By Jordan Michael Smith
After John Lennon was shot on Dec. 8, 1980, thousands of fans spontaneously gathered around his apartment in New York City, imagining what the apostle of peace might have accomplished with the rest of his life. The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund received an outpouring of donations, some of which described the late Beatles songwriter as a “humanitarian.”
That was one John Lennon. And it was the one the world chose to remember, the Lennon opposed to the Vietnam War and hosting bed-ins for peace with Yoko Ono. But that was not the only Lennon, nor the final one. In fact, the one who emerged in 1980 after five years of shunning public life held views far removed from those of the counterculture icon. Yet this Lennon—a wiser, more honest self, according to the singer—seems to have been erased from public memory in favor of the bearded prophet perpetually singing “Imagine.”
In the last major interview Lennon gave, to Playboy in late 1980 (and later released unedited as a book, All We Are Saying), he and Yoko Ono offered opinions that can fairly be described as chastened, jaded, even provincial. The Lennon memorialized in Strawberry Fields in New York City, John Lennon Park in Havana, or the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavík—or the Lennon martyred at monuments in Italy, Spain, Peru, Hungary, and England—would not have said the following: “I am not going to get locked in that business of saving the world on stage. The show is always a mess and the artist always comes off badly… . All of you who are reading this, don’t bother sending me all that garbage about, ‘Just come and save the Indians, come and save the blacks, come and save the war veterans’.”
When it was pointed out that a Beatles reunion could possibly raise $200 million for a poverty-stricken country in South America, Lennon had no time for it. “You know, America has poured billions into places like that. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. After they’ve eaten that meal, then what? It lasts for only a day. After the $200,000,000 is gone, then what? It goes round and round in circles.” It’s a critique of foreign aid readers of P.T. Bauer would be familiar with. “You can pour money in forever. After Peru, then Harlem, then Britain. There is no one concert. We would have to dedicate the rest of our lives to one world concert tour, and I’m not ready for it.”
This was not the ’60s revolutionary who hung out with Yippies and Black Panthers. Not only did Lennon dismiss his earlier efforts, he rejected the entire idea of social change through political action. “I have never voted for anybody, anytime, ever,” he said. “Even at my most so-called political. I have never registered and I never will. It’s going to make a lot of people upset, but that’s too bad.”
“I dabbled in so-called politics in the late Sixties and Seventies more out of guilt than anything,” he revealed. “Guilt for being rich, and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn’t enough and you have to go and get shot or something, or get punched in the face, to prove I’m one of the people. I was doing it against my instincts.”
For Lennon, the political gave way to the personal and what he saw as a much more important, difficult battle. “The hardest thing is facing yourself,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside you and what isn’t, when you’re pulling the wool over your own eyes. That’s the hardest one.”
Nothing seems less like the popular idea of Lennon, but there was more. In his definitive song, “Imagine”—Yoko Ono has said its lyrics express “just what John believed”—he famously dreams of a world with “no possessions.” The mature Lennon explicitly disavowed such naïve sentiments:
I worked for money and I wanted to be rich. So what the hell—if that’s a paradox, then I’m a socialist. But I am not anything. What I used to be is guilty about money. … Because I thought money was equated with sin. I don’t know. I think I got over it, because I either have to put up or shut up, you know. If I’m going to be a monk with nothing, do it. Otherwise, if I am going to try and make money, make it. Money itself isn’t the root of all evil.
The man who famously called for imagining a world with “No religion” also jettisoned his anti-theism. “People got the image I was anti-Christ or antireligion,” he said. “I’m not at all. I’m a most religious fellow. I’m religious in the sense of admitting there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m certainly not an atheist.”
Even more shocking to the idea of Lennon as a secular leftist, or a deep thinker, the man rejected evolution. “Nor do I think we came from monkeys, by the way,” he insisted. “That’s another piece of garbage. What the hell’s it based on? We couldn’t’ve come from anything—fish, maybe, but not monkeys. I don’t believe in the evolution of fish to monkeys to men. Why aren’t monkeys changing into men now? It’s absolute garbage.”
To some extent, Lennon simply took the same path that many Baby Boomers followed, from sloganeering left-winger to almost conservative father and husband. His final interviews make clear he was above all concerned with his family. “I’m not here for you,”he said, speaking to his fans. “I’m here for me and her and the baby.” He revered the institution of marriage, explaining how much it meant to get the state approving his union with Ono. “[R]ituals are important, no matter what we thought as kids. … So nowadays it’s hip not to be married. But I’m not interested in being hip.”
More than anything else, the Boomer sense of entitlement enraged him, to the point of sounding a little like another John—the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten:
I used to think that the world was doing it to me and that the world owed me something, and that either the conservatives or the socialists or the fascists or the communists or the Christians or the Jews were doing something to me; and when you’re a teenybopper, that’s what you think. I’m forty now. I don’t think that anymore, ‘cause I found out it doesn’t f—-ing work!
Lennon’s disillusionment, if that’s what it was, never carried him all the way to the right: he never became a Reagan Democrat, let alone a neoconservative. He was a stay-at-home husband and avowed feminist and remained deeply antiwar until his death. But he was far removed from his adoring fans’ image of him as a walking United Nations.
In fact, Lennon died as something of an individualist. “Produce your own dream,” he advised in lieu of getting involved in politics. “If you want to save Peru, go save Peru. It’s quite possible to do anything, but not if you put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don’t expect Carter or Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself.”
Lennon once sang, in “Revolution,” “But when you talk about destruction / don’t you know that you can count me out” to express his ambivalence about Weatherman-style violence. By 1980 he was skeptical even about nonviolent social change. “I can’t wake you up. You can wake you up. I can’t cure you. You can cure you.”
He had traveled a long way from his New Left days. This Lennon was more complex, less idealistic than the one on posters and T-shirts worldwide. Imagine that.
Jordan Michael Smith has written for The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and The New Republic.