Lennon was born in 1940 during the Nazi bombing of Britain and given the middle name Winston, after Prime Minister Churchill. Knowing firsthand the horror of a world at war and living through the era of Vietnam’s senseless carnage as well, Lennon came to embrace and embody pacifism via such classics of the Beatles era as “All You Need Is Love” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Yet he also had a countervailing dark side that found expression in pained outcries that dated as far back as “Help.” This unvarnished aspect of the Lennon persona reached a fevered pitch with the drug-withdrawal blues of “Cold Turkey,” a 1969 single released under the name Plastic Ono Band.
Although Lennon was a complicated man, he chose at this juncture to simplify his art in order to figure out his life, erasing the boundaries between the two. As he explained it, he started trying “to shave off all imagery, pretensions of poetry, illusions of grandeur…Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme and put a backbeat on it, and express yourself as simply [and] straightforwardly as possible.” His most fully realized statement, as a solo artist was 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Lennon’s first solo album, it followed several avant-garde sound collages recorded toward the end of the Beatles era with his wife and collaborator, Yoko Ono. The raw, confessional nature of Plastic Ono Band reflected the primal-scream therapy that Lennon and Ono had been undergoing with psychologist Arthur Janov.
There were, in fact, numerous facets to Lennon’s character captured in the ongoing diary of his life in song. Many of his post-Beatles compositions – “Imagine,” “Mind Games,” “Instant Karma,” and “Give Peace a Chance” have rightfully become anthems, flaunting tough-minded realism, cosmic epiphany, hard-won idealism and visionary utopianism in equal measure. For all of the unvarnished genius of Lennon’s recordings, however, much of what lingers in the public memory goes beyond musical legacy. Rather, it has to do with leading by example.
The relationship between John and Yoko endured challenges from within and without to became one of the most touching and celebrated of 20th-century romances. They were gallantly foolish in undertaking performance art pieces – bed-ins, happenings, full-page ads declaring “War Is Over!” – to spread their message of peace. During the early Seventies Lennon fought the U.S. government to avoid deportation – a campaign of harassment by Nixon-era conservatives that was overturned by the courts in 1975 – and came to love his adopted city of New York.
Then there were those five quiet years when Lennon chose to lay low and raise their son, Sean Ono Lennon. Simply by stepping back and “watching the wheels” from the sidelines, John Lennon made a statement about priorities that said more than words and music. His eventual return to the recording scene in 1980 after that lengthy hiatus – his last album of original songs had been 1974’s Walls and Bridges – was one of the more eagerly anticipated musical events of the year. The album Double Fantasy, jointly credited to John Lennon/Yoko Ono, was released on December 6th. Two days later, a brilliant life came to an untimely end when John Winston Lennon was fatally shot by a deranged fan outside his New York City apartment upon returning from a recording session.