John Lennon

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

John Lennon Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 7/12/15

This portrait is from a 1966 photo, a period of deep unhappiness in Lennon’s life during which his suburban domesticity with first wife Cynthia was being punctuated by vacuous ‘one night stands’, interesting affairs,’ and the endless grind of “Beatlemania.” He was experimenting with hard contact lenses at this point in his life to counteract his chronic myopia. Like many people he was constantly losing them; hence the introduction of the national health spectacles the following year.

This is one of the harder commentaries for me to write because professionally Lennon is one of my all time heroes, and yet I cannot consistently make excuses for the man.

It’s fair to say that he was an artist in the truest sense of the word – a musician, songwriter, filmmaker, poet and painter. It’s also fair to say that he could have emerged in any one of these mediums as a star, although I would perhaps question his “traditional” artistic talent as he did not publish any conventional “still life” work. McCartney maintains that his partner never veered too far from grotesque yet hilarious caricatures, whilst his erotic lithographs give us no further clues as to the true limitations of his ability in this area.

I’m nitpicking though, for it’s fair to say that the rock industry misses someone of his stature. It was clear to Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard that he was extensively reading by 1966, and as if to prove his assertion at the time that “Jesus was alright but his disciples were ‘thick and ordinary’ the Vatican saw fit in 2008 to publicly pardon his religious comment that The Beatles were (quote) “more popular than Jesus”. Once again it appeared as if all too many people had completely missed the point. As Lennon himself admitted “If I’d said television was more popular I might have got away with it.” During the course of a “Beatles – Reporting ’66” TV news item (available via YouTube), one young American fan stands apart from her teenage peers seeing neither any need to 1) burn her Beatle records nor 2) denounce Lennon as a heretic. She actually gets the gist of his message that Christianity and organised religion were in decline and that Lennon was deploring a fact that was (quote) “more true for England than perhaps over here”. I doubt he would ordinarily have drawn any distinction between the two countries but he was due to appear in performance in the Bible Belt shortly afterwards, a region previously referred to as “nut country” by President Kennedy so he will have been frightened.

Lennon wrote of his hurt and anger over the public’s reaction to his love affair with Yoko in his book “Skywriting by word of mouth” which was posthumously issued in 1986. There had only been one previous high profile mixed ethnic marriage in show business, namely John Dankworth and Cleo Laine and they suffered nothing similar by way of vitriolic press coverage. Yoko was described as “ugly” which she most certainly is not. Compare her wedding outfit in 1969 to an appearance at the 1981 Grammy awards in a charming white design and a considerably shorter hairstyle, and you have the contrasted visual ingredients in place for a much less antagonistic individual. But that’s our problem. At the end of the day, the hate campaign against her would have driven any sane man to seek refuge in another country. This is the British psyche though. We build our idols up and then destroy them with some considerable relish. The appalling treatment of Elton John by the Sun newspaper in the late 80’s was a point in question. In America provided they behave themselves entertainment stars remain venerated until death.

So what are we to make of Lennon the man, from the numerous sources available? Central to any answer is his love for, and treatment of, Yoko Ono. It is evident that by the time of his death at 40, there were still question marks hovering over his marriage. On the plus side he steadfastly refused any record industry entreaties to represent himself as a solo artist prior to releasing Double Fantasy and yet he was still in contact with Man Pang, his paramour from the mid 70’s. Throughout his years with Yoko, he displayed an inability to put his priorities in order, and seemingly bowed to subtle pressure from his wife over very important issues upon which he should have stood his ground. Failure to see his son from his first marriage for nearly three years, whilst seemingly prepared to trawl the four corners of the globe searching for his stepdaughter Kyoko, is a point in question. Such ‘commitment to the cause’ probably maintained domestic tranquillity at home if my “reading of women” is correct, but the experience will have done nothing for Lennon. In her worst moments Yoko may have felt her husband should also experience estrangement from a child, a natural but misguided emotion borne out of frustration. Perhaps there were heightened emotional scenes over this familial unhappiness but we should not presume for the ability to forge a new life and to neglect children from previous liaisons is a common and deplorable behavioural theme in men’s lives. There is also the suspicion that the longer Lennon remained estranged from his son the harder the thought of effecting reconciliation became.

Nevertheless, with suitable promptings from May Pang, contact with his first son Julian was re-established during his 18 month estrangement from Yoko. This however, would have left his wife with the difficult task of “going along with things” for the sake of domestic harmony once the couple reunited in 1975. Whatever pangs of jealousy she may have felt over the loss of access to her own daughter she could no longer subliminally ‘encourage’ Lennon’s inertia towards his son for fear of betraying a less than complimentary aspect to her personality. Nevertheless father and son reunions were not exactly frequent and by all accounts Julian only saw John once in the last year of his life. Many years later Yoko would be reunited with her daughter and presented with a grandchild whilst Julian would be left to reflect on paternal abandonment, both emotional and physical; a salutary reminder to us all of the “impermanency of life” and the irrationality of our actions through the years.

Determining the myriad of reasons for the couple putting their marriage back on track is difficult, yet there were undeniably practical aspects to consider. In her book about John, “Instamatic Karma,” May Pang recalls Lennon discussing immigration as a primary factor, and his wife may indeed have felt their legal position with the immigration authorities being irretrievably weakened if they stayed apart. Yet ‘Mrs lennon’ had been told as early as 1973 that she could stay in America as she already had US citizenship; it was only her husband who had to leave because of his 1968 UK conviction for possession of marijuana cannabis resin. So this argument in favour of a reunion never held up. I would also defend Ono’s stance on her husband when he was recklessly carousing Los Angeles during their eighteen month estrangement. One telephone overture after another from friends of the ex-Beatle imploring her to take him back was forcefully declined. After all, she had been the dragon lady who had separated him from all his cronies years earlier; now she felt, was the time for them to deal with his daily idiosyncracies. I unequivocably defend her thinking here and without doubt, whatever his recent personal demons, Lennon seemed to recognise the oblivion laying in wait for him if he didn’t choose to build a family life. However the PR image of him as a house husband doesn’t entirely ring true. The couple knew how to work the press, and the notion of a rock superstar leaving his guitar hanging on the wall untouched for five years to raise his son was newsworthy. In truth he was refining songs begun in 74/75, recording substantial home based piano/guitar demos. The process was tortuous with the end result barely justifying the wait. In truth the two recordings that hint at a fully fledged revival of his artistic muse are not to be found on “Double Fantasy.” Check out “Serve Yourself,” one of Lennon’s Burmuda based recordings from the summer of 1980, in which he rails against everything from mothers to organised religion. If that’s not enough to convince you he hadn’t become a soft bellied pudding, then listen to his wonderfully organic grunge guitar solo on Yoko’s “Walking on thin ice,” the recording he was working on the night of his murder. It’s powerful stuff.

I don’t know what Lennon would have chosen to do with his life had he lived. He still needed a woman who would “pamper to his ego” and hence the continuing relationship with Pang, which denied the young Chinese American girl the opportunity to fully move on with her emotional life.

Yoko was addressed as “mother” which clearly reflected his need for an authority figure in his life, a surrogate Aunt Mimi no less, for his wayward mother never offered such necessary guidance in his life. May would expect him to fetch the sunday newspapers whilst Yoko would have them delivered. May offered abandonment in the bedroom whilst Ono offered intellectual stimulation. Life was too dangerous to begin a new affair so Ono consumed her daily life with family business matters and finances and Lennon ‘tripped off’ on his own adventures. Yes there was quality time with his new son but nonetheless a household full of assistants and a nanny when he needed to disappear from sight. Yoko began a relationship with undue haste after her husband’s death or perhaps it was one that escalated in intensity after the events of December 8, 1980. Whichever way one looks at it, the marriage was not a devoted one of the like enjoyed by his ex songwriting partner.

As for May, it’s obvious that she was infatuated with him, and it’s apparent that in many ways she was good for him. She would have made a proper home for them, and encouraged further his relationship with Julian. She inoffensively cajoled him into a tentative raprochement with McCartney (the couple were due to spend time in New Orleans assisting Wings in the recording of “Venus & Mars”) but Lennon would opt instead for a return to the Dakota and Yoko.

The following article substantiates the New Orleans story. When it came to prior marriages there remains little doubt that Yoko feared McCartney far more than Cynthia.

Interviews with parties associated with Lennon suggest that either the Pang affair was little more than a distraction for him, or the best thing that ever happened in his life. The reality clearly lies somewhere between these extremes, yet at the end of the day Lennon chose to live again with Yoko.

As for his life today, had he lived, I think he would have loved the ‘immediacy’ of the internet since writing, recording, mixing, mastering and issuing his single “Instant Karma” within a week symbolised his desire for instantaneous communication. He was after all a media junkie. I also hope he might have moderated his macrobiotic diet since he was painfully thin at the end, and it did nothing for his looks. He always needed more weight on his face to look at his best. This point is well illustrated throughout the “Imagine” recording sessions and with the heroin habit long kicked into touch, his appearance is a pleasing reminder of his “boy Beatle” days. As I mentioned earlier, my pencil portrait of him dates from 1966 whilst he was recording the “Revolver” album. He would later refer to his “fat Elvis” period. Well if his waistline was a trifle expansive, the upside of that source of personal annoyance was a healthy facial appearance. Within months however, he would be back in the States facing a media backlash over his religious comments, and looking considerably thinner. Palpable fear and too many acid trips perhaps.

He wasn’t ready to die, and I regret the manner of his passing. He wasn’t even accorded sufficient respect to be taken out “in the blink of an eye”. He bled to death over the course of twenty minutes and knew what was happening to himself. “Do you know who you are?” asked the on duty police officer whilst rushing him to Roosevelt hospital. “John Lennon” came the reply. He was dead on arrival.

Twelve years later, Larry King on his US talk show interviewed his killer on a telecast from prison. It incenses me. A programme like this titillates certain members of the public, and fuels the very sense of infamy sought by deranged individuals. I won’t mention his name since he effectively ‘widowed’ his own young wife by his actions, and is unlikely to ever be released. Oh and no, I refuse to watch the programme on YouTube. Every time a certain fascination about this interview grips me – I am ashamed to even admit to this failing – I move on and listen to Lennon instead.

His was a life punctuated by extreme emotional traumas – parental abandonment on both sides (there is a suggestion in recent biographies that his father’s reputation requires a degree of favourable revisionism), the early losses of his beloved Uncle George, his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe at the age of twenty one and then of course his mentor Brian Epstein. As an impressionable teenager he also endured the agony of having an extremely attractive mother who was irresponsible and (if several key sources are to be believed), promiscuous. Any parent with “form” in that area will seriously distort a child’s sense of moral values, the ramifications of which can takes years to fully emerge.

So in Lennon’s case, the outward signs of swagger and vitriolic wit seemingly hid an innate inner sentimentality. A man therefore who was kindness itself and also a monster, but should friends and loved ones be compelled to endure such extremes? He clearly felt so.

In the final analysis he still makes me happy, and happiness is intrinsically a temporal state of mind. I just remember having my first guitar at four, and listening to those vinyl records that somehow could make the hairs on the back of my neck stand out. Since Paul McCartney can never stop talking about him, I sometimes feel he’s still here.

Recommended listening

Collecting Lennon

It should be simple and in many ways it is. As I write, the catalogue is essentially available to purchase from most discerning high street music retailers and online suppliers. Unfortunately, what you’ll emerge from the counter with or collect from your post box, may not be what you really want or need. The end result of more than three decades of tinkering with Lennon’s output has left aficionados and casual purchasers alike, decidedly divided over the relative merits of various reissues.

Technology marches on, and makes possible things that one could not do before. At the same time, having something newly technically possible does not necessarily mean one should do it. This creates a debate in art, where one has the ability now to alter works of the past, presumably in the name of improvement.

Personally, I am an admirer of engineer Pete Cobbin’s work, and especially his remixing and remastering of various Beatles re-issue projects as well as the Lennon catalogue.

Under construction

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

You have to be in the right frame of mind to absorb this record, although ‘Hold on,’ ‘Love,’ and ‘Look at me’ are delicate and wistful numbers, and would have slotted comfortably onto any late period Beatles album.

The rest is harrowing, and somewhat impeded by Lennon’s limited palette on the piano. Some embellishments from Nicky Hopkins would have helped (the middle section of ‘Isolation,’ the overall mood of ‘Mother’ etc), but it remains a critically lauded album, and Lennon’s most personal statement ever on the universal themes of love and rejection.

Imagine (1971)

I could hardly get away with not including this album, although in all honesty and for me personally, it’s always been slightly bedevilled by Lennon’s unusually less than peerless vocalising. I‘d love to believe it was a deliberate attempt to introduce an aura of fragility into the proceedings, but in reality it was probably too many Gitanes, Lennon’s preferred brand of tobacco.

Nevertheless ‘Oh my love,’ ‘Jealous Guy,’ and the title track have become “standards” and there is much else to enjoy – the grunge guitars on ‘It’s so hard,’ the ostinato on ‘Gimme some truth,’ and the subtle orchestration on ‘How,’ (yet another number deserving of a vocal overdub when Lennon had perhaps felt stronger).

Mind Games (1973)

A rather overlooked entry in the Lennon cannon, the 2010 remastered edition with its enhanced resolution highlights some of the original album’s production flaws; the rather homogenized and sterile sounds indelibly associated with crack L.A. sessioners rather than real interactive band members. An over abundance of treble or mid range equalisation in the mix, the overuse of strings and in some cases, background vocals, drag the overall sonic landscape down.

Lennon had been absent from the UK for more than two years and was being commercially usurped by a new wave of glam rock stars. With his normal lyrical incisiveness conspicuously absent, a different production approach in 1973 would have at least benefited the ‘heavier’ numbers like ‘Tight A$’ (a superb lengthier alternate take is currently in circulation), ‘Bring On The Lucie (Freeda People’) and ‘Only People’. As if to underline this point, the closer ‘Meat City’ boasts one of Lennon’s most distinctive guitar lines yet it all gets lost in an overcooked mix; purists should check out the ex-Beatle’s original home demo.

On the plus side, the songs are melodic, Lennon’s singing is strong and David Spinozza contributes distinctive guitar solos in best George Harrison tradition on ‘Tight A$’ and ‘Aisumasen’.

N.B.Collectors are advised to track down engineer Pete Cobbin’s 2002 remix. This edition features three bonus tracks which were jettisoned for the 2010 reissue but more importantly, a new sonic placement that enhances one’s aural appreciation of the album. Best of all, Cobbin rescues “Meat City” from its musical graveyard, boosting Lennon’s vocals whilst allowing the guitar lines to breathe. Unfortunately, Yoko Ono would receive considerable flak from purists, hence the reinstatement of her late husband’s original mixes for the 2010 “Signature” Box set.

Walls and Bridges (1974)

At this stage of the proceedings, I’m struggling with objectivity because I love this album, which puts me at odds with many listeners.

A gold album and one that spawned two hit US singles including the former Beatle’s only number one (‘Whatever gets you thru the night’) it was nevertheless issued to mixed reviews. ‘Nobody loves you (when you’re down and out)’ is always majestic, and readers are advised to track down the 2005 remix with the more prominently featured horn section. Other highlights include ‘What you got’ (angst and melodic inventiveness coalescing nicely), ‘Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)’ (Beatlesque guitars to the fore) and ‘Bless you’ (a paean to Yoko suitably adorned with added ninth chords and a killer middle section.)

Ron Aprea is a composer, arranger, producer, saxophonist, clarinetist, and flutist,. throughout his long career, he has performed with, amongstothers, Woody Herman, Les Elgart, Tito Puente, Frank Foster, Buddy Morrow, Billy May, Charlie Persip, Nat Adderley, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong. Both these links recall his time in New York’s Record Plant, working with John Lennon between June and August 1974. In 2015, he released an all instrumental album “Ron Aprea ‎– Pays Tribute To John Lennon & The Beatles.”

Rock‘n’Roll (1975)

Singing his little ol’scouse heart out like his life depended on it, Lennon revisits his pubescent years and wrings conviction from every early rock classic on this near definitive 2004 collection.

Unfortunately, this remixed version has now been superceded by the 2010 John Lennon box set which commemorated what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday and scales the set down to the original selections found on the initial vinyl release.

I love the three primary bonus tracks on the 2004 reissue, since I’ve always had a sneaking regard for Phil Spector’s radical reworkings on the sadly aborted 1973 prototype album. “Angel Baby” features Lennon crooning through Rosie Hamlin’s 1960 track, whilst the stentorian drumming on The Teddy Bears “To Know Her Is To Love Her,” written by Spector, is equally complemented by Lennon’s searing vocal. “Since My Baby Left Me,” with it’s call and response vocals, sounds like a giant party recording, and puts a fresh perspective on the old Arthur Crudup number, largely popularised by Elvis Presley.

Sadly missing are “Be My Baby,” a gloriously radical reinvention of the old Ronettes single which builds from a sole acoustic entree to a miasmic conglomeration of voice and rock ensemble, in addition to “Thirty Days,” a jaunty twelve bar nod to the Godfather of rock’n‘roll, Chuck Berry.

“Rock’n‘Roll” deserves a definitive boxed collection including “Rock’n‘Roll People,” alternate takes of “Move over Ms L,” and a riff driven “C’Mon Everybody.” Abbey Road studios now house the original master tapes since their transfer from New York several years ago after precautionary digital copies were made. Mark Lewisohn is still suitably distracted with his definitive three volume biography of The Beatles, so someone else will need to grasp the nettle.

The following link has some background history to the album.

Happy Xmas (War is over) (1971)

“White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” may invoke the warmest of yuletide good cheer, but in my opinion Lennon committed to tape the ultimate festive song for millions with a social conscience. Let us celebrate the birth of Our Lord, but equally reflect on the fact that every 25th December is tarnished by a major theatre of war somewhere in the world.

The Guardian newspaper in an edition dated 18 December 2011 offered a critique on “The Xmas factor: what makes a great Christmas song?” in which John & Yoko’s single was voted number one by a panel of judges, all rather meaningless but vaguely reassuring to see I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.

As for the song itself, Lennon’s plaintiff opening verse is underpinned by attractive suspended second/fourth and added ninth chords, before a strident G major tonal shift heralds the arrival of the heartfelt yuletide exhortation from Yoko and the Harlem Community Choir. Phil Spector applies suitable adornments in the form of sweeping strings, harps and bells thus ensuring repeated broadcasts for this mini masterpiece every festive holiday season.

Forget “Imagine,” this was John and Phil’s finest collaborative moment.

The Lennon Tapes (John & Yoko with Andy Peebles-BBC Radio One 6 December 1980)

Not the last interview he would ever give, but a useful overview of his life up to that point.

Peebles and his producer Paul Williams were hoping for 30 minutes, but Lennon was in an expansive mood and talked for over three hours, covering his life from 1966-1980. It’s not a particularly revelatory meeting – the ex-Beatle’s only cringe-worthy moment is a brief reference to the couple’s familial conception problems and his sperm count – but the man is enthused, and obviously positive about re-entering the public arena.

Thirty five years on, and with the shackles of his BBC contract removed, Peebles would elect to go public with his misgivings about the Lennon-Ono relationship. The article can be located at:

Opinions are deeply divided on this subject, but Lennon was undoubtedly economical with the musical truth about his resurgence, and Ono was enjoying a candlelit dinner with another man within weeks of her husband’s murder. Hmmmmmmm…

Recommended viewing

John Lennon – Imagine- the motion picture (1988)

Notable for the extensive use of film material recorded during the May/June ’71 “Imagine” album sessions.

Dick Cavett/Mike Douglas Shows (US Tv 1971 – 1972)

Lennon live on US Tv performing with Elephant’s Memory plus interesting conversation covering a range of subjects from feminism to the couple’s peace campaigns. Living in England at the time I never saw it, indeed precious little of Lennon was seen on our shores beyond a London Weekend Tv interview in 1973 and the famous “Old Grey Whistle Test” special two years later.

Toronto 1969/One to One Benefit show (1972)

Two live shows – one an impromptu appearance in Canada with The Plastic Ono Band a fortnight before announcing to the other Beatles that the band was finished and the second, highlights from the only fully ticketed official concerts the Lennons ever gave. The sound mix is a trifle sparse but John’s in excellent voice.

Recommended reading

John Lennon – The Rolling Stone interview (1970)

John Lennon – The playboy interview (1980)

Both interviews thoroughly recommended for personal insights, although there is a distinct mellowing in Lennon’s recollections in the latter volume.

Lennon – the definitive life (Tim Riley) (2011)

John Lennon (Philip Norman) (2008)

These two most recent comprehensive biographies shed new light on the man, but still fail to address key questions. Norman had the co-operation of Yoko Ono for his book, but she ultimately dismissed the work as “mean to John.” She should re-read it.

Lennon Revealed (Larry Kane) (2005)

Kane travelled with The Beatles on their ‘64/’65 US tours and maintained a friendship with Lennon for another decade. He analyses the man’s changing personality through Beatlemania, immigration, life in New York and fatherhood.

John Lennon - Drawings, Performances, Films (edited by Wulf Herzogenrath & Dorothy Hansen ) Cantz 1995

The essential guide to Lennon as a visual artist, including extracts from his infamous erotic lithographs.\


Lennon & The Beatles - Guitar Scores

I cannot indulge myself in my recording studio like “days of old” so when I decide to work on a “cover” I seek websites such as this one. They’re great for getting the intermediate player up and running. I require sites like this to save me time, and to sketch out the bones of the arrangement. Then comes the hard part breaking down the actual constituent tracks on the record. One volume for musicians I would heartily recommend is

“The Beatles – The Complete Scores”

Yes it contains mistakes – the piano transcription in “Martha my dear” is missing a note and “When I’m 64” is in the key of C major rather than C#major as varispeeded by Paul. I’m splitting hairs here – if you’re looking for accurate transcriptions of the recorded versions, then this is the volume. Issued in 1993 it’s startling that a reprint has never been commissioned. Definitely one of the “Beatle Bibles” on my studio shelves.

A nice collection of Bob Gruen’s iconic photographs of Lennon from the ’72-‘80 period.\

Overall though, I must confess to being disappointed at what’s out there Lennonwise on the worldwide web.

John Lennon – The Guitarist

Lennon was taught the “clawhammer” (Travis picking) guitar technique by Donovan in India during early 1968. It added new variety to his compositional techniques and can be heard on numbers like “Julia” (1968) and “Look at me.” (1970),

Youtube – It’s more a question of ‘what isn’t there?’ Just dip in and enjoy anything from Lennon’s mid sixties Kenwood demos to his last RKO interview.

Lennon's World Tour 1981 (The show that never was)

The Lennon-McCartney '74 reunion

Audio wise – nothing to get excited about – just a shame the sessions weren’t filmed. Nevertheless, a slice of history; the only time John & Paul would re-unite in the studio after the big split.