John Lennon, American immigrant.

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the birth of John Lennon, arguably the most influential rock musician of the last century (a proposition I'm happy to discuss in the comments page).

Lennon was of course the founder of The Beatles and, in its early days, its leader and most prolific songwriter. The Beatles, as you may have heard, were the most successful pop music entity in history—a boldly imaginative British rock band that hit artistic and commercial peaks that have never been matched… in part because of Lennon's disruptive creativity.

Lennon was also an international peace activist who generated headlines of his own with anti-war protests and performances, before and after the Beatles' dissolution.

But Lennon, like so many larger-than-life pop personalities, was a bundle of contradictions. This peace advocate was a brawler in his youth and, at times, an abuser of friends and lovers alike (he was not a pleasant drunk).

He could write the most sublime acclamations of the human spirit (“Across the Universe,” “Imagine”) and the most sentimental of love songs (“This Boy,” “If I Fell”), yet also the harshest put-downs (“Sexy Sadie,” “How Do You Sleep?”).

But his biggest contradiction has been mostly overlooked by critics and fans.

Lennon's politics, especially in the early '70s, were highly critical of the US war effort, American racism, nativism, and bigotry, and the government's suppression of dissent—prompting the Nixon administration (note the irony) to attempt the deportation of this immigrant.

Yet Lennon was desperately trying to establish permanent residency in America. (Wait! You mean the two aren't mutually exclusive? You mean he/we can criticize US policy, American cultural narcissism, and its hypocritical religious moralism—and still love what America, in her finer moments, aspires to be?)

John Winston Lennon also expressed a desire for a world without national divisions. (You might say he was a dreamer). At the same time he expressed a longing to become a citizen of the very country that champions the primacy of nation states.

Perhaps he felt that America had contradictions, like himself. Perhaps he felt that despite its countless flaws and its frequently dysfunctional and juvenile public behavior it was the most colorful, diverse, creative, and entrepreneurial melting pot of humanity he could find. Imagine that.

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  1. So he embodied F. Scott Fitzgerald's quote about intelligence and being able to manage two contradictory ideas in the same mind...

    He had his flaws as a human being. But instead of picking at him, or anyone for that matter, I tend to celebrate his triumph over himself.

    Man, a life cut too short. We are all here on loan, and his was called in, I guess.

  2. Thank you, Adrienne.

    I meant to add that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spent four unsuccessful years trying to get Lennon expelled, which earned him the title “Musician, Humanitarian, National Threat” (the subtitle of the documentary film, “The US vs. John Lennon”). I don't think it was because they were afraid Lennon would steal an American job.

  3. Hey John,

    Beautiful tribute. Here is a snapshot you made me think of.

    1980. I was in my first semester at SDSU, as a returning 26 year old. Went to check a bulletin board to see what my chemistry grade was--they posted them if you wanted to see yours early.
    Someone said "John Lennon was just shot and killed in New York." Suddenly, that moment in time became fixed for me. The grade didn't matter.
    He was an incredible artist, and his work deserves every accolade it gets.

  4. Geez, Marilyn, your story jogged a few memories loose. I heard the news first on Monday Night Football. Then a few minutes later I had to do a scheduled phone interview with radio talk show host Mike Warren on WTIC in Hartford. (I had just kicked off my 4-year run for US President at the time—something we all do from time to time—and was grabbing all the free publicity I could get.) Mike suggested we just NOT MENTION the Lennon slaying, which had just happened. I was so shell-shocked I agreed, and we did a short interview without so much as a peep about Lennon. Kinda surreal now that I think about it.

  5. Hi old bandmate John - Great tribute. I was on my way back from India when I "read the news." Could you kindly define 'influential" and "arguably"? Jagger and Richards were sheer fire power; Townshend was about waking up; Lennon was unfolding Keatsian truth/beauty; but (for me) Dylan provided the road map to help me look back - all around - and ahead.
    Hard to pin the superlatives on a coalescence of energy and spirit that was phenomenal and where so many were nourishing each other. Kent

  6. Cool! Back-to-back comments from members of two different bands I performed with, in LA and New Haven.

    Grayson, your gift for inventive melodic lines was no doubt inspired by Lennon though I detect a strong McCartney influence as well.

    Kent, there was certainly much mutual nourishment (and friendly competition) among the luminaries you mention (all of whom I lionize), but The Beatles were such a game changer in SO many ways, altering the landscape of popular music recording-wise and performance-wise. And Lennon was the driver for much of their ride. Nearly every top rock artist I can think of — from Bono of U2 to Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day — credits Lennon and The Beatles for awakening their muse. Of course Dylan influenced Lennon's creative expansion after 1964, as Lennon & The Beatles influenced Dylan's.

    After having said all that, I could also argue McCartney's case, which I may do on another occasion. :-)

  7. Ok, Marilyn, I'll do a future post on Sir Paul (tho I have to make sure this isn't an all-Beatles-all-the-time blog). One could argue on purely MUSICAL grounds that McCartney was the larger talent who perhaps had a bigger influence on pop SONGWRITING in the last century than anyone else (tho Dylan and Lennon are both in the running). In that case I may be debating myself — which, come to think of it, guarantees I'll win either way.

  8. I've argued before that Lennon isn't a genius and that we use that word too loosely nowadays. I mean, up there with Da Vinci, Mozart, Hawking...? No way, Jose!

    Also, I don't think he's all that great as a solo artist. His Beatles stuff was generally great and his solo work was capable of greatness at times but was very, very patchy.


    ... I think his greatness is that he was one of the first pop / rock stars to use his fame as a springboard for political action with a stress on action. Artists like Dylan were writing great social commentaries and bands like The Rolling Stones were having their run-ins with the law and shaping attitudes. But I think Lennon was the first major artist to turn his fame into political action, be it bed-ins, overtly supporting causes, encouraging others and raising awareness. I can only think of Cassius Clay / Muhammed Ali doing anything comparable at the time.

    So he paved the way for the Geldofs, Bonos, Nelsons and many other musician activists (and others in the arts and sport). That, to me, is what makes him great.

    (BTW folks: there's a new Sufjan Stevens album out tomorrow: The Age of Adz. One to check out.)

  9. Glad you've partially seen the light with JWL, Mark! I agree, of course, that his solo stuff doesn't match up well to his Beatles material. (Same gripe I have with McCartney. Similar gripe I have with most 1960s songwriters who seemed to have written their best stuff during the inspiration and hyper-competition of that era.) But Lennon's Beatles-era singing and songwriting was prime inspiration for dozens of rock stars who came later, who amply credit him for his musical influence (Bono and Billie Joe Armstrong, to name two).

    Nice comparison to Muhammed Ali, another big-time hero of mine. As Cassius Clay said when he met the Beatles, "They may be the greatest, but I'm still the prettiest."

  10. Assuming pp's original point was serious, here are some thoughts...

    Lennon, like just about every rock & roller I've ever known, was definitely a capitalist. And he commented, around the same time that he wrote "Imagine," that he was quite attached to his possessions. But there was also the poet/dreamer with a back-to-the-Garden vision of humanity not quarreling over possessions, or national or religious differences. Some think he was unconsciously tapping into an archetypal memory (which might explain why a song that wasn't particularly well crafted could become one of the most popular songs in history). Or maybe he was constructing a straw horse as a contrast to the current societal dysfunction he witnessed.

    Regarding religion... Lennon was a pretty spiritual guy (as songs like "Across the Universe" suggest) but he had a finely tuned BS detector and was repulsed by the extreme and self-contradictory dogma of the religion he was exposed to as well as the hypocrisy of its authorities. Check out my earlier post on that: /notes/2008/03/john-lennon-the-establishmentarians

  11. Some additional thoughts… Regarding nationalism, you can certainly make the case that national differences have contributed mightily to horrific wars, especially in the last century. There’s a wonderful classic “The Anatomy of Peace” by Emery Reves (written in 1945 and now out of print) that makes the case for a world with no countries. But we’re centuries from that, IMHO, and we’ll probably be underwater long before. (“Imagine there’s no continents.”)

    Anyway, to get back to your point: was Lennon a Communist? Sure, why not. The word has been completely cast off from any linguistic mooring (like the word Socialist) so you can have anyone you want be a Commie. But you should also apply it to Lennon’s nemesis, Richard Nixon. By today’s standard, Nixon would qualify given that he imposed wage & price controls, established many government agencies (like the EPA), and reached out to Communist China. Of course anyone who is reading this blog is suspect, because rock & roll — many people believed — was initially a Soviet engineered conspiracy to undermine Western values. (Some authorities considered Elvis to be part of this plot until they realized he was a white guy. I'm not making this up.) There’s a whole body of literature that warns us of R&R's subversive influence on our religious, cultural, and political values. Some authors EVEN claim R&R encourages....HUMANISM. Hide the children.

  12. Lennon and the mop tops were talented indeed and sold more records than anyone since. But let's give a little credit to Beatles management.

    As to his political affiliations, if Lennon was actually a Communist while making tens of millions of dollars, how much more could he have made if he was a greedy capitalist?

  13. John - I agree with your point about The Beatles' creativity (and the importance of George Martin) but there's another factor: competition.

    If you look at the work the Stones and the Beach Boys were doing, factor in the Byrds, Who, Kinks, Hendrix and Dylan... wow!

    Most of these acts have said how much they enjoyed the rivalry and competition, as well as admiring the music of their peers. I take nothing away from any of the individuals but how good must it have been to have so many other class acts keeping you on your toes and making you raise your game?

  14. Yes, Ali, we have to give Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein his props. He played a major role in cleaning up their act (literally) as Pete Best explained to me: /notes/2007/08/interview-with-a-beatle
    Epstein did a LOT of things right — even though he lost them millions by giving away most of their merchandising rights. After he died the Beatles soon drifted apart, which seems to indicate he was a unifying force. But I’d give even more credit to George Martin, the PERFECT producer for them (a subject for another occasion).

    But to underline the business lesson here: Lennon was a disruptor, like so many innovators in business. He was constitutionally cranky and impatient and had little tolerance for unimaginative or syrupy music (and fought George Martin’s early suggestions for outside material). His creative restlessness continually pushed the band into new territory. He especially broke new ground with songs (and arrangements) like Norwegian Wood, Tomorrow Never Knows, Strawberry Fields, and A Day in the Life. (Of course McCartney kept pace in his own way, so this cooperative competition worked brilliantly.)

    The kind of business success that Lennon and the Beatles had — and continue to have — was based in no small part on their outrageously innovative approach to EVERY FACET OF THEIR WORK: musical composing, lyrical writing, vocal and instrumental arranging, record engineering, record producing, record packaging, live performing, interviews with the press, film acting, hair styling, fashion choices, etc., etc. (Of course they didn’t have full control of all of this, but they inspired those around them to break the rules.) Their successes — and their failures (like starting their own record label) — were based on extravagant innovation. And I’m surprised that so many people STILL don’t get that — probably because they weren’t around to see and hear this phenomenon unfold from 1963 to 1970. Some folks now think the Beatles just had a cute look, a knack for writing catchy songs, and a smart manager.

    Their creativity was remarkably contagious. So many people who worked with the Beatles seemed to become more inventive by just being around them — so much so that it’s difficult to break down the individual credit. The Beatles seemed to inspire everyone they came in contact with to break the mold.

  15. Great point, Mark, which I explore in my book (which will be out any decade now). First, Lennon & McCartney were competing against each other, then the Stones, the Byrds, and everybody else. After Rubber Soul shook up Brian Wilson he promised the Beach Boys would do them one better with Pet Sounds, which in turn inspired the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's. (I bet McCartney saw Brian Wilson as his main competitor, while Lennon saw Dylan the same way.) Beginning in 1965 there was an amazing international community of great pop/rock acts feeding off — and competing with — each other.

    But remember, without Lennon & The Beatles, it's doubtful there would have been any rock revolution — at least at that time. All the bands you mentioned took advantage of the new playing field the Fab Four opened up. (The Beach Boys were already doing their thing before they heard of the Beatles but it was tepid stuff before 1964.) After the Beatles hit, the stage was set for teen hysterics at rock shows, an AM radio resurgence, and later the FM radio explosion. Keith Richards said the Stones were happy to be a blues band that appealed to the purists until they saw the crowd reaction to a Beatles concert in London in 1963. Suddenly they realized they could be pop stars too. Similar story with the other bands. Even Dylan.

    Of course there would have been no Beatles without the earlier pioneers - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis - as the Beatles readily acknowledged. But no other single act changed the face of pop music — while raising the quality bar of song composition and recording - like the Beatles did.

  16. Just watched... wait for it... Cyndi Lauper on live UK tv (Later, with Jools Holland) doing a blues number - and it was great. I'm gonna check out her new cd. The same show had Antony and The Johnsons (terrific), Ray Davies (terrific x 2) and John Legend (don't rate him).

    I've now listened to the new Sufjan Stevens record mentioned above and it is a Top 10 of 2010. You must hear it!

    The whole show was dedicated to Solomon Burke. RIP. Goodnight from the UK!

  17. I'll check em all out. I'm a huge Ray Davies fan of course - who gets overlooked in the crowd of great UK songwriters who emerged from the 60s. I liked the Stevens tunes I heard on iTunes.

  18. Hey John!!
    Geeezzzz....30 years! You said it all about him in a nutshell.

    Must have been that LDS that expanded his conciousness....


  19. LDS...really? Lennon a Mormon? Just when I thought I knew everything about him. (Unless you're saying he was chugging LDS hydraulic fluid, which wouldn't surprise me either, given the times.)

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