He had a boyish smile, a rebellious hairstyle, and a lilting Liverpudlian accent. His genius extended beyond music, to wordplay and visual arts. While he excited and inspired teens, he frightened parents and pastors, and was a target of the Nixon-era FBI. Who was this British phenom? Well, that would be the inimitable John Lennon.
With bombs falling around the hospital, John Lennon was born on October 9th, 1940, in the midst of World War II. His mother Julia gave him the middle name ‘Winston’ in honor of Britain’s leader at the time. His father, Alfred, was a merchant marine and was absent at John’s birth, as he would be for much of John’s childhood.
Lennon’s childhood was unsettled, with an absent father and a mother who simply couldn’t handle motherhood… After the age of four, Lennon didn’t even live with his mother, instead living with his childless Uncle George and Aunt Mimi. The two were a stern, but loving influence on Lennon throughout his childhood, though Mimi did what she could to discourage Lennon’s love of music. It was she who famously told him “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”
Lennon’s mother was more supportive of his musical interest, in fact, it was Julia who bought the guitar for him. Though Lennon didn’t live with his mother, he remained close to her, regularly visiting her house where the two would listen to Elvis records and pluck chords on the banjo, ukelele, and guitar.
Julia was also a frequent visitor at her sister’s house, where she spent mornings drinking tea with Mimi and chatting with her son. After one of these tranquil visits, tragedy struck. As Julia crossed the street to head home one day, she was struck and killed by a passing car. John was sixteen years old when his mother died, and he carried the weight of the tragedy with him for the rest of his life…
At the time Julia died, Lennon was already having trouble in school. He was smart, no doubt about that, but his wit and attitude got him into trouble with teachers. He created comics of teachers and fellow students in a work he titled “The Daily Howl,” and detention sheets from Quarry Bank High School show that Lennon once received three detentions in one day, with offenses over the years ranging from fighting in class, to sabotage, to “just no interest whatsoever.”
While he was goofing off in school, Lennon was paying close attention to his music. He was playing in a band called the Quarry Men – it was one of this band’s gigs that would ultimately lead to the formation of The Beatles.. On July 6th, 1957, the Quarry Men played the Woolton village fete and one of Lennon’s bandmates decided Lennon should be introduced to a friend of his. And who was that friend? Well, you might have heard of him – that would be Paul McCartney. That day, McCartney, who was two years John’s junior, taught Lennon how to tune a guitar and impressed him with a rendition of the song Twenty Flight Rock. The atmosphere of the day stuck with Paul, even if the exact year didn’t:
“At Woolton village fete I met him. I was a fat schoolboy and, as he leaned an arm on my shoulder, I realised he was drunk. We were twelve then, but, in spite of his sideboards [sideburns], we went on to become teenage pals.”
It was only two weeks before Paul was asked to join the Quarrymen, and he agreed. Shortly thereafter, Paul introduced John and the other band members to his friend George Harrison. It was 1958, and three of the four Beatles had found each other.
But music couldn’t be John’s only focus. Though he had failed his exams upon leaving high school, Lennon’s aunt and former headmaster pulled strings and persuaded the Liverpool College of Art to accept the rambunctious teen who did show incredible promise in the arts. Lennon started attending the Liverpool College of Art in the fall of 1957. He didn’t fare much better at the art school than he had in a traditional school, though he did meet his first wife Cynthia Powell. Lennon never had the right equipment for his classes, and was always borrowing Powell’s tools. It was also up to Powell to help Lennon on his exams, though he ultimately failed them anyway…
For all the help she gave him, Lennon was not a kind and loving boyfriend to Powell. In fact, he could be downright abusive, even acknowledging as much by later, saying: “I was in sort of a blind rage for two years. I was either drunk or fighting. It had been the same with other girlfriends I’d had. There was something the matter with me.”
The relationship lasted, though, and in 1962 Powell discovered she was pregnant with Lennon’s child. In keeping with the expectations of the time, the two were married in a simple civil ceremony in Liverpool. Lennon’s music career had already taken priority over all else, and they skipped a honeymoon so he could play a gig the night of their wedding.
Cynthia gave birth to Julian Lennon in 1963, and with the Beatles’ star on the rise in Liverpool, John didn’t pay much attention to his son. In fact, his relationship with his son was no better than it was with his wife, something Julian publicly and angrily spoke about as an adult.
“Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces—no communication, adultery, divorce?”
John was the only married member of the Beatles, and the only one with a child, and the group’s manager tried to keep this information about Lennon under wraps as he marketed the group. Girls wanted their pop stars to be single and cute – not married.
The Beatles’ rise to fame began at the Cavern Club, but it was interspersed with performances in Germany. Along with Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, bandmates Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best made up the band’s lineup for their infamous stays in Hamburg, Germany at the Kaiserkellar club. The boys, no more than 22, and George only 17, lived in horrid conditions and survived on pills and alcohol during their stay. But the audiences loved them, especially Lennon’s onstage antics. One night he was supposed to be onstage, but instead was fooling around with a woman and the two only broke up when the club’s bouncer dumped cold water on them. Instead of getting dressed to go onstage, Lennon grabbed his guitar and joined his bandmates only wearing underwear and a toilet seat around his neck.
“You have to be a bastard to make it, and that’s a fact. And the Beatles are the biggest bastards on earth.”
When the Beatles returned to Liverpool and resumed playing at the Cavern Club, they caught the attention of a young record store owner in the area. Familiar with the group from their visits to his store, Brian Epstein went to one of their performances, saw their potential, and signed on as their manager. He got them a record contract and was by their side until his death in 1967. Epstein was gay, and homosexuality was still illegal in England during the 1960s. Over the years, rumors have persisted that Lennon and Epstein had an affair, largely stemming from a vacation the two took together to Spain in 1963 – mere weeks after his son was born. Lennon denied the rumors, saying: “I was on holiday with Brian Epstein in Spain, where the rumours went around that he and I were having a love affair. Well, it was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship.”
By early 1964, the Beatles were hitting the airwaves in America. Then, on February 7, 1964, their plane touched down at the newly renamed Kennedy Airport in New York City. Crowds of teenagers greeted them, hanging over railings, screaming, and waving signs. When they made their way through the crowds to speak to the press, Lennon treated the American media to a dose of his classic wit. When a reporter asked why people loved the Beatles so much, Lennon replied, “If we knew we’d form another group and be managers.”
Two days later, the lads from Liverpool made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. As the studio audience screamed and 73 million Americans watched from home, the Beatles performed five songs. During the show, each Beatles name appeared on the screen. Lennon’s name had an addendum, though – it read “Sorry girls, he’s married.” Keeping Cynthia and Julia’s existence quiet was not possible for a man about to become one of the most recognizable in the world.
1964 saw the release of both the movie and album, A Hard Day’s Night, marking all four Beatles’ foray into the film industry. Lennon would later appear in a satirical film called “How I Won The War.” Not to be constrained by only two artistic mediums, Lennon also published a book in 1964 entitled “In His Own Write,” which he later followed up with a volume entitled “A Spaniard In The Works.”
As the sixties continued on, the Beatles stayed at the top of the pop culture world, and that high profile meant Lennon’s mouth could get him and the band into trouble very easily. In 1966, he famously told a reporter that the “Beatles were more popular than Jesus.” When the remark was published, it caused an uproar. So-called ‘Beatle Burnings’ were held around the United States, during which teens and their parents burned albums, photos, and other Beatles memorabilia.
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock and roll or Christianity.”
In 1967, the Beatles took rock n’ roll to new heights with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a psychedelic concept album that featured a collage of historic figures and celebrities on its cover. Initially, Jesus was supposed to be among those pictured in the artwork, but after Lennon’s 1966 remarks he was removed from the array.
One of the songs on Sgt. Pepper, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, has long been thought to be drug-related as the major words in the title create the acronym ‘LSD.’ However, Lennon said that his inspiration for the song’s imagery came from one of his favorite works of literature, Alice in Wonderland, with the overall idea stemming from one of Julian’s childhood drawings of a school friend named Lucy.
During this time period, Lennon had begun moving in avant garde artistic circles, primarily due to his new relationship with artist Yoko Ono. He had met Ono at one of her gallery shows, and at the time their meeting consisted solely of her handing him a card that said nothing but ‘breathe’ on it. Though Lennon was still married to Cynthia, he and Ono began spending time together, even recording an album called “Two Virgins” that featured both of them standing fully nude on the cover. Lennon and Cynthia did not officially divorce until 1968, though the relationship between Ono and Lennon was well known, with Ono spending time in the recording studio as the Beatles worked, and even lent her voice on the White Album song “Bungalow Bill.”
In 1969, Lennon and Ono married in a ceremony at the Rock of Gibraltar, an event that was famously chronicled in the song “The Ballad of John and Yoko”: “Finally made the plane into Paris, honeymooning down by the Seine. Peter Brown called to say, you can make it okay; you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain.”
While their wedding was a relatively isolated affair, they welcomed the world to their honeymoon. Lennon and Ono set up camp in a bed at the Amsterdam Hilton to promote world peace, lying in bed fully clothed for a week. They repeated the stunt two weeks later in Montreal, and it was at the Montreal bed-in that they recorded “Give Peace A Chance,” surrounded by members of the press and other friends and followers.
By this time, Lennon was fully dedicated to his life with Ono, and each of the Beatles had started to move in their own directions. Ono’s presence in the recording studio and her input on their music irked the other Beatles, and they had all also begun exploring different artistic worlds. The disintegration of the world’s most famous band had begun. Lennon was the first to tell the others he was leaving the group, and did so in September 1969. But it was Paul McCartney who broke the news to the world publicly that he was leaving, and the Beatles officially split on April 10th, 1970.
After the Beatles
Though he had left the Beatles behind, Lennon did not abandon music. His first post-Beatles album was released in 1970, with many of the songs inspired by primal scream therapy he had begun practicing as a method of dealing with the trauma he experienced in his childhood. The song that perhaps most demonstrates the influence of primal scream is “Mother,” which includes the lyrics, “Mother, you had me but I never had you, I wanted you, you didn’t want me, So I, I just gotta tell you, Goodbye, goodbye.”
By the time Lennon released his next solo album, he and Ono were living in the United States, settling into the luxurious Dakota apartment building in New York City. It was here that he wrote the most iconic of his solo work – Imagine. The song and the album were huge hits, and nearly 40 years after Lennon’s death the song remains an international anthem of peace and love.
Lennon and Ono enjoyed living in New York City, but the U.S. government did not enjoy having the counterculture icons in the midst of the largest American metropolis. In 1972, eighteen year olds would have the right to vote for the first time – and 18 year olds listened to John Lennon when he sang and spoke about the evils of war and the actions of the government. That made him a threat to Richard Nixon’s re-election, and in 1972, the government revoked Lennon’s visa based on these fears. They threatened deportation, and not wanting to be separated from Ono, Lennon essentially stopped his involvement with countercultural activities, but as threats of deportation continued, Lennon was forced to hire attorneys and continuously appeal to stay in the country. In 1976, only after the Nixon presidency fell apart under the pressure of Watergate, Lennon received his green card and was safe to stay in the United States.
During the struggle to obtain his green card, Lennon was also struggling with his relationship with Ono. The two essentially separated for over a year, and Lennon even moved out to California to live with a former secretary, May Pang, with whom Ono had encouraged him to begin a relationship. Lennon later referred to this period of his life as the “Lost Weekend,” as it was fueled by alcohol and drugs and marked by aggressive behavior from Lennon. He once tried to strangle Pang, and got thrown out of a club for drunkenly heckling the Smothers Brothers.
By Lennon’s absence, Ono realized that she needed him in her life. She ultimately came to blame society’s pressures, and not him, telling Playboy: “John was a fine person. It was society that had become too much…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.”
“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.”
When the two reunited, Ono quickly became pregnant. She gave birth to Sean Lennon on John’s 35th birthday, October 9th, 1975. With the birth of Sean came a sea change in Lennon’s life. Where he had been an absent father to Julian, he was a doting father to Sean, giving up music and instead spending his time as a house husband. Lennon also began spending time with Julian again during the 1970s; Julian visited New York and Lennon taught his first son guitar techniques.
For five years, Lennon focused on domestic life, but by 1980 he felt the tug of the artistic muse again. He began writing songs, recorded an album, and officially re-entered the music scene with the release of Double Fantasy in the fall of 1980. John Lennon was back.
John Lennon’s Death
But his return was not to last. Two months after Double Fantasy was released, Lennon and Ono headed to the recording studio to work on new songs he had written. On their way to the studio, Lennon stopped to sign a copy of Double Fantasy for Mark David Chapman, a fan who was waiting outside the Dakota. On their return shortly before 11:00 PM, Chapman was still waiting outside the Dakota. As Lennon and Ono walked by, Chapman pulled a gun and fired five shots at Lennon. An hysterical Ono called for help, and the NYPD arrived, officers loaded the wounded Lennon into the back of a cruiser, and drove him to Roosevelt Hospital. But their efforts were fruitless, John Lennon was declared dead on arrival at 11:00 PM, December 8th, 1980. The United States heard the news via a Monday Night Football broadcast, and the news quickly made it to the rest of the world.
Crowds began to show up at the Dakota, singing Lennon’s songs and carrying signs in his memory. No funeral was held; instead Ono had his body cremated and scattered his ashes in Central Park. The location is now “Strawberry Fields,” a memorial dedicated to Lennon that is visited by legions of fans each year.
John Lennon’s public life was dedicated to art and to the promotion of peace. While his private life was quite a bit more complicated and dramatic, there is no doubt that he holds a special place in the lives of those who grew up with him and his music, as well as the children and grandchildren of those baby boomers who have come to love his music and his legacy. A groundbreaking musician, an experimental artist, Lennon turned his private pain into beauty for the world. His legacy has lived on for decades after his death, and surely will continue to live on long after we’re all gone.
John Lennon Video Biography