Born on October 9, 1940, as German bombs rained down upon a scorched England, John Winston Lennon grew up to possess an inimitable and oftentimes clashing mixture of streetwise rebelliousness and lofty idealism. He could be tough, sarcastic and argumentative. He could also be loving, sentimental and lighthearted. Raised in a broken home, with his beloved Aunt Mimi Smith as his primary caregiver, Lennon developed a voracious appetite for music, art, literature and, in his later years, social issues. In his touching and insightful eulogy, published in the Los Angeles Times shortly after the tragic assassination of the songwriter in 1980, famed rock critic Lester Bangs said it best when he described the rock icon as the Beatle “who lived the most on the existential edge.”
It’s this existential edge that shaped Lennon’s music as a Beatle and solo artist. It suffused his greatest and most memorable songs with a powerful emotional energy that could shift abruptly between light and dark. After all, we’re talking about a songwriter who over the span of a single year in the early ’70s gave the world “Mother,” a harrowing confession about his turbulent childhood, and “Imagine,” arguably the most sublime, pro-utopian anthem in the history of pop music.
It’s a radical contrast that pops up time and time again throughout Lennon’s oeuvre.
Simply look at the gulf of emotion that separates “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” from “Yer Blues.” The former is a childlike dreamscape soaked in Lewis Carroll-inspired psychedelia; the latter piercing blues-rock anchored by the bone-chilling admission, “Yes, I’m lonely, wanna die/If I ain’t dead already, ooh girl, you know the reason why.”
John Lennon and Experimental Music
Lennon’s forceful artistic temperament also fueled his love for bold sonic experimentation. During The Beatles’ psychedelic phase 1966-’67, he proved to be the group’s most intrepid explorer. He didn’t merely dabble in consciousness expansion, he zealously dove in, producing masterpieces like “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Over a droning rhythm inspired by classical Indian music, Lennon’s lyrics — inspired by Dr. Timothy Leary’s tome The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead — call for complete dissolution of the ego.
On the epic “Strawberry Fields Forever,” he then turns the concept of ego dissolution into a compositional element through an array of cutting-edge studio techniques — heavy use of overdubs, tape speed manipulation, splicing — designed to submerge the listener’s senses in a lysergic delirium.
Then there’s his sound collage, “Revolution 9.” Inspired by avant-garde artist (and his future wife) Yoko Ono, the recording arguably is the most challenging piece of music to appear on one of The Beatles’ albums. At the time of its release in 1968, the piece violently upended any and all accepted notions of what could and could not constitute rock ’n’ roll.
John Lennon as a Solo Artist
After The Beatles’ dissolution in 1969, Lennon and Ono emerged as high-profile political activists and conceptually driven artists who courted controversy and outright scorn from even the most diehard of The Beatles fans.
In addition to anti-war “bed-ins,” as well as a lengthy battle with a Nixon administration attempting to deport him back to England, Lennon penned a slew of penetrating anthems, including “Give Peace a Chance,” “Power to the People,” “Gimme Some Truth” and the provocative “Woman Is the Ngger of the World.” He also released Plastic Ono Band*, a bleak journey through depression, abandonment issues and straight-up nihilism. It’s the most intimate and gut-wrenching solo record from any of The Beatles. George Harrison or Paul McCartney could never have created music so blunt and brutally honest — neither possessed Lennon’s unflinching toughness.
Between 1975 and 1980, Lennon retired from music to help raise his son, Sean Ono Lennon. Giving up rock stardom for family life was yet another telling example of his need for living on the existential edge. Refusing to be held captive by his fame, he didn’t want to be worshipped like an idol. Lennon — who stubbornly clung to his sense of humanity — simply wanted to live his life like everybody else.
When he did return to the studio, his first single, 1980’s infectious “(Just Like) Starting Over,” found him eschewing the political rage of his early ’70s output for the sublime pop hooks and joyful naiveté of The Beatles’ early music. Tragically, though, Lennon’s life was cut short when obsessed fan Mark David Chapman gunned him down on December 8, 1980.
The world lost one of its greatest musicians and spokespersons for peace.