John Lennon was the principal driving force behind The Beatles. In addition to the other three members of the iconic Liverpudlian group, Lennon was an extraordinary songwriter and lyricist who made The Beatles the force that they were, sonically and economically.
He is often remembered for his political activism and his marriage to Yoko Ono. The ‘Give Peace a Chance’ singer made himself the poster boy for the counterculture and hippies worldwide with his public disdain for the establishment. However, the man everybody knew as the former Beatles frontman and ‘Bed-In for Peace’ architect was also haunted by demons.
Retrospectively, John Lennon is a highly problematic figure. If one aims to separate the art from the artist, that is fair enough. However, Lennon’s history of abuse is hard to ignore. A violent chauvinist, Lennon displayed homophobic and bigoted tendencies, if he were at the forefront of music today, that status would be only fleeting.
Due to the enormous success of The Beatles, and Lennon’s post-Beatles career, his life has been well documented. As time has ticked on, it has shed light on the confounding nature of the Beatles frontman. His relationship with his first wife, Cynthia Powell, the mother of his first son, Julian is one of the causes for concern.
In Powell’s 2005 memoir, John, she recalls how the Beatles frontman so became envious and possessive after getting together that, after he struck her for dancing with Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles original bassist, she called the relationship off. Three months later the couple would be back together, and in 1963 they were married, as Cynthia was pregnant with Julian.
Powell would note that Lennon would never be physically harmful to her again but could still be “verbally cutting and unkind”. What would follow would be a marriage that became distant and faded out in 1967, something Powell attributed to Lennon’s LSD use and newfound spirituality.
Lennon would later accept his past wrongdoings and admitted that he had never once thought about his medieval attitude toward women until he met his second wife Yoko Ono. In fact, he wrote the 1967 Beatles song ‘Getting Better’ as a way of reconciling with himself. The singer remarked: “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace.”
His physical abuse of first wife Cynthia Powell was not the extent of Lennon’s shortcomings, though. While the two were close friends, he used to mock the Beatles manager Brian Epstein for the fact he was homosexual and of the Jewish faith by birth. When Epstein asked for suggestions for the title of his 1964 autobiography, Lennon’s first suggestion was “Queer Jew”.
His crass suggestions wouldn’t end there. When he learned of the eventual title A Cellarful of Noise, Lennon argued: “More like A Cellarful of Boys.” The Beatles frontman’s terrible banter did not end there either. When they were recording ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man’, the B-side of ‘All You Need is Love’ in 1967, Lennon altered the chorus to “Baby, you’re a rich fag Jew”. While this may seem funny to some, although it is shocking behaviour, Lennon was actually a complex and hurt individual. This does not excuse any of his behaviour; the scars he developed as a child certainly go some way in explaining his violent and offensive outbursts.
Brought up by his aunt Mimi, Lennon was estranged from both his parents. His mother Julia died in a car crash in 1958 when he was just 17, and his father, Alfred, remained largely a mysterious and ephemeral figure throughout John’s life. In 1970, Lennon and the Plastic Ono band released the emotionally charged ‘Mother’, which sought to reconcile him with his childhood and his mother’s death. This change in mindset came after receiving primal scream therapy with Arthur Janov. The song clearly delineates his deeply embedded scars of the past.
In 1980 Lennon explained: “A part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician. But I cannot be what I am not […] I was the one who all the other boys’ parents – including Paul’s father – would say, ‘Keep away from him’ […] The parents instinctively recognised I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did. I did my best to disrupt every friend’s home […] Partly out of envy that I didn’t have this so-called home.”
This trauma and insecurities clearly took a toll on John Lennon’s development. In December 2020, on The Howard Stern Show, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney weighed in on the topic. McCartney explained that John’s father, Alfred, left the family when he was three years old and that this caused a “huge pain” for John growing up. McCartney then described John’s life at his aunt Mimi’s house. Her husband, George’s death, also greatly affected the young Lennon. “John confided in me, ‘I think I could be a jinx against the male line'”. McCartney then proceeded to call him “stupid”, saying it “wasn’t your fault your bloody father left”, and argued against Lennon’s assertion.
McCartney then explains that “John did not have a great life in the family department.” The ex-Beatles and Wings bassist also pinpoints the reemergence of Alfred Lennon, who showed up wanting money from the Beatles man, as a significant factor that contributed to Lennon’s “angst” in later life.
McCartney also remembers when the pair wrote the 1965 hit ‘Help!”. He explicitly recalls John writing the line, “When I was younger, so much younger than today / I never needed anybody’s help in any way / But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured”. Macca explained that it was only later in life that he realised Lennon was wracked with insecurities, and as the song title suggests, was crying out for help.
McCartney remembers, “There were so many things like that about John’s life that I could sympathise with”. He then proceeded to recall one conversation where The Beatles’ frontman showed another insecurity. He asked McCartney what people would think about him after he died, and Macca replied, “You are kidding me! You’re a legend already. Never mind when you die!”
There we have it. One of the biggest icons of the past 60 years was a problematic and confounding individual rendered almost incapacitated by his own insecurities. Not only do these tales serve to display Lennon as a human being and bring his alleviated character back down to earth, but they also account for his contradictory life. Lennon was a complex person, with his own set of deep-rooted and unresolved issues, which coloured his life even if he didn’t know it at the time.
Watch Paul McCartney discuss John Lennon’s insecurities on The Howard Stern Show, below.