A personal reflection on John from a writer who shares a birthday with the late, great Beatle
Friday, October 9, 2020, marks what would’ve been the eightieth birthday of John Lennon, founder and chief songwriter (alongside Paul McCartney) of the Beatles.
This is a fact known the world over, of course. But what isn’t known is that it’s also the forty-first birthday of me, your humble author of this essay. Coming into this world in 1979 on what would be Lennon’s penultimate birthday, and discovering the fact that we shared a birthday when I saw it in a Guinness World Records book when I was a pre-teen, may have contributed to my Beatles devotion when I first began to care about music, really obsess over it, in my early teen years. And now, I’m on the cusp of outliving John Lennon in terms of age.
No other artist has ever meant as much to me personally as Lennon, in many ways that seem embarrassing to me now that the excitement of shared realities with the Once and Future St. John of Liverpool are no longer as enticing as they once were. I mean, we both were born on October 9, but we also grew up without our birth fathers in the picture (Freddy Lennon infamously returned to his son’s life to cash in on Beatlemania, but I’m still waiting for my father to find out if I win the lottery or wed a beauty queen before he busts into my life), with strong matriarchal figures who answered to the nickname “Mimi” (his aunt, my grandmother), and had a complicated relationship with reality. My daydreams as a kid weren’t nearly as artistic as John’s, but I recognized the impulse of refusing to see the world as I’d been told about it in his early work and his book In His Own Write, which I thought brilliant at sixteen (I’m less inclined to see it that way at 41, but I still have it in my book collection). I never started a world-changing rock band or left it for an artistic marriage to an avant-garde artist, and I never made enough of an impact in anything that I’ve done to draw the ire of any so-called “fans” waiting to end my life just outside the entrance to my home. But I’ve always felt a connection to “the smart one” as my life has taken paths far removed from the positions that John occupied at various points in his life.
I guess every pop-music fan should go through an obsessive phase over the bands or artist they ultimately connect with the most, and as I got older different things came along that could’ve supplanted the Fab Four. But none ever did trump my devotion to the Beatles, specifically to John (though I will say the next closet band I’m obsessed with are Joy Division, who to my self-involved way of thinking released their best single, “Transmission,” simultaneously with my birth month).
I’ve probably read more books about the Beatles, good, bad and indifferent, than any other topic barring World War II. Philip Norman’s Shout might be the best of the bunch, or I may just harbor fond nostalgia for it because it was the first deep dive into Beatles-ography that I ever consumed. Ray Colman’s biography of John, a trimmed-down version of the 700 pages that he wrote originally, was my guiding star for all things John (I have still avoided Albert Goldman’s scandalous The Lives of John Lennon, though I think forty-one-year-old me would be more open to questioning the accepted narrative of St. John then I was at seventeen or even thirty). Norman produced a massive bio of Lennon in 2008 that, I think, should be considered the gold standard. Because John was more than just the guy who sang “Imagine” (which I honestly consider kind of a crap sentiment, coming from a millionaire, even though I don’t doubt the sincerity of it) or “Give Peace a Chance.” And he was definitely more angry at the world (and more cruel to his domestic partners) than any hagiography has tried to portray.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the general consensus that artists or public figures we like may be more monstrous than we previously thought, I feel like saying “I’m a fan of John Lennon” is a simple statement that reflects a profoundly complicated reality. Like I said, I identified with John the most (though I first read about the Beatles through Paul McCartney, via Chet Flippo’s biography of him). And that’s not necessarily a good thing, because the John Lennon of fact was far more complicated than the legend. He was a drug addict, a womanizer, physically abusive and distant at times from loved ones, and sometimes contradictory in his political statements and stances. But I’ve long believed that artists or people who do great works are often not great themselves, that something lacking in them pushes them to pursue that sort of greatness which they win acclaim for. In short, they’re human, just like us, only under more scrutiny (and often, the scrutiny is deserved, even if it’s years after the fact).
It’s not a foolproof strategy, of course, but I think it can cover my fandom of Lennon and of other artists whose great works often come from (at best questionable, at worst criminal) behavior or actions that don’t show them in the best light.
VIDEO: John Lennon “Watching The Wheels”
So at an age where, technically, I’ve outlived Lennon by a year, how do I feel about him? For one thing, I doubt I’d be as dead-set against reading anything negative about him, like Goldman’s book (in fact, I’d even like to find a paperback copy to read sometime soon).
For another, I can accept that, in some ways, Lennon might not be as much of a figurehead for the movements he helped inspire if he had lived to what would be his 80th birthday. Because the legends sometimes fade as they get older, that is true. But if he were alive today, I think John Lennon would be a far different person than he was at 40, because if he demonstrated anything it was that capacity for change which exists in all of us.
I’m honestly not the same person I was when I first began to idolize him, and I doubt I’ll be the same person that I am today as I get older and (hopefully) dodge any assassin’s bullets. Because by the time he was 40, John was beginning a comeback into the public eye, which as a former Beatle (and one of the most famous people in the world), he didn’t have to do that. His death, while a tragedy for all of us fans (even those of us too young to know about it at the time), was even more of a loss for Yoko and his five-year-old son Sean (with whom I also share a birthday). I know that, at this remove, I’m no longer inclined to bowled over by anything about Lennon that doesn’t fit into what my teenage heart used to believe about the “loon from Liverpool,” but I will say that when it got to his scene in Yesterday, when he’s visited by the protagonist (the sole person who remembers who the Beatles were), I did choke up a little at the thought of an older Lennon. I wish he were here to see the impact that his music continues to make on the world at large.
I think on his 80th birthday, and my 41st, perhaps there’s no better way to spend it than in reflection of all the aspects of him that informed his music, and why it continues to last.
VIDEO: Sean Ono Lennon performs his dad’s “Isolation” in honor of John’s 80th birthday on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert