John Lennon, American immigrant

[Given that October 9 is the 74th anniversary of Lennon’s birth I thought I would reprise this post from 2010. It's worth emphasizing here that innovators attract innovators. Lennon chose the US for his home—and notably NYC—so he could get close to the most creative hearts and minds in his field. Not limited to the US of course, the innovation cauldrons of our great cities beckon to us all.]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This week marks another 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 of course was 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 daringly 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 his 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 overlooked by critics and fans.

While he was desperately trying to establish permanent residency in the US, Lennon (especially in the early 70s) was highly critical of the US war effort, American racism/nativism/bigotry, and the government’s suppression of political dissent—prompting the Nixon administration (note the irony) to attempt his deportation. In fact, Lennon may have been the most famous immigrant of the era to demonstrate that one can criticize US foreign policy, cultural narcissism, and hypocritical religious moralism—and still love what America aspires to!

John Winston Lennon also expressed a longing for a world without national divisions (you might say he was a dreamer) while he expressed a desire to become a citizen of the very country that has long and fiercely championed the primacy of the nation state.

How did he reconcile the inconsistencies? Perhaps he felt that America had contradictions, not unlike himself. Perhaps he felt that despite its countless flaws and frequently dysfunctional public behavior America—thanks to its metropolitan melting pots—was the most colorful, diverse, creative, and entrepreneurial container of humanity he could find. Imagine that.

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5 Comments

  1. Our need for rational consistency causes us to behave irrationally at times.

    I can dislike what someone does, even if I love them. I can respect an act performed by someone I otherwise have no respect for.

    One great sacrifice I've made to live on this peaceful country estate on the lake is that there are almost no musicians within 50 miles who share my interests. No thriving live music community, no writers' group of any kind.

    Bono and his kind are out trying to change things. I get a sense that John wasn't trying to change things, but was just trying to live as it made sense to him, and simply stood up for that when others tried to prevent it.

    1. Even if we live in the country these days we're still reaping the benefits of our cities whose human densities generate this creative economy. While in the deep country this weekend I'll probably be checking headlines online, viewing guitar tips on YouTube, and arguing with blog commentators.

      Lennon seemed to want to change the world when he was younger — in the 60s & early 70s — but later seemed to mellow. I remember in one Rolling Stone interview he discussed the joys of baking bread. Can't quite picture Bono doing that.

      1. True enough: without cities, huge communication hubs, there'd be no internet. I have a friend doing a CD release party at The Bitter End on Bleeker Street tomorrow. She's doing it in NYC because that's where the action is, and I know about it because we have this here internet thing.

        Baking bread is great. Best Beloved is off wheat temporarily to see if that's contributing to her health issues, but if there's no clear connection, we're back to granola-eating bread-baking music-writing neighbor-loving in full swing.

    1. Yup, no exceptions. I love the saying, "The bigger the front, the bigger the back." Lennon had his "shadow" and he owned it.

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