Three decades after his tragic death in New York City at age forty, John Lennon retains quite a grip on our cultural imagination. He has been the subject of countless biographies, magazine articles, and documentaries. In November, a BBC Masterpiece Theater special explored his final days with the Beatles; and the recently released independent film Nowhere Boy delved into his childhood and adolescence. His has been one of the most chronicled lives of our times.
Now some new information about Lennon has surfaced. Rolling Stone magazine writer Jonathon Cott interviewed Lennon just three days before his murder on December 8, 1980. After Lennon's death, only brief excerpts from the interview were published. Recently, Cott unearthed the original tapes and Rolling Stone published the entire interview in the December 23, 2010 issue.
Music critics and fans are understandably interested in the details the interview furnishes about Lennon's plans for a musical comeback just before his untimely death. I was intrigued by something else. Throughout the interview, the rock icon provides a wealth of commentary that relates to his evolving ideas about manhood. When Lennon was gunned down in front of his apartment on the Upper West Side by a deeply disturbed 25-year-old man, the world lost not only one of the greatest musical talents of the 20th century. It also lost an artist whose sense of himself as a man reflected the cultural shifts in gender norms that had been catalyzed by multicultural women's movements, and whose fame and example helped pioneer a new kind of masculinity for his and subsequent generations of men.
Lennon is revered on the left as an artist who used his public platform to oppose the U.S. war in Vietnam; his anthems "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," "Give Peace a Chance" and of course "Imagine" are revered by peace activists (and others) worldwide. But Lennon was perhaps the most well-known male artist of his era to embrace feminism -- and incorporate feminist insights about masculinity and relationships into his art.
After a brief period of high-profile anti-Vietnam war activism in the early 1970s, the former Beatle turned to subjects in his music and personal life that spoke to some of the changes faced by men of his generation: growing up and assuming adult responsibilities, nurturing more egalitarian relationships with women, being emotionally present for their children. One of his songs that decried sexism, "Woman is The Ni#&*er of the World" (1972), earned Lennon a spot in Michael Kimmel and Tom Mosmiller's 1992 anthology Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States 1776-1990, a documentary history.
Lennon was a complicated person who struggled (often quite publicly) with his shortcomings as a father, a partner and a friend. He could be difficult and emotionally abusive. Many writers have noted that his audacious ambition and stunning musical achievements as a young man were propelled - in part - by his efforts to produce art through which he could communicate - and perhaps transcend - the pain he experienced as a young boy, when his parents effectively abandoned him. It is no small irony - and it is indefensible -- that Lennon similarly neglected his first son, Julian.
But despite the shortcomings of the man behind the myth, as a Beatle and as a solo act John Lennon produced some of the most popular and memorable music in history. His songs have become a part of our cultural fabric and collective psyche; the enduring popularity of his artistic contributions is testament to the fact that he connected -- emotionally and intellectually - with hundreds of millions (billions?) of people.
In light of that connection and Lennon's continuing appeal, I wanted to spotlight some of the things he said in his last interview about a number of topics related to the major gender transformations of his -- and our -- time: fatherhood, tough guy posturing, feminism, and women. Three decades later his thoughts on these critical subjects are just as relevant and enduring as his music.
The thing about the child is... it's still hard. I'm not the greatest dad on earth, I'm doing me best. But I'm a very irritable guy, and I get depressed. I'm up and down, up and down, and he's (then-five-year-old son Sean) had to deal with that too - withdrawing from him and then giving, and withdrawing and giving. I don't know how much it will affect him in later life, but I've been physically there.
On tough guy posturing:
I'm often afraid, but I'm not afraid to be afraid, otherwise it's all scary. But it's more painful to try not to be yourself. People spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else, and I think it leads to terrible diseases. Maybe you get cancer or something. A lot of tough guys get cancer, have you noticed? John Wayne, Steve McQueen. I think it has something to do -- I don't know, I'm no expert -- with constantly living or getting trapped in an image or an illusion of themselves, suppressing some part of themselves, whether it's the feminine side or the fearful side.
I'm well aware of that because I come from the macho school of pretense. I was never really a street kid or a tough guy. I used to dress like a Teddy boy and identify with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, but I never really was in real street fights or real down-home gangs. I was just a suburban kid, imitating the rockers. But it was a big part of one's life to look tough. I spent the whole of my childhood with shoulders up around the top of me head and me glasses off because glasses were sissy, and walking in complete fear, but with the toughest-looking face you've ever seen... I wanted to be this tough James Dean all the time. It took a lot of wrestling to stop doing that, even though I still fall into it when I get insecure and nervous.
On love, race and feminism:
...we hear from all kinds of people. One kid living up in Yorkshire wrote this heartfelt letter about being both Oriental and English and identifying with John and Yoko. The odd kid in the class. There are a lot of those kids who identify with us -- as a couple, a biracial couple, who stand for love, peace, feminism and the positive things of the world.
On learning from women:
I have to keep remembering that I never really was (a tough guy). That's what Yoko has taught me. I couldn't have done it alone -- it had to be a female to teach me. That's it. Yoko has been telling me all the time, 'It's all right, it's all right.' I look at early pictures of meself, and I was torn between being Marlon Brando and being the sensitive poet -- the Oscar Wilde part of me with the velvet, feminine side. I was always torn between the two, mainly opting for the macho side, because if you showed the other side, you were dead.
On his song "Woman" (1972):
'Woman' came about because, one sunny afternoon in Bermuda, it suddenly hit me what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms...but any truth is universal. What dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the beginning of the song. It's a 'we' or it ain't anything. The song reminds me of a Beatles track, though I wasn't trying to make it sound like a Beatles track. I did it as I did 'Girl' many years ago -- it just sort of hit me like a flood, and it came out like that. 'Woman' is the grown-up version of 'Girl.'
This interview -- and many others over the years -- makes clear that John Lennon was strong enough both to acknowledge his own vulnerability and fear, and also to embrace women's leadership, both personally and politically. For a man who would have turned 70 this year, he was way ahead of the curve. It is one of the defining tragedies of our cultural moment that a non-violent man - the leader of the Beatles! -- who possessed the rare gift of translating his gender-bending introspection into brilliant, accessible art was ultimately silenced by another man's violence.