Tuesday, December 13, 2016

John Lennon: Disliking the Artist, But Loving the Art

I noted in the social media that I found very distasteful the deluge of sentimentality evoked by the recent anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. A great many suggested that he'd been just about the most wonderful human being ever, right up there with Gandhi and Jesus. It made me queasy.

I adored The Beatles, the pre-psychedlia version much more than all others. Their music gave me enormous pleasure, and I always thought they were at their best when Lennon was singing lead on his own mike and Paul and George were harmonising homoerotically on another. And my impression, based on much, much reading and the testimony of many who knew him, is that, for a fairly large part of his short life, Lennon was a colossal dickhead, one who routinely belittled everyone in sight, including other musicians. No less than Ray Davies and Pete Townshend have spoken of Lennon’s sneering at them. When Donald Trump mocks the afflicted, we’re horrified, but many seem to remember Lennon’s spastic imitations as cute ‘n’ cuddly. At one point, he’d even committed the cardinal musician’s sin of stealing another’s instrument. 

Later, in life, he apparently mellowed a bit, though he was a frightful hypocrite, urging his audience to imagine no possessions even while he was renting a separate apartment in Manhatten’s Dakota apartment building just for his and the missus’s collection of fur coats. His anti-war activism seemed mostly about the sort of self-aggrandisement for which Bono and Sting have been widely and fervently derided. And toward the very end, he had dreadful taste in friends, such as the unspeakable LA counterculture radio personality turned celebrity suckup Elliot Mintz.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe it’s possible to dislike the artist and still love the art.

I actually feel considerable kinship with Lennon. Before what we might think of as The Great Mellowing in the Dakota years, he reflexively tried to intimidate pretty much everyone he met, and I, at around the same age, did exactly the same. I was painfully shy, and terrified, in spite of my beauty and brains and zingy wit, of being exposed as a grownup version of the lonely, awkward, sensitive boy who was picked second-to-last for every team (there’d almost always been someone even more athletically hopeless than I around). In early (and, to be honest, not-so-early) adulthood, I felt instinctively that the best way to protect myself was to hurt others before they could hurt me. I have reason to believe that Lennon felt very much the same.

But his father had abandoned him when he was a child, Lennon’s apologists cry out as one. Aunt Mimi had been cold and censorious! His mother had been killed crossing the road! All awful things, to be sure, but since when do we not hold adults accountable for their behaviour regardless of how painful their childhoods might have been? Do we pat the convicted wife-beater on the head and say, “We understand you put the missus in the hospital because your own father had treated your mother that way, and abused you as well”? Of course we don’t, as, indeed, we cannot.


  1. I love this. It's all true, but as you say, love the art.

  2. Yes. And the adage 'never meet your heroes,' while not always applicable, resonates.

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