Family and Friends Remember John Lennon on His 80th Birthday
Yoko Ono, Julian Lennon and more remember the Beatles’ great cultural icon, who would have turned 80 years old today.
“It was important we showed our souls to you, because our relationship is soul-to-soul,” Yoko Ono recalled to me in 2018 of the way she and John Lennon lived their lives in an unrepentantly public way, long before the internet and TMZ and Twitter.
John Lennon would have turned 80 today. The event is being marked with a gorgeous new box set of his greatest songs, tributes by his family and friends, and virtual concerts. With Lennon’s profile as high as it’s been in years—his YouTube and social media presence has exploded this past year—it felt like time to speak to the people who knew him best, for their memories and reflections on what we lost with his passing, forty years ago this coming December.
“It’s quality, it’s not quantity,” Julian Lennon remembers of the power of his father’s music. “It’s emotional. I think that’s probably one of the key ways it’s different to modern-day music in many respects, which lacks actual emotion and depth, and most of all of that experience.”
Though many artists these days strive for some semblance of anything that will pass as authenticity, Lennon had it in spades. Unafraid to ruffle the feathers of even the most powerful—or perhaps especially the most powerful—Lennon was notoriously outspoken and brutally frank, no matter the consequences.
“John Lennon had a quality of helpless candor about everything he did,” Paul Du Noyer, author of The Complete John Lennon Songs, explains. “If I’d known him, and I’d been a friend of his in some alternative kind of life, I think I would’ve been forever saying, ‘John, for God’s sake, shut up.’ Because it seemed that every time opened his mouth he made things hard for himself. But in the end, that’s what’s endearing about John. He just couldn’t help himself.”
“This was the self-aware Beatle, always ahead of his time, for good or bad,” Rob Stevens, Ono’s go-to engineer on archival projects for more than 20 years, says. “In 1971, ‘Imagine’ was in-sync with the changes that were happening. Now it’s more in contrast to it. But ‘Gimme Some Truth’ might as well be the theme song for right now. It might as well be called ‘Fake News.’ It could have been written this morning.”
“He talked a lot in our interview about politics, because it was in the air back then, as it is now,” recounts Laurie Kaye, who as a twentysomething producer spoke to Lennon for the infamous RKO Radio interview that took place on Dec. 8, 1980. “He said he wasn’t one to go out and vote. He just didn’t believe in that. But I can’t help but wonder, would that have changed if he was in New York and saw what was going on today.”
Ever reflective, Lennon also was constantly making what in 2020 terms would be seen as amends, often in very public ways.
“John is a man for all seasons, because of the kind of personal issues he was grappling with,” Du Noyer told me. “His relationship with women, the relationship between the races, and the things which were central to his own personal experience, which seem such inescapable subjects now for all of us, are why the relevance of Lennon’s music seems as great as it ever was.”
“When you look at the Playboy interviews from just before he died, his comments about spousal abuse are amazingly self-aware,” insists Kenneth Womack, the author of John Lennon 1980: The Last Days In His Life, of the questions from his first marriage that dogged Lennon. “He said, ‘I’m going to have to live to be a lot older before I have any right to talk about this and be recovered.’ It’s a powerful moment.”
Lennon also wasn’t afraid to delve into the hot-button issues of the day, often in deeply personal ways—ways few of his peers had ever done before, or have done since.
“His comments before he died about racial inequality and how the great dream of the ’60s had not been realized yet are talking points that would be very good right now to support true equality,” Womack continues, while noting the harm that honesty has likely done to Lennon’s reputation in the eyes of the general public. “Of course the problem is we live in a world with sound bites, and people will hear about the wife-beating and not understand that John Lennon spent his entire lifetime atoning for that, which is actually a more powerful story. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, and he didn’t excuse the behavior. But that was his level of honesty and the kind of recovery he wanted to make.”
As can be heard to great effect on the new box set Gimme Some Truth, in which some of Lennon’s best-loved songs have been remixed from the original multitrack tapes by his son Sean—as well as 2018’s excellent Imagine John Lennon: The Ultimate Edition—it’s ultimately the power of Lennon’s music, freshened up for the streaming age, that makes him feel as present as ever.
“In his love songs, like ‘Jealous Guy,’ he’s asking for forgiveness in the purest way possible, in that amazing voice,” says Stevens. “That’s just so powerful.”
For the men who collaborated on the creation of one of Lennon’s greatest songs, the memories of its origins are even more powerful.
“The moment of listening to that song for the first time was a very special moment,” Klaus Voormann, Lennon’s friend from his Hamburg days in the early 1960s with the Beatles, shares. “I remember John sitting there, playing the guitar and singing, and Jim Keltner playing the drums and Nicky Hopkins playing the piano—and me playing the bass—and it was like I was dreaming. It flowed like milk. I don’t understand how it happened, but it was a very special moment.”
“What I remember most is John’s voice and the lyric,” remembers the legendary drummer Jim Keltner of the session. “It was the first time I had played with John. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something.’ The song was so beautiful, the lyrics were hitting me right between the eyes. It sent me into another space.”
Perhaps most piv0tal in his life—beyond the Beatles or even fatherhood—was Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono. Those who knew the couple best, or have studied their relationship in depth, are unified in their belief that the pair completed each other in ways that feel remarkable, even 40 years after Lennon’s passing.
“The two of them, when they were together, it was beautiful to watch,” maintains Keltner. “I come from a mixed marriage myself, so I related to the situation: John, an Anglo man falling in love with a Japanese woman. To see them so together, they reminded me of the dynamic that I was raised with. I just loved it. They faced racism over that, for sure. And of course the tabloids started with this and that and the accusations of her breaking up the Beatles, but the two of them together were just so sweet and dynamic.”
“They were really complementary,” Earl Slick, the guitarist who played on Lennon’s final sessions, remembers. “He was a very headstrong dude, and nobody was going to make him do anything that he wasn’t going to do anyway, but they had a great, remarkably equal relationship. And he really connected with her artistically. At times they were like a band, the two of them, because they were a little competitive, too, in the best possible way.”
The power of the relationship was, as everything in his life, reflected in Lennon‘s music, argues Du Noyer.
“There’s no doubt that Yoko was a huge inspiration for John Lennon,” he offers. “He was quite a literal writer in his later years. He assessed his life and put it down in song in a fairly straightforward way, often quite beautifully poetic. What was interesting about his last album, Double Fantasy, is that it is a genuine dialogue of two equal adults, and that John, who obviously held all the power in that relationship in commercial terms, didn’t hold the power exclusively in personal terms. They seemed to be pretty equally matched.”
Kaye agrees, and adds that, whatever the rumors, Lennon and Ono were as connected as ever to the very end.
“What blew me away when I was sitting there with them was how they looked at each other and how they responded to each other,” she recalled. “When Yoko would comment, John would literally stop, and it was as though he felt that what was important wasn’t what he was saying, it was what she was saying. It was like they were speaking for each other and through each other. And I will never forget the way that they looked at each other when telling the story of how they met, because it wasn’t just the love that they obviously had for each other that you could see in their eyes, but that they had this total sense of knowledge of each other. It was beautiful. I remember wondering at the time, ‘Will I ever have a relationship like that myself?’ It blew me away.”
Gone now for 40 years—exactly as long as he lived—it feels even more tragic now that Lennon died at such a young age, with so much left to say, even if he was, as ever, ahead of his time.
“That final batch of music he made in 1980 is interesting to me because it’s an early attempt by a rock and roller to come to terms with the fact that he’s no longer young, which is a really challenging point in a songwriter’s development, and it hadn’t been done at that stage by anybody,” Du Noyer says.
“Rock and roll had nearly always been about boy meets girl and the eternal Saturday night,” according to Du Noyer. “But in 1980, he wanted to address a marriage which had gone on for years, through good times and bad, and he was candid about that. When he talked about waking up in a stranger’s room, you kind of know immediately you’re back in ‘Jealous Guy’ territory. And then there’s fatherhood, a difficult thing for rockers to address. It’s not part of the classic rock persona. So I can’t help but think how magnificent it would have been to have gone through later phases of John’s life—his forties and fifties and sixties—had he been willing to continue making music, because he really took us on the whole journey with him.”
“He was finding pleasure in other things, like in his son, and eventually writing ‘Beautiful Boy’ about him,” Kenneth Womack adds. “He spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not he should even do that. Nobody would think twice about that today. But he’s thinking, ‘Should I even be writing this song?’ But 40 meant something very different than it does now. Back then, it was, ‘Hey, it was nice knowing you. Do you have your retirement in order?’ We live in a comparatively very different world.”
For those who knew him, Lennon was a rare breed: someone infinitely famous who remained down to earth, and genuine to his core.
“I loved hanging out with him because it never felt strained,” recalls Earl Slick. “It didn’t feel like with some successful people, where they put out this ‘you’re in the presence of royalty’ vibe. He had a rock-and-roll mindset that he was just another guy in the band, which was obviously what he wanted.”
“It would have been great to have gotten his sardonic commentary on life after 40, life after 50, and life after 60,” Du Noyer says. “One unfortunate aspect is that he didn’t live long enough to see the internet. John on Twitter, with the opportunities for instant communication, and the thought of John with an iPhone in his hand, it’s either awe-inspiring or terrifying. But we can be pretty sure that he would’ve been using it.”
His longtime friend Klaus Voormann agrees.
“Yoko is very much into Twitter, and I’m sure John would’ve been too,” Voormann says with a laugh. “But what I remember is when I visited him in New York, not long before he died, he said, ‘Klaus, I’m so relieved. I have no obligations to any record company. I’m free at last.’”
For Laurie Kaye, who spent Lennon’s last day on Earth with him, it’s a particularly bitter pill to revisit his loss again this year.
“John Lennon will never have the opportunity that we’ve all had to literally grow out of the ’60s or ’70s—or whatever era it was that we grew up in and established ourselves in—and would have evolved were he around today,” she says. “He was so on top of things, even though he said he didn’t really believe in politics, and he was very in tune with the culture. We really missed something in that evolution.”
Ultimately, if Lennon is remembered for anything, Yoko Ono hopes it is for his commitment to peace.
“I think that one day we will all realize how dumb it is to destroy our beautiful planet,” she said, “and that’s when everyone will wake up and a document will be signed that says, ‘No more war or violence is allowed.’”