continual experiments in discovery and rediscovery. His values remained constant. What changed were the times, the ways in which those values could best be presented and transmitted, and the definition of those values given the current state of the world.
Whether he was singing rock’n’roll songs or writing songs that captured how fragile our lives are, whether he was extolling the virtues of women or railing against the evils perpetrated by our governments, Lennon viewed his work as one rich story, one step on the journey to Creating a better world, one ongoing, never-ending search for truth.
‘I always consider my work one piece…and I consider that my work won’t be finished until I’m dead and buried – and I hope that’s a long, long time,’ he said on the last day of his life. ‘So to me it’s part of one whole piece of work from the time I became public to now…And the eighties is like, we’ve got a new chance.’
Every decade, every new year, every day, every moment constitutes a ‘new chance.’ As Lennon sings in ‘Borrowed Time’, ‘Now I am older/The more that I see, the less that I know for sure/Now I am older/The future is brighter, and now is the hour.’ Now, and whenever anyone hears any of these songs.