Artillery Row

Imagine John hadn’t died

It’s easy if you try

In early January 1981, John Lennon glanced through some press cuttings that his assistant had brought to his attention. There were reviews of his most recent album Double Fantasy, the usual gossip about a Beatles reunion and random interview snippets, but one story diverted him for a moment. A man named Mark Chapman had been arrested for being in possession of a loaded firearm and behaving oddly around Times Square. He was also found to be holding a signed copy of Double Fantasy and a list of names, on which the first was Lennon’s and the second was David Bowie’s. “It’s as if he wanted to kill me, or something, but at least he got my autograph first”, Lennon was heard to quip.

Lennon wasted little time in capitalising on its momentum

Even if the critics were dismissive of Double Fantasy’s mythology around his marriage to Yoko Ono, it was a huge commercial hit. Basking in the success of his return to the spotlight with his first album since 1975’s patchy Rock and Roll covers LP, Lennon wasted little time in capitalising on its momentum, releasing its follow-up Milk and Honey later in the year. Again, Lennon’s songs such as “I’m Stepping Out” and “Nobody Told Me” were acclaimed, but Ono’s contributions were found wanting, something that Lennon dismissed as “racism, sexism and jealousy”. It was a source of considerable pride to him that both albums considerably outsold the LPs by his former co-writer Paul McCartney, McCartney II and Tug of War, which Lennon described as “granny music for the kiddies to drift off to”.

He soon suffered his own decline in popularity. His continued refusal to tour or play live even in one-off performances meant that he was seen as aloof. More shaken by the Chapman story than he liked to admit, he became a withdrawn, paranoid figure, lurking with Ono inside their palatial apartment within the Dakota Building. He continued using heroin and cocaine in the company of such companions as Harry Nilsson and Phil Spector, and eventually recorded a ramshackle, confusing album with both men, entitled Revolution. Released, appropriately enough, in 1984, it attracted criticism for its hackneyed lyrics (rhyming “fascist” with “unkissed”) and Spector’s atypically muddy and tinny production. Stories made it into the press about violent fights in the studio, and Lennon’s continued use of class A drugs; the only response that came out of a tight-lipped Geffen Records press officer was “no fucking comment”.

Finally, Lennon returned to public performance the next year for the gig that most of the world had believed would never happen: the reformation of the Beatles for Live Aid, courtesy of its impresario and promoter Bob Geldof. Unfortunately, their 20-minute set was not a success. It was bedevilled by a lack of rehearsal, a curious choice of songs — it was rumoured that Lennon had nixed a performance of “Hey Jude”, and that McCartney had refused to play “Revolution” in return, meaning that they ended up performing “Helter Skelter”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Taxman” and “Yellow Submarine” instead — and a clear animosity between the musicians, who were involved in ongoing legal action against one another. They were outshone by Queen and others, and Rolling Stone put it best in its next issue: “Beatles rose from the dead, should have stayed dead.”

The less generous speculated he declined because of his tax exile status

Lennon spent much of the rest of the 80s away from music. He involved himself in politics, loudly and repetitively denouncing the Thatcher government and declaring himself pro-Argentine, pro-Scargill and pro-Livingstone. He was invited to join Paul Weller and Billy Bragg’s pressure group Red Wedge, but declined, ostensibly because he did not want to overshadow younger musicians: the less generous speculated that it was because of his tax exile status. The British press, meanwhile, had christened him and Yoko “Double Trouble”, and reported on their antics with a condescending disdain that led Lennon to issue a rare public statement that “I shall never return to any country that is governed by Margaret Thatcher, in alliance with Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothschild and Cliff Richard”.

It therefore came as a surprise, in May 1992, that concertgoers at Liverpool’s Aintree Institute, turning up to see a previously obscure act called “McDougal and Thrillington”, witnessed the reunion of Lennon and McCartney, performing as a duo. The two men had encountered each other by chance the previous month at Julian Lennon’s home. After the initial awkwardness slipped away, they had spent a long evening reminiscing, jamming and plotting. One of them — neither accepted responsibility — suggested that they return to “the clubs”, just like in the old days, and go up on stage together, performing acoustic sets of Beatles material to surprised audiences. Which is exactly what happened. “Dwarf McDougal and Percy Thrillington” created musical history that night. Both men were seen weeping profusely as they sang the lyrics “Once, there was a way to get back home” from “Golden Slumbers” on the Abbey Road album.

The press speculated as to what would happen. A new Beatles album? A world tour? Of course, in the end, no such long-standing reunion took place. The McCartney camp accused Lennon of being “truculent, violent, homophobic and arrogant”, and that he had defiantly flourished a frankfurter in front of McCartney; Lennon’s admirers responded that he had been bored by McCartney’s insistence on telling him about his long-standing pet project, a musical based on the life of Beatrix Potter. A scathing anonymous quote was released to the press: “When he stops writing ‘The Frog Chorus’ and starts writing ‘Instant Karma’, we’ll work together again.”

To date, that has yet to happen. Instead, Lennon has spent the past three decades in what appears to be a creative and personal impasse, remaining a Howard Hughes-esque recluse in Manhattan. There have been highs — his surprise appearance at Knebworth in 1996 with an awed Oasis to sing “Come Together” apparently led to over-excited fans spontaneously losing control of their internal organs in vast numbers — and lows. A divorce from Ono in 1998 on the grounds of his diminished aura was widely reported in the press, to much ribald speculation as to the precise components of his aura. There are long-standing rumours that he has recorded an album in collaboration with everyone from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to Lady Gaga, only to be released after his death, but no evidence exists of this, save a since-deleted Instagram post by Ed Sheeran that called Lennon “the boss…can’t wait to hear our #tune #lovelennon #imagine #edandjohn”.

At the age of 82, John Lennon remains a complex, contradictory figure

Lennon briefly embraced Twitter in 2011, but was thrown off the service for propagating conspiracy theories to his five million followers about 9/11, George Soros and the Clinton Body Count. Since then, he has been best known for donating money to the unlikely ranks of David Icke, Piers Corbyn and George Galloway for their various endeavours, suing Ono over various comments that she made about his purported love for McDonald’s and Burger King burgers, and trying (and failing) to block the Beatles from releasing their music on various streaming services. At the age of 82, John Lennon remains a complex, contradictory figure, both beloved by millions and a frustratingly unforthcoming sage.

To understand him, we must pore over a rare interview that he gave after the Knebworth appearance in August 1996, to the Morning Star. He was noncommittal about the Gallaghers’ adulation for him (“if they want to name their kids after me, that’s daft, but it’s their business…it all helps with the royalties, anyway”), but struck a pensive tone while discussing posterity.

“They’ve got this song ‘Live Forever’, and I don’t know. To quote my old friend Freddie Mercury, God rest him, who wants to live forever? Hendrix went at 27, mad old Keith Moon at 32, even Harry Nilsson at 52 — a wonder he lasted that long, frankly. And they’ll all be remembered. But it’s old farts like me who turn into the stately homos of rock. They should turn us over to the National Trust and charge admission. Whereas if you die when you’re young, it’s a shame for your family and your kids and all the rest of it, but look on the bright side. You become a legend. And isn’t it better to be remembered like that, for the rest of your days, than as the flawed, grumpy, wrinkled old scrotum that you turn into?”

On balance, John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE (rejected) may have had a point.

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