Home / When I SEE A Working Class Hero, I’ll Give Him Your Regards

When I SEE A Working Class Hero, I’ll Give Him Your Regards

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As you might have guessed, I have a pretty big library of books about popular music, and a fair percentage of them are books about the Beatles in their various guises. All of them often come in handy for my writings here and elsewhere… but there’s one book that’s always bothered me a bit. It’s an anthology entitled The Lost Lennon Interviews, edited by Geoffrey Giuliano and his wife. (Geoff Giuliano is one of those reporters who, when the National Enquirer runs pieces about John and/or Yoko, is extensively quoted as a “noted Beatle expert,” but that’s beside the point here).

What specifically bothers me is the teaser copy on the back of the book, which ends thusly: “Candid and provocative, this extraordinary book offers new insight into this timeless and troubled hero.


John Lennon was a lot of very big, very wonderful things. Idol? Absolutely. Icon? Oh, yeah. Tragic symbol of a turbulent generation that wanted desperately to change the world? A little over-the-top and self-congratulatory, but sure, I’ll give him that. But John Lennon was not a hero.

A hero is someone who performs acts of extraordinary courage and nobility; usually we use it to describe a person who has risked or sacrificed his/her life for a noble or courageous purpose. John McCain, now that’s a hero. Rosa Parks is a hero. New York City firefighters. Arland D. Williams (look him up). Mother Flippin’ Theresa. If you really need your entertainers to be heroes, you’ve got Ted Williams and Jimmy Stewart, who were both heroes of World War II. (Williams even voluntarily went back to the Army for Korea.) Heroism is a question of character.

John Lennon was a genius, an artist of the highest caliber, a man who wrote beautiful and emotional and hard-hitting songs that have universal messages and appeal directly to the human soul. But his character? Well, bluntly: he was a confessed philanderer, wife beater, and absentee family man; a cheerful junkie and sometime drunk; an emotionally immature fellow on his best day; a man of such self-importance that at separate times, he (1) told the Apple Records executives to stage a press conference so he could announce he was Jesus Christ, and (2) returned his MBE to the Queen, explaining that it was to protest Vietnam, Biafra, and his song falling off the charts.

Not enough? Perhaps worst of all, after putting his wife and child through never having been around, hitting Cynthia in his sporadic rages, and having hundreds of affairs, he decided that he’d prefer a different family with Yoko Ono and deserted them. At least Cynthia Powell Lennon was an adult, someone who had learned how to be responsible and fend for herself… but Julian? He was five years old when John Lennon abandoned (and that’s the word for it, plain and simple) him, and over the next twelve years apparently saw his father on something like ten occasions. Julian was able a few years ago to tell a reporter who asked what his dad was like, “Well, you probably knew him as well as I did.” Does he seem a little unforgiving? There’s a reason: his father’s behavior was unforgivable.

If I were describing anyone but John Lennon, you’d read those last two paragraphs and say, “Wow. This guy was a real dick.”

Humans have a need to idolize each other, and idealize each other&#8212that is, we need not only to admire people for what they do and did, we need to project our admiration for them onto the things they didn’t do. It makes us feel hopeful about the human race to think that people are capable of greatness in many facets of their lives. It’s not a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing when we take someone who was SEVERELY lacking in certain of those facets and pretend that he/she was a model of human behavior.

Because when you do that to a person, another person will find and reveal his weaknesses, and the revelation ultimately damages not just the idol’s reputation, but the morale and ideals of the people who found in the idol false reasons to believe in humanity. Sound cheesy? It is, but it’s also true. Think about how you’d feel if you found out tomorrow that Mister Rogers was a convicted sex offender: you’d be devastated. I would be. (He wasn’t, just to clear the air of that.)

I love the music of John Lennon. I adore it… God, the man was so immensely gifted. Such a beautiful artist with such passionate expression and wonderful, fiercely original ideas. I listen to as much of it as I can, as often as I can, and I encourage everyone I meet to do the same. But in the character department, on the scale of “scumbag” to “hero,” Lennon is somewhere in the middle&#8212and probably a bit closer to “scumbag.” And please, don’t let your boundless admiration for his work blind you to what he was like as a person. Don’t equate singing “Give Peace A Chance” with the people at Kent State University who actually gave their lives in the name of giving peace a chance. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to John, and it’s not fair to the legacy that he did give the world. We need his art too badly to wall it inside of dreamy myths.
Edited: PC

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About Michael J. West

  • P M Miller

    Why does somebody have to do something physical to become a hero?
    He wrote some very powerful lyrics that have changed a lot of people’s lives even today he is being talked about.
    He had a very strong influence against the Vietnam War enough influence to worry the government of America.
    I think we all have a different ideas and reasons behind choosing our hero’s.

  • Lee

    I just find this article by search the song “a working class hero”. the comments are more interest to me than the article writed here. Lennon is hero or not, that’s not important. the important thing is that the song is good, and the music is wonderful,let’s share our life and go on our steps.

  • Chris West

    Lennon was definately a genius not only as a musician but also as a songwriter. I have been a fan of music my whole life and never really explored the brilliant sounds of the Beatles, until now that is. Recently I stumbled acrossed a story of Lennon’s death while doing some political research and was for some reason curious as to why he was murdered (sorry I was barely 6 when he died), and thats when it all began for me. The study of his death lead me to explore the Beatles music wholeheartedly for the first time ever. A huge rift was opened in my life as I started listening to the Beatles albums one after another. I noticed there was something about this Lennon guy and his music and lyrics that touch me somehow. Don’t get the wrong idea here, I enjoy Pauls, Georges, and Ringos songs too but specifically the ones that John sings have so much depth and they just connect on a level well…can’t exactly explain it but apparently I’m not alone either. What is it that we experience with this John Lennon phenomenon. He obviousy had the power to touch millions of people. I believe he has helped more people than he could ever hurt. Just maybe he sacrificed the love of his wife and son to teach much of the world how to experience that same love through the power of song.

  • I think it took courage just to deal with the FBI following his every move during the deportation attempt.

    I agree that he, like most people, did bad things, but, though definitely not justifying them, I wonder whether the fact that he never had a father and the fact that his mother died might factor into his ’emotional immaturity.’

    Personally, I think he was a very emotionally mature person, but had a very twisted and sarcastic mind, enjoying saying things that many people would consider hurtful. I don’t think that he was necessarily immature emotionally, just that he developed to be emotionally mature in a very odd way.

  • Say, Erika, have you ever listened to My Chemical Romance? Based on your comments here, you’d be a perfect MCR fan…

  • Erika Murphy

    I agree with jim. John lennon was and still is a hero. In fact… “I love The Beatles more than jesus christ.”

  • Erika Murphy

    you dont know the meaning of a hero, a hero is someone who changed YOUR life, not someone who participated in god damn bloody war, or someone who fought for rights many still dont have. Get over yourself, you need to stay out of lives of people. Just because they are famous does nto mean you can accuse them of crimes that you have no proof that they actually commited. Your a lowlife son of a bitch, rot in hell.

  • jim

    John Lennon should be appreciated “as is”. People who lionize or blame Lennon are both one-sided. Lennon was raised by his aunt. His mother died tragically. His father was not around. He became famous and it was very stressful. He became paranoid due to the reaction from his famous statement about God. I think that his behavior in the late 60s and early 70s was immature, and he tauted his wife Yoko, who clearly had no talent as a singer. I think that there is the old Paul McCartney versus John Lennon thing. It is a lot more difficult conflict than is portrayed. After all, in 1968 in “Glass Onion”, Lennon said “we’re as close as can be”. Lennon became reclusive, jealous, and paranoid. He could be severe and haughty. He hurt George Harrison’s esteem by attacking his first album. Paul McCartney made attempts to reunite with Lennon. Lennon was vague. He sort of forgave McCartney, but didn’t become friends again. Lennon’s last years were the best. He gave up drugs and became a father. It is unfortunate that some people look at Paul McCartney’s remarks about his death “It’s kind of a drag” in a negative sense. McCartney was truly shocked, and just wanted the media to leave him alone, so he said this not in the sense that is assigned. Things are misquoted. One version is that Lennon told McCartney that he was “daft” in 1969. This is misquoted. I have seen the who statement by Lennon. It was not such. None of the Beatles were saints. It’s not a competition as to who the better Beatle was. You should appreciate each of teh Beatles, despite their flaws.

  • Scott Butki

    Interesting piece which, to me, raises the question of whether you can separate an artist from their art. Every artist has flaws if you look close enough but does mean their art is of lower quality?

  • Barb

    I read your article and wow..it really hits home. John Lennon was not a hero…far from it…he was a great musician. I don’t think he wanted to be a hero.

    I love John Lennon’s music and I’m so fascinated by the man that I have read just about everything I can get my hands on. He was so complex I still can’t figure out who he really was. He was rude, he was super polite, he was sad, he was estatic, he craved the attention of his fans yet he critized the very people who made him and the Beatles famous.

    Your article has enlightened me far more than any other one I have read.

  • kristin

    just love the article.
    the beatles are my favourite and still are after all the things i’ve read about them, which like i suppose you know isn’t all very pretty.
    lennon though surprised me the most, when i started reading about him i couldn’t at first believe it cause he’s such a idol. his friends said he enjoyed hurting people, when brian epstein was trying to find a title for his book lennon suggested “queer jew”.
    anyway. again. loved the article.
    kristín from iceland

  • eddie

    Good article although I cant bring myself to agree with it altogether. Your right about Lennon and the fact he was a bad husband and father and in many ways a coward, I agree someone who hits a women is a coward. But if you read about John Lennon and read his own words on his behaviour, he greatly regretted what he did in his first marriage and says it was because he had’nt learnt and developed emotionally etc, I know this seems like an excuse but Lennon himself knew he wasnt perfect.

    I think the reason many fans put him within hero status is the fact that even with his imperfections, his ability to write songs and make music that connected to people showed how human he was and that is what people love and why they hold him in the hero status to them.

  • carl olson

    I’ve rarely read a more balanced account of an icon. Everyday I walk a route that takes me by a section of sidewalk where someone once imprinted “Lennon Lives”.I am 52, and believed the Beatles phenomenon was a thing of the older guys (and girls ).I didn’t realize how close his murder felt to me, or how much itwould mean. He is no hero, but he was our voice.

  • He’s no hero of mine.

    Besides, his solo music was crap.

  • godoggo

    I would imagine that there are one or two men who commit genuinely heroic acts and go home and beat their wives.

  • fantastic article, Michael. i never considered John Lennon much of a hero, i gotta say, except maybe for a time in high school. John Lennon was obsessed with John Lennon, and his best work speaks about little else. but it’s wonderful stuff, all the same.

    and i must say, at the risk of plenty gnashing and wailing, i never considered Mother Teresa much of a hero either. i dunno that the folks who all “died with dignity” rather than being properly treated in her “hospitals” an the like would consider her much of a hero. i dunno that the folks who didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior and so were kept from recieving even THAT pitiful “help” would consider her such either. and the folks lookin on as she accepted staggering ammounts of money that curiously never went towards any of the dying people she was “working for”, i dunno that they would count her as much of a hero either.

    but then, she didn’t write anything as awful as “The Luck Of The Irish” and so maybe thats something.

  • I don’t see what Lennon did that exhibited great strength or courage. I personally think that hitting your wife is pretty cowardly, and abandoning your family is pretty weak.

    Nor do I really think he fought for a cause. So he showed up at a few protest rallies; he made the INCREDIBLY bold antiwar move of not getting out of bed for a week; and he wrote protest songs that he immediately distanced himself from when they didn’t sell well (now THAT’S conviction).

    You are right in that all that matters is he was a hero to you. It’s the people who tell me that he was a hero to the whole human race that I have little time for.

  • John was a hero, it depends on your definition. He didn’t run into a burning building and rescue a baby. But that’s not the only definition of hero:

    Hero (in classical mythology)was a being of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits. Fits Lennon

    Champion: someone who fights for a cause. Fits Lennon

    Or did you mean a large sandwich made of a long crusty roll split lengthwise and filled with meats and cheese (and tomato and onion and lettuce and condiments)? That’s a hero too, ya know? Doesn’t fit Lennon. He was not a working class sandwhich.

    See? Perspective my man, perspective. To me he was a hero. And really, that’s all that matters.

  • Randy P/Tube

    Nice piece. For me I’ve never thought about it until now. The closest I can say is The Beatles were Musical heroes. “Hero” has different meanings to each person. This is definitely one to think and reflect.

  • Hi Evan,

    This is from an article about Lennon by one Jack Martin, which appeared The Ottawa [Canada] Citizen, September 2, 1988:

    “John rose from behind his desk and addressed his colleagues. ‘I’ve got something very important to tell you all,’ he began. ‘I am Jesus Christ come back again. This is my thing.’ He demanded that Apple [the Beatles’ record company] prepare a press release immediately announcing His return.”

  • Evan

    When did he claim he was Jesus Christ? I hope you’re not referring to the press conference where he said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, because that’s waaaay off what you claim. I’m really curious though, if you could provide a link or some more info about said press conference, it would be appreciated.

  • Wait, Al. I never said that John Lennon called himself a hero. I implied it with the headline, certainly…but the fact that Lennon never called himself a hero doesn’t skewer the whole thing. It just skewers the headline. The rest of this post couldn’t GET farther away from saying Lennon considers himself a hero

    And I don’t blame Yoko, either; it was Lennon’s fans who did this. As I’m saying, it’s our nature to elevate our icons into Gods. It’s not the nature of the icons themselves…although Lennon’s conviction that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated is pretty much the definition of elevating himself into God, isn’t it? 😀

  • Thanks Eric and DrPat! And I know you’re right DrP.; in fact, one of the inspirations for this post was the guy on the “Overrated songs” thread who told UAO that he was going to Hell “for saying anything John Lennon did was bad.” I’m almost hoping that whoever-that-was will have a comment for this entry….

  • Michael, I appreciate what you’re saying, but you’ve got one point way off that skewers the whole thing. That is, John Lennon himself never claimed to be a hero.

    Indeed, that was exactly the point of “Working Class Hero” and the Plastic Ono Band album- tearing down a falsified mythology. “I don’t believe in Beatles.” He’s not a hero by the song, but just another kid who’s been “tortured and scared for twenty odd years.”

    He did somewhat open himself up to some of this with “Imagine,” but it’s not really his fault. He pretty much just wrote that as another song. It was Yoko pimping that nonsense after he died, and pushing some martyrdom stuff. John himself would NEVER have approved of this.

  • Bennett

    Well written, well thought out, and a valuable guide in a world too quick to pin inappropriate labels on celebs and politicos.

    Thanks for this, Michael.

  • Wow, Michael – talk about sowing the wind! Thanks for sharing your assessment of Lennon’s character so eloquently. I doubt it will prevent those whose reactions procede from their knees from taking exception…

  • Eric Olsen

    very fine post with important thoughts – I agree with your distinctions between hero and idol, life and art. Thanks Michael!