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date: 08 December 2023

Lennon, John Onofree


Lennon, John Onofree

  • Richard Middleton

John Ono Lennon (1940–1980)

by Annie Leibovitz, 1970

© Annie Leibovitz; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Lennon, John Ono (1940–1980), musician, composer, and political activist, was born John Winston Lennon at Oxford Street Maternity Hospital, Liverpool, on 9 October 1940, the only child of Julia Stanley (1914–1958), a cinema usherette, and Alfred (Freddy) Lennon (1912–1976), a merchant seaman. Three half-sisters were born to his mother subsequently, including Julia, who later wrote a book about her relationship with John. Alfred Lennon's family came from a working-class Irish background while Julia Stanley's was more lower-middle class; both, however, were described by their acquaintances as 'fun-loving' (Julia, indeed, seems to have been regarded by her four sisters as somewhat irresponsible), and there was musical talent on both sides of John's family. Alfred was often away at sea, and the marriage was rocky; he left for good in 1942. Julia's precarious circumstances and dubious liaisons led to a family decision that John would be better brought up by her sister Mary (Aunt Mimi to John) in the respectable suburb of Woolton, where Mary's husband George Smith ran a dairying business. John was the son that Mimi never had, and she brought him up with passionate affection but also with strictness and an eye to middle-class standards. The ambivalent attitudes to social class apparent in the adult Lennon—millionaire and 'working-class hero', to quote the title of one of his own songs—may have had their seeds in tensions generated by the relationship between his natural and adoptive families.

From child to Beatle

John's feelings for his mother remained warm, and he saw a lot of her: she was entertaining and became a rock 'n' roll fan; she taught him his first guitar chords. But, having lost his father, and then the man who became a substitute—George Smith died in 1955—John suffered an even more traumatic blow when Julia was killed in a road accident in 1958, right outside Mimi's home. Again, it is difficult not to link to these childhood experiences Lennon's later resentments and neuroses concerning absent mothers and fathers, not to mention a pervasive sense of alienation and pain in much of Lennon's music, and a defensive abrasiveness in his behaviour.

As a young child Lennon was bright and bookish, inquisitive about religion (he later described seeing visions), and fond of listening to the radio (The Goon Show was a particular favourite). But he found little to interest him at Dovedale primary school, with the partial exception of art lessons, and, on moving in 1952 to Quarry Bank high school, this lack of application—'he was a bohemian, even as a boy', said Mimi later (Coleman, 129)—was coupled with a determined campaign of rebellion against what he took to be petty discipline and a tedious curriculum. His school performance sank steadily, and only his interest in art survived: his ‘Daily howl’ exercise book, containing satirical verses and cruel caricatures of teachers and others, became notorious, and foreshadowed the style and content of his later published works of humorous poetry and prose, In his Own Write (1964) and Spaniard in the Works (1965). Disastrous results in the general certificate of education examinations meant that only one educational route remained open: art college.

The British art schools at this time offered opportunities for a new sort of rebel: the grammar school drop-out. At Liverpool College of Art (1957–60) Lennon's progress continued talented but wayward. He went out of his way to antagonize staff. He dressed and performed the part of 'arty teddy boy', spent more time drinking and womanizing than in class, and positioned himself as an aggressive, charismatic loner. And then there was music. While still at Quarry Bank, Lennon had been bowled over by rock 'n' roll and, never lacking in ambition—'When I was about twelve … I used to think I must be a genius but nobody's noticed' (Wenner, 64)—had decided he wanted to be 'bigger than Elvis' (ibid., 70). He had formed a skiffle group—the Quarry Men—and by 1957 this was playing at local gigs. In July of that year, in a celebrated encounter, Paul McCartney heard and was impressed by the band, and by Lennon, at a Woolton fête. During Lennon's time as an art student, the group went through several names: Johnny and the Moondogs, the Silver Beetles, and finally the Beatles. There were also several changes of personnel: McCartney had joined in 1957, lead guitarist George Harrison in early 1958, and Lennon's fellow art student and best friend Stuart Sutcliffe was also in the group at this stage. After several attempts to find the right drummer, Pete Best joined in 1960. The group's local reputation grew as Lennon pushed its repertoire away from skiffle and towards rock 'n' roll, and he and McCartney began writing songs together. At last John Lennon had found a focus for his talents.

After a short Scottish tour in 1960, the Beatles were booked into a residency—the first of several—at a Reeperbahn club in Hamburg. Here Lennon worked on his macho, all-action performance style, the band learned to play lengthy sets and entertain often aggressive audiences, and they were introduced both to pep pills (the first of many stimulants) and to the local pseudo-existentialist beatnik scene by the artists Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr; it was the latter who designed the striking ‘mop-top’ hair-style that became the group's visual trademark in their early years. Armed with a new image and a new professionalism, the Beatles took Merseyside, especially the Cavern Club, by storm during 1961; Mersey Beat, a new Liverpool music paper, featured Lennon's writings; and a local record shop owner, Brian Epstein, became their manager. After several attempts to secure a record contract, Epstein succeeded with the EMI label Parlophone, and the Beatles' first national release, a LennonMcCartney original called 'Love me do', entered the singles chart in October 1962. By this time Ringo Starr had replaced Pete Best as drummer, and Stuart Sutcliffe had died, shockingly, of a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg in April—another emotional trauma for Lennon.

Of the four Beatles singles released in Britain in 1963, three reached number one, to be followed by two more in 1964. In April 1964, immediately after their first American tour, the Beatles had five singles occupying the top five positions in the US Billboard singles chart. Two albums in each year—Please Please Me and With the Beatles followed by A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale—all reached number one in Britain, and featured a mixture of cover versions and LennonMcCartney original compositions. From January 1963 appearances on television (including the Ed Sullivan Show in the USA) became commonplace, and the feature film A Hard Day's Night, a comic pseudo-documentary of the Beatles' frantic lifestyle directed by Richard Lester, was a great success in 1964. The characteristics of ‘Beatlemania’—screaming audiences, obsessive (especially female) fans, sieges of hotel rooms—emerged in 1963 and reached a level of hysteria in 1964 on both sides of the Atlantic. The first signs of official recognition also appeared, with an appearance in the royal variety show in November 1963 (Lennon famously inviting those in the expensive seats to 'rattle their jewellery' rather than clap), a civic reception in Liverpool in 1964, and, also in 1964, a Foyle's literary luncheon to honour the success of Lennon's In his Own Write. The Northern Songs publishing company, which ensured a constant flow of royalty income to Lennon and McCartney, was formed in February 1963. By mid-1964 Lennon was a millionaire, and had set up home in a Surrey mansion with his wife, Cynthia, née Powell (1939-2015), whom he had met as a student at the College of Art and married on 23 August 1962, together with their son, Julian (b. 1963); Julian himself later enjoyed a career as a pop singer–songwriter.

Although it was difficult at this point to isolate Lennon's musical contribution, the qualities defining the Beatles' quickly consolidating style and, within that, Lennon's and McCartney's compositional territory, were clear enough. The core influence came from the rock 'n' roll classics, but they drew from a broader range too, including professional New York songwriters such as Goffin and King, African-American vocal groups, Tin Pan Alley standards, and country singers like the Everly Brothers; and they grafted onto these foundations a quite specific lyricism—a bit ‘folky’, often modal, with an innocence and brashness extending as they matured into a bitter-sweet quality. With help from the producer George Martin, they were at the forefront in developing new studio effects. In a wider context, the Beatles' image—irreverent, witty, unapologetically provincial and streetwise—set much of the tone for the emergent pop culture centred on ‘swinging London’. Both inside and outside the group, Lennon was regarded as the leader and chief image-maker, and his ability to put down pomposity with acerbic one-liners became notorious. But already, though he loved the fame and wealth, he was feeling the strain of media pressure and of constant public exposure. Later, he spoke bitterly about the 'fuckin' humiliation' of enforced politeness; of being presented with cripples to bless (so it seemed); of being made to perform like 'circus animals', and of the martyrdom inseparable from being an artist (Wenner, 11, 16, 20). His attempt to escape the transformation of John Lennon into ‘John Beatle’ in the service of the ‘Beatles myth’ dominated the later years of his career.

The Beatles: from peak to breakup

By 1965 Lennon (along with the other Beatles) was a leading media personality, constantly seen at exclusive London clubs, restaurants, and theatres. The Beatles were also a British success story to be boasted of by politicians (particularly by the prime minister Harold Wilson), and they were controversially awarded MBEs in June of that year. Touring and performing were becoming increasingly wearing: at a concert in Shea Stadium, New York, in August (preserved on a BBC film), hardly a note of music could be heard above the screams of the 56,000 fans in the audience. Perhaps in response to such public pressures, Lennon at home in Weybridge was rather reclusive, and also sybaritic—over-eating, over-drinking, and over-spending on luxury consumer items. This was, he later recalled, his 'fat Elvis period' (Coleman, 363). A different response was his typically blunt remark, in a London Evening Standard interview in March 1966, that the Beatles 'were more popular than Jesus now'; although 'Jesus was all right', he argued, 'Christianity … will vanish and shrink' (Thomson and Gutman, 72). The statement attracted no attention in Britain, but when it was reprinted in the USA in July it led to a storm of protest, especially across the ‘Bible belt’, with radio bans and bonfires of Beatles records. At the start of their third American tour in August, Brian Epstein forced Lennon to apologize. The Beatles' concert on 29 August in San Francisco was their last live performance anywhere.

During 1964–5 Lennon got to know the American singer–songwriter Bob Dylan. Dylan allegedly introduced Lennon to the pleasures of marijuana, which became his drug of choice until it was largely superseded by LSD in 1965–6. (In 1968 he was convicted on a marijuana possession charge, a fact which, some years later, the US authorities used as part of their attempt to deny him residential status.) By 1966 Lennon was taking prodigious quantities of LSD, a habit interrupted temporarily in 1967–8 when chemical routes to expanded spiritual awareness were replaced by an infatuation with transcendental meditation, as taught by a rather dubious Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. A trip to India in February–April 1968 for a meditation course ended with, in Lennon's eyes, their guru's fraudulence being exposed (his disillusion being expressed in his 1968 song about the Maharishi, 'Sexy Sadie'), and his LSD consumption resumed, coupled now with heroin and cocaine.

Lennon's music during this period was undoubtedly affected by drugs, particularly LSD, which opened a way into hidden areas of his psyche but which also, he later claimed, temporarily destroyed his ego with false claims to spiritual insight: 'it was only another mirror' (Wenner, 78). The mysterious and often disturbing atmospheres created in such songs as 'Tomorrow never knows', 'She said she said' (both 1966), and 'Strawberry Fields forever' (1967), the tinkly hallucinatory quality of 'Lucy in the sky with diamonds' (1967), and the terrifying collage ('I'd love to turn you on') that ends 'A day in the life' (1967) all suggest links with what is known of LSD-driven hallucinogenic experiences. But Lennon's (and the Beatles') music was changing in other ways in this period too. Lennon in particular was impressed by the way that Bob Dylan was using rock sounds as the setting for more complex, personal, and poetic (sometimes surreal) lyrics than had been usual in pop songs, and many of his own compositions ('Nowhere man', 'Help', 'I'm a loser', 'Norwegian wood') became more ‘inward’—and indeed autobiographical. Both he and McCartney were developing wider artistic interests—in electronic music such as that of Stockhausen, in contemporary art, and in avant-garde ‘happenings’—and the engagement with India, however superficial, represented a growing awareness of musical cultures beyond western pop. Fast-improving studio technology, together with George Martin's increasing input into the Beatles' record production, resulted in several Lennon tracks (the surreal 'I am the walrus' and the experimental pieces that went under the title 'Revolution', both recorded in 1968) which could not be performed live; it was this factor, alongside revulsion at the effects of Beatlemania, that led to the decision to move from live performance into the studio, a transition foreseen as early as 1963 by the ever restless Lennon: life is a 'fast run', he once said (Coleman, 352). These experimental tendencies can be detected in the albums of 1965 (Help!—more successful than the film of the same name to which it formed the soundtrack—and Rubber Soul), and the accompanying singles, but they reached a peak on Revolver (1966) and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). The latter, with its pop art collage sleeve by Peter Blake, its studio wizardry, and its status as an early ‘concept album’, was undoubtedly one of the most influential musical products of the 1960s. The enthusiastic reception given to the Beatles' development by such classical music critics as William Mann of The Times was later dismissed as over-intellectual 'bullshit' by Lennon (Wenner, 72), but it marked the importance of their contribution to what can be seen now as a decisive cultural shift.

Sergeant Pepper was a key emblem in the so-called ‘summer of love’ of 1967, by which time, Lennon, like the other Beatles, had adopted the shoulder-length hair, exotic clothing, and love-and-peace discourse typical of the counter-cultural hippies. Shortly after the album was released, the Beatles, surrounded by hosts of other pop luminaries, recorded a new Lennon composition, 'All you need is love', live on a worldwide television satellite link-up, Our World, with an estimated audience of 44 million. His politics were as yet ill-defined. On his 'Revolution' tracks, produced while the huge anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and other startling ‘events’ of 1968 were raging, he is ambivalent about the need for violent revolution, but 'All you need is love' can be regarded as the start of a commitment to a peace politics which he never abandoned.

Lennon's work for peace, and his broader political thinking, were given added focus and momentum through his meeting and subsequent liaison with the performance artist Yoko Ono (b. 1933). Born into a wealthy Japanese business family, Ono had been brought up partly in Tokyo, where after the Second World War both Zen Buddhism and a transplanted Dadaism were fashionable, and partly in the USA, where, in the 1950s and 1960s, she became active in the avant-garde New York scene—particularly in the mixed-media ‘happenings’ associated with such artists as John Cage and the Fluxus group. Lennon met Ono on 9 November 1966 at an exhibition of her work at the Indica gallery in London. He was intrigued by its Dadaist absurdity: one exhibit invited the observer to climb a stepladder and look through a magnifying glass which, when peered through, revealed in tiny letters the word 'yes'. Their relationship, at first apparently intellectual, developed through 1967, and by May 1968 the two were lovers. Ono was ever-present during the recording sessions for the double album released in 1968 (The Beatles, otherwise known as ‘the white album’ after its pure white sleeve), even contributing to some of Lennon's songs, and they were now living together openly. To Lennon, Ono represented the weird but alluring world of ‘art’, as well as becoming, arguably, Paul McCartney's rival for his intellectual affections, and a mother-substitute standing in both for the absent Mimi and for his dead mother (in later years, he often referred to Ono as 'mother'). Her avant-garde repertoire also provided models for peace happenings: in June 1968 she and Lennon travelled to Coventry to plant two acorns 'for peace' in the grounds of the cathedral, the first of many such ‘events’. They married on 20 March 1969, Lennon having been divorced by his first wife, Cynthia, on 8 November 1968, while Ono was divorced from her first husband, Anthony Cox, on 2 February 1969.

The advent of Yoko Ono, who was much resented by the other Beatles, crystallized in Lennon a dissatisfaction with Beatle-ism and a desire to go his own way which had been developing in him for some time. On 27 August 1967, at the beginning of the excursion into transcendental meditation, Brian Epstein died suddenly of an accidental drug overdose. 'I knew that we were in trouble then … I thought, “We've fuckin' had it”', said Lennon later (Wenner, 52), and indeed the two disruptions taken together clearly signalled the beginning of the end for the Beatles. With Lennon distracted—by meditation, drugs, and OnoMcCartney took over the effective leadership, with mixed results. Apple Corps, an idealistic hippy-capitalist company including a record label, set up by the Beatles in 1968 to support and market new cultural projects, proved a financial disaster, and efforts to retrieve the situation, which set Lennon against McCartney, exacerbated strains that were in any case already growing. Early in 1969 Lennon announced to his fellow Beatles that he was breaking the group up. Some collaborative work continued—the final album, Let It Be, was not released until May 1970, and the legal dissolution, in a High Court action, did not come until March 1971—but the end was now unavoidable. The Beatles' late-period music—mainly the albums The Beatles (1968), Abbey Road (1969), and Let It Be (1970), together with soundtracks for the television film Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968)—included some fine songs, but their production was much more individualistic, Lennon's efforts pointing towards distinctive modes of his post-Beatles career: some heavy and anguished, some flippant, others meditatively, even sentimentally, lyrical.

Lennon, Ono, and politics

During the same period, Lennon had begun working with Ono. Two albums of avant-garde tape music were issued, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (November 1968, recorded in May 1968 during their first night together) and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (May 1969), the first including a controversial image of the pair naked on its sleeve. The Plastic Ono Band, a scratch group set up to perform Lennon's and Ono's repertory, began to appear in concerts—most dramatically in Toronto in September 1969, an event documented on the album Live Peace in Toronto (1969)—and put out the Lennon singles 'The Ballad of John and Yoko', 'Give peace a chance', 'Cold turkey' (all 1969), 'Instant karma!' (1970), 'Power to the people' and 'Happy Xmas! War is over' (both 1971). Screenings of avant-garde films made by Lennon and Ono also took place. More important than all of this, at least to them, were the ‘happenings for peace’. Their ‘honeymoon’ in March 1969 was devoted to a 'bed-in for peace' lasting seven days in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel; during this they gave hundreds of interviews publicizing their peace message. Several other bed-ins and 'bag-ins' followed (in the latter, Lennon and Ono 'appeared' in a large bag), together with poster campaigns (for Christmas 1969, their posters, in eleven cities worldwide, read 'War is over! If you want it') and other demonstrations. On 25 November 1969 Lennon returned his MBE 'in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria–Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against 'Cold turkey' slipping down the charts' (Coleman, 524). In many of the songs accompanying the peace campaign, Lennon cultivated a new anthemic simplicity, in which he explicitly aimed to provide chants suitable for collective singing: for example, 'All we are saying is give peace a chance'. Many listeners found his new music crude compared with his Beatles work, and they often ascribed the shift to Ono's influence, but the peace campaign achieved enormous publicity, and its agitprop style was probably indebted not only to Ono's skill at politicizing conceptual art ('con-art', as she herself described it) but also to contemporary political demos and especially the activities of the French situationists. It is true, though, that Lennon was completely immersed in his relationship with his new partner at this time and on 22 April 1969 he formally changed his middle name from Winston to Ono.

Lennon was still not without psychological troubles, however: the Apple financial crisis, the messy break-up of the Beatles, the sale of Northern Songs (a public company since 1965) in September 1969, separation from his son, Julian, and the pressure of living twenty-four hours a day with Ono, much of it in public, were among the causes, but the problems also lay deeper in Lennon's psyche. Once again, an answer (or so it seemed) appeared, this time in a book entitled The Primal Scream by the American psychotherapist Arthur Janov. Janov offered a somewhat vulgar Freudian method of rediscovering the primal self: stripping away accumulated ego-defences, acknowledging childhood traumas, and screaming away the pain. This therapy came as a revelation to Lennon who, with Ono, spent four months in mid-1970 undergoing a course of treatment at Janov's institute in California. For Lennon, the pain related first and foremost to his abandonment by, and loss of, his mother, but it may be that the therapy also facilitated a final rejection of one ‘Lennon’—that which had enabled the Beatles myth—and the discovery, or construction, of another. As Lennon commented, 'it's just like Primal is like another mirror' (Wenner, 21). At any rate, the effects of 'primal' are clear in two events that occurred late in 1970: the issue of the first solo Lennon album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) and the large-scale interview with Rolling Stone magazine published in January 1971, in which Lennon discussed the album, his past, and his future. Taken together these two statements mark a watershed, the definitive end of Lennon the Beatle (and perhaps of the sixties as a cultural entity) and the start of the second half of his career.

The music is sparse and elemental—melodically, harmonically, texturally—the content avowedly autobiographical ('I'm in me own head. I can't be in anybody else's'; Wenner, 52). The moods are personal, confessional, often anguished ('Mother', 'Working class hero', 'My mummy's dead'), the vocal style ranging between stoicism and scream. In 'God' Lennon dispatches past myths: 'I don't believe in magic … I don't believe in Jesus … I don't believe in Elvis … I don't believe in Zimmerman [Bob Dylan] … I don't believe in Beatles / I just believe in me / Yoko and me / And that's reality.' In his Rolling Stone interview he links the change in content to both a historical shift ('the dream is over … we gotta … get down to so-called reality') and to an aesthetic turn towards simplicity, manifested in one-take recording, as compared to that 'dead Beatles sound or dead recording sound'), and the virtues of rock 'n' roll: 'The thing about rock 'n' roll … is that it's real … You recognise something in it which is true, like all true art … If it's real, it's simple usually, and if it's simple, it's true' (Wenner, 31, 21, 100–101). In a conjunction that was of course not new but nevertheless was unusual within vernacular culture, ‘advanced’ political and social ideas were melded with an artistic theory of popular realism.

Life and death in New York

In September 1971, as if marking this shift geographically, the Lennons moved to New York, at first to the bohemian Greenwich Village, later to an up-market apartment in the Dakota Building close to Central Park. Lennon spent the rest of his life in New York, although not until July 1976 was his application for permanent residence approved after a protracted and bitter dispute with the US authorities. The paranoia in government circles which led to the attempt to deport Lennon on grounds of his political radicalism, together with the dirty tricks used to discredit him, were later documented in Jon Wiener's book Come Together: John Lennon in his Time (1985). And his views were now radical. In 1969 he used to describe himself as a 'Christian communist' but by the time of an interview with the socialist magazine Red Dwarf in March 1971 he seemed to be toying with revolutionary Maoism. He supported militant Irish republicanism, African-American radicals such as Angela Davis and George Jackson, and the White Panther John Sinclair. He was also fast learning feminism from Yoko Ono. In his early New York days, he wrote songs addressing all these issues ('Woman is the nigger of the world', 'Sunday bloody Sunday', and others) and associated with the new left veterans Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon's personal life remained turbulent too. He constantly sniped at the more conservative McCartney (as in the song 'How do you sleep?'), and his relationship with Ono was often rocky, especially when he was drinking heavily. In October 1973 Ono insisted on a separation. Lennon's 'lost weekend', as he later called it, lasted for some fifteen months, and was spent mostly in Los Angeles, much of it in the company of his friend the broadcasting personality Elliot Mintz, and in the pursuit of drunken antisocial behaviour. Lennon kept in contact with Ono, however; indeed, Ono had arranged for her secretary, May Pang, to accompany Lennon, and almost certainly a sexual relationship between the two developed. Gradually Lennon pulled out of his riotous lifestyle; his single 'Whatever gets you thru the night' (October 1974), recorded with Elton John, became his first post-Beatles number one hit in the US, and on 28 November 1974 he made a surprise concert appearance with Elton John in New York (Ono, unknown to him, being in the audience). Lennon returned to the Dakota, and to Ono, in January 1975.

Musically, Lennon's recorded output between 1972 and 1975 is largely disappointing. After the masterly album Imagine (1971), a follow-up to Plastic Ono Band but, as Lennon put it, with added honey coating, his American period produced Some Time in New York City (1972), a politically audacious but artistically dubious product of his theory at the time that pop records should be as transient and sloganized as newspapers; two albums of originals, Mind Games (1973) and Walls and Bridges (1974), which are at best uneven; and an album of rock 'n' roll covers, Rock 'n' Roll, recorded initially with the producer Phil Spector at the very beginning of the 'lost weekend' in notoriously chaotic sessions, but not issued until February 1975.

For some time after this it appeared that there might be no further recordings from John Lennon. Ono became pregnant and, after several previous miscarriages, gave birth to a son, Sean, on 9 October 1975. Lennon's recording contract with EMI expired in February 1976 and he did not renew it. He became a house-husband and devoted himself to bringing up Sean, leaving management of the LennonOno business to his wife. She proved as efficient at her side of this arrangement as he was typically obsessive, even faddish, in his domestic duties. Lennon mellowed dramatically, and his musical tastes broadened, as the image of a recluse, lost to pop music, took hold. But by 1980 he was talking about creative work again, and in August he and Ono recorded a new album, released in November by Geffen Records as Double Fantasy (other tracks from the same sessions appeared in 1984 on Milk and Honey). Some found this music overly sentimental, even mawkish, although some tracks—'Beautiful boy', addressed to Sean, 'Woman', addressed to Yoko, and '(Just like) Starting over', the (number one) single—stood out. In any case, the records both shrank and mushroomed in significance when on 8 December 1980 John Lennon was shot at the entrance to the Dakota Building by Mark Chapman; he died shortly afterwards in Roosevelt Hospital, and was cremated at Hartsdale crematorium, New York, on 10 December. The response to his death—vigils everywhere, messages of sympathy pouring in, and continuous broadcasts of Lennon's music—was such as to suggest that a major world figure had died. Chapman, changing his plea from not guilty to guilty, was sentenced to life imprisonment; Fenton Bresler's book The Murder of John Lennon (1989) argues that he may have been the tool of a CIA conspiracy, but no conclusive evidence has emerged that he was anything other than a psychopathic fantasist in search of celebrity and consumed by hatred of the famous. Victim at the last, ironically, of a pathology which he had both indulged and excoriated, Lennon left an estate estimated to be worth around $150 million, half going to Ono and half to a charitable trust.

Posthumous events and overall achievement

In a strange way, an important new phase in John Lennon's life was now beginning, as he became perhaps culturally the most pervasive dead rock star (outshining even Elvis Presley). Reissues and re-packages of his (and of the Beatles') recordings continued to pour out. A good deal of previously unreleased material also appeared. It ranged from Live at the BBC (1994), a collection of Beatles radio broadcasts from 1962 to 1965, to two albums of early 1970s Lennon tracks, Live in New York City and Menlove Avenue (both 1986). It included, most dramatically, a new Lennon single, 'Free as a bird'/'Real love' (1995), put together from a home-made Lennon tape and instrumental overdubs added in 1994 by the other Beatles. The glossiest package was the late-1990s Beatles Anthology, with television, video, book, and CD components, the latter including many out-takes of famous tracks. At the same time Lennon songs were covered by many other performers, and some—including Paul McCartney, Queen, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, and Elton John—composed and recorded tribute songs to him. The British Performing Right Society established a scholarship in his name in 1982, and he was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. His musical influence burst into particular prominence during the 1990s Britpop phenomenon, and was especially evident in the work of the band Oasis.

There were also several exhibitions of Lennon's drawings, re-showings of films he made with Ono, and publication of a new collection of his writings: Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986). Out of many radio, television, and film documentaries, the films Imagine: John Lennon (1988), made by Ono, Backbeat (1994), telling the story of the Beatles in Hamburg, the BBC radio series In my Life: John Lennon Remembered (1990), and The Lost Lennon Tapes, broadcast by the US radio company Westwood One weekly for four years, from 1988, stood out. Two major interviews with Lennon in his last year were disseminated, the first by the BBC (The Lennon Tapes, 1981), the second by Playboy magazine (The Playboy Interviews, 1982). Biographies included Ray Coleman's celebratory Lennon: the Definitive Biography (1984, rev. 1995) and Albert Goldman's muckraking The Lives of John Lennon (1988), and there were memoirs of varying degrees of interest from, among others, Cynthia Lennon, May Pang, Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, and his father, Freddy (in a book published by his widow). Lennon manuscripts (of drawings, writings, song lyrics, etc.) and memorabilia became highly prized: one of his Rolls-Royces, for example, sold for $2.2 million in 1985, while an amateur tape of him singing with the Quarrymen in 1957 fetched £78,500 at Sothebys in 1994.

Lennon was also commemorated in public events and locations. The city of Liverpool honoured him in several ways, most strikingly by renaming its airport the John Lennon Airport in 2002. A John Lennon Museum opened in Tokyo in 2000. Of many streets and parks named after him, the most famous is the 3½-acre garden in New York's Central Park opened in 1984 and named Strawberry Fields. Often these events and memorials were connected to Lennon's work for peace. In 1990 a ceremony in the United Nations building in New York included the playing of a tape of Lennon speaking on the subject, and was broadcast around the world. In times of war—the Gulf War in 1991, and the World Trade Center attack in 2001, for instance—Lennon's peace songs invariably emerged on the airwaves, often accompanied, as in those two cases, by attempts at censorship. At the same time, commercial exploitation of his fame, often furthered by Yoko Ono herself, continued unabated and was seen by many as incongruous. It included the licensing of his song 'Instant karma!' to a television commercial for Nike trainers in 1992, and the exhibiting in 1993 of Ono's bronze replicas of the bloodstained spectacles and bullet-riddled shirt Lennon was wearing on the night of his murder (available for $25,000 and $35,000 respectively).

But Lennon himself, hungry for fame and at the same time torn apart by it, would have relished the irony inherent in his iconic yet contested public status. Critics of his 'canonization' have pointed to his often ugly personal behaviour, and have argued that his taste for self-publicity and his aggressive espousal of a constantly changing sequence of belief systems, each one apparently definitive, reveal both hypocrisy and artistic and political faddism. This seems too harsh. To an almost unprecedented degree, he lived his adult life in public and in highly mediated forms. In popular existentialism, situationism, and new left theories made up of equal parts Herbert Marcuse and Herman Hesse, he found ways of understanding his own fierce commitment to ‘reality’—to a life and art produced ‘authentically’, ‘in the moment’. The peculiarities of his psycho-biography (especially his childhood traumas) and social location (sensitive grammar school layabout, stranded between cultures and classes) meant that the results took highly personal and contradictory forms, and, when these were placed within the pressures of the public context, the rudeness, violence, social gaffes, and constant switches of direction were a predictable consequence. Lennon's search for the ‘real me’ was worked out through a sequence of ‘performed identities’, a narrative that was traced not only musically but also on the surface of his own body, through a bewildering succession of visual personae. In the process, he also revealed the fault lines of society to itself, on the broadest level through his crucial roles in both the would-be universalistic mood of the 1960s—youth counter-culture to the fore—and in the more fragmented, wary, cynical feel of the 1970s; and through his dauntless, if at times naïve, embodiment of the shift from one to the other.

The intermeshing of public and private explains how, to Lennon, life, art, and politics could come to seem hardly distinguishable. In this he was at once a creature of the mass media's star-making machinery and a child of Dada, Fluxus, and sixties narcissism. On this level, his political songs—'commercials for peace' (Howlett and Lewisohn, 86–7), or for revolution or justice—contain the quintessential Lennon. In a further irony, however, it is Lennon the musician—the sound of Lennon rather than his life—that will probably survive most strongly. He was a considerable rhythm guitarist—not outstanding technically but an energizing band presence, a 'cinéma vérité guitarist', as he put it (Wenner, 48)—and a charismatic stage performer. He possessed one of the most memorable rock voices, instantly recognizable and hence apt for his 'first-person music' (ibid., 29), and capable of great expressive variety; and yet, characteristically, he distrusted it, always begging producers to treat it, distort it, and turn it into (presumably) a vocal persona. As a songwriter and composer, he had a gift for striking lyric and melodic phrases—usually concise, self-contained, and somehow static—coupled with an original aural imagination, resulting in songs which, at their most memorable, function as epiphanies, summoning up particular worlds of feeling or consciousness. The materials of 'Help!', 'I'm a loser', 'She said she said', 'Strawberry Fields forever', 'A day in the life', 'I am the walrus', 'Come together', 'Working class hero', 'Imagine', 'Across the universe', and many more may be rooted in the everyday—Lennon's working method was to immerse himself in the vernacular flux of memory, emotion, events, and cultural detritus and, once inspiration struck, the transfer into artistic ideas seems to have been fast—but the songs transform these into precisely imagined visions with their own aesthetic substance. To describe this body of work as pop music of unusually high quality is accurate (and essential if Lennon's insistence on the virtues of simplicity is to be respected) but it does not adequately highlight the scope of an achievement which, more persuasively than that of any other musician of his generation, pointed towards both the concrete creative possibilities in rock music and their potential political resonance.


  • R. Coleman, Lennon: the definitive biography (1995)
  • J. Wenner, ed., Lennon remembers: the Rolling Stone interviews (1973)
  • K. Howlett and M. Lewisohn, eds., In my life: John Lennon remembered (1990)
  • A. Peebles, ed., The Lennon tapes: John Lennon and Yoko Ono in conversation with Andy Peebles (1981)
  • D. Sheff, The Playboy interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1982)
  • E. Thomson and D. Gutman, eds., The Lennon companion: twenty-five years of comment (1987)
  • The Beatles anthology (2000)
  • M. Braun, Love me do: the Beatles' progress (1964)
  • H. Davies, The Beatles (1968)
  • P. Norman, Shout! The true story of the Beatles (1981)
  • A. Goldman, The lives of John Lennon (1988)
  • I. MacDonald, Revolution in the head: the Beatles' records and the sixties (1994)
  • G. Giuliano and B. Giuliano, Lost Lennon interviews (1996)
  • J. Wiener, Come together: John Lennon in his time (1985)



  • BFINA, ‘John Lennon story’, 1982
  • BFINA, ‘Lennon’, 5 May 1990
  • BFINA, ‘Imagine: John Lennon’, BBC2, 1 Jan 1996
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, performance footage



  • L. McCartney, two platinum prints, 1967–8, NPG
  • A. Leibovitz, bromide print, 1970, NPG [see illus.]
  • I. Macmillan, photograph, 1971, priv. coll.
  • A. Leibovitz, colour print, 1980, NPG
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.
  • portrait, repro. in B. Gruen, Listen to these pictures: photographs of John Lennon (1985)
  • portrait, repro. in D. Hoffmann, John Lennon (1985)
  • portrait, repro. in P. Norman, Days in the life: John Lennon remembered (1990)
  • portrait, repro. in A. Solt and S. Egan, Imagine John Lennon (1988)

Wealth at Death

£2,522,317: probate, 20 Feb 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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