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—that 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—and 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.