The myth of John Lennon, 40 years after his murder
John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980 in New York. What is left of an icon that has forever marked the history of music?
Sensitivity, rebellion, loneliness, pacifism and a sense of civil justice embodied in one man: this is what we have lost when, on December 8 of forty years ago, John Lennon was murdered in cold blood by Mark Chapman with a gunshot.
With that gesture, he took away from the history of music of the second half of the Twentieth century, the founder of the most famous rock band ever and a soloist whose musical genius still had a lot to give.
Childhood and teenage days in Liverpool
Born on 9th October 1940, son of a sailor and Julia Stanley, but raised by his aunt Mimi, in his childhood it is easy to point out in his childhood the events that would mark him forever and allow his sensitivity to express his torments through music. The two major events were his mother’s neglect, when Lennon was five, and her death: Julia was driven over by a drunk police officer, when John was seventeen. At that time, he lost her for the second time, and for good, after the two had slowly come closer and managed to repair their mother-child relationship.
Lennon as a teenager was a teddy boy: he listened Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He used to hide and suppress his fragilities behind a bold attitude, very unpopular with the teachers. “He is smart but he is not devoted”, was written in his school reports; reading what John Lennon wrote in the Anthology of his experience in school, it almost seem to be looking at Salinger’s young Holden Caufield.
Music comes to his life thanks to banjo chords taught by his mother Julia, then it came the guitar, still as a self-taught learner with wildly mediocre results. “The guitar is fine as a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living from it,” Aunt Mimi warned him promptly.
The Birth of the Beatles
The Fab Four had already their original core in 1957, when the sixteen-year-old John performed at a Parish festival with his band, the Quarrymen, and he was introduced to Paul McCartney, who joined the band right away and with whom – Lennon sensed – would have to share the leadership. McCartney knew very well how to play the guitar, and it was him who taught the true chords to Lennon.
Then it was the moment of George Harrison, that arrived through the new arrival, even if Lennon was reluctant because of the big age difference and because he seemed even younger than he was; Lennon would go to college, studying art, while the others two would go to middle school. There was another difference between them, that was about the social class of origin: Lennon grew up in residential areas, Harrison and McCartney came from more working-class areas of Liverpool. Stuart Sutcliffe was their drummer, before Ringo Star’s entrance (after Hamburg tour, when the trio showed with Pete Best as drummer), and with Lennon he coined group’s new name in 1960.
The two years spent in German were for the complex a lively period of formation, with concerts and new songs that were going to reinforce their musical repertory; back to the United Kingdom, they started show in Cavern club. It was there where Brian Epstein, fascinated by their charisma and by the way they fired the audience, discovered them and proposed himself as their new manager.
The rest is history: the first successes “Love me do and Please please me”, the American tour, Help!, Revolver, Sqt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the trip to India in 1968 and the pacifist and psychedelic turn thanks to George Harrison’s influence: since the beginning a real Beatlemania exploded, and it hit the musical and fashion worlds.
The band visited the world enchanting a lot of music lover young people, coming also to Italy, once: they arrived in Milan in June 1965, they performed at Velodromo Vigorelli; they continued to Genoa, at the Sport Palace of Fiera del Mare, in 27 and 28 of June.
Yoko Ono and the solo career
John Lennon met Yoko Ono at an art exhibition of the Japanese artist in London, in 1966; they started dating afterward and, in 1969, they married (Lennon divorced from his first wife, Cynthia Powell, Julian Lennon’s mother, shortly before): their honeymoon is remembered by everyone as a Bed-in, a protest organized by the couple in Amsterdam against Vietnam war. In 1975 Sean Lennon was born.
Many fans accuse Ono of being the cause of the Fab Four’s break-up, when in fact she came into their lives at a time when all four of them, by that time already mature, were heading in the direction of their solo careers: in 1969, the recording of Let It Be was the litmus test. Certainly, the fact that Lennon insistently included his wife during rehearsals and in the recording studio soured the relationship.
The last album was Abbey Road; their last concert on the terrace of Apple’s offices, the famous Rooftop concert, in January 1969: a sort of early farewell to ten years of music together. After that, each of them took their own way, and they flourished: all the former Beatles had and have taken an independent musical path that showed their achieved maturity.
We can say that John, Paul, George and Ringo were born musically as the Fab Four and then established themselves as complete solo musicians.
John Lennon became increasingly interested in social and political issues during his solo career (which lasted only a decade). He probably reached his activism peak with the album Imagine in 1971. Then came Mind games (1973) and his retirement from the public eye, which did not prevent him from continuing to be creative.
In November 1980, he released Double fantasy, which topped the charts after Lennon’s tragic assassination on 8 December 1980, as he was leaving Record Plant Studios in New York.
We will never really know what we lost on that tragic 8 December, 40 years ago, but a part of Lennon’s spirit – the most rebellious, the most pacifist and the most intensely devoted to life – will always remain in all of us, and thanks to his music, it doesn’t feel like he’s gone at all.
10 songs to remember John Lennon:
2 Beautiful boy
3 Working class hero
5 Stand by me
6 Mind games
7 Power to the people
8 Give peace a chance
9 Watching the wheels
10 Cold turkey
Translated by Elisabetta Ciocca, Debora De Benedetto, Sarah Guarneri and Riccardo Bianchi
Reviewed by Prof. Robert Clarke