How John Lennon escaped the “prison” of being in The Beatles
The Beatles were a behemoth. When they arrived on the scene in the early sixties, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s feet never really touched the ground. As soon as their rocket ship began to stick on the engines there was no stopping their launch into the stratosphere.
While the allure of a rock star lifestyle is still an extremely appealing one, the reality of living your life under such an intense microscope, the likes of which we may not ever see again, is unbearable. For a free-spirited and unruly artiste like John Lennon, being in The Beatles was tantamount to “prison”—but one thing would save him from that life and give him the freedom he desired.
It could be easy to point to music and art as an escape for John Lennon, after all, growing up as a witty but ultimately naughty kid in a working-class area of Liverpool, music and The Beatles was the rope ladder out of his life he needed. But by 1980, when Lennon was speaking to Playboy’s David Sheff, Lennon had been a Beatle for most of his adult life.
The singer was gearing up to release a new project Double Fantasy with his wife Yoko Ono when he opened up about the one thing that had saved him from the continued imprisonment of being a Beatle—being a “househusband”. Sheff asks Lennon what he’s been up to recently, “I’ve been baking bread and looking after the baby,” replies the singer to a similar snort of derision from his interviewer.
Seemingly unable to reconcile the image of Lennon in a more maternal role, the Liverpudlian is asked if he has any secret projects going on alongside. “That’s like what everyone else who has asked me that question over the last few years says. ‘But what else have you been doing?’ To which I say, ‘Are you kidding?’ Because bread and babies, as every housewife knows, is a full-time job.”
It would appear that staying at home had finally given John Lennon the nuclear family he had secretly wanted. The simplicity of making bread and looking after one’s children can never be underestimated, though Lennon admitted some differences between his career and new life. “After I made the loaves, I felt like I had conquered something. But as I watched the bread being eaten, I thought, Well, Jesus, don’t I get a gold record or knighted or nothing?”
For Sheff, clearly enamoured with his interviewee, the idea is laughable. He questions further as to why one of the world’s biggest rock stars would want to settle back into a life of domesticity. What was Lennon’s reasoning? “There were many reasons,” he replied. “I had been under obligation or contract from the time I was 22 until well into my 30s. After all those years, it was all I knew. I wasn’t free. I was boxed in. My contract was the physical manifestation of being in prison.”
We can’t imagine what it must feel like to have lived your life alongside a media-perpetuated narrative. To reconcile one’s own face with the image you see constantly in the magazines must’ve been a difficult thing to negotiate. For Lennon, it was a necessity: “It was more important to face myself and face that reality than to continue a life of rock ‘n’ roll… and to go up and down with the whims of either your own performance or the public’s opinion of you. Rock ‘n’ roll was not fun anymore.”
“I chose not to take the standard options in my business… going to Vegas and singing your great hits, if you’re lucky, or going to hell, which is where Elvis went.”
For Lennon, it would seem that the act of “churning out records” was becoming not only painful and boring but also pointless. If as an artist you aren’t invested in your own art then how can it be so vital to your life? Or as Lennon says: “I had lost the initial freedom of the artist by becoming enslaved to the image of what the artist is supposed to do. A lot of artists kill themselves because of it, whether it is through drink, like Dylan Thomas, or through insanity, like Van Gogh, or through V.D., like Gauguin.”
Sadly, of course, Lennon would not get the opportunity to see the release of his new album really take shape or how he may have made his way through another decade and beyond. But in 1980, things were looking up and Lennon had a new passion for life. Sheff asks, “Most people would have continued to churn out the product. How were you able to see a way out?”
Lennon’s reply is simple and touching: “Most people don’t live with Yoko Ono”.