What John Winston Ono Lennon did next

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As an indication of how bizarre Lennon’s life could get, an event occurred in early February that approaches pure surrealism when we examine it from a 2010 perspective, yet was highly symbolic in underground political circles at the time. At a community centre in north London, John and Yoko donated a bag of their recently shorn hair to Michael X, an up-and-coming Black Power leader and onetime enforcer for the slum landlord Rachman. X planned to auction the hair to raise money for his centre (the Black House); by way of reciprocation, he presented the Lennons with a gift of his own, a pair of bloodstained boxing shorts worn by Muhammad Ali during his 1966 victory over Henry Cooper. The ceremony was videotaped by Tony Cox, of all people, who was making a documentary about John and Yoko and their fascinating friends. After hair and boxing shorts had been exchanged, everyone smoked hashish.

Lennon’s politics were hard to keep track of. Echoing the chanting rhythms of “Give Peace A Chance”, he told the press in January: “I don’t belong to any left wing, right wing, middle wing, Black Panthers, white Christians, Protestants, Catholics or nothing.” Nevertheless, he had a socialist way of seeing the world and his instincts put him on the side of the minority groups, the downtrodden, the freedom fighters who stood up to the bosses, the powermen and the bullies. Friends warned him to steer clear of the volatile Michael X (who in 1975 would be hanged for murder in Trinidad), but Lennon evidently saw him as part of the Revolution, part of the Movement, just like Fidel Castro, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Chairman Mao. All the same, in an abstract reality, not much can be categorical. Would Lennon go so far as to fund bombers and killers? “My husband did not give money to the IRA,” Yoko Ono stated in February 2000, denying a report in The Observer that suggested otherwise. “He thought this money was to be used for children, orphans or women who needed it.” A cynic would argue he should have got a receipt. A realist might deduce that Lennon took a view on The Troubles from watching news reports, agreed to meet a bloke who knew a bloke, and was putty in the Provos’ hands. The fact is, Lennon walked a tightrope in his politics, endorsing all manner of student demonstrators, grass roots rioters and paramilitaries – while at the same time remaining the international face of pacifism. (The slogan Make Love Not War appears in his 1973 hit “Mind Games”, a paean to non-aggression, which he began writing in 1970.)

Lennon is frequently called a hypocrite because he sang “imagine no possessions” and then went for a stroll around the grounds of a mansion that had gates to keep the proletariat out. Or because he sermonised that the workers needed to be educated about the perils of television, when he himself was one of the great telly addicts of his day. But it’s conceivable that he saw no contradictions here, for an oft-remarked Lennon trait was his tendency to blurt out whatever he happened to be feeling at a given moment. A man with Lennon’s complex personality, who faced the daily craziness of an exceptionally unusual life, would surely wake up some days feeling totally different from the day before. He might proclaim to an underground political magazine (Red Mole) in January 1971: “You can’t take power without a struggle.” Alternatively, Tittenhurst might resound to the sound of the white piano as Lennon trilled the peacenik refrain “love is the answer, and you know that for sure”.

“I wouldn’t describe him as consistent,” admits Tariq Ali, one of the journalists who conducted the Red Mole interview. “John would shift, and later he would shift back again. But that’s what happens if you’re a famous individual who is not accountable to anyone. You go the way fancy takes you.”

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