It was 78 years ago today
John Lennon: An intimate portrait
On October 9th, 1940 in Liverpool, England, one of 20th century and all times absolute icons was born: John Winston Lennon. Lennon’s life was a sphere of contradictions and a mediatic circus, he was one of the first celebrities to have all his steps followed by the media from an early age, during almost 20 years the world saw John Lennon’s personality and values changing and switching directions, a reflex of what his childhood had been. John Lennon was born into a broken home, and grew up having mixed feeling about his parent, Alfred Lennon, a merchant seaman, and Julia Stanley. From an early age he got used to his father’s absence and when he was 5 during his parents separation, he was forced to choose with which one he wanted to stay with. Lennon picked his mother, but it was his aunt Mimi who end up raising him.
Early Years and Hamburg
A witty and clever child, Lennon was artistically oriented at school, but by the time he was a teenager, painting and drawing were not the only artistic expressions he was interested, during the mid 1950’s he discovered Rock N’ Roll, that was blooming in the U.S, and soon after he formed his own band. Around that period, his mother Julia died in a tragic accident when he was 17, this would create a stronger bond with one of his recent friends, Paul McCartney who already had lost his mother too. It also turned John into a more rebellious and defensive person. After engaging into Art School he met Cynthia, with whom he got married, but Lennon was indeed someone who had multiple faces and personalities. He wasn’t happy to settling into being just another common person. The Beatles were formed after a succession of bands Lennon played and most notably The Quarrymen. During the early 1960’s the band started to gain some local popularity in their Liverpool home town by playing music clubs such as The Cavern. Hearing about the Rock music scene in Germany, they headed to Hamburg where they would spend a vast amount of their time as a resident band in dubious bars and clubs circuits between 1960 and 1962 with names such as Kaiserkeller, Top Ten, Star-Club and Wagabond. It was during that period that the band developed some of their original songs, though mostly they’d play American Rock N’ Roll covers, which was what the audience wanted to hear. The success happened almost overnight for The Beatles, after returning from Germany they caught the attention of Brian Epstein, NEMS music store manager who literally knew nothing about managing Rock bands, however, Brian’s guidance threw The Beatles fast into the spotlight and in less than two years they would be the most famous band in the world, in a cultural phenomenon known as “Beatlemania”. John Lennon was by far the most charismatic of the band, he was witty, clever, fast thinking and knew how to manipulate people into sticking by his side, like it happened with Brian Epstein. When Lennon noticed McCartney was having the same or higher power of decision within the band, he decided to take a holiday alone with Epstein in Spain, he knew that Epstein was in love with him, and though he was not corresponding the romantic interest, he tried to use it in order to gain a bigger power of decision inside the band. Lennon always had been a leader, and knew how to convince people following him (which would get him in trouble later in his life) When in Germany, the band ran out of money, living in a literal “dump” above an old theater and using flags as blankets, one night, he spotted a drunk man who was flaunting his money in a bar, he convinced all the other Beatles and some fellow musicians to follow the drunken man and steal his money. These episodes may paint a rough image of Lennon for some, but the truth of the matter is that this was part of his life and growing up as a person, Lennon was a man that never claimed to be a saint or perfect. Naturally these life events tend to get a little bit more “significant” than they really are when talking about the life of someone like John Lennon.
I’m not going to change the way I look or the way I feel to conform to anything. I’ve always been a freak. So I’ve been a freak all my life and I have to live with that, you know. I’m one of those people.
In 1963 The Beatles released their debut album, “Please Please Me”, they were then part of what was called “The Mersey Beat” bands, but one of the differences that distinguished them from the other bands or generally European Rock band of that time, was the vast amount of original compositions included in the first album. Back then it was common and acceptable for most bands just to cover American Rock N’ Roll hits, however The Beatles had more than that. Lennon and McCartney were a perfect musical combination force, together they penned some of the best songs in history, they evolved together and grew up together as composers and artists. By 1963 Lennon and The Beatles had becoming a well known name in Europe, with several EP releases in many European countries. It wasn’t until 1964 that they tried for the “impossible to break” U.S market. The Americans weren’t too much fond of British or European bands, others had tried before, some that were even more successful than them in Europe, and failed. Under the orientation of Brian Epstein the band traveled to the U.S and when they land, they find a crowd awaiting for them. The heavy marketing promotion that had been made around The Beatles in the U.S prepared field for what was coming next, something that became known as “The British Invasion”. When The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, they were seen by an audience of millions of Americans. The Beatlemania had officially started. During the crazy intense years in The Beatles, Lennon’s personality mutated many times, and by the late 1960’s, he was no longer the same John Lennon that had released “Please Please Me”. With songs increasingly more sophisticated and crafted helped with the use of state of the art studio technology, The Beatles experimental phase was a far cry from the early years of Beatlemania, the band retired from touring in 1966 to dedicate themselves to studio time, the hysteria among the audiences worldwide when they were playing got to a point that was no longer enjoyable or normal for them, Lennon and the other boys couldn’t play live anymore, but that was not the only reason. Between 1965 and 1966 The Beatles begun to receive several death treats, most notably in the U.S after John declared in an interview that “We (The Beatles) are more popular than Jesus”. Most American’s weren’t ready for that kind of statement and didn’t understood what it meant, in a deeply conservative religious country, The Beatles, who were adored by millions, saw their fame decreasing fast and it required a forced apology from Lennon to the American people; also in 1966 they were treated like prisoners in the Philippines due to some misunderstood with the government and concert organization that made them fear for their life.These were only two events that made the band quit touring.
I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry
The End of The Beatles: Yoko Ono and Leaving to NYC
By 1967 The Beatles had gone from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”. It was a massive evolution in only a 4 year period. Around this time he met the love of his life Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, who’d remain with him until his very last minute on this world. Brian Epstein died in 1967, Lennon divorced from Cynthia, his son Julian was then 5, somehow, his life was becoming a reflex of what had happened around him as a child. He noticed that, and he changed it. With Yoko he became more aware of experimental music, she introduced him to artistic expressions he was not aware of, Yoko also gave him the intellectual stimulation he was looking for in a partner, part of why he got so infatuated and in love with her, The Beatles fell apart fast, but Yoko cannot be the one to blame. He no longer enjoyed the game, he wasn’t amused by being stuck in a band anymore now that he had envisioned his potential as a solo artist. During the band’s last year of activity, they had rejected one of his songs “Cold Turkey”, an edgier Rock song, and that also contributed to Lennon’s decision to quit The Beatles. By 1969 The Beatles were pretty much over. Lennon pursued his solo career first with Yoko by putting together The Plastic Ono Band, that among others featured occasionally Eric Clapton and also his own Beatles peer Ringo Starr. His debut solo album simply entitled “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” it’s another step forward into the artistic evolution of Lennon, distinctly different from anything he had done with The Beatles. By this time he also had became very politically outspoken and a peace activist, out on the streets or just promoting it in bed with Yoko. It was a paradox. During his younger years, Lennon didn’t really cared about politics or peace, and in fact, he was a rather violent guy when drunk. But again, Lennon was just like all of us, he grew up, he matured, he acknowledged his mistakes and what he thought was wrong in his life and tried to fix it. For the rest of his life he used his image and fame to advocate for peace and human rights. It was around then that he and Yoko Ono moved to New York. Lennon felt ostracized in England, he felt Yoko Ono was being a victim of racism and that they were constantly being harassed by British press and Police. It was time to move on and leave behind The Beatles universe for good. But when he got to New York and tried to make a living there, he found very thick walls, The U.S government, by then lead by Richard Nixon, wanted Lennon out of the U.S. He became infamous among the politicians as someone who supported both radical speech and radicals. But due to difficulty of deporting someone like John Lennon, the U.S based their deportation on the fact that he had been caught with drugs by the police in England back in 1968. Lennon started a legal battle to stay and work in the U.S that would last 5 years.
Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician. But I cannot be what I am not …
Los Angeles: The Lost Weekend
John Lennon battled with drug addiction during the 1960’s, specially heroin between 1968 and 1969, both him and Yoko were heroin users around that period, having kicked his habit, he still had a couple of others that he had not been able to get rid of, his heavy drinking habit and infidelity. With Cynthia, John Lennon had been an absent husband with numerous sex partners, with Yoko, that side of him seemed to have gone, but in the U.S, he got back to his old habits, and Yoko Ono sent him away to what became known as “The Lost Weekend”. She bluntly asked him to take some time for himself, that included him doing whatever he felt like, being drugs, drinking or sex. John Lennon moved to Los Angeles in 1973, but Yoko didn’t sent him alone, he hooked him up with their personal assistant, Mary Pang. In order to save their relationship Ono gave Lennon total freedom of choice. During 18 months, Lennon’s life was a 24 hour party, unlike New York, Los Angeles was packed with hard partying Rock Stars, among his regular drinking buddies were Alice Cooper, Elton John, Keith Moon, David Bowie and Harry Nilsson. It was with Nilsson that he felt closer, together they built a strong friendship and even recorded an album together. While in L.A he had an unexpected visit. In 1974, his old friend Paul McCartney showed up in a studio where he was jamming and they played together for the first time in 6 years. But soon, the party got bored for Lennon, he missed Yoko and in 1975 returned to New York to be with her, the couple would never be separated again more than a few hours for the rest of his life.
It slowly started to dawn on me that John was not the trouble at all, John was a fine person. It was society that had become too much. We laugh about it now, but we started dating again. I wanted to be sure. I’m thankful to John’s intelligence, that he was intelligent enough to know this was the only way that we could save our marriage, not because we didn’t love each other but because it was getting too much for me. Yoko Ono
In 1976 after several years of feud and mutual provocations soothe down up by their Jam session together in Los Angeles, Lennon meets McCartney again while in New York. They briefly talk about getting the band together for one more concert after an evening of drinking together in Lennon’s apartment, but it wasn’t meant to be, and soon after they became estranged again. Ringo Starr was the only Beatle Lennon would never cut ties with, it was a trusting matter for John, as he had felt betrayed before both by Paul and George. After a hiatus in music during most of the second half of the 1970’s, in order to dedicate full time to his son Sean who was born in 1975, Lennon started to plan his comeback . He was still done with live concerts though and didn’t felt the appeal to go back on stage, his last live appearance was as a guest in an Elton John concert (who was also Sean’s Godfather), the result of a bet between both after they composed a song together. But he was maturing, now approaching 40 he began working on new songs together with Yoko and even started to considering touring again. By 1980 his album “Double Fantasy” was finished and ready to release. The album featured some of his best music in years, a result of his maturity as an artist and as a man. He was also a more approachable person, more friendly, more open to people and to different opinions. On December 8th, 1980, Lennon was returning home to his apartment in the Dakota Building in Manhattan, New York. He heard a voice calling him in the dark, he turned around, hoping to be just another fan waiting for an autograph, it was Mark David Chapman, and he took Lennon’s life and stole the world from his talent. John Lennon died that evening after being shot several times by a mad man. Today we celebrate Lennon’s life and legacy, his everlasting and enduring influence in Music, Art, Poetry, Image, Fashion and Activism. For 40 years we were able to witness the growth of the artist, his evolution as a man, all because, Lennon allowed us to watch it, through his music, through his films or simply through his words.
I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it. It’s just getting out of one car, and into another
John Lennon’s Life In Photos
Watch the music video for “Nobody Told Me” by John Lennon
Listen to some of John Lennon’s best songs compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify
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