By Edward Achorn
John Lennon was an artist — specifically, a great rock ‘n’ roll musician and singer — and not a nuanced political thinker. Critics, then and now, might be inclined to tell him to shut up and sing.
But he was a brilliant and witty lyricist who wanted to speak out. One of the things I always liked about him and his fellow Beatles was that they advocated through their beautiful art values I admire: love, peace, freedom, laughter and treating each other as equals. (I had the poster above, from his “Imagine” album, on my bedroom wall as a teenager.)
You cannot make a saint out of Lennon, though many have tried. He was shattered by the loss of the love of both of his parents as a young child. He beat women in his younger days. He punched out a colleague for joking that he might have engaged in gay sex. He was an ugly drunk. He got hooked on heroin. He lacerated those who hurt him (including people he loved, like Paul McCartney), returning insults with more cutting insults. The name used for him in the parody band the Rutles was Ron Nasty.
But there was a completely different side of Lennon, a sweetness, vulnerability, wittiness and courage that permeates the Beatles. He refused to rest on his laurels. He endlessly opened himself up to mockery by daring to explore and change. He was willing to endanger the enormous success of the Beatles, which he jokingly dismissed as “the greatest show on earth, for what it was worth.” With his second wife Yoko Ono, he exposed himself (literally, in the case of one notorious album cover) to an all-out assault from the press and even Beatles fans. “The way things are going,” he sang at one point, “they’re going to crucify me.”
Through the years, he remained a champion of love and of the imagination, and an enemy of killing. He thought most politicians were crazy and that war was insane. He spoke about a revolution in the head that would move each of us toward greater compassion and freedom.
“All you need is love,” he sang in the summer anthem of 1967.
One year later, employing that famous slashing wit of his, he eviscerated the arrogance and violence of those who were burning neighborhoods and blowing people up, in an extraordinary song called “Revolution” that still works as a comment on today’s chaos.
In that heavy rocker, Lennon out-revolutionizes the revolutionaries. He admits that “We all want to change the world.” But he asserts, “when you talk about destruction … you can count me out.”
He scoffs at those who say they have “a real solution,” saying, “We’d all love to see the plan.” To those who say they would “change the Constitution,” he responds, “We all want to change your head.” And to those who “tell me it’s the institution,” Lennon replies, “You’d better free your mind instead.” He declines to give “money for people with minds that hate.”
His funniest line everybody knows. “But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” When the video was being shot, the director recalled, Lennon requested one thing: that he do a close-up of him singing that line.
Mao killed 100 million people bringing about his monstrous revolution. John Lennon assured us, “it’s gonna be alright,” screaming that promise over and over.
For a youth icon, this took courage. Burning down society is always hipper and more popular with radicals than love, peace, and inner light. Sure enough, “Revolution” was lacerated by those on the left. Lennon was branded as disgustingly bourgeois and disconnected from the “struggle.”
In some recordings of the song, Lennon sought to hedge his bets by singing “count me out/in.” But his overall take was clear: Destruction is not enough. What happens after people’s property is stolen or set afire and the executions stop? Does a better world emerge?
Lennon’s signature 1971 song, “Imagine,” meanwhile, has long inflamed those on the political right, who take it to be a communist anthem befitting the evil, nightmarish regime of North Korea, with its obliteration of property, religion, and national borders.
I have always lived with “Imagine” as something different — a beautiful song of striking simplicity about wandering through one’s imagination to a different world than our own. It does not advocate state terror, death squads, and gulags, the usual means of enslaving a gullible populace after promises of utopia. It yearns for “a brotherhood of man” and “nothing to kill or die for.”
In this fallen world, unfortunately, the fierce drive of human beings for power must be checked lest they inflict pain and death on their fellow humans. Such insufferably square ideas as property rights, protected borders, respect for free speech, and moral values are essential to the safety and welfare of people. No has yet found a better system than ordered freedom to advance human happiness.
But is it wrong to imagine, if only to jar us out of an obsession with selfishness and materialism, and to move beyond the ego? I never thought so.
For a while, Lennon, broken down by criticism and “re-educated” by his left-wing associates, became a kind of phony Marxist, shaking his fist and promising he would join a mob to “put you down” unless you followed the “people’s” orders. Presumably, the people’s wishes would not be determined through free speech, fair elections, and the peaceful transfer of power.
But soon thereafter, he was back to himself and the revolution in the head. In his great 1973 song “Mind Games,” he once again urged that people come together, each working as a “mind guerrilla, chanting the mantra” of “peace on earth” rather than as a political guerrilla serving brutality and violence. He summarized his life’s philosophy: “Love is the answer. And you know that, for sure.”
Interestingly, John and Yoko’s son, Sean Ono Lennon, has in recent days been displaying some brave and acerbic wit not unlike his father’s. Sean has lacerated the bullying that has arisen. On Twitter, he used the term “unintelligensia” to describe the leaders of the movement.
And he posted this tweet against the cruelty of identity politics: “Those who want to see everything through a lens of race and class, judging individuals based on immutable characteristics, pretend to be fighting the very thing they are enacting. And none of us wish to speak up because we have been bullied into silence. Anyway how was your day?”
His father was not ultimately a fan of hatred and division, either. As John put it in “Mind Games”: “Love is a flower. You’ve gotta let it grow.”
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)