Wednesday 13 December 2017

Which Lennon do you imagine, the peace icon or vicious bully?

Myths abound over the controversial Beatle who would be 70 on Saturday

On December 8, 1980, at 10.50am Mark Chapman's five bullets from the 0.38 calibre revolver tore through John Lennon's body.

Instantly a myth was born in death. Like Princess Diana, he went from ordinary mortal to saint overnight. Up until then he was John Lennon the Beatle, the genius who gave us Strawberry Fields, Imagine and other classics.

Today, on what would have been his 70th birthday, I'm not sure which Lennon we're commemorating.

Is he 'Gentle John', the cultural icon who had the tenderness to write a song like Woman? Or is he, as others claimed, 'Junkie John', the wife-beating drug and alcohol addict?

The Lennon story we were sold as kids was simple: John the troubled teenager took refuge in music and lived the Rock 'n' Roll dream.

A witch called Yoko then stole him from the loving arms of the Beatles. In order to promote World Peace, John and Yoko were photographed naked in a bed in Amsterdam.

Therein followed a bit of druggy life until they went on to live happily ever after in their New York apartment. Happy, until Mark Chapman gets it into his head that he'd better go out and shoot John Lennon.

But it's not quite so simple. There are claims that Lennon was a cruel bully.

Philip Norman, in his biography John Lennon The Life, tells how John would often belittle cripples and others with infirmities. Norman says that Beatles manager Brian Epstein was continually mocked about his homosexuality. Some later books claimed Lennon was bisexual. Reading the different narratives I doubt that, and if he was, so what? I do believe he could be callous and vicious. In the early Sixties, Lennon gave his friend Bob Wooler, the resident DJ in the Cavern nightclub, a savage beating over an innocuous remark.

However Lennon was also tender kind and generous to his friends. John's first wife Cynthia in her biography says that John hit her in the face. Once.

However Lennon was ashamed and spent considerable time trying to make it up

Perhaps his real crime was repeating his own childhood with Cynthia and baby Julian. They suffered severe emotional neglect.

John himself had endured a horrific childhood best summed up by the word 'loss'. At five, his mother Julia gave him up to his Aunt Mimi. Julia wanted to marry another man who didn't want John. Years later John finally got to meet his mother, who died shortly afterwards in a car accident.

Philip Norman recounts the deep grief John endured. Does this excuse the way he treated women and those he got close too? Stu Sutcliffe, the one time Beatle bassist also received cruel treatment. There were allegations John kicked him in the head, later leading to his death from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Stu's wife Astrid utterly refutes the death suggestion. While Lennon was emotionally cruel to Sutcliffe, he also loved him. What of John Lennon the peacenik icon of the Sixties? Was he a hypocrite with 'peace on his lips and war in his heart'?

I grew up hearing Lennon asking us to Give Peace A Chance. Lennon famously described himself as a "Christian Communist".

There was the aforementioned 'Love-in', as John and Yoko posed nude in their bed in Amsterdam to raise awareness for World peace. Did leaping into bed with Yoko and letting his hair grow long contribute to world peace? Like a lot of rock stars, it might have been more impressive if he'd later signed over their royalties for the classic Imagine to peace groups.

Many people discovered Lennon's music in his uneven post-Beatle period. There was some good and some awful music. Did he sell out?

If you've already co-written the White Album, maybe your allowed a few bummers.

The more serious charges about Lennon's life come from one Albert Goldman.

A controversial writer, he claimed to have interviewed over a thousand different people for his biography of Lennon, The Different Lives.


In the autumn of 1980, John had finally found a peace, living with Yoko and their son Sean in New York. They had just released the Double Fantasy album. John, we were told, was in domestic and creative bliss, baking cakes, while young Sean prospered in the loving household.

However Goldman claims that it was all a myth. Yoko's input on the album, he says, was inspired by Sam Green, her lover at that time.

As for John, Goldman alleges he wandered around the house naked and stoned out of his brain. Well what's new? Don't forget that Lennon wrote a song back in 1968 called Cold Turkey, about drug withdrawal.

Goldman claims that Yoko later asked friends: "How can that oaf be so successful when I am so much more talented and educated?"

Today Yoko continues to dust off and pimp the family heirlooms with her reconditioned version of history.

However Goldman, adept as he was at ruffling through the pockets of the dead, does not give us the real John Lennon either. Be careful of what you read.

As a kid I idolised Lennon and he inspired me to write songs. Now as an adult, I still think he was a genius but not a God. I see a man both tormented and happy, stoned and sober, kind and cruel.

Today he would have been 70. Lennon worshippers will show up at Central Park's Strawberry Fields, across from the Dakota apartment building where he was shot. There will tribute concerts all over the world. What would he make of his deification?

Remember Lennon was the man who said the Beatles would bigger than Jesus Christ. I think it would disturb him to see just how close his prophecy has comes to the truth.

Eamon Keane's album Hang The Moon is available at Celtic Note and HMV

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