Today marks the 32nd anniversary of John Lennon’s murder.
Some people forget that John Lennon was not a Saint but a man, an imperfect man. That does not make him a bad person. That makes him human.
Since his murder, he has been unfairly immortalized by the media and some of his fan base as this elevated human being, which he certainly was not. It’s ironic, given how cruel and dismissive the media were of him (and his wife) during the latter end of his career. It’s a frustrating image, as it is not rooted in reality, and Lennon himself would in all likelihood be amused and bemused by it.
Some like to focus on Lennon’s imperfections, make brash, outlandish, and unfair generalizations about him, and then proclaim those flawed generalizations as truth. I like to focus on how genuine and real Lennon was–and how honest he was about his imperfections.
In “Getting Better,” Lennon contributed the lyrics: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man, I was mean,/But I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.” He elaborated on this in 1967, speaking about his possessive nature of his first wife, Cynthia, during their initial courtship: “I was hysterical. That was the trouble. I was jealous of anyone she had anything to do with…I was neurotic, taking out all my frustrations on her….I was in a blind rage for two years. I was either drunk or fighting. It had been the same with other girlfriends I’d had. There was something the matter with me.” Incapable of expressing himself, Lennon resorted to physical violence at times. These were, however, isolated incidents, and his relationship with Cynthia was, contrary to popular belief, a loving one.
Lennon’s chauvinistic views toward women really began to change, however, once he met Yoko Ono, which he explained further in 1972: “As a teenager, all I saw were films where men beat up women. That was tough, that was the thing to do, slap them in the face, treat them rough–Humphrey Bogart and all that jazz. So that’s the attitude we’re brought up with. It took me a long time to get that out. That isn’t reality. The way I started understanding it was thinking, ‘What would happen if I said to Ringo or Paul or George: “Go fetch that. Put the kettle on. Somebody’s at the door..”‘ If you treated your best male friend the way you treat your woman, he’d give you a punch in the face.”
Lennon was not proud of his behavior, but he was honest about it in an attempt to express how his views and attitudes were changing. This change of attitude does not excuse his violent behavior, but it is important to remember that he did change. We are allowed to make mistakes, learn from them, and progress, aren’t we?
“I really miss him as a person now – do you know what I mean, he’s not so much ‘The Baby’ or ‘My Baby’ anymore, he’s a real living part of me now, you know he’s Julian and everything and I can’t wait to see him, I miss him more then I’ve ever done before – I think it’s been a slow process my feeling like a real father! I hope all this is clear and understandable. I spend hours in dressing rooms and things thinking about the times I’ve wasted not being with him – and playing with him – you know I keep thinking of THOSE stupid bastard times when I keep reading bloody newspapers and other shit while he’s in the room with me and I’ve decided it’s ALL WRONG! He doesn’t see enough of me as it is and I really want him to know and love me, and miss me like I seem to be missing both of you so much.” — John Lennon to Cynthia Lennon, August 1965 (as recorded in her memoir John)
Abandoned by his own parents, Lennon unfortunately made many of the same mistakes with his firstborn son, Julian. Again, this was not something he was proud of, and, as indicated by the above excerpt from a personal letter to his wife, did love his son and was tormented by his lack of presence in his life, which sadly only grew as time progressed. In the 1970s, largely aided by May Pang, he began to repair and rebuild his relationship with his son, but that process was sadly cut short by his untimely death. Elliot Mintz, a close associate of John and Yoko, once recalled in an interview how John and Julian were nearly to the point in their difficult relationship where Julian could say to his father, “I love you,” and Julian could hear his father repeat the words back to him. It is sad that a man who proclaimed peace and love to the world often had trouble extending those feelings to his oldest son, but it is undoubtedly something he struggled with and was not proud of. And had he not been murdered, I believe that father-son relationship would have only grown stronger.
“There is this period of John which is all pre-Beatles, pre-huge fame, pre-drugs – and it is another John completely – that was always there right until the end. He got much sweeter, too, once he settled in New York. Once he was reunited with Yoko, and they had Sean, he became this sweet personality again then when he was more comfortable with himself. But the acerbic John is the one we know and love, you know, because he was clever with it, so it was very attractive. But, for me, I have more than a slight affection for the John that I knew then, when we were first writing songs, when we would try and do things the old songwriters had done. I slightly regret the way John’s image has formed, and because he died so tragically it has become set in concrete. The acerbic side was there but it was only part of him. He was also such a sweet, lovely man – a really sweet guy.” — Paul McCartney
Known for his biting wit, Lennon could, too, be verbally abusive. As McCartney explained, however, it is important to look at Lennon’s words in context–a quote from 1971 or 1972 will undoubtedly have more bite than a quote from, say, 1980 or 1963. And there were always many sides to Lennon–but too many people have forgotten that kind and gentle side.
John Lennon was not perfect–but no reasonable human being has ever claimed that he was. He is sometimes unfairly portrayed as having attained a Saint-like status, but he is just as unfairly criticized for incidents and aspects of his life of which he was not proud and worked diligently and honestly to change. He was a great man, but he was only a man. And I miss him.