When Loving Lennon Became Difficult

December 18, 2020   •   By Lucía Benavides

WHEN I WAS six years old, my plan was to marry John Lennon in heaven.

This was the 1990s in Buenos Aires, Argentina — not exactly the time and place for an avid Beatles fan. Lennon had been dead for over a decade. But that didn’t stop me from loving the man, whom I only knew from photos, movies, and, perhaps most importantly, his music.

In one of my first ever diary entries, dated April 2, 1995, I wrote, simply: Te amo John Lennon. Several drawings, dated 1996, show John Lennon — in a dazzling red suit — and me getting married and some hearts with badly spelled sentences inside of them. (“My husband is John Lennon” and “I will marry John in the sky” are some of the creepier ones.)

It’s hard to say what drew my attention to Lennon. Certainly, I was influenced by my mother — a former Beatlemania teen — but that doesn’t explain why John was the focus of my obsession. Maybe it’s because my mother played his solo music specifically when I was in her womb. Maybe it’s because John had written a song with my name on it. Maybe it’s because there was a magical bond between John and I that spanned time and space, unexplained by physics. Most of my life, I lived by this supernatural idea.

It wasn’t until I read the book John, written by his first wife Cynthia Lennon, that I began to de-romanticize the man. I was 22 years old by then, already a loud-mouthed feminist. Reading about Lennon as a man who emotionally abused his wife and physically hit her once, and who practically ignored his son, was hard to swallow. I remember lying in bed, setting the book down every now and then, and looking up at the ceiling, as if searching for John, asking him: Why? I had loved him and looked up to him for so long. Why was he like this?

By the time I read Cynthia’s book, I’d read feminist theory from the ’60s and ’70s and was aware of the context in which Lennon had become famous. As a white Briton, he had more access to fame than the Black artists whose songs inspired the Beatles’ early music. I was aware of the underage girls that were beckoned into their hotel rooms. At first, I was jealous of these girls. But, laying with Cynthia’s book on my lap and her words in my head, it became clear that I couldn’t ignore all of these things anymore. I couldn’t be a feminist and keep brushing them off.

This December, Lennon will have been dead for 40 years — the age he was when he died in 1980. Fans and celebrities will probably commemorate him by posting old photos, sharing a particularly poignant quote of his that still resonates with the times. Maybe various peace symbols will hang off of buildings in his honor. But very few people will talk about Lennon’s dark past, his violent side, his mistreatment toward women. Few people want to — and I’m no exception.

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What I’ve always loved about John Lennon was his unabashed honesty.

As a shy girl, I liked his loudness. He was unrestrained. He made jokes to stuffy journalists who took their jobs too seriously, and made silly faces at the camera when he walked past. It would make me laugh.

As a teenager, I liked his political views. They’re still relevant: war is just an excuse to sell arms and make money, religion is often used to suppress people, politicians are untrustworthy. He vocalized the injustices he saw, he spoke to journalists about it, he used his fame to launch a “peace campaign” against the Vietnam War. He didn’t stay silent and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if that meant getting in trouble.

In 1966, Lennon told a British newspaper, while speaking of religion, that “Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink. […] I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity” and that the Beatles, at that time, were “more popular than Jesus.” A few months after the interview was published in the UK — provoking no controversy — US radio talk shows in the South took the quote out of context and subsequently threw the situation out of proportion. Dozens of radio stations refused to play their music. Lennon received many death threats, including some from the Ku Klux Klan.

Sure, maybe the comment was ego-centric: you’ve got to think pretty highly of yourself to publicly state you’re more famous than one of the world’s most influential religious leaders. But, to me, John Lennon had always been more important than Jesus Christ, so I thought the comment was just one more example of his dry, sarcastic humor (a joke that a woman or person of color, to this day, would never be able to make).

His refusal to retract his remark (except for saying that he was “sorry he opened his mouth”) emboldened me to unapologetically speak my mind. When I was in high school in the early 2000s, and the term “feminist” hadn’t yet been co-opted by multinational companies to sell merchandise, I thought of John when I voiced my opinions.

“Are you a feminist?” a boyfriend asked me once when I said he should stop saying “grow some balls” and start saying “grow some ovaries” instead.

“Of course I am,” I said, a little nervous of his response.

“Feminists are just angry women who hate men,” he told me matter-of-factly.

I didn’t say anything back; I felt belittled and, honestly, I didn’t want him to stop liking me. I didn’t want to come off as angry, as he predicted I’d be, if I defended myself. How did John do it? I thought. How was he so unafraid?

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In 1972, a few years after the Beatles broke up, John Lennon published a feminist anthem co-written with Yoko Ono.

The song’s title — “Woman Is the [n-word] of the World” — caused a stir, mostly for the use of the contentious word by a white man. He tried to excuse it in a televised interview with Dick Cavett, where he gave credit to the expression to Ono, who had said it in an interview some years back. His explanation is cringeworthy to watch now: he says the people who “reacted strangely” to it were “usually white and male” and that “all my Black friends feel I have quite a right to say it.”

In the song, Lennon and Ono call out the hypocrisy of men for putting women “down while pretending she’s above us” and for making “her bear and raise our children” but then leaving “her flat for being a fat old mother hen.” It’s not a particularly nuanced message, nor does it get at the intersectionality of women’s experiences, but it does its job as a five-minute song and, after all, it is an insanely famous Beatle singing about feminism. No other Beatle — or white male artist at the time, that I’m aware of — was doing so.

I feel weird about the song now, but I naïvely loved it in high school and college, thinking it was brave and ahead of its time. It didn’t take long for me to come across writers like Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis, and realize that, of course, Lennon wasn’t saying anything new. If anything, he was saying a watered-down version of what the actual women from the movements were saying at the time.

He was also saying what my own mother had been telling me about my place in the world. But her words didn’t sound as revolutionary as Lennon’s to a teenager who looked up to male rock stars more so than to mothers.

The song was the beginning of Lennon coming to terms with his “macho past,” as he called it. In the same 1972 interview with Dick Cavett, Lennon says that when he first heard Ono use the controversial expression, he was defensive: “At the time, I was more of a chauvinist than I am now, and I must say, I was saying, ‘Well, come on, what about this and what about that?’ And I argued a lot.”

It was during this decade — the last decade of his life, when he was in his 30s — that Lennon explored his misogynist past and attempted to challenge gender roles. His biggest influence was undoubtedly Yoko Ono.

Ono took care of the family enterprise, and Lennon stayed home to raise their son, Sean. From 1975 to mid-1980, the year of his death, Lennon was virtually out of the public eye, busy being a father and a husband. He didn’t tour, he didn’t record any albums, he didn’t take any interviews. Many people in the music industry — including Mick Jagger, who said Lennon was hiding behind his child — criticized him for it. But Lennon was happy to lay back and enjoy family life — to cook and take strolls and indulge in naps — especially after a busy life with the Beatles. He later said it was “more important to have a relationship with Yoko and the child than to be seen.”

Ono was already a prominent artist when she met Lennon in 1966 — and an ardent feminist. Their marriage was, from the very start, an equal partnership. They wrote songs together, they filmed movies together, they made art together, they held war protests together. They were criticized for doing everything together; Ono in particular. She was famously blamed for breaking up the Beatles and was referred to in the press as the “dragon lady” who put Lennon “under a spell” — as if he were an impressionable child, instead of a grown man. She was also blamed for breaking up Lennon’s marriage with Cynthia, whom he cheated on and left to be with Ono.

People loved to criticize Ono for her “influence” on Lennon — they still do. But they miss a critical point, I think: that the relationship only seemed like a threat because it went against the typical dynamic of a heterosexual relationship of the time — and because Ono wasn’t white, or a quiet woman.

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For the first nine years of my life, before my family and I moved to the United States, I didn’t actually understand Lennon’s lyrics because I didn’t speak English. I would put together Spanish words that sounded like English (my favorite is hielo saltarín — “jumping ice” for yellow submarine) and I knew, vaguely, that they were often singing about love.

But once I got around to understanding what the Beatles and John were saying, I began to absorb their toxic narrative of romantic love that I was already being fed by mainstream media. In the song “Run for Your Life,” from the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul, Lennon threatens a lover — whom he diminishes by calling a “little girl” — if she so much as spends time with other men:

Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or I won’t know where I am

You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end, little girl

It’s a more violent and aggressive version of his later song “Jealous Guy,” from his solo 1971 album Imagine, where he uses his jealousy to excuse what seems to be emotional or physical abuse:

I began to lose control
I didn’t mean to hurt you
I’m sorry that I made you cry
I didn’t want to hurt you
I’m just a jealous guy

How do you come to terms with loving an artist who, in the end, is a misogynist? Or is transphobic? Or is racist? If the person is alive, you hope, maybe, that they acknowledge their wrongdoings. But what happens when that person is dead? How can you hold them responsible for a past that they didn’t have enough time to reconcile?

It’s not even about separating the artist from the art anymore. I love John Lennon, period. It’s not just his music I want to consume; I want to hear his political views, I want to watch endless interviews, I want to read every book about him. I’ve visited his hometown of Liverpool and walked down the same streets he’d walk as a teenager, took the same buses he’d take to the city center. I imagined him there, next to me, in some parallel universe; trying to channel him as if he were some kind of god or guru.

I recently told a friend about my struggle with Lennon, and she sympathized, saying that for her it was “the same with Woody Allen.”

“It’s not the same as Woody Allen, that guy’s a monster!” I said, almost defensively. How could anyone compare the two?

“Yeah, but his films are so good,” she responded. “It’s so hard to know about what he did but still have a part of you that loves his films.”

I nodded, still somewhat shocked, but realizing that for her, it was the same kind of struggle. I haven’t watched a Woody Allen film in years because I never cared about the guy — so boycotting him was easy. The intellectual part of me understood the connection my friend made, but the emotional part of me didn’t: They are not the same thing. Where was I drawing the line, then, on who is a monster and who isn’t?

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When I was 19 years old, I got my first tattoo: John Lennon’s self-portrait doodle, on my wrist. I went to the tattoo parlor with a group of friends, one of whom asked me what I’d do “if we found out John Lennon killed babies or something like that.” Basically, what would I do if it turned out Lennon was a horrible person?

I think about that now, 12 years later, knowing what I know about Lennon’s past. They’re things I could have known then, but didn’t come across in my readings, or perhaps just blissfully ignored. I knew he was a troubled soul, but I excused it by talking about his past: both his father and mother abandoned him, and he was raised by an emotionally distant aunt.

In her book John, Cynthia Lennon talks about their life together as teenage art students in Liverpool. She reflects on how loving, cruel, and needy Lennon could be. She also talks about their high-profile divorce in 1968: how Lennon disappeared when he left with Yoko Ono and initially tried to sue her for divorce on grounds of adultery, seeking full custody of their son Julian (which he didn’t get). The divorce settled for a low sum of money, causing Cynthia to auction off many of the things Lennon left behind to make ends meet.

And Julian was virtually pushed out of Lennon’s life. That is, until 1973, when Lennon’s girlfriend May Pang, whom he was with for 18 months during a brief separation from Ono, encouraged him to reconnect with Julian. (According to Pang, Lennon ended their relationship after disappearing for two days and then announcing he had reconciled things with Ono.)

In 2015, Julian told the Daily Telegraph that Lennon was a hypocrite:

Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces — no communication, adultery, divorce? You can’t do it, not if you’re being true and honest with yourself.

Lennon’s reclusive years with his second son Sean, then, make some sense: he wanted to “do it right” this time and make up for not being there for Julian, who was born before the Beatles hit peak fame. But dedicating himself to Sean couldn’t undo how absent he had been with Julian.

In August 1980, Lennon eventually left his househusband life to record one last album with Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy, which featured songs written by both of them. The album was released that November, just three weeks before Lennon was shot and killed in front of his New York City apartment in the Upper West Side.

In the months before the release of the album, he did various interviews — for the first time in five years. But, compared to the jittery and nervous Lennon of the early 1970s, who constantly interrupted his interviewers or made jokes in quick succession, as if trying to fill the silence, this Lennon was more mature. He spoke of his life at home, his past with the Beatles, his take on what the 1980s were going to bring.

And he reflected more on his misogynist past. This time, he publicly admitted personal wrongdoings:

I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. […] I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.

Three months later, Lennon died.

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In 2010, on what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, I visited New York City and spent hours at Lennon’s memorial in Central Park, called Strawberry Fields. Hundreds of people were there singing nonstop Beatles songs and Lennon songs. Some had brought guitars, others brought signs; one person had set up a keyboard in the middle of that mess. I felt at home immediately; I loved everyone around me, though they were all strangers. There was some kind of understanding between us all: Oh, you know every lyric to this song, too?

I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve felt such electrifying energy. I think of what it must have been like in that same spot in December 1980, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered to pay tribute to Lennon in the days following his death. The archival news footage shows people of all ages, ethnicities, and genders holding candles, singing, and crying. I myself cry every time I watch it, as if I were somehow reliving that moment too — a moment I never actually lived through.

But Lennon’s untimely death turned his image into a one-dimensional figure, or a symbol of sorts: The Peace Activist. It happens often when artists die young — it’s a tragic event, and we hold on to what they did in such a short amount of time. We forget about their faults; or at least we say, sullenly, how sad it is they didn’t get a chance to work through them. We forget they’re three-dimensional humans with fears and dreams and darkness.

In his interview with Playboy in 1980, Lennon specifically criticized the romanticization of artists:

Listen, there’s nothing wrong with following examples. We can have figureheads and people we admire, but we don’t need leaders. […] [T]his doesn’t mean there isn’t validity in the message. The swimming may be fine, right? But forget about the teacher. If the Beatles had a message, it was that. With the Beatles, the music is the point. Not the Beatles as individuals.

I’m not sure how Lennon would have felt about so many people, 40 years after his death, still idolizing him. Maybe he would have appreciated the continuous love for his music. But I don’t think he would have wanted me, a 31-year-old Argentine-American woman in 2020, to look up to him as a role model, much less one who’s held up to current feminist standards.

When people ask me about loving Lennon despite him being, essentially, an asshole, I contradict myself at every turn. But the thing is, I think people ask because they themselves don’t know how to approach it. I think we’re all asking ourselves what do we do about The Artist We Admire Who Did That Awful Thing.

Maybe, for starters, we can take them off the pedestal. All I know for certain is that I don’t plan to marry John Lennon in heaven anymore.

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Lucía Benavides is a writer and journalist based in Barcelona. She’s a regular contributor to NPR and PRI’s The World and has been published in LitHubThe Atlantic, and Texas Monthly, among others.