John Winston (Ono) Lennon was born on this day, October 9 1940 in Liverpool to Freddie and Julia Lennon. Had he lived, he would have been 68 years old(!). To celebrate, I figured we’d do it musically, as opposed to me rattling off his life story, most of which everyone has heard.
So, here are 10 cool moments that trace the history of a brief, yet very important life of a complex man and fascinating musician. Each one of them shows a side to the man who should have been given more time to show us what more he had to give.
John Lennon was something of a troubled youth, railing against authority, and getting into trouble on a regular basis from authority figures. Yet, he was a deep thinker and intelligent. Even at a young age, his wise-cracking persona was offset by a need from solace, for peace, and to be alone with his thoughts. And he had a lot to think about, being effectively abandoned as a child, facing the death of his mother just when she’d come back into his life as a teen, and of course the rise of his own success as a musician and songwriter which involved pressures of its own. This song taken from the Beatles first album is a very early example of Lennon introspection, which would come to full fruition only much later in his career. Even at this early stage in his career as a songwriter, he was examining his own mind, and putting it out there when he was supposed to be writing about girls.
On this McCartney song, Lennon takes keyboard duties at their historic appearance at Shea Stadium. It’s clear that John is not fully in command of his instrument and feeling naked without his trusty Rickenbacker guitar. He makes up for it by clowning around and cracking up his buddies on stage, who still manage to rock the house as they must have learned to do during their years as a Hamburg bar band. This is the playful side of Lennon, all the while in the eye of the Beatlemania storm.
John loved staying in bed, reading the newspaper, and watching TV, things most take for granted not being Beatles and having the obligations of whirlwind tours, fending off the press, and living up to the expectations of millions. “I’m Only Sleeping” is the celebration of life’s simple pleasures, something Lennon clearly treasured.
When he was writing simple pop songs, Lennon also put out a book of verse with nonsense poems, malapropisms, and puns showing off his love of language. The book was called In His Own Write, followed up by a second volume called A Spaniard in the Works. It had never occurred to him to bring those worlds of pop music and of absurdist verse together until after the band had stopped touring in 1966. By the next year, with the help of producer George Martin, he proved that drawing his interests together was not only practical, but prudent. And in so doing, he upped the ante for everyone.
Appearing on the original Yellow Submarine Soundtrack, this may be the band’s most underrated track of all time. Lennon shines on this, his vocals just light everything up, and the central piano riff provides the engine that keeps this song chugging along. And I love his exhortations at the end – “That’s it! You’ve got it!” He’s clearly having a blast! This is the sound of a band at their height not taking themselves seriously. And Lennon leads the charge.
John met Yoko in 1966 at an art show. By 1968, they were involved. By ’69, they were married. “Don’t Let Me Down” is the voice of a man in love, but one who has put all of his trust in one place again after having it dashed on the rocks in the past. The tension here is palpable between love, devotion, and abject terror that it will lead to heartache after having weathered so much emotional abandonment already.
Written in a gospel style, with old friends Klaus Voorman (bass), Billy Preston (organ) and Ringo Starr (drums) backing him up, Lennon casts down the idols of his generation, including his own false image in “Beatle John”. This is a song which draws a line between one life and another, one determined by the expectations of others, and the other determined by a firm resolve to follow one’s own path. It is a theme he would explore to a greater extent on his Plastic Ono Band album, effectively helping to shape the confessional singer-songwriter approach which would take off in the 1970s.
By 1974, Lennon was living in LA, separated for the time being from Yoko, and feeling the pinch of living his life without someone with whom he’d spent almost literally every moment. Yoko had decided that the couple needed a break, and set about sending John out the door, albeit with their P.A May Pang to keep him company. According to many, John was both miserable to be without Yoko, and very happy in the company of May and the many old friends he would encounter while on the West Coast, including Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, and Ringo Starr. Still, this period is referred to as “The Lost Weekend”, which may shed some light on Lennon’s state of mind in general. Yet, this tune sounds like an Oasis in the desert, the sound of a man who might not yet have contentment, but who could see it on the horizon. By the next year, his son Sean would be born on the same day he was born, 35 years later (happy birthday to you too, Sean…).
Lennon spent five years taking care of Sean and baking bread while Yoko brought home the bacon, much to the confusion of John’s friends and fellow musicians who wondered why he’d chosen the sidelines instead of getting in the game. The answer had to do with choosing his own destiny yet again – he still believed in himself, not the image people had of him. That’s what this song is trying to say, although with the level of irony that a tune of this quality was just what his friends hoped he’d get around to putting out there.
This song reveals that Lennon was OK with getting older and seeing the world get stranger around him, yet with a hint of the fire evident in the work of his younger self. Most peculiar, Mama. This song says to me that Lennon was at last comfortable making music without worrying about what that role had to mean to him personally in the eyes of others. It’s exuberant, still revealing classic Lennon vulnerability, but is ultimately celebratory and optimistic.
This song was released posthumously in 1984, taken from the album Milk & Honey, which were recorded during the Double Fantasy sessions three years previous.
So there it is – 10 great musical moments in celebration of what would have been John’s 68th year. Happy birthday to the Walrus, who had become John, and taken too soon.