As written in a previous post that you can read here, John Lennon’s view of the world around him became more cynical and jaded as his career and life unfolded. In the early days of The Beatles, it was all laughter and smiles, fun and games, light and airy Pop tunes. However, after the 1960s passed their midpoint, it all began to change for Lennon. Beatles manager Brian Epstein died, leaving the members of the band to manage their own affairs, which proved burdensome and divisive. John saw the birth of his son, Julian, his divorce from his first wife, Cynthia, and the start of his new relationship with Yoko Ono. As a band, The Beatles experienced their disastrous US tour (which included Lennon’s controversial comment about the band being bigger than Jesus). This caused The Beatles to give up touring and playing live for the remaining days as a band. It was also as The Beatles were trying to record the songs that ended up being on the albums Abbey Road and Let It Be that John started coming under the influence of nefarious characters such as manager Allan Klein and record producer Phil Spector. (You can read posts about Klein and Spector here, here and here).
While all of these changes were happening in Lennon’s musical world, the outside world around Lennon was changing, too. The sunny optimism of The Summer of Love had begun to give way to the anger and cynicism felt by many toward governments because of the Vietnam War and other assorted scandals and events. There were protests in many western countries. As often happens during times like these, citizens looked to artists and poets and writers and musicians to use their skills to shine a light on the way forward. While still in The Beatles, Lennon felt that pressure to say something about the events of the day. He responded with the song “Revolution”. As detailed in the previous post linked above, “Revolution” was met with a storm of criticism from the authorities for having said too much and from protestors who claimed Lennon hadn’t said enough. Stung by this negative response, Lennon’s next political move was to hold his famous/infamous Bed-in for Peace in Montreal. The track he recorded at this time, which was co-credited to him and to Yoko Ono, was called “Give Peace a Chance”. (You can read more about that song here). Again, John Lennon’s earnest intentions were met with criticisms that it was all just a publicity stunt by a man who had it all with The Beatles and was simply trying to maintain his place in the public eye.
Around this time in the early 1970s, he and Yoko Ono officially moved to New York City and moved into the famous Dakota Apartments adjacent to Central Park on the Upper West Side of the city. In a final, last-ditch effort to make a political statement that would be respected and have the type of socially-positive impact that Lennon sought, he released an album of stridently political songs called Some Time in New York City. He followed up that album with the release of today’s song, “Working Class Hero”. This song completed a four-phase cycle of attempts by John Lennon to make his politics known to the world and effect some change in a world that seemed to be losing direction. “Working Class Hero” is a song that was inspired by a much older song known as “Nottamun Town”. Essentially, the theme of both songs is that of being a victim of class struggles and the toll that it takes on one’s soul. Lennon had hoped that his acoustic ballad about the struggles of the working class would be revolutionary in nature and would help form part of the soundtrack to a worker’s rebellion. As you may be aware, John Lennon came from working class roots. He never had much in the way of material possessions or opportunities growing up in Liverpool, England. He lived with a variety of relatives during his youth, and as you may recall, he waxed poetic about spending his teenage days sneaking into Strawberry Fields orphanage for tea and snacks. (You can read about that song here). However, living now, as he did, in one of New York City’s most famous and exclusive apartment buildings, complete with a Central Park view, was not the usual lot of a common working class bloke. Even though “Working Class Hero” was a song that was true to his family’s heritage and experiences, it rang hollow coming from a rich man’s mouth in the 1970s. Over time, “Working Class Hero” has gone on to become one of John Lennon’s most respected solo recordings. It has been covered by a roster of music stars (such as Ozzy Osbourne, Green Day, Marianne Faithful, as well as country singer Alan Jackson) who were drawn to its gritty lyrics and its respect for those who toil and labour to make ends meet.
It was around this time in John Lennon’s personal, as well as his professional life that he made a very sensible decision. He and Yoko Ono had a child together that they named Sean. With the birth of his son, John Lennon shifted his focus in life and decided to retire from active performing. He dedicated himself to being the best father he could be to Sean and became a stay-at-home dad. He recorded no new songs during the first five years of Sean’s life. He gave no public performances, either. Instead, he donned his cap, wound a scarf around his neck and pushed a stroller around Central Park, blending in with the thousands of other parents milling about each day in America’s biggest, busiest city. But fate was to intercede in a most unexpected way and draw Lennon back to the recording studio. In Athens, Georgia, a new band called The B52s was gaining attention for their music. In particular, they had a hit song on the radio called “Rock Lobster”. As part of the song’s musical structure, one of the female vocalists, Kate Pierson, makes sounds that mimic a dolphin. (You can read about this song here). As John and Yoko listened to this catchy song, they both noticed that Pierson’s dolphin squeals sounded a lot like the sort of experimental music that Yoko Ono was making with the Plastic Ono Band. The notion that this up-and-coming band would give such an obvious shout-out to John and Yoko sent a jolt of electricity coursing through John’s body and soul. Believing that, perhaps, he was still a relevant voice in the music scene, John Lennon began writing new material. The songs he was inspired to write became the music on an album called Double Fantasy. And just like that, John Lennon’s music was being played on the radio again. His songs about his love for Yoko Ono and his happiness about his family life stood in stark contrast to the unhappy political music that marked his transition from The Beatles to being a solo artist. He was back in the spotlight with a message that better reflected who he actually was at that time in his life. For the very first time in a long time, John Lennon was content.
I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out that John Lennon had been killed. Like many, I was watching Monday Night Football and heard the news from sportscaster Howard Cosell that John Lennon had been shot five times (Cosell says it was twice) outside of his Dakota Apartment building and had been pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. (You can watch that clip here). It was a surreal experience to learn of Lennon’s death under those circumstances, because the fans in the football stadium were unaware. To them, the game was all that mattered, so they continued to cheer and roar accordingly. The ABC TV network, which was airing the game, stayed with the match instead of breaking away for live coverage, so the game commentary continued as if nothing had happened. And yet, everything had changed, and the game didn’t matter anymore to any of us who were watching on our televisions. The “Working Class Hero” who had finally found some happiness in his life was dead. He was shot a total of five times, four of which were in his back. He died on the sidewalk in front of an archway that led to an interior courtyard at the Dakota Apartments. From that sidewalk, it is just a short walk to his beloved Central Park. If you are ever in New York City, you can go to Central Park and discover a special place dedicated to his memory. It is a circular mosaic area with the word Imagine in the centre of it. The memorial is surrounded by shade trees and park benches. It is the perfect place to sit for a while and get away from the hustle and bustle of New York City life. Not surprisingly, this spot has been named Strawberry Fields.
It has been over forty years since John Lennon was killed by an assassin’s bullets. In that time, Yoko Ono has continued to live and perform and to act as an advocate for peace and the environment and, of course, the Arts. Ono makes frequent guest appearances at B52 concerts and delights audiences with her own aquatic utterances. However, despite the passing of time, she remains a polarizing figure who has never fully escaped the criticism that she was the person most responsible for the break up of the best band the world had ever seen. As for Lennon’s sons, they both have lived their lives never fully being able to be their own person. They are always and forever referred to as John Lennon’s sons. The Lennon surname weighs on their shoulders like a colossus. Both dabble in music, but neither has had the career that their father had. Consequently, both Sean and Julian Lennon seem like disappointments, which is an entirely unfair label to put on either man. For now anyway, there will be no inspirational song from the Lennon siblings to lead us forward out of our latest collective malaise. Because of that, we turn our eyes back to John and to songs like “Working Class Hero”.
As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all.
‘Til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be.
A working class hero is something to be.
A legacy can be a complicated thing. John Lennon is no different in that regard. He is viewed by many as being one of the most notable people of our modern times because of his role in popularizing Rock n’ Roll. As a public figure, John Lennon could be as charming as anyone, which has led all of us to continue to view him in a respected and honourable light. We readily overlook the role his shady financial dealings with the likes of Allan Klein contributed to the loss of The Beatles. We tend to view his work with The Beatles as being, in many ways, superior to his solo work, and yet he was a solo artist for longer than he was a Beatle. For me, I admire John Lennon because I view the trajectory of his life to be similar to that of many of us in the real world. He had a joyous and happy start to his adult life, only to discover that the world is not all sunshine and roses as he matured into his twenties and on to his thirties. Like me, John Lennon found his greatest source of happiness and contentment from being a husband and father. The saddest part of it all was that it was taken from him just as he seemed to be figuring out what truly mattered most in life. His family seem to be the ones left to bear the largest impact of Lennon’s legacy. I wish them all well. I bear them no grudge. If I were ever lucky enough to meet Yoko Ono, I would hope to be able to give her a hug. As for John Lennon, may you rest in peace. The next time I am in NYC, I will be sure to drop by to pay my respects. Until then, I will listen to great songs like “Working Class Hero” and I will remember you.
The link to the video for the song “Working Class Hero” by John Lennon can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the official website for John Lennon can be found here.
The link to the official website for Yoko Ono can be found here.
The links to the official websites for Julian and Sean Lennon can be found here and here.
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