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Liking John Lennon. Paul talks to John for the last time OTD in 1980. Yes, he would have been 80 today.

October 9, 2020
Retro Top Ten: This week in 1981 -

Indeed. John Lennon was born OTD in 1940. And so we’re all invited to wish him a happy birthday and ponder the inexorable March of Time. By the end of February 2021, John Winston Ono Lennon will have been dead for longer than he was alive.

On his final birthday, Paul McCartney talked to John Lennon on the phone and they communicated for the last time. We have, of course, only one account of this phone call, but it seems to have been a relaxed and happy exchange, focusing on cats, child-rearing, and John’s excitement about making music again. The friendliness of this final call has been of great comfort to Paul McCartney over the years.

Long-term, John Lennon’s martyrdom has been terrible for his reputation. Nobody bothers to knock people off medium-sized pedestals. The hyperbole attached to Lennon’s 1980s reputation has merely made him a conspicuous and obvious target. In more recent years, the strangely belated discovery that many people have made that Lennon was not in fact a saint and a martyr has led people to the strange but understandable conclusion that he must have been, consistently, an evil bastard.

I know a lot of people who are not saints and martyrs. I have to live and work with them all the time. I find it pays to be nice to them.

Judged as a saint and a martyr, Lennon scores abysmally. I’d like to suggest that he is judged, ethically, alongside other over-indulged rock stars with a gargantuan drug intake. On this latter scale, Lennon’s worst excesses seem, well, less than excessive. How does he stand not alongside Gandhi and Francis of Assisi but alongside Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend? John Lennon was a bad and unfaithful husband to Cynthia and a bad father to Julian. He married young and unwillingly when he “knocked her up” because that was what he felt he “had to do”. He had no reference point for being a parent and was away from home a lot. Paul, who’d had far more experience of being around younger children, was better at being around little Julian than John was. Teenage Julian subsequently had to deal with knowing that his estranged father was making a decent parental effort for his half brother Sean. John Lennon was occasionally violent as a younger man, though people who knew him dreaded his tongue more than his fists. In terms of his dealings with the world in general – well – it depended what day you met him. If a cruel joke ever occurred to him, he would always tell the cruel joke. He could be a nasty drunk at various points in his life and you did not want to be hassling him when he was on the point of being thrown out of a nightclub. On the other hand, many people report John Lennon being an astonishingly open and friendly and generous person to meet. If you were to smile and wave at him while he was walking in Central Park – he would smile and wave back.

Compare Frank Sinatra who was horrible to pretty much everybody all the time as a matter of principle.

What people think about John Winston Ono Lennon seems to depend on whether or not hypocrisy is to be regarded as the greatest of all sins. Lennon preached love and peace but he could be cruel and abusive. He did not live up to his own high ideals. I tend to think that the only people who live up to their own ideals must have their ideals built pretty close to the ground. Furthermore, Lennon tended not to fly off the handle when accused of hypocrisy. He tended to shrug and confess as much.

The plaster-saint Lennon constructed in the wake of his stupid and pointless death was always rather dull, far duller than the complex and contradictory character who made for such a great interviewee. He would contradict himself several times in the same interview – partly because he said whatever was on his mind as soon as it occurred to him. We all of us have crazy and obscene suggestions invading our imaginations – but most of us conduct some sort of internal review procedure before letting those suggestions reach the mouth. Lennon did not – and the vicinity of John Lennon’s mouth was frequently infested with microphones and tape recorders. In the 1970s, he would routinely dismiss The Beatles as being of no interest or importance and then defend (using words like “us” and “our”) their achievements at great length in the space of the same interview.

He got a great many things wrong and he got a great many people wrong, but the people who knew him best did not stop loving him. His contradictory personality expressed itself in a voice that could illustrate any number of different moods – sometimes within the same song and sometimes co-existing at the same moment. Who else but John Lennon could have sung “Good Morning, Good Morning” – a track which is terrifying and hilarious at the same time? (Liam Gallagher, on the other hand, can only manage one John Lennon voice – the “I am the Walrus” one.) The really compelling Lennon persona, as powerfully expressed in words and music, is not a leader to be followed or a saint to be revered but a human to be forgiven.

And we would have carried on forgiving him, as he would have continued to say and do a variety of contradictory things in the 80s, 90s, and beyond. He would have said some wise things, some offensive things, some stupid things, and some hilarious things. He would have made some terrible records. He would have made some great records. I think he would have written with Paul McCartney again, or tried to, because forty years is a long time and a great many things get attempted in that space of time.

Because he was so very very young when he died, wasn’t he? I mean, I’m much older than he was when he died, and I know there’s a lot wrong with my life that I like to think I have to time adjust before I pop my clogs. There are people I have hurt and relationships to be repaired. And the amount of reasonable work left undone is astonishing. So I’ve evolved, I believe, a natural affinity for very flawed mortals who evidence a capacity for change.

The John Lennon of 1980 who wanted to start to build a better relationship with Julian was a chasteningly youngish man with a cheerful attitude to the uncertainties of the future. And now I’m thinking not of John Lennon at all but of the hedgehog stuck in Philip Larkin’s lawnmower…

…we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Published this a year ago today. Nothing has changed.

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