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"Like most creative people, John Lennon was a complex character, part well-meaning, often starry-eyed idealist, part leather-jacketed teddy boy, with much else thrown in to boot. Whatever your take on him, the thinking-man's Beatle was the first in a cadre of rock stars who used their celebrity as a force for good, anticipating later figures like Bono and Bob Geldof by decades. Lennon's ambivalent relationship with a number of self help/spiritual fads mirrored the shifting moods of more than one generation, and for teenagers like myself coming of age in the 70's, he was the conduit for a number of worthy causes: peace, women's rights, and the painful exploration of the self. Most books on Lennon focus on the skeletons in his closet. This one shows where his heart was." --Gary Lachman, Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer, former bassist for Blondie, and author of Turn Off Your Mind
"John Lennon will likely be remembered for two things: helping found the Beatles and writing the song "Imagine." Those accomplishments, however, only scratch the surface of a complex and fascinating life. Writer and artist Tillery explores Lennon's spirituality as it develops, beginning with childhood traumas, through his time with the Beatles, and finally, in his role as a social activist. Throughout his short life, Lennon fought many existential battles with himself and whatever he thought of as "God." To interpret Lennon's spiritual hunger, Tillery draws upon the work of Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and WWII death camp survivor who wrote volumes on the importance of people finding meaning in their lives by focusing outward. The author characterizes Lennon as a loving man who, in the latter part of his life, was able to find some semblance of peace and to encourage others to do the same. Lennon searched for and sang about the truth, discarding religious indoctrination and accepted norms when they proved unhelpful. If this is Lennon's legacy, one could do a lot worse." --Publishers Weekly, Nov. 9, 2009
When John Lennon rose from his knees on that cold winter night in 1966, having followed the advice of Jesus and yet received no reply to his anguished appeal, he took the first steps on what would become a decade-long search for an alternative foundation for his life. His approach—independent, restless, and cynical—was in large part the product of his own personality.
His personality was in large part the product of his tormented youth. As a boy growing up in Liverpool, Lennon had found it difficult to maintain interest in academic subjects, but some lessons he learned all too well—among them being the precariousness of existence and the importance of self-reliance and self-definition.
The only remaining chance he had for a psychologically grounding adolescence vanished in one instant on July 15, 1958. That evening, when he was seventeen, his mother, Julia, had been having tea with her sister Mary Elizabeth ("Mimi"), at Mimi's home in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool. After saying goodbye, she started toward the bus stop, two hundred yards away. She crossed the nearest lanes of Menlove Avenue to reach a median strip at the center of the road. A hedge ran along the median strip. Passing through the hedge to the opposite lanes, Julia stepped directly into the path of a car driven by an off-duty policeman.
The death of his mother was the last, most traumatic, and most influential in a series of events that shaped Lennon's conflicted youthful psyche and would later drive him relentlessly to find his own truths as an adult.
He never really knew his father. Alfred ("Freddie") Lennon worked as a steward on passenger liners in the thirties, and after Britain entered World War II he served as a registered member of the Merchant Navy on ships transporting British troops and supplies. He was away at the time of John's birth on October 9, 1940, and the total time he spent at home in Liverpool between then and January 13, 1944, amounted to only three months. In his absence Julia began to frequent pubs in the evening. The chance to sing, dance, and socialize was a welcome respite from sitting at home every night with young John. Seldom able to come home, Freddie finally accepted the situation and agreed that she should go out and have a good time while he was away at sea.
One day, when John had just learned to walk, Julia made her regular stop at the shipping office in Liverpool to collect the money held back for her from Freddie's wages. The clerk informed her that her husband had apparently jumped ship in America and disappeared. She was financially on her own.
In reality, after a layover in New York City, Freddie had signed on to a ship he thought was bound homeward for England, only to learn subsequently that it would be headed for the Middle East. He missed the ship and was promptly interned by U.S. Immigration on Ellis Island, facing desertion charges. When he appealed to the British Consulate, he was offered the chance to avoid the charges by sailing on a ship headed for the Far East. He accepted, but then became enmeshed in further trouble when he was among several crewmembers arrested for stealing whiskey from the cargo. He served almost three months in an army prison in North Africa.
Gradually, because of such absences, the bond of his marriage with Julia weakened. Until December of 1949, he continued to return home to Liverpool from time to time but was unable to reestablish his relationship. After being arrested in that month for an act of drunken vandalism that cost him six months behind bars, he learned that he could no longer qualify for work as a seaman and began to drift from one menial job to another.
Julia, meanwhile, turned to other men. In 1944 she had an affair with a soldier, and a daughter by that union was given up for adoption in June 1945. A few months later she began seeing a hotel headwaiter named John Dykins, whom her family considered beneath her. Though she never divorced Freddie Lennon, she and Dykins set up house together.
The couple could afford only a very tiny flat, and young John had to sleep in their bed at night. Julia's sister Mimi was scandalized by her behavior. As the eldest of five sisters, she felt duty bound to assure John a decent childhood. She visited Julia and suggested that she and her husband, George, be allowed to raise John in their home. When Julia rebuffed her, she appealed to the Liverpool Social Services Department. Investigators agreed with Mimi, deciding that the situation was unacceptable. In a home where the mother was legally married to a man other than the one acting as the boy's father, a boy of five should at least have his own bed, if not a separate room. Julia was notified that until she and John Dykins found a larger flat, John could not remain with them. She finally agreed and allowed Mimi to take John into her home.
John was just getting accustomed to life with Mimi and George when, quite unexpectedly, Freddie Lennon made one of his reappearances. He telephoned Mimi one day and asked if he could speak with John. He invited his son to join him on a vacation at the seaside, up the coast in Blackpool. John knew his father only as some hazy, romantic figure who had gone away to sea and was naturally enthusiastic about the chance to spend time with him.
When the two did not return soon, Julia began a search. She turned up one day at the seafront boarding house where they were staying, explaining that she had tracked Freddie down through the help of one of his old shipmates. Instead of apologizing, Freddie stunned her with the announcement that he was preparing to take John along to start a new life in New Zealand. He invited her to come, too. Having no desire to leave John Dykins, she protested and insisted that their son would best be raised in Liverpool.
John, just five years old, suffered through the test of wills by his parents. The father who had been missing from his world for so long now promised to take him for an adventurous life in a faraway land. The mother he loved and trusted pleaded with him to stay behind with her. Unable to decide themselves, they placed a terrible burden on him. Choose, they said, which future—which parent—he preferred.
The few days of having his long-absent father's attention had had its impact. John stated that he wanted to go away with Freddie. Julia pressed him to be sure of his choice, and he said he was. Only after she had tearfully kissed him goodbye and turned to leave did John change his mind and bolt after her. He was not to see his father again until he was a grown man—and world famous.
Significantly, he did not keep his mother either. Shortly afterward, Julia became pregnant by John Dykins. Instead of looking for a larger flat, the couple moved back into her father's home. Julia had a daughter in 1947 and another in 1949, and the temporary placement of John in Mimi's home gradually became permanent. From time to time, his mother came by bus to visit, but his aunt and uncle took on parental responsibilities.
Though he did keep in contact with his extended family, occasionally seeing and interacting with his half-sisters and cousins, and though Mimi and George Smith loved him and were diligent in rearing him, the virtual abandonment by both his father and his mother invited demons that hardened Lennon's personality. They were not exorcised until he was in his thirties—the torment they caused bleeding through in his 1970 song "Mother." And there was more to come.
Mimi, filling the role of mother out of a sense of duty, felt that it would be detrimental to his development to be too indulgent. Her husband, however, doted on the boy. She was the disciplinarian of the two, George the one who secretly commiserated with him and slipped him candy or a cookie. The owner of a local dairy farm, George Smith often took John on early morning visits to see his cows being milked. They enjoyed going on long walks together around Woolton. In the evenings it was he who most often put John to bed, reciting nursery rhymes to him, and John always insisted on giving him "squeakers"—kisses—before going to sleep. Over the years they developed a strong bond. Then one day, at age fourteen, John returned from a vacation to Scotland with another of his aunts to find that the ever-hearty George had abruptly vanished from his life, victim of a hemorrhaged liver.
Only one thing helped assuage the pain of losing his Uncle George; not long before, John had begun to reestablish a closer relationship with his mother. She and her new family had moved into a house only a short bus ride from Woolton, and John began to drop by to visit her—secretly at first.
Perhaps it was merely symptomatic of her character, or perhaps it was regret at being only sporadically involved in his life for much of his childhood, but Julia was very permissive with John, even when she knew he was dodging school to be with her. Also, unlike Mimi, she had an irreverent spirit and loved practical jokes. One of her favorites was to put on a pair of glasses that were missing the lenses and then enter into a conversation with the postman or a stranger. When the time seemed right, she would casually reach up and push one finger through an empty frame to rub her eye.
John began to spend more time with her, staying overnight and sometimes even "running away" to her home, spitefully telling Mimi that he was never coming back. When he became enchanted by music and acquired a guitar, he quickly drove his Aunt Mimi crazy with the sound but learned he was welcome in Julia's house. His mother loved music, played the banjo, and was constantly singing. She taught him the first chords he played on his new guitar, the chords she knew from the banjo.
The renewal of his close relationship with Julia had the potential to ameliorate the worst parts of his developing hard-shell juvenile personality—the caustic wit, the bitterness of spirit, the contempt for authority. With time, she might have guided him into a more positive direction by building on his impressive gifts—striking creativity, restless intelligence, a remarkable sense of humor, and a natural capacity for leadership.
She might have, but July 15, 1958, intervened.
After his mother's death, Lennon's response to the chronically shaken foundation of his youth was to thicken his defensive shell while going increasingly on the offensive. At first that consisted simply of directing his pain outward at those around him, teachers and schoolmates and even close friends, unleashing his sarcastic wit and picking fights with those he imagined had slighted him or felt sorry for him. In time, though, he came to channel the outbound energy into a drive to succeed in the one realm where he saw, however dimly, the possibility of eluding his own demons.CHAPTER 2
ROCK 'N' ROLL
The England in which John Lennon grew up was still staggering from the impact of World War II. The German Luftwaffe had repeatedly targeted the strategic port of Liverpool, leveling much of the city, and in fact John was born in the midst of a bombing raid. He even carried a permanent reminder of the war in his middle name, Winston, which his mother bestowed on him to honor the indomitable British prime minister.
For a decade after the war, rationing and austerity remained a fact of life as the country underwent enormous convulsions. Industries organized for production of war materials struggled to retool for peacetime. The national debt tripled, and Britain became a debtor nation for the first time since the 1700s. The Labour Party, which defeated Winston Churchill and the Tories in July of 1945 and held power until 1951, undertook the radical transformation of Britain into a welfare state. The new government passed laws insuring benefits for maternity, unemployment, disability, old age, and death. It nationalized the coal, iron, and steel industries, gas, electricity, railroads, and the Bank of England. It also created the National Health Service, which socialized medical care. (Lennon would one day make its standard-issue round-rimmed spectacles a fashion statement around the world.)
In the midst of these domestic transformations, the British Empire rapidly disintegrated. In one twenty-month span, India, the newly created Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon, and Ireland were granted independence, and the Palestinian mandate was relinquished, leading to the birth of Israel.
The pillars of stability in this whirlwind of change were British values. The fortitude that had withstood Hitler's war machine had been vindicated. The traditions that had made Britain invincible had to be carried on. The guard at Buckingham Palace continued to change with clockwork precision. The new queen was crowned in 1953 with time-honored pageantry.
Educational institutions were expected to mold the new generation in the old ways. Teachers, even at such lowly institutions as Quarry Bank High School for Boys in Woolton, wore imposing black gowns, while their pupils were uniformed in a regulation scarf and a black blazer embroidered with the school emblem—a red and gold stag's head accompanied by the Latin motto Ex hoc metallo virtutem (Out of this quarry, manhood—a phrase that alluded to the school's construction on the site of a former quarry.) Discipline was maintained through a time-tested system of detentions (an hour of chores after school), unpleasant visits to see the headmaster for worse offenses, and, as the last resort, character-building canings. This tradition-bound perspective awaited John Lennon when he came to Quarry Bank High School in September 1952.
He had spent his first six years of instruction at Dovedale Primary School, where for the most part he had been a diligent student, though even then he was displaying the characteristics he would be known for as an adult. The headmaster summed him up for Mimi: "He's as sharp as a needle. But he won't do anything he doesn't want to." A fellow student remembered: "If there was anything out of the ordinary going on in the school it was centred on him. You definitely noticed him, even at that age." Another commented, "You could register, even as a kid, that here was an oddball. Now I can see that he was a genius all along."
At Quarry Bank High School, the academic system was divided into three streams—A, B, and C—with A reserved for those students who showed the most promise. Lennon did well enough on his final tests at Dovedale to qualify for the A stream, and he started off his secondary education in the company of the area's brightest youths. During his second year he was demoted to the B stream. By the end of his fourth year he was bumping along the bottom of the C stream. At the end of his fifth and final year, when he took the O-level examinations to determine his worthiness to go on to higher education, he failed to pass a single one of them. The headmaster of Quarry Bank wrote a dismissive note at the bottom of his final report card: "This boy is bound to fail."
The problem was not with his initiative or intelligence. His Aunt Mimi owned a twenty-volume set of the world's best short stories, and by the time Lennon was ten he had read and reread most of them, being particularly enthralled by Balzac. At twelve he ploughed through her encyclopedia. By sixteen he had read the complete works of Winston Churchill. He also enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, Edward Lear, and Richmal Crompton, and his favorite books were Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.
He had a precocious mind, and he was well aware of it. In a 1970 interview, he was asked:
Do you think you're a genius?
Yes. If there's such a thing as one, I am one.
When did you first realize it?
When I was about twelve. I used to think, I must be a genius, but nobody's noticed [laugh]. Either I'm a genius or I'm mad, which is it? "No," I said, "I can't be mad because nobody's put me away; therefore, I'm a genius."
Lennon's academic problem was with academia itself. He felt stifled by the regimentation. He resented the assumptions that were inherent in the educational system—that those in charge had a right to direct his life, to tell him where to go and when to be there, to judge his work and his behavior by their own standards, and to expect him to study and master information they considered important.
So he rebelled against their authority. He played pranks to throw the system off balance. He would carry an alarm clock in his satchel, set to go off during the class, or rig the blackboard to come crashing down as soon as the teacher put chalk to it. The class would erupt in laughter and be unmanageable for minutes, and Lennon would revel in the disorder. The resulting detentions were considered a small price to pay for the satisfaction of rebellion, and they lost their effectiveness as a corrective when repeated several days a week.
Inevitably, he and his closest comrade, Peter Shotton, went too far one day and earned the dreaded caning by Headmaster Taylor. Even then, Lennon subverted the intent by capitalizing on an opportunity for humor. Between the headmaster's office and the hallway lay a vestibule. Passing through the vestibule on the way out to Shotton, who was still waiting for his turn, John dropped to his hands and knees and came crawling out the door, whimpering as though beaten into submission. Shotton was immediately petrified with fear, his imagination racing with what torture might be awaiting him inside. Then he noticed Lennon grinning at his reaction and erupted into an uncontrollable fit of giggling just as he was called in for his turn under the cane. Incensed at Shotton's lighthearted attitude about his punishment, Headmaster Taylor gave him the thrashing of his life.
Excerpted from The Cynical Idealist by Gary Tillery, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Lennon, Yoko Ono. Copyright © 2009 G. G. Tillery, L.L.C.. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 27, 2009
Gary Tillery has managed in this concise book to offer us a quality biography of the musical giant John Lennon, a biography as sensitive as any in print. Not only does he share the details of Lennon's chaotic childhood, suggesting the factors that built his adult self as an artist who was driven to discover the meaning in a world that seem to lack meaning. But wisely Tillery spends enough time with the personal traumas as well as the germinal events the resulted in the formation of the singing group the Beatles (a clever reference to the Beat generation in altering the beetle spelling!) and the changes that occurred with fame. The book also has a superb chronology that allows the reader to follow the important phases in this man's life and career.
But the book is not only a fine biography that makes the reader revisit the heyday of the Beatles, it goes much further than that. Tillery uses his matrix of an artist's life to unveil the development of the man who would become a popular philosopher especially among young people asking the same questions that Lennon explored. His wise but common street talk and his actions delved into the important issues of his time - challenging authority and instead searching for our own reality, that reality that allows of self-transformation, fostering the concept of world peace, supporting feminism, and changing the things we feel need revision. Though these ideals may sound simplistic, in Lennon's words and actions he stood for the kind of being that cared for mankind and would settle for nothing less than self improvement and involvement in the deeds that would improve not only his time but also the future.
What makes Gary Tillery's THE CYNICAL IDEALIST: A SPIRITUAL BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN LENNON important is the manner in which he writes: clarity of prose, reality of expression of analyses, and commitment to honor an important man of our times. As Tillery points out the other peace leaders - Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. - met the same end as Lennon, death by assassination or murder. Without resorting to puffery or hero worship, Tillery places Lennon's accomplishments with the arts as well as with the framework of political upheaval of his day to reveal a man who will be remembered not only for his prodigious talent, but also for his influence on philosophical thinking. This is a fine book that deserves wide readership.
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