Early lifeJohn Lennon's childhood years were struck with tragedy. He lived with his parents in Liverpool until his father, Fred Lennon, walked out on the family. His mother, Julia, then decided that she was unable to care for John as well as she should and so gave him to her sister, Mimi, who resided nearby at 251 Menlove Avenue. Although John lived apart from his mother he still kept in contact with her through regular visits, and during this time she was responsible for introducing her son to a lifelong interest in music by teaching him how to play the banjo. John's life was to change dramatically soon after his 16th birthday when his mother was killed after she was struck by a car which was being driven by a drunken off-duty police officer. (The young Lennon unfortunately witnessed this event and it had a profound influence on some of his later songs). His Aunt Mimi was able to get him accepted into the Liverpool College of Art by showing them some of his drawings, and it was there that he met his future wife, Cynthia Powell. However, John steadily grew to hate the conformity of art school and like many young men of his age became increasingly interested in Rock 'n' Roll music and American singers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Eventually, in the late 1950s, Lennon formed his own skiffle group called The Quarry Men, which later became The Silver Beetles (a tribute to Buddy Holly's Crickets) and soon afterwards was shortened to The Beatles.
Beatles careerJohn Lennon often spoke his mind. On March 4, 1966, in an interview for the London Evening Standard with Maureen Cleave, he made the following statement:
"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me." The statement was part of a two-page interview that went virtually unnoticed in Britain. In July of that year, Lennon's words were reprinted in the United States fan magazine Datebook, leading to a backlash by conservative religious groups mainly in the rural South and Midwest states. Radio stations banned the group's recordings, and their albums and other products were burned and destroyed. Spain and the Vatican denounced Lennon's words, and South Africa banned Beatles music from the radio. On August 11, 1966, Lennon held a press conference in Chicago in order to address the growing furor. He told reporters "I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it. I'm sorry I opened my mouth. I'm not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we are greater or better."
Solo careerOf the four former Beatles, Lennon had perhaps the most varied recording career, often reflecting the vicissitudes of his personality. While he was still a Beatle, Lennon and Ono recorded three albums of experimental and difficult electronic music, Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album. His first 'solo' album of popular music was Live Peace In Toronto, recorded in 1969 (prior to the breakup of the Beatles) at the Rock 'n' Roll Festival in Toronto with a Plastic Ono Band including Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann. He also recorded three singles in his initial solo phase, the anti-war anthem "Give Peace a Chance", "Cold Turkey" (about his struggles with heroin) and "Instant Karma".
Following the Beatles' split in 1970, he released the Plastic Ono Band album, a raw, honest record, heavily influenced by Arthur Janov's Primal therapy, which Lennon had undergone previously. This was followed by Imagine , his most successful solo album, which dealt with some of the same themes. The title track is a lovely song which has become an anthem for world harmony, but Lennon himself was later dismissive of it, claiming he had "sugar coated" his message. Certainly there is irony in Lennon, a prodigious shopper, urging his fans to imagine life with "no possessions."
Perhaps in reaction, his next album, Sometime In New York City, was loud, raucous, and explicitly political, with songs about prison riots, racial and sexual relations, the British role in the sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland, and his own problems in obtaining a United States Green Card. Two more albums of personal songs, Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, and one of cover versions of rock and roll songs of his youth, came before 1975 when, following a fourteen-month split from Ono during which he had an affair with Ono's former secretary May Pang, he retired to concentrate on his family life.
The retirement lasted until 1980, when he and Ono produced Double Fantasy, practically a concept album dealing with their relationship.
Lennon's son with Cynthia, Julian Lennon, enjoys a notable recording career of his own, as does his son with Yoko, Sean Lennon.
Assassination and memorialIn the morning of December 8, 1980, in New York City, a mentally deranged fan, Mark David Chapman of Honolulu, asked for an autograph from Lennon, which he received. Chapman remained in the vicinity of the Dakota Apartments for most of that day, probably sneaking into the carriage vestibule of the Dakota as a fireworks demonstration in central Park about 9pm distracted the doorman and most in the street that evening. Later that evening, at 10:50 p.m., Lennon and Ono were returning via limousine to their apartment building, The Dakota -- 72nd Street & Central Park West -- from recording a single by Ono, "Walking On Thin Ice", for their next album. Chapman was hiding in the carriage vestibule as Lennon and Ono got out of the car. As Lennon walked past him, Chapman called out from the darkness "Mr. Lennon!", then moving forward assumed what witnesses later called a "combat stance," a crouched position with gun in both hands, and fired five shots just as Lennon was turning around. Four of the bullets struck Lennon in the back. He yelled "I'm shot, I'm shot," and ran a few steps towards the building before collapsing in the entranceway from the vestibule. A security guard called 911; Lennon remained conscious as paramedics arrived. Two police officers drove Lennon via their patrol car to Roosevelt Hospital. One of the officers, obviously trying to help Lennon maintain consciousness, asked the dying man if he knew who he was. Lennon's final words were reported to be "I'm John Lennon of the Beatles". As Lennon was choking on his own blood, it is more likely that the officers' initial reports are more correct and that Lennon simply said "Yeah" when asked if he was John Lennon. After arriving at the hospital, he died of cardiac arrest as a result of massive blood loss. Reportedly, the song playing on the hospital tannoy at the moment of Lennon's death was a Beatles hit, "All My Loving". A crowd was already gathering in the Roosevelt Hospital courtyard, some of the people on their knees in prayer. A young man led the Rosary.
Chapman made no attempt to flee. He paced up and down the sidewalk reading The Catcher in the Rye until police arrived. He surrendered immediately and told the police he had acted alone. News reporters on New York's WABC interviewed one police officer who described Chapman "as a whacko, flatly." Other policemen referred to him as a "local screwball".
Meanwhile, at the hospital, Yoko Ono was the first to be told the news of Lennon's death, to which she reportably remarked, "oh, no, no, no...tell me it isn't true." Later, in a press conference held in the Roosevelt Hospital courtyard, Dr. Stephan Lynn confirmed the news that John Winston Ono Lennon, founder of The Beatles, was dead. "Extensive resuscitative efforts were made," he said, "but in spite of transfusions and many procedures, he could not be resuscitated."
Hundreds, possibly thousands of people gathered in the street outside the Dakota that night. They lit candles, laid down flowers near the gate, and sang Lennon's best known songs. "He was a symbol of peace," one mourner said in an interview with WABC's Shelly Sonstein, "and the whole movement of realization." Back in the apartment, Yoko Ono was grateful to the people but sent word that their singing kept her awake; she asked that they disperse and re-convene in Central Park on the following Sunday, December 14, at 2 p.m. EST, for ten minutes' silent prayer. Her request for a silent gathering was honoured all over the world.
Millions of Beatles fans had thought of John Lennon almost as a second father, an older brother, or a son. His murder touched off emotional outpourings of grief around the world - some fans reportedly committed suicide upon hearing the news and it ended the hopes of millions that The Beatles would someday reunite and stage one last world tour.
In a vicious kind of irony, the two Beatles most committed to pacifism were both brutally attacked; George Harrison was stabbed by an intruder in his home two decades later.
The Strawberry Fields Memorial was constructed in Central Park, across the street from the Dakota building in memory of Lennon. It has become something of a shrine to Lennon, all the Beatles, and the cultural memory of the 1960s.
In 1988, Warner Bros. produced a documentary film, Imagine: John Lennon (sanctioned in part by Yoko Ono). The movie was a biography of the former Beatle, featuring interviews, rarely seen musical material, and narration by Lennon himself (formed from interviews and tapes recorded by Lennon). It also introduced "Real Love", one of the last songs composed by Lennon, in an early raw demo (a later demo would form the basis for the version rehashed by The Beatles for The Beatles Anthology).
In 1990, specially selected radio stations aired a syndicated series called The Lost Lennon Tapes. Hosted by Lennon publicist Elliot Mintz, the show spotlighted raw sessions from throughout Lennon's career with and without The Beatles, including rare material never released to the public.
In March, 2002, his native city, Liverpool, honored his memory by renaming their airport "Liverpool John Lennon Airport", and adopting as its motto a line from his song "Imagine", "Above us only sky".
Lennon is included in the top 10 of the 2002 "100 Greatest Britons" poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public. The BBC History Magazine comments: "Generational influence is immense".