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Imagining John Lennon on his 75th Birthday

By Peter Howard

 

John Lennon

John Lennon photo credit Billboard

John and Yoko

John Lennon and Yoko Ono photo credit Billboard

 

the-beatles-granger

The Beatles from left, Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, photo credit Billboard

Human Peace Sign

The human peace sign organized by Yoko Ono on Oct. 9, 2015. Photo credit CNN

 

 

 

 

There is a name that, no matter what generation you were born into or what part of the civilized world you come from, everyone has heard. John Lennon. For those who were lucky enough to be alive during his illustrious career, the very mention of his name can invoke tears. His songs about peace, love, and ending war have been heard the world over, causing those who listen to them to wonder how one man could genuinely believe in the power of peace, love, and harmony during some of the darkest times in recent human history. This year marks what would have been Lennon’s 75th birthday. In honor of his memory, here’s a glimpse into what his life and career were like and how his legacy still resonates 35 years after his death.

 
John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool, England on Oct. 9, 1940. Named after his paternal grandfather John “Jack” Lennon and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Lennon began playing music in 1956 at age fifteen when his mother bought him his first guitar. That same year, he formed a band called the Quarrymen in Liverpool. At their second performance, Lennon met a young man named Paul McCartney and asked him to join the group. After a few years of revolving musicians in the Quarrymen, McCartney suggested a then fourteen-year-old George Harrison to be the band’s lead guitarist. In 1960, the Quarrymen became the Beatles with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Stuart Sutcliffe. However in 1962, Sutcliffe left the band and Ringo Starr joined. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr would remain as the Beatles until the band’s breakup in 1970.

 
Lennon met his first wife, Cynthia Lennon (nee Powell) in 1957 and married her in August 1962. His first son, John Charles Julian Lennon was born April 8, 1963. John and Cynthia’s marriage was tumultuous. Lennon had shown a propensity for drinking and partying at an early age and would often verbally and physically abuse his wife. As the Beatles’ popularity began to grow and spread across the Atlantic to America, Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia was deteriorating fast. In 1968, Cynthia found letters written to John from a woman named Yoko Ono that appeared to go back for some time. Lennon confessed to having multiple affairs with women all around the world. It was also discovered at this time that Ono was pregnant. Cynthia, no longer able to excuse her husband’s indiscretions, filed for divorce in August of 1968 and was granted one by November of that year.

 
Yoko Ono unfortunately suffered a miscarriage but the couple stayed together: eventually marrying on March 20, 1969. Though at this time, Lennon’s first marriage wasn’t the only thing Yoko was being blamed for breaking up. The Beatles were continuously having creative differences; mostly between Lennon and McCartney, and in September John left the band, much to the dismay of fans around the world. In 1970, McCartney released a solo album, which did not sit well with Lennon. He was quoted as saying, “Jesus Christ! He gets all the credit! I started the band, I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that!”

 
Lennon quickly released his debut solo album that same year titled “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” which included songs such as “Mother,” “Working Class Hero,” and “God.” The album was well received by critics. In 2012, Rolling Stone listed it at number 23 on its Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Critic Greil Marcus remarked, “John’s singing in the last verse of ‘God’ may be the finest in all of rock.” In early 1971, the record reached number eight in the UK, number six in the US, and spent eighteen weeks in the top 100. In a retrospective review for Rolling Stone, journalist Robert Christgau wrote that the lyrics are political, existential, and carefully thought, while Phil Spector’s production is elegantly simple so each instrument resonates, including Lennon’s voice: “Left out in the open, without protective harmonies or racket, Lennon’s singing takes on an expressive specificity that anyone in search of the century’s great vocal performances would be foolish to overlook.”

 
Following the success of his first solo record, Lennon released the iconic “Imagine” in 1971. The title track still resonates today with its beautiful simplicity and powerful message of “all the people living life in peace.” Reviews for “Imagine”, however, were tepid. Rolling Stone said the record “contains a substantial portion of good music,” but cited his previous album as superior and even warned that possibly his “posturing’s will soon seem not merely dull but irrelevant.” “Imagine” also includes a song titled “How Do You Sleep?” which was written in response to McCartney’s second album “Ram,” after some of the lyrics in the songs seemed to take jabs at his and Ono’s relationship. McCartney later confirmed that a couple of lines in his songs were directed towards Lennon. In 1980, before his death, Lennon went into further detail about the song saying, “I used my resentment against Paul…to create a song…not a terrible, vicious, horrible vendetta…I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and the Beatles, and the relationship with Paul to write ‘How Do You Sleep?’ I don’t really go around with those thoughts in my head all the time.”

 
Also in 1971, Lennon and Ono moved to New York City and released “Happy X-Mas (War is Over).” The song was a bomb in the U.S., only reaching number 36 on the Top 100 list. During this time, Lennon and Ono were getting into trouble with the Nixon Administration, which claimed it had to take a “strategic counter-measure” against Lennon’s anti-war and anti-Nixon propaganda, and embarked on a four-year attempt to deport them.

 
In 1972, Lennon was denied permanent residency in the U.S., which would go unresolved until 1976. That same year, Lennon’s tendency to stray from his wife returned and he cheated on Yoko Ono. She would later write a song titled “Death of Samantha” about the ordeal. His third solo album was also recorded and released that year. “Sometime in New York” was collaboration with Ono and the band Elephant’s Memory and was very poorly received by critics, who said the record was “unlistenable”. Despite the negative reviews, Lennon and Ono held two benefit concerts with Elephant’s Memory at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 30, 1972. These would be his final full-length concert appearances.

 
By 1973, Lennon and Ono’s marriage had hit a snag and the couple separated while he was writing and recording his single “Mind Games.” It would be a year and a half before Lennon and Ono reconciled. “Mind Games” was released in October 1973. That same year he also contributed the song “I’m the Greatest” to Ringo’s self-titled album. Lennon’s drinking and drug use were taking their toll on his personal and professional life during this time and the singer later referred to the eighteen months he and Ono were separated as his “lost weekend.”

 
1974 brought the release of Lennon’s next record “Walls and Bridges,” which brought Lennon his only U.S. Hot 100 number one single with the song “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” which featured Elton John on backing vocals and piano. Lennon reunited with Yoko by the end of the year and on his birthday in 1975, Yoko gave birth to their son, Sean Taro Ono Lennon. At this time, Lennon decided to take a five-year hiatus from the music industry and focus on his family life. He and Yoko raised Sean in their apartment in New York. Family life seemed to agree with Lennon and the troubles that seemed to haunt him were far away.

 
In October of 1980, Lennon came out of retirement and collaborated with Yoko on what would be his last record. “Double Fantasy” was released in November to terrible reviews. Melody Makers called the record “indulgent sterility…a god-awful yawn.”

 
One month later, on Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon and Ono were returning home from their recording studio. Right outside of their apartment building, while signing autographs, a man opened fire and shot Lennon four times with his wife standing right beside him. Lennon was rushed to the hospital. At 11:07 p.m. doctors pronounced the voice of a generation dead. Lennon’s murderer, a man named Mark David Chapman, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20-years to life. He has been denied parole eight times and 35 years later he remains in prison.

 
After Lennon’s murder, Yoko has continued to spread her and John’s message of peace through her music and activism. His two sons, Julian and Sean, are both musicians and have enjoyed their own success in their respective lives. This year on Oct. 9, Lennon’s 75th birthday, Ono and more than 2,000 people gathered in New York City’s Central Park to make a giant, human peace sign in tribute to the man who moved so many people with his music, his passion, and his purpose.

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