John Lennon - Biography



 

 

Only four men were Beatles. One of them was John Lennon. Therein lies the great fact of Lennon’s creative and personal life as a soloist. Or perhaps it is most appropriate to say that Lennon was a “duo artist,” since the entirety of his solo career was circumscribed by his artistic and personal relationship with Yoko Ono, who became his paramour in mid-1968 and his wife on March 20, 1969, and who served, for better and for worse, as his catalyst for the remainder of his too-short life.

 

Of all the Beatles, Lennon perhaps chafed the most against the confines of his universally beloved band. In the years following the death of the group’s manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, Paul McCartney, Lennon’s musical partner since their teenaged days in the Quarry Men, strived heroically to keep The Beatles together and functioning; at the same time, Lennon withdrew, into drugs, politics, and his intense lover/mother pairing with Ono, a visual and performance artist 10 years his senior.

 

The music John Lennon made apart from the Beatles, and then after the Beatles’ dissolution in early 1970, was reflective of the many open wounds in his life: his abandonment as a child, first by his father Freddie and then by his mother Julia, who was struck by a car and killed by a car when John was 18; his discontent with the unprecedented level of his popular success, and his inter-band rivalry with McCartney; his unfulfilled curiosity about art, politics, and sex. He approached all these daunting personal issues during his discontinuous and tragically truncated solo career with skilled craft and an honesty that at times bordered on the self-flagellating. Musically and internally, he was recreating himself.

 

Lennon began his work away from the Beatles with Ono just months after their relationship was inaugurated. Both were still married to others – Lennon to wife Cynthia, mother of his son Julian, and Ono to Tony Cox, father of her daughter Kyoko – but their intimacy was already recognized everywhere. Ever thereafter, Lennon would view Ono as a kind of completion of himself, and none of his work that followed would be untouched by her, either as a creative partner or an inspiration.

 

Together, the couple released what they termed “unfinished music” – in the sense of being both incomplete and unpolished. Their first album, Two Virgins (1968), featured a sleeve displaying a full-frontal nude portrait of John and Yoko in the nude; The Beatles’ label EMI refused to distribute it, and it was issued independently, cloaked in a brown paper jacket. A second collection, Life With the Lions, followed in 1969, succeeded by Wedding Album late that same year.

 

These off-the-cuff, somewhat chaotic experimental recordings met with little critical approval and no commercial success. (Two Virgins sold best, thanks to its notoriety, peaking at No. 124 on the US album chart). Lennon viewed this as a public rebuke to Yoko, whose entry into The Beatles’ circle was viewed with vocal scorn by many fans and observers. In the immediate future, Lennon countered by issuing an Ono vocal on the flip sides of his singles, and he would insist that his mate be given creative parity by his labels.

 

The Lennon-Ono relationship soon produced a popular single. Following their marriage on Gibraltar, John and Yoko undertook a week-long “bed-in for peace” at the Amsterdam Hilton. (The events of the wedding and its aftermath were recapped on the Beatles single “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” recorded in April by Lennon and the accommodating McCartney alone.) A second such performance art piece/publicity stunt took place at the Hotel Reine-Elizabeth in Montreal during a week in May and June; on June 1, John and Yoko led an ad hoc chorus in a half-sung, half-chanted plea called “Give Peace a Chance.” Billed to The Plastic Ono Band and released as a 45 in July by The Beatles’ imprint Apple, it climbed to No. 14 on the American charts, and it became an enduring fixture on the political barricades of the Vietnam War era.

 

On Sept. 13, 1969, Lennon fronted a concert edition of The Plastic Ono Band – superstar guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voormann, and drummer Alan White – at an oldies concert in Toronto. He nervously made his way through a set mainly comprising rock ‘n’ roll and R&B chestnuts, mainly drawn from The Beatles’ repertoire, and ceded the stage to Yoko for a wailing improvisation performed inside a bag. The set was issued on LP that December as Live Peace in Toronto 1969.

 

In October 1969, one of the few originals performed in Toronto saw single release. Self-produced by John, “Cold Turkey” was a harrowing depiction of his self-weaning off heroin, a drug that he and Ono had romanced as The Beatles began unhappily unraveling. Too harsh for widespread acceptance, it peaked at No. 30. His next 45, the upbeat “Instant Karma,” was issued in February 1980; produced by Phil Spector (whose outrageous “additional production” of the Let It Be album firmed McCartney’s resolve to exit The Beatles), the resonant, hard-rocking number hit No. 3.

 

In March 1970, Lennon read The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy, The Cure For Neurosis by the American psychoanalyst Arthur Yanov. Lennon immediately contacted Yanov, who flew to London to take on a new patient. While the therapy was nowhere near as extreme as it was depicted in some contemporary accounts – there was no extreme screaming, no fetal confessing – Yanov delved deeply into what he saw as Lennon’s excessively damaged psyche. Many of the themes that emanated from the therapeutic sessions – abandonment, loneliness, death, disillusionment, spiritual emptiness, cold fear – would become the core of Lennon’s first full-blown solo studio album.

 

The pared-down, overwhelming powerful John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) is still viewed by many as its author’s supreme achievement. Performed with backing by just Alan White and Beatles mate Ringo Starr and sparely produced by Spector, the album is severe, self-absorbed, harsh, accusatory, and cathartic. The collection is highlighted by the folkish ballad “Working Class Hero” and the climactic “God” (in which Lennon concludes a litany of precepts he rejects by declaring emphatically, “I don’t believe in Beatles – I just believe in me/Yoko and me/And that’s reality…The dream is over”). It was a modest success by Beatles standards, peaking at No. 5. But no one would deny it was an album John Lennon had to make.

 

After a detour with the right-on mid-1971 single, “Power to the People,” which found Lennon backing away from his earlier statement that he could be counted out in a revolution, he issued Imagine (1971), a far more lushly produced effort than Plastic Ono Band. Probably his most cherished album, and his bestselling title until his 1980 return to music, it contained the selfless and idealistic title song, a graceful conjuring of a better world and an enduring anthem of its day. It also included the self-lacerating “Jealous Guy,” the ferocious “Gimme Some Truth,” and “How Do You Sleep?,” an ill-tempered swat at his estranged musical partner McCartney, with whom he was still embroiled in post-Beatles legal drama. The album reached No. 1, and ultimately sold more than 2 million copies.

 

In late 1971, Lennon relocated to New York, where he set up permanent residence until the end of his life. He loved America, the country that had birthed the music that inspired him, and loved the vitality of the Big Apple. But America, or at least its federal bureaucracy, was not inclined to love him back. For five years, he would be embroiled with a struggle (purportedly stemming from his 1968 conviction on marijuana possession charges) to obtain a green card, and he was also subject to constant surveillance and harassment by the FBI and the police, no doubt thanks to his deepening commitment to causes of the radical left.

 

His next album, Some Time in New York City (1972), was a blunt expression of John’s political concerns. Back by the New York street-rock unit Elephant’s Memory, he rampaged through a program of songs (packaged like a daily newspaper) focusing on women’s rights (in the stormy single “Woman is the Nigger of the World”), Irish nationalism, the persecution of radicals John Sinclair and Angela Davis, and the Attica State Prison riot. Lennon’s fans, who had more than politics on their minds, would loft the set no higher than No. 48 in the US Lennon and Ono concluded 1972 with the charmingly artless holiday single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which became a Yuletide perennial.

 

The wildly uneven Mind Games (1973), whose crashing title song stood out among a group of sometimes maddeningly undistinguished tunes, harbingered a major shift in Lennon’s life, the first since his affair with Ono began five years earlier. The couple was busy, and comfortably ensconced in a sprawling apartment in the Dakota apartments abutting Central Park, but the marriage was coming apart, for Lennon’s heart and eye were wandering. The previously inseparable couple made a mutual decision to separate, and Lennon set out for Los Angeles with May Pang, his 22-year-old Chinese-American assistant, who would become his lover and minder during his unsteady 14-month residence in the City of Angels.

 

Lennon’s LA “Lost Weekend,” while not a holiday, has been characterized as a mammoth debauch of sex, drinking, and drug-taking. While he did keep company with a couple of well-known party animals, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, as well as the increasingly dissolute Ringo Starr, Lennon spent a good deal of time in the recording studio, and completed two albums in California.

 

One of them he recorded twice. Owing to the inclusion of a phrase from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” in the opening lines of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Lennon was sued by Morris Levy, the New York music business heavy and Mafia associate, who held a piece of the Berry tune’s copyright. As part of a settlement, Lennon agreed to use some songs held by Levy on an album of rock ‘n’ roll oldies.

 

Lennon commenced recording the album that would ultimately be known as Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975) in LA with Phil Spector in an atmosphere of escalating volatility and paranoia. At once juncture, Spector, whose shoulder-holstered pistol was always visible, fired a shot into the ceiling of a studio. An LP’s worth of material was somehow completed, but Spector disappeared with the master tapes, forcing Lennon to remake most of the record from scratch. Then, Lennon went back into court with Levy after the record man issued unmixed tapes of Lennon’s tracks as a collection marketed exclusively on TV. The finished album, graced with a cover photo of Lennon in The Beatles’ Hamburg days and rush-released after Levy’s pirate version, was a solid if joyless run through Lennon’s inspirational back pages.

 

The other album Lennon finished comprised original material of an especially yearning and lonely stripe. Walls and Bridges (1974) was filled with darkly exposed songs – “Going Down On Love,” “Bless You,” #9 Dream,” “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” – inspired by Lennon’s separation from Ono. Its hit single “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” was a duet with Elton John. The younger superstar had induced a promise from Lennon that he would perform the song on stage with him if it reached No. 1, and, after it did in the late fall of 1974, Lennon nervously appeared with John at Madison Square Garden; Yoko materialized backstage, and the estranged couple began their reconciliation.

 

After Walls and Bridges, there would be no new music from John Lennon for six years. Despite Ono’s history of life-threatening miscarriages, the couple was intent on having a child together, and, on Oct. 9, 1975 – John’s 35th birthday – Sean Taro Lennon was delivered by caesarean section in a New York hospital. Lennon gave his word to Ono that he would be responsible for their son’s parenting, and he carried out that role as a devoted “househusband” for the rest of his days, showering Sean with doting care.

 

Content to be part of a household that was now truly a family – and with additional financial support from Yoko, whose multitude of new business interests included trading in dairy cows – Lennon lived a quiet existence in New York. But he still had a creative itch that wanted scratching, and, following a memorable early-1980 sailing trip in Bermuda, he began working on songs for a new album he would make, with Ono’s songs making up half its contents. After a feverish bidding war for his services, David Geffen’s still-fledgling Geffen Records released Double Fantasy in November 1980. Lennon’s ruminative songs included the No. 1 single “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Watching the Wheels,” and his homages to family “Beautiful Boy” and “Woman.” The collection reached the top of the charts, ultimately selling 3 million.

 

Late on the evening of Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon was returning from a late-night recording session with Yoko when a delusional 25-year-old Beatles fan, Mark David Chapman, approached him on the sidewalk in front of the Dakota and pumped five bullets from a .38 revolver into him. John Winston Ono Lennon, 40, died shortly after 11 p.m.

 

Lennon’s unfinished music extended his creative afterlife. Another collection of Lennon-Ono material, "Milk and Honey," was released posthumously in 1984, reaching No. 11. In 1994, his home demo recording of “Free As a Bird” was completed by the three surviving Beatles and used as a capstone for the ambitious multi-hour TV documentary about the group, Anthology; its evocative video won a Grammy. In 1998, Yoko Ono curated a four-CD boxed set, also known as Anthology, that included hours of hitherto unheard and frequently revealing outtakes and home demos cut over the course of his solo years.

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