John Lennon (1940-1980)

John Lennon was born eighty years ago today—October 9, 1940.

Without John Lennon, there would have been no Beatles. Surely some other group or individual would have filled the gap that the Beatles occupied, but their artistry and creativity would have been different. As a result, the 1960s and history since that time would also have been different.

When Paul McCartney met John Lennon in 1956, John was leading a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. (Skiffle is a British folk music, not unlike some of the Appalachian and Ozark folk music still performed today in the United States.) Paul and John established a musical partnership, that was soon joined by George Harrison. Other members came and went, and various names were used by the group. The Beatles did not approach the peak of success, though, until Ringo Starr became the regular drummer of the group in 1962.

In their early years, the Beatles performed many rock-and-roll hits from the United States, from black performers as well as white performers. They paid as much attention to B-side songs as to the promoted hits. They also wrote their own songs and performed them. An early Beatles hit, “Please Please me,” reveals both the word-play for which John became famous and the innovate harmonies that helped the Beatles to stand out from the crowd of early Sixties musicians. While Paul is sometimes considered the more musical of the pair, comparing Paul’s “And I Love Her” to John’s “If I Fell” (both from the album and movie Hard Day’s Night) reveals that they had equal and complementary talents. When the Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, John was able to direct his word-play into more complex songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and, “I Am the Walrus.” But his musical abilities were also evident in songs such as “All You Need is Love,” which sounds like a simple rock anthem but has a complicated rhythmic structure which, every so often, drops half a beat.

John had a troubled childhood. Both his parents were absent, and John was raised by an aunt; his mother, Julia, died while John was still a child. (Oddly, Paul’s mother Mary also died while Paul was young.) John was perpetually contemptuous of authority and found it hard to maintain stable relationships. He was the first of the Beatles to marry; also the first to divorce and remarry. He was as absent from his sons’ lives as his father had been absent from his. John admitted that his promotion of love and peace for the world did not match the life he was living. John also experimented with a number of mind-altering substances, drawing his fellow Beatles and many other people into the drug culture of the later Sixties. He was briefly interested in Transcendental Meditation, a version of the Hindu religion promoted by a yogi who became very famous and wealthy as a result of his teaching. As the members of the Beatles sought meaning for their lives in various forms and aspects, the group fractured. John’s solo career was noted especially for the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and the ballad “Imagine,” both of which are frequently quoted in contemporary conversations about life, politics, religion, and idealism.

John retired from the musical scene for several years, then began a comeback with new music in 1980. In December of that year, he was shot and killed by a deranged fan. As the Beatle martyr, John’s image and reputation became even more strongly associated with the values of peace and love. The Beatles remain cultural icons today, not only as representatives of the Sixties but as creators of music that continues to entertain, having passed the test of time. In the decades since the Beatles, many performers have enjoyed successful careers, but no one has shaped and defined music and culture as much as the Beatles did in their time. J.

Remembering John Lennon

John Lennon was the first Beatle.

He was leading a skiffle band when he was introduced to Paul McCartney. Skiffle is English folk music—Beatle fans have heard skiffle-sounding songs such as “Baby’s in Black” on Beatles for Sale and “Maggie Mae” on Let It Be. John and Paul became musical partners, and George Harrison soon joined them. Other musicians came and went, including Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best. Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best as the Beatles were preparing to make their first hit record. The rest, as they say, is history.

Older baby boomers know that “the day the music died” is February 1, 1959—the day Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. For late boomers like me, the day the music died is December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City. I was a college student at the time. I was sitting in a friend’s dormitory room that night when Dan Rubens noticed the open door and called into the room that Lennon had been shot. Dan didn’t know any of us in the room, but he had just heard the news and wanted to share it with someone.

Stereotypes about the Beatles include the thought that Lennon was more adept with lyrics and McCartney was more adept with melodies. This overlooks the fact that Lennon penned some admirable melodies, from “If I Fell” to “Across the Universe,” not to mention his post-Beatles hit “Imagine.” But Lennon definitely had a knack for words, which he demonstrated especially in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I am the Walrus.” The music of the Beatles has remained popular for decades and has reached several generations. In many ways, it defines the popular culture of the 1960s.

John Lennon was the first of the Beatles to marry and the first to father a child. He was also the first to divorce and remarry. Lennon’s own childhood was difficult—his father abandoned the family, and his mother died while Lennon was young. (Paul’s mother also died while Paul was young.) He was raised by an aunt. Although Lennon sang about love, he was distant and cold toward his own family members, as he admitted himself in interviews toward the end of his life. Like most musicians of the time, the Beatles experimented with drugs—first pills to keep them awake and energized for their hours on stage, then later marijuana and LSD. Lennon even had to break a heroin habit in the 1970s.

In 1966, John Lennon commented to a reporter that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. When this remark was printed, it caused considerable controversy. Lennon half-apologized, explaining that he was only stating a fact about the Beatles’ popularity in England and was not claiming to be better than Christ or to deserve to be more popular. Lennon’s own views about Christianity (and religion in general) were well-known even before he wrote and recorded “Imagine,” in which he pictures a world of peaceful cooperation without politics and religion to divide people from one another.

In 1980 Lennon returned to the recording studio after several years of retirement. His single “(Just Like) Starting Over” was rising in the charts when Lennon was killed, eventually reaching the number one spot. Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy, also made it to number one after Lennon’s death, and it won a Grammy award as Album of the Year. It is difficult to imagine how John Lennon’s career would have continued had he not been killed. Two of his songs were included in the Beatles Anthology of the mid 1990s; Lennon was accompanied by added tracks of Paul, George, and Ringo, making the songs the closest possible approach to a reunion of the Beatles.

The walrus is sadly missed. J.