John Lennon's Many Lives

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There is a scene in the movie The Breakfast Club where the teacher, Dick Vernon, asks Carl the janitor what he wanted to be when he was a kid.

"When I was a kid," Carl says wistfully, "I wanted to be John Lennon."

"Don't be a goof." Vernon says. But you can tell by the look on Carl's face that he was serious.

Can you blame him? Who didn't want to be John Lennon? Lennon did it all. First. He was the leader of the best rock band ever. He wrote sweeping anthems and breathtakingly fragile love songs. He had a savage wit, yet epic compassion. He went from teeny-bopper superstar to global icon to conceptual artist, activist, and revolutionary—toying with the machinery of fame while supposed pioneers of postmodern media manipulation like Madonna and Bono were in diapers. Lennon was spied on by the Nixon administration, fought to stay in the country, and won. He detoxed decades before it was fashionable, going from a self-described terrible father to an exemplary one—the world's most famous househusband, pioneering again.

Let's put it this way: Other artists got haircuts. Lennon shaved his head—then donated the clippings to a cause. Or consider this: for a brief time in the late 1960s, John Lennon owned a psychedelic Rolls-Royce. Just exactly how deep into the acid-soaked zeitgeist—the one he helped create—does a guy have to be for buying a custom-crafted psychedelic Rolls limo to sound like a good idea?

That was Lennon. He had one speed as an artist—more. His creative aesthetic was as straightforward as it was demanding: Whatever you do, do it full-bore, full time. Dig for the deepest truth you can possibly find, and convey it with every resource at your command. If the times call for psychedelic imagery, you paint a Rolls crazy colors. If the times call for peace protests, you pull every stunt you can dream up to garner media attention. If the times call for retrenchment, devote five years of your life to baking bread, raising a son, and watching the wheels while your contemporaries are still riding upon the merry-go-round.

Expose the deepest pain imaginable by singing about your mother's death? Why not? It happened. Admit to a reporter that you wrote the song "Cold Turkey" about coming off heroin? It's true, isn't it? Publicly compare the Beatles to Jesus Christ? In retrospect, not such a good idea. But he was thinking it, so he said it. He spoke his truth. Do they even make stars like that anymore? Nope. And they never did. There simply has never been another entertainer of Lennon's magnitude so completely committed to expressing the truth as he saw it.

Mostly, he was just plain better than the rest. Better at music. Better with words and melodies. Better at finding new sounds and new ways to record them. Only Bob Dylan compares as a songwriter—with Lennon's visceral, gut-level approach often making Dylan's brainy arabesques feel like the long way home. Also, let's face it, Dylan is an awful singer. Lennon, almost incidentally, had one of the best voices in rock.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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