Q&A with Lesley-Ann Jones, author of ‘The Search for John Lennon’
The British rock historian answers questions about one of music’s brightest stars – and the shadows he left behind.
The Fab Four had nicknames: the cute one, the quiet one, the smart one, the funny one. The brainy Beatle was also dizzyingly complex, as demonstrated in “The Search for John Lennon: The Life, Loves, and Death of a Rock Star,” which arrives as fans mark the 40th anniversary of his murder in New York on Dec. 8, 1980. Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga spoke with the book’s author, British rock historian Lesley-Ann Jones, about her deeply perceptive portrait of this brilliant, troubled, not-always-admirable musician.
Q: What surprised you about John Lennon’s life?
I didn’t realize quite how much his songwriting was a blatant cry for help. He’s always trying to claw his way back to his mother. I’ve interviewed many rock stars, and it’s struck me how much these guys tend to have in common. They almost always come to music as an escape. They’ve mostly had dysfunctional childhoods with abuse or abandonment, and there’s a massive void that they’re looking to fill in some way. For the book, I wanted to approach it from a woman’s and a mother’s point of view – bring the small boy John back, see [the world] through a child’s eyes, and try to bring him along with me and understand him at every stage.
Q: How does the hit Beatles song “Help!” fit into this narrative?
He wrote it when he was 24. It was a very upbeat, jolly song that we’d dance around to. If you really listen to the words – “Help! I need somebody / Help! Not just anybody” – he’s crying out to his mum. When I was a child listening to these very catchy songs, I had no idea that they were so personal, and so multilayered and so full of his own angst, trying to work things out, get a handle on himself, and find out who he was.
Q: Lennon often comes across as a mean, cruel, and violent person. How should we consider those parts of his personality?
He hadn’t the best start in life, and fear was the thing that drove John the most. It is very important to reveal him in all his facets, warts and all, how he compromised himself horribly to become things he didn’t believe in for the sake of fame and fortune.
Q: Yoko Ono, Lennon’s second wife, is often painted as a villain who broke up the Beatles. How do you view her?
She was his salvation in so many ways. For one, she was the ultimate mother-replacement therapy. She also was a much more enlightened, better-educated person than John and a trained musician herself. She introduced these more global ideas and brought him into the 20th century.
Q: How did Lennon redeem himself late in life?
He found genuine happiness as a partner and a father. All of his failings with his first wife [the late Cynthia Lennon] and his son Julian are redeemed with [his second son] Sean, although that obviously didn’t do Julian much good. But I think Julian also has forgiven his father by now and has come to terms with the reasons why he was neglected. John did come full circle and was happy.
Q: What’s your assessment of Lennon?
I ended up really loving him. And I’m somebody who’s adored Paul McCartney ever since I was a child. John found the thing that I’ve never found, which is the one true love. He solved his problems from the outside inwards by accepting that Yoko was the woman for him.
He did treat his first wife, Cynthia, terribly badly. But I feel now that he probably didn’t know how else to tell her that the marriage wasn’t working and that he’d found someone else. A lot of the time, a man might seem to do something mean and spiteful because he doesn’t know how to do it any other way. So I have a lot of sympathy for John. He did learn from women. And we can understand him most by examining the women in his life.