On October 9 it is the 73rd anniversary of John Winston Ono Lennon’s birth. At this point in history the cultural significance of Mister Lennon and the body of work that he left behind ought to be a given, whether in collaboration with the Beatles, as a solo artist, or with his life partner, Yoko Ono. However, one of the least discussed (and most significant aspects) of Lennon’s journey is how profoundly his consciousness was transformed in the 40 short years that he was alive on this planet. He was a twentieth-century Renaissance Man. If art and philosophy have any intrinsic value to our evolutionary voyage as human beings, then surely the ideas and symbols that Lennon left behind offer a timeless example of how much one person is capable of growing in order to express their divine essence.
Consciously or not, Lennon’s entire life was about extreme transformation. Due in part to the disruptive nature of his upbringing, he spent much of his existence seeking out “the truth” – that elusively relative construct where perception is so subjective and yet allows (paradoxically) for so many points of view to be universal.
Lennon was a classic Libra, an astrological archetype that is all about seeking balance on a teeter-totter of hope and despair. Born during a blitzkrieg of the Third Reich that rained upon the council flats of Liverpool in the fall of 1940, he came into the world literally rocking and rolling in a vibration of violence. Twenty years later he would return that energy, from whence it came, back into the streets and nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany as a Teddy Boy hooligan, eventually allowing himself to be made over by his gay manager in a bid to seduce the show biz world on its own terms. The campaign apparently succeeded.
Growing up without either of his biological parents (he was raised by his mother’s older sister, Mary) he sought emotional refuge from the pain caused by a father who abandoned him and a largely absentee mother who was killed by a drunken, off-duty police officer when Lennon was 17. His response to these tragedies in the stifling post-war conservatism of 1950s Britain was to become a knee-jerk rebel in the classic Look Back in Anger stance of the Angry Young Man. His deep insecurities prompted him to ridicule the infirm and the chauvinistic attitudes of his teenage years, which were typical of males from the era.
“I always was a rebel,” said Lennon. “But on the other hand, I wanted to be loved and accepted and not just be a loudmouth/ lunatic/poet/musician. But I cannot change what I am not.
“But I’m not gonna 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. I’m one of those people.”
What is truly freaky is the amount of artistic and psychological growth that Lennon’s group the Beatles exhibited during their six-and-a-half years of recording for EMI between 1962 and 1970. With the release of A Hard Day’s Night in July of 1964, Lennon recorded what was arguably his first solo album, having penned 10 of the album’s 13 originals himself. With two albums and three singles a year contractually due to EMI, plus the continuous strain of performing concerts throughout the world, the demands of being the most successful pop group in history were intense. Numerous substances were used to cushion the pressure and fulfill the need for endless creativity. The booze and pills that had fueled the Beatles music from their earliest days in Liverpool and Hamburg eventually gave way to marijuana by the end of 1964 (introduced to them by Bob Dylan). By 1966 the influence of LSD could be discerned throughout the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band albums, with cocaine, speed, and heroin floating through the ether during the sessions for The Beatles, Let It Be, and Abbey Road.
Towards the end of his life Lennon wrote that “being a Beatle nearly cost me my life and certainly cost me a great deal of my health – the drinking and drugs having started before we were professional musicians – all in the effort to reach ‘out there.’
“I think the basic thing nobody asks is why do people take drugs of any sort? Why do we have to have these accessories to normal living to live? Is there something wrong with society that’s making us so pressurized that we cannot live without guarding ourselves against it?
“We’ve been through the drug scene and there’s nothing like being straight. You need hope and hope is something that you build up within yourself and with your friends. The worst drugs are as bad as anybody’s told you. It’s just a dumb trip. I can’t condemn people if they get into it, because one gets into it for one’s own personal, social, and emotional reasons. But it’s something to be avoided if one can help it.”
You name it and Lennon tried it in an almighty attempt to erase his conditioning, float downstream, and explore the mysteries of inner space. Drugs eventually gave way to transcendental meditation. By 1968, with the sixties reaching a peculiar crescendo of unparalleled violence and unrest across the globe, Lennon found a person that would help to steer him out of the cul-de-sac of his own mind: conceptual avant-garde Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono.
“She’s me in drag” is how he described the former Fluxus artist, a woman who challenged him at every turn about the antiquated ideas that he held about himself, women, race, and spirituality. She turned out to be a mirror that saw right through him. “I’d never met a woman I considered as intelligent as me. And I always had this dream of meeting an artist, an artist girl who would be like me. And I thought it was a myth, but then I met Yoko and that was it.”
Their union created a scandal (both being married at the time) and the disruption of the status quo caused resentment within the Beatles and to many of the group’s fans, who unjustly blamed Ono as the cause of the quartet’s disintegration in the spring of 1970. Lennon: “I started the band. I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that.”
They wed on March 20, 1969, and for the next 11 years the Lennons became performance artists par excellence, producing an extraordinary body of work (both together and apart) that confounded as much as astounded, flipping numerous social conventions on its head. With Ono and Lennon East met West and the prejudice that confronted them in the media and within their social circles was a shock to their utopian idealism. As their addiction to drugs dissipated in the face of Dr. Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy, so did junk food and red meat give way to a macrobiotic diet. After leaving Great Britain in 1972 they came to the United States and embraced new left politics and guerilla theatre. Gradually, Lennon morphed into a feminist, putting forth the unpopular viewpoint that women are the niggers of the world. Songs, slogans, and media campaigns were all conscious attempts to shift the awareness of the masses by chanting jingles such as “Give Peace a Chance,” “Instant Karma,” and introducing the “subversive” notion of imagining a world without heaven, money, or war, and living a life of peaceful co-existence. Playing those “Mind Games” as it were.
“I’m a peacenik,” said Lennon. “War is big business and they like war because it keeps them fat and happy. The thing is to protest but protest non-violently. Violence begets violence. If you run around wild you get smashed, that’s the law of the universe. It’s up to the people. You can’t blame it on the government and say, ‘Oh, they’re going to put us into war.’ We put them there and we allow it and if we really want to change it, we can.”
It’s the same with the Christians (so called). They’re so busy condemning themselves and others, or preaching at people, or worse, still killing for Christ. None of them understanding, or trying in the least, to behave like a Christ. It seems to me that the only true Christians were (are?) the Gnostics, who believe in self-knowledge, i.e., becoming Christ themselves, reaching the Christ within. Christ, after all, is Greek for light. The Light is the Truth. All any of us are trying to do is precisely that: turn on the light. All the better to see you with, my dear. Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Milarepa, and other great ones spent their time in fasting, praying, meditation, and left “maps” of the territory of “God” for all to see and follow in our own way.
– from Skywriting by Word of Mouth by John Lennon
Lennon and Ono understood the power of the media and using one’s psyche to project and visualize an alternative to the status quo agenda of the ruling class that keeps people divisive and at war with each other. Religion, racism, sexism, class… all of these aspects of society were brought out onto the public stage in the work of these two “holy fools.”
“I think our society is run by insane people for insane objectives,” said Lennon. “And I think I’m liable to be put away for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.”
Convinced that the Lennons were going to disrupt the Republican National Convention, the U.S. government tried to deport them in 1972. The FBI and the CIA had their phones tapped, reported daily on their activities, and assembled a massive dossier, based on the perception that John and Yoko’s peace efforts would undermine the military-industrial complex’s stranglehold upon the world at large. The neo-conservative far right (Nixon, etc.) believed that the Lennons were capable of swinging public opinion away from the fear-based, war-mongering agenda of the ruling class and fought to suppress their activities. After Nixon’s resignation they did manage to successfully petition for the legal right to stay in the country on July 27, 1976.
Nine months earlier the couple became parents with the birth of Sean Ono Lennon, who was born on his father’s 35th birthday, October 9, 1975. For the next five years Lennon transformed into a “househusband,” and surrendered all business matters to Ono.
“A conspiracy of silence speaks louder than words.” – Dr. Winston O’Boogie
In the summer of 1980, the Lennons returned to the recording studio and on November 17, 1980, released Double Fantasy, a meditation on family values and domesticity. Two weeks earlier Ronald Reagan was elected as president of the United States. On Monday, December 8, 1980, Lennon’s ultimate transformation occurred when he was murdered in the archway of the Dakota apartment building in New York City where he and Ono lived. The murder suspect, Mark Chapman, made no attempt to flee from the crime scene and pled guilty to the charge of first-degree murder, insuring that no official investigation would occur. In the book Who Killed John Lennon?, author Fenton Bresler makes the argument that Lennon’s killer was a product of the CIA’s MK ULTRA program of mind control and that Chapman was used as a Manchurian Candidate-type patsy to eliminate Lennon as a potential impedance to the Republican right’s impending shift of power. It’s a point of view that Lennon’s son shared.
“He was a countercultural revolutionary, and the government takes that shit really seriously historically,” said Sean Lennon to Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker in 1998. “He was dangerous to the government… these pacifist revolutionaries are historically killed by the government, and anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests is insane, I think, or very naïve or hasn’t thought about it clearly. It was in the best interests of the United States [government] to have my dad killed, definitely. And, you know, that worked against them, to be honest, because once he died his powers grew. So, I mean, fuck them. They didn’t get what they wanted.”
Is it truly possible that Lennon was perceived as enough of a threat that he could have harmed anyone within the political arena? What sort of motive could there have been to assassinate John Lennon? Had his stance as a pro-active pacifist earned him those kinds of enemies?
John Lennon: “Nothing will stop me, and whether I’m here or wherever I may be I’ll always have the same feelings and I’ll say what I feel. My role in society, or any artist or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.
“I still believe in love. I still believe in peace. And where there’s life, there’s hope.”