In this era of moral reckoning, when many men who were once regarded as heroes are currently considered unforgivably flawed, what can be said of John Lennon? Lennon, who has now been dead for nearly as long as he lived, would have turned 80 Oct. 9. How does the ex-Beatle hold up as a figure worthy of hero status when seen through the modern prisms of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and liberal woke culture?
Lennon’s critics, of which there has never been any shortage, can point to his many failings as husband, father, son and friend, not to mention his alcohol and drug abuse, anti-social behavior and treatment of women. In the song “Getting Better ” Paul McCartney laments, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.” Sir Paul wasn’t singing about himself.
Not long before he died, Lennon admitted he wrote the lyrics. “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I used to be cruel to my woman … I was a hitter … I fought men, and I hit women. That is why I always go on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace … 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 how I treated women as a youngster.”
At 25, Lennon wrote “Run For Your Life,” with its shocking admission: “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” a line he lifted from Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House,” which was recorded by Elvis Presley. To drive home the point, Lennon added the lyrics, “Let this be a sermon I mean everything I said; baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead.” Eight years later, Lennon would call “Run For Your Life” his “least favorite Beatles song.” What happened?
The year after writing “Run For Your Life,” Lennon met Yoko Ono, who would introduce him to feminist sensibilities. Soon afterward, Lennon wrote “All You Need Is Love” for the world’s first-ever transatlantic television broadcast, which was followed by the raucous street anthem, “Give Peace A Chance” and then “Power To The People,” in which he asked his “comrades and brothers” something many of them had no doubt ever asked themselves: “How do you treat your own woman back home?”
In 1972, all hell broke loose with the release of Lennon and Ono’s shocking pro-feminist anthem, the title of which included the most forbidden slur for Black Americans to describe the plight of women. A searing indictment of a diseased and racist patriarchy, the song was widely banned and labeled “racist” and “anti-woman” by the very patriarchy it condemned. Lennon remained defiantly unapologetic.
“I had to find out about myself and my attitudes toward women,” he told talk-show host Dick Cavett. Besides, Lennon pointed out, the people most likely to have a negative reaction to the song were white and male. Lennon then read an unflinching statement of support from Ron Dellums, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and told Cavett, “I really believe that women have the worst, whatever it is. However badly or how poor people are, it’s the woman who takes it when they get home.” And with that, Lennon took the stage and belted out these still chilling lyrics:
We make her paint her face and dance
If she won’t be a slave, we say that she don’t love us;
If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man
While putting her down, we pretend that she’s above us
With Lennon under attack, his friend Dick Gregory, the revered African American comedian turned civil rights leader, came to his defense. Previously, Gregory had gifted Lennon with a prayer book, which along with a piece from Ono’s book “Grapefruit,” helped inspire “Imagine.” Now Gregory would bolster Lennon and Ono by posing with them for the cover of Jet, with the headline, “Ex-Beatle Tells How Black Stars Changed His Life.” Lennon told Jet, “I was given back my body in the 1950s by Black music. I appreciate it, and I’ll never stop acknowledging it. Black music is my life.” That same year, Lennon and Ono would receive a “Positive Image of Women” citation from the National Organization for Women for their song’s “strong pro-feminist statement.”
Nevertheless, there were tough times ahead for Lennon. He would callously mistreat Ono, and their marriage would hang in the balance while he partied for 18 months with his buddies in California, a period he later dubbed as his “lost weekend.” Lennon was fortunate to pass through the eye of the storm and find his way back, not just to his true love, but to his highest values.
By the time he turned 40, the age which Carl Jung describes as “the old age of youth and the youth of old age,” Lennon had matured. In “Woman,” from “Double Fantasy,” he was finally able to express the depth of his love and sorrow he had caused the women in his life:
Woman, I can hardly express
My mixed emotions at my thoughtlessness,
After all, I’m forever in your debt;
Woman, please let me explain,
I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain
So let me tell you again and again and again
I love you, now and forever
“Woman” is clearly a personal apology and declaration of love to Ono. However, Lennon also seems to be singing from an archetypal vantage point on behalf of all men to all women from time immemorial. Eighty years after his birth and 40 years after his death, there is still a lot to admire and respect about John Lennon beyond his musical genius.
The Beatles refused to play for segregated audiences. Lennon made poignant and powerful calls for racial equality in “Imagine” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Lennon was a supporter of the Black Panthers and invited founder Bobby Seale to join him to talk about racism and economic inequality on a nationally televised daytime talk program, “The Mike Douglas Show.” He was an ally of Black social activists.
It must also be noted that Lennon’s personal journey in relation to the feminine is symbolic of a journey that countless American men need to commit to embarking on. His transformation from misogynist to feminist to househusband remains remarkable. As Lennon put it, “We can’t have a revolution that doesn’t involve and liberate women. It’s so subtle the way you’re taught male superiority.”
That Lennon so often fell short of his ideals reflects his humanity. That he continued to grow as a man reflects his commitment to psychological wholeness. His message of peace, love, gender and racial equality, and social justice resonates as deeply now as ever. That is what makes John Lennon a hero for any age.