John Winston Ono Lennon, (October 9, 1940 - December 8, 1980), is best known as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Beatles. His creative career also included the roles of solo musician, political activist, artist, actor and author. As half of the legendary Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, he heavily influenced the development of rock music, leading it towards more serious and political messages. He is recognized as one of the musical icons of the century, and his songs (such as 'Imagine' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever') are frequently ranked among the best songs of the 20th century.
John Winston Lennon was born on the evening of 9 October 1940 during the height of Germany's Blitz on Britain. He inherited his mother's reddish-blonde hair and his father's slightly squinted eyes and prominent nose. Both of his parents had musical background and experience, though neither pursued it seriously. John Lennon's childhood years were tinged with tragedy. He lived with his parents in Liverpool until his father Fred Lennon, a merchant seaman, walked out on the family. His mother, Julia, then decided that she was unable to care for John as well as she should and so gave him to her sister, Mimi, who resided nearby at 251 Menlove Avenue. Roles were reversed as the socially class-concious, strict but loving Aunt Mimi became mother to John, while his true mother Julia acted more like a free-willed aunt who visited regularly and spoiled the lad.
Around adolescence, Lennon developed severe myopia, or shortsightedness, and was obliged to wear thick, horn-rimmed glasses in order to see clearly. But only grudgingly did he allow himself to be photographed bespectacled, even though one of his idols, Buddy Holly, wore glasses. During his early Beatle career, Lennon wore contacts or prescription sunglasses, but later finally accepted his fate and donned his trademark, round 'granny-glasses' in late 1966. Many people wear such glasses today, even if they do not actually need them to see. Although John lived apart from his mother he still kept in contact with her through regular visits, and during this time Julia was responsible for introducing her son to a lifelong interest in music by teaching him how to play the banjo. Soon after his 16th birthday, his mother was killed after she was struck by a car which was being driven by a drunken off-duty police officer. This event influenced many of his later songs, and was also one of the factors that cemented his friendship with Paul McCartney, who lost his mother to breast cancer at the age of 14. Later, in 1968, Lennon wrote a song entitled Julia in honour of his mother.
His Aunt Mimi was able to get him accepted into the Liverpool College of Art by showing them some of his drawings, and it was there that he met his future wife, Cynthia Powell. However, John steadily grew to hate the conformity of art school and, like many young men of his age, became increasingly interested in Rock 'n' Roll music and American singers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Eventually, in the late 1950s, Lennon formed his own skiffle group called The Quarry Men, which later became The Silver Beetles (a tribute to Buddy Holly's Crickets) and soon afterwards was shortened to The Beatles.
He married Cynthia in 1962 after she became pregnant with his child, Julian.
As a member of The Beatles, Lennon had a profound influence on rock and roll and in expanding the genre's boundaries during the 1960s. He is widely considered, along with fellow-writing partner Paul McCartney, as one of the most influential singer-songwriter-musicians of the 20th century. Of the two, Lennon is generally viewed as the better lyricist, while McCartney is seen as the more accomplished composer. Though overly simplistic, this view does have some truth as much of the songs credited to Lennon-McCartney, but actually inspired by Lennon himself are more developed, introspective pieces often in the first-person and dealing with more personal issues. Lennon's lyrics are also often the more lyrical, due to his love of word-play, double-meaning and strange words. His most surreal pieces of songwriting, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus are fine example of his unique style. Lennon's partnership in songwriting with McCartney many times involved him in complementing and counterbalancing McCartney's upbeat, positive outlook with the other side of the coin, as one of their songs, Getting Better demonstrates:
McCartney: I have to admit it's gettin' better, it's gettin' better all the time.
Lennon: It couldn't get much worse!
John Lennon often spoke his mind freely. On March 4, 1966, in an interview for the London Evening Standard with Maureen Cleave, he made the following statement:
- '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 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.'
While the statement is certianly an odd one to make about one of the world's major religions, many view it as taken out of context. It should be noted that, like the other major religions, Christianity has been around for milennia and has shown no hint of decline. Regardless, when read in the proper context of the article, Lennon sounds actually saddened that a rock group such as The Beatles became more important to many people than spirituality. Though the article was unnoticed in the UK, there was a severe backlash by conservative religious groups in the U.S. Radio stations banned the group's recordings, and their albums and other products were burned and destroyed. Spain and the Vatican denounced Lennon's words, and South Africa banned Beatles music from the radio. Lennon seems to have been quite distressed by this row and later admitted that he didn't like having introduced more hate into the world. On August 11, 1966, he held a press conference in Chicago in order to address the growing furor. He told reporters 'I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it. I'm sorry I opened my mouth. I'm not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here. I'm not saying that we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it's all this.'
The Vatican accepted his apology. He was often misquoted as saying 'bigger than Jesus', which led many to believe that he meant that the Beatles were better than Jesus. Whether he thought that (at the time anyway) is not clear, but he certainly did not say that.
On November 9, 1966, after their final tour ended and right after he had wrapped up filming a minor role in the film How I Won the War, Lennon visited an art exhibit of Yoko Ono's at the Indica art gallery in London. The Beatle was impressed by Ono's art, most notably a piece consisting of a small word which could only be read with a magnifying glass from a ladder. The word was 'yes'. 'It was positive!' he enthusiastically told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. Ono and Lennon, both married, immediately made an impression on each other. They occasionally made contact with each other during the period of Sergeant Pepper and the 'Summer of Love.'
Finally in the spring of 1968, after returning disenchanted from a transcendental meditation retreat in India, Lennon began his love affair with Ono, and revealed the fact to his increasingly estranged wife Cynthia. Cynthia Lennon filed for divorce later that year, while Lennon and Ono from then on were inseperable in public and private, as well as during Beatles recording sessions. This new development led to obvious friction with the other members of the group, and heightened the tension during the 1968 White Album sessions.
Undue blame has been heavily placed on Ono as the sole cause of the group's fracture, as they were already diverging shortly after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in 1967. Lennon's immediate reaction to Epstein's death had been, 'The Beatles are finished.' What he saw as misguided leadership from McCartney after this seems to have had a lot to do with the fracture between them.
At the end of 1968, Lennon and Ono performed as Dirty Mac on the The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
During his last two years as member of The Beatles, Lennon remained as vocal as ever, spending much of his time with Yoko on public displays speaking out against the Vietnam War, and for peace. He sent back the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) he got from the Queen of England, reportedly 'with love', to protest British support of the Vietnam War and their involvement in African affairs. On March 20, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married in Gibraltar, and spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam in a 'bed-in' for peace. John and Yoko followed up their honeymoon with another 'bed-in' for peace this time held in Montreal. During the second 'bed-in' the couple recorded 'Give Peace a Chance'. They were mainly patronized as a couple of eccentrics by the media, but still were important figures in the anti-war movement. Shortly after, John changed his middle name from Winston to Ono to show his 'oneness' with Yoko. Lennon wrote 'The Ballad of John and Yoko' about his marriage and the press's take on it all.
After both being injured in the summer of 1969 in a car accident in Scotland, Lennon arranged for Yoko to be constantly with him in the studio as he recorded his last album with The Beatles, Abbey Road. A full-sized bed was rolled into the studio so that Lennon would not be separated from Ono. Abbey Road was the last polished, united effort by the group, and after its release in the autumn of 1969, it seemed the four members had made a peaceful parting of ways. But the release of the rough, and over-orchestrated 'Let It Be' album in May, 1970 had acrimonious results. Bridges were burnt as an enraged McCartney announced he was quitting the group stating that his approval was not obtained when Phil Spector, at the insistence of Lennon and George Harrison, added overlush orchestration to several of McCartney's pieces. He was even quoted as saying that he was 'sickened' by the 'mutilation' of his music. Though the split would only become legally final some time later, Lennon and McCartney's partnership had come to a bitter end.
Of the four former Beatles, Lennon had perhaps the most varied recording career, often reflecting the vicissitudes of his personality. While he was still a Beatle, Lennon and Ono recorded three albums of experimental and difficult electronic music, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album. His first 'solo' album of popular music was Live Peace In Toronto, recorded in 1969 (prior to the breakup of the Beatles) at the Rock 'n' Roll Festival in Toronto with a Plastic Ono Band including Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann. He also recorded three singles in his initial solo phase, the anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance, 'Cold Turkey' (about his struggles with heroin) and 'Instant Karma!'.
Following the Beatles' split in 1970, he released the Plastic Ono Band album, a raw, honest record, heavily influenced by Arthur Janov's Primal therapy, which Lennon had undergone previously. This was followed by Imagine, his most successful solo album, which dealt with some of the same themes. The title track is a lovely song which has become an anthem for world harmony, but Lennon himself was later dismissive of it, claiming he had 'sugar coated' his message. Certainly there is irony in Lennon, a prodigious shopper, urging his fans to imagine life with 'no possessions.' 'Imagine' was Lennon's most memorable song, a song that still inspires generations of peace builders today.
Perhaps in reaction, his next album, Sometime In New York City, was loud, raucous, and explicitly political, with songs about prison riots, racial and sexual relations, the British role in the sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland, and his own problems in obtaining a United States Green Card.
Throughout his solo career, he appeared on his own albums (as well as those of other artists like Elton John) under such pseudonyms as Dr. Winston O'Boogie, Mel Torrment, and The Reverend Fred Gherkin.
Two more albums of personal songs, Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, and one of cover versions of rock and roll songs of his youth, came before 1975 when, following a fourteen-month split from Ono during which he had an extramarital affair with Ono's former secretary May Pang, he retired to concentrate on his family life.
The retirement lasted until 1980, when he and Ono produced Double Fantasy, a concept album dealing with their relationship. He also started work on Milk and Honey which he left unfinished. It was some time before Ono could bring herself to complete it.
Lennon's son with Cynthia, Julian Lennon, enjoys a notable recording career of his own, as does his son with Yoko, Sean Lennon.
People gathered the day after John Lennon's death
In the morning of December 8, 1980, in New York City, a fan described as 'obsessed' 1 (http://archives.cnn.com/2000/LAW/law.and.entertainment/10/03/chapmanparole.text.ap/), Mark David Chapman of Honolulu, Chapman had shaken hands with Sean Lennon, and John had autographed Chapman's newly-purchased copy of Double Fantasy. Chapman remained in the vicinity of the Dakota for most of the day, later sneaking into the building's carriage vestibule as a fireworks demonstration at around 9pm in nearby Central Park distracted the attentions of the doorman and passers-by in the street.
Later that evening, at 10:50 pm, Lennon and Ono returned by limousine to the apartment building from recording Ono's single 'Walking On Thin Ice' for their next album. Chapman was hiding in the carriage vestibule as Lennon and Ono got out of the car. As Lennon walked past him, Chapman called out from the darkness 'Mr. Lennon!', then moving forward pulled out a gun, which police later described as a Charter Arms .38. He assumed what witnesses called a 'combat stance'a crouched position with gun in both handsand fired five shots just as Lennon was turning around.
Most reliable accounts state that three of the bullets struck Lennon in the back and arm. He yelled 'I'm shot, I'm shot', and ran a few steps towards the building before collapsing in the entranceway from the vestibule. A security guard immediately called 911; Lennon remained conscious as police from a nearby station arrived within minutes, but already he was in a dire state, bleeding to death on the floor. Unable to wait for an ambulance, two officers hastily carried Lennon to the back of their squad car, reportedly hearing his bones cracking, and sped to nearby Roosevelt Hospital. One of the officers, obviously trying to help Lennon maintain consciousness, asked the dying man who he was. Lennon's final words were reported to have been 'I'm John Lennon of the Beatles', however it is more likely that the officers' initial reports are more accurate and that he simply answered 'Yeah' when asked if he was John Lennon.
Meanwhile, Chapman made no attempt to flee. He paced up and down the sidewalk reading The Catcher in the Rye until police arrived. He surrendered immediately and told the police he had acted alone. News reporters from New York's WABC interviewed one police officer who described Chapman 'as a whacko'. Other policemen referred to him as a 'local screwball'.
After arriving at the hospital, doctors worked frantically to revive the fading Lennon, resorting to massaging his heart, but to no avail. He died of cardiac arrest shortly after 11 pm as a result of having lost nearly 80% of his blood volume. Reportedly, the song playing in the hospital at the moment of Lennon's death was a Beatles hit, 'All My Loving'. A crowd was already gathering in the Roosevelt Hospital courtyard, some of the people on their knees in prayer. A young man led the Rosary.
Ono was the first to be told the news of Lennon's death, to which she reportedly remarked 'tell me it isn't true.' Later, in a press conference held in the Roosevelt Hospital courtyard, Dr. Stephan Lynn confirmed the news that John Lennon, founder of The Beatles, was dead. 'Extensive resuscitative efforts were made,' he said, 'but in spite of transfusions and many procedures, he could not be resuscitated.' Millions more would receive the sad news from Howard Cosell, commentator for ABC's Monday Night Football, as the game wrapped up that night.
Hundreds, if not thousands of people gathered in the street outside the Dakota the night of Lennon's death. They lit candles, laid down flowers near the gate, and sang Lennon's best known songs. 'He was a symbol of peace,' one mourner said in an interview with WABC's Shelly Sonstein, 'and the whole movement of realization'. Back in the apartment, Ono was grateful to the people but sent word that their singing kept her awake; she asked that they disperse and re-convene in Central Park on the following Sunday, December 14, at 2pm EST for ten minutes of silent prayer. Her request for a silent gathering was honoured all over the world.
A special commemorative issue of Rolling Stone magazine released shortly after the murder featured as its cover a photo taken the very morning of the shooting by Annie Leibovitz. It showed a nude Lennon spooned in an embryonic pose next to a fully clothed Ono, and giving her a serene, seemingly farewell kiss as she lies on their bed. It symbolized one last time Lennon's attachement to Ono, his dependence on her, and his disregard for what others may say of their relationship. It is a poignant photograph considering the fate that would befall him hours later.
Millions of Beatles fans had thought of John Lennon almost as a second father, an older brother, or a son. His murder touched off emotional outpourings of grief around the world; some fans reportedly committed suicide upon hearing the news and it ended the hopes of millions that The Beatles would someday reunite and stage one last world tour. The Strawberry Fields Memorial was constructed in Central Park across the street from the Dakota, in memory of Lennon. It has become something of a shrine to Lennon, all the Beatles, and the cultural memory of the 1960s. When George Harrison died in 2001, people congregated on the 'Imagine' mosaic circle in Strawberry Fields.
In 1988, Warner Bros. produced a documentary film, Imagine: John Lennon (sanctioned in part by Yoko Ono). The movie was a biography of the former Beatle, featuring interviews, rarely seen musical material, and narration by Lennon himself (formed from interviews and tapes recorded by Lennon). It also introduced 'Real Love', one of the last songs composed by Lennon, in an early raw demo (a later demo would form the basis for the version rehashed by The Beatles for The Beatles Anthology). The following year, at an auction of Beatles memorabilia, Lennon's jukebox was sold at Christie's for 2,500 pounds. The Mellotron that Lennon used to record, amongst other songs, Strawberry Fields Forever, is currently owned by Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails.
Specially selected radio stations aired a syndicated series called The Lost Lennon Tapes in 1990. Hosted by Lennon publicist Elliot Mintz, the show spotlighted raw sessions from throughout Lennon's career with and without The Beatles, including rare material never released to the public. During the America: A Tribute to Heroes concert on September 21, 2001, Neil Young sang 'Imagine'. An avowed devotee of Lennon, Young's performance is considered one of the highlights of his lengthy career.
In March, 2002, his native city, Liverpool, honored his memory by renaming their airport 'Liverpool John Lennon Airport', and adopting as its motto a line from his song 'Imagine', 'Above us only sky'. In the same year, Lennon was voted 8th by the British public in the '100 Greatest Britons' poll run by the BBC. BBC History Magazine commented that his 'generational influence is immense'.
In 2004 Madonna paid tribute to Lennon by singing a cover of the song 'Imagine' during her anti-war themed 'Re-Invention World Tour'.
Biographies and books
Numerous biographies of John Lennon have been published. Notable among these are The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman and Lennon: The Definitive Biography by Ray Coleman.
John Lennon wrote three books himself: A Spaniard in the Works, John Lennon: In his own write, and Skywriting by Word of Mouth. A personal sketchbook with Lennon's familiar cartoons illustrating definitions of Japanese words, Ai, was published posthumously.
Well known songs
Some of John's most well known solo songs include:
- 'Give Peace A Chance' single, 1969
- 'Instant Karma!' single, 1970
- 'Love_(song)' Plastic Ono Band, 1970
- 'Imagine' Imagine, 1971
- 'Jealous Guy' Imagine, 1971
- 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World' Sometime In New York City, 1972
- 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' single, 1972
- 'Mind Games' Mind Games, 1973
- 'Woman' Double Fantasy, 1980
- '(Just Like) Starting Over' Double Fantasy, 1980
- 1969 'Give Peace a Chance' (with The Plastic Ono Band) #2 UK, #14 US
- 1969 'Cold Turkey' (with The Plastic Ono Band) #14 UK, #30 US
- 1970 'Instant Karma (We All Shine On)' (with Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band) #3 US, #5 UK
- 1971 'Mother' #43 US
- 1971 'Power to the People' (with The Plastic Ono Band) #7 UK, #11 US
- 1971 'Imagine' #3 US
- 1972 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) #4 UK
- 1972 'Woman Is the Nigger of the World' #57 US
- 1973 'Mind Games' #18 US, #26 UK
- 1974 'Whatever Gets You Through the Night' (with The Plastic Ono Nuclear Band) #1 US, #36 UK
- 1975 'Number 9 Dream' #9 US, #23 UK
- 1975 'Stand by Me' #20 US, #30 UK
- 1975 'Imagine' #6 UK
- 1980 '(Just Like) Starting Over' #1 US, #1 UK
- 1980 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) (re-entry) #2 UK
- 1980 'Give Peace a Chance' (with The Plastic Ono Band) (re-entry) #33 UK
- 1980 'Imagine' (re-entry) #1 UK
- 1981 'Woman' #1 UK, #2 US
- 1981 'I Saw Her Standing There' (Elton John Band feat. John Lennon & The Muscle Shoals Horns) #40 UK
- 1981 'Watching the Wheels' #10 US, #30 UK
- 1981 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) (re-entry) #28 UK
- 1982 'Love' #41 UK
- 1984 'Nobody Told Me' #5 US, #6 UK
- 1984 'I'm Stepping Out' #55 US
- 1984 'Borrowed Time' #32 UK
- 1985 'Jealous Guy' #65 UK
- 1988 'Jealous Guy' #80 US
- 1999 'Imagine' (re-issue) #3 UK
- 2003 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) (re-issue) #32 UK
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