The first birthday present I can remember was Rubber Soul on cassette. It was the 1980s, and I remember this gift so vividly because I had to receive a new copy of Rubber Soul every few months. Cassettes, as you might recall, had a short shelf life, and I would spend hours rewinding and replaying my favorite song until the clumps of tangled plastic ribbon spilled off the spool. My mother, the ex-hippie, was surprised and a little concerned that I had become obsessed with the final song on the tape: John Lennon’s creepy, jealous rager, “Run for Your Life.”
Let this be a sermon
I mean everything I’ve said
Baby, I’m determined
And I’d rather see you dead
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end, little girl
I’m sure it was disturbing to watch a little girl swoon over this specific song. John Lennon is threatening death to the woman that might betray him, but I just thought this song was about little girls. I sang my own version, repeating “little girl” loosely over the melody, and pretended he was singing it to me. John was my first favorite Beatle.
Unless you are an incredibly casual fan, stubborn, or willfully ignorant, you know that John Lennon’s history of violence and abusing women is well documented. And if you chose not to believe any of the recent indictments, his ex-wife Cynthia Lennon, or even his son Julian, you can get it straight from the horse’s mouth. “Run for Your Life” was Lennon’s first candid moment of conveying jealousy with hints of cruelty, but it would be far from his last. He reminded us, frequently:
I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved
Man, I was mean
But I’m changing my scene
And I’m doing the best that I can
In a post-Beatles interview with Playboy, Lennon gave us the context behind this verse in “Getting Better,” an otherwise McCartney-heavy track from Sgt. Pepper. Reflecting on the song, Lennon admitted, “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit.”
But that’s not the part of the song that gets used in those Phillips commercials. “Getting Better” is still a fan favorite, a track of poptimism reserved only for soundtracks with happy endings. Such grim words dissolve into Paul McCartney’s hopelessly optimistic chorus that’s eager to give John another chance. Just as I held onto the words “little girl” in John Lennon’s explicit threats of violence, so too has the public heard his admitted crimes and opted to sing a different part of the song instead, cheering “It’s getting better! It’s getting better all the time!”
How do we decide which of our idols get to be forgiven? The world would be a boring place if every public figure were a role model, but why shouldn’t we retroactively insist on accountability, when so many famous men destroyed the lives of women without any retribution? Feminist writers have taken on the task of highlighting what our former heroes got away with, and in doing so have mobilized fleets of angry Baby Boomers that still cling to John Lennon as the spiritual and philosophical leader of their failed peace movement.
There’s the obvious, if not dubious, answer that the Beatles’ immeasurable contributions to the world absolve John Lennon of any mortal sins. Sgt. Pepper is still remembered as a meteor that wiped out a few dinosaurs: Every musical act before them became inferior, as did the band members’ own flawed, mortal selves. But that’s a feeble argument to support a cause we don’t need. John Lennon doesn’t deserve redemption, nor did he seem to ask for it. Lennon openly discussed his efforts to change, but we’ll never recognize that important evolution because we refuse to admit what an abusive bastard he was in the first place.
That need for personal change reaches its vertex for Lennon with Imagine, an album that begins steeped in idealism that collapses in shame and resentment, and reemerges in acceptance. The confessional album was released 45 years ago and still functions as a phrasebook for peaceniks among us, but more importantly, it places Lennon’s own shortcomings in the spotlight, attempting to dismantle the conditioned masculinity that once guided his jealousy, rage, and violence. It’s more than a plea for world peace; the album is his peace offering.
If the first step is admitting you have a problem, “Jealous Guy” kicks off that journey. Not since “Run for Your Life” had John been so explicit in his damning approach to relationships, only this time, it’s significantly more apologetic:
Oh I didn’t mean to hurt you
I’m sorry that I made you cry
Oh my I didn’t want to hurt you
I’m just a jealous guy
The genesis of this song dates back to when The Beatles were still in India under the spiritual guidance of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Both Paul and John wrote songs inspired by the Maharishi’s lecture on the “son of mother nature.” McCartney’s response to the lecture would go on to live on the White Album as “Mother Nature’s Son.” John’s own psalm of response, then called “Child of Nature,” would lay dormant until some of the original lyrics were updated to become “Jealous Guy.” The third track on the album contains the melodies of a past actualization, but with a somber, matter-of-fact introduction to his own bad nature.
We would have every reason to scorn that nature, yet “Jealous Guy” is one of the most covered songs in Lennon’s solo career. Though it forces the sea change on the album, the track wasn’t released as a single until November 1985, five years after Lennon’s murder. The song that presented him as a Bad Man is now used to celebrate him as a Real Martyr, proof that he was changing his ways before life was cut short. “Jealous Guy” became an unsuspecting relic of idealism, not like his usual relics that give peace a chance, but the kind that gives us hope for self-improvement.
And that’s what makes the album Imagine lightyears more important than its title track. The opening song asks us to visualize a world of better people; the album that follows is Lennon’s attempt to imagine a better self.
Of course, that comes with many Lennon-esque indulgences, most notably his resentment towards Paul McCartney. Feeling personally slighted by various lyrics in McCartney’s album Ram, which was released earlier in May 1971, John recorded “How Do You Sleep?” in response. It’s a scathing indictment of Paul’s character and writing career, and if that weren’t bad enough, George Harrison plays guitar on the track. Yet, the embarrassment falls on John. He’s callous and petty, not unlike his lyrics on the track “Crippled Inside.”
But whether penning these songs for clergy or colleagues, it becomes clear that these were arguments fought in a mirror. Replete with puns and references to Paul’s early work, the angry rhetoric is set to old-saloon piano and the early Rock & Roll sounds that he and Paul loved and shared when they were young. John would later dial back his anger, identifying himself as the real target. The year he died, Lennon told Playboy, “I wasn’t really feeling that vicious at the time. But I was using my resentment toward Paul to create a song.”
Lennon seems to have already answered the central question of “How Do You Sleep at Night?” on the track “It’s So Hard.” The nostalgic blues song that summarizes Lennon’s personal struggles, admitting that trying to do right becomes so difficult that he often wants to stop trying. On Imagine’s title track, Lennon makes world peace look easy. “It’s So Hard” reminds us that it’s a long road to utopia. From this point, the album refocuses its lens on why the right thing is an uphill battle, using much of Lennon’s own experience with primal therapy.
Lennon was under the guidance of Arthur Janov, the celebrity therapist who argued that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. Janov’s book, The Primal Scream, influenced much of Lennon’s previous album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, but the tracks “How?” and “Oh My Love” off Imagine provide positive updates with how treatment was going. The ongoing process of primal therapy includes trauma-based psychotherapy and a whole lot of screaming. “How?” reflects the changes taking place within Lennon as he seeks help, while “Oh My Love,” which he co-wrote with Yoko Ono, celebrates their shared breakthroughs.
By the end of Imagine, John’s solo career is a product of self-reimagining. He digs deep to eradicate the masculinity he fought with as a child, the same aggression that dictated his personality throughout his adult life. In his interview, he explained, “It was more important to face myself and face that reality than to continue a life of rock ‘n’ roll — and to go up and down with the whims of either your own performance or the public’s opinion of you.” The album ends on ideas of hope in “Oh, Yoko!” but doesn’t lift Yoko’s role as that of redeemer, so much as his catalyst of change.
There are some of us that love John Lennon because he wrote the hymnal for the world’s progressives, and a beginner’s phrasebook for every college student in the West that was curious about Communism. Then, there are those of us that see ourselves in his trauma. Ex-hippies like my mother share his generational trauma and also his resentment for the failure of their efforts. It’s hard for her to listen to a song like “Imagine” because she saw what it achieved: nothing. The world continues to devolve from the utopia Lennon envisioned, only at a more rapid rate. Not unlike how we treat Lennon, the general public continues to gush over the lecturers of peace, fully knowing these leaders don’t always abide by such ideals themselves. A quick glance at the recipients of Nobel Peace Prizes over the years highlights a yearbook of human rights abusers, opposition suppressors, drone purveyors, Henry Kissinger.
But there is another group within Lennon’s fanbase that have experienced a more invasive trauma, and among those fans are women. How can a person dealing with the trauma of abuse find solace in the peace-loving rhetoric of a former abuser? There isn’t a simple answer for that question, but it’s something scores of people do, myself included. In John’s later years, he confirmed Cynthia Lennon’s narrative of abuse when nobody wanted to listen. He also lent language to the idea of male rehabilitation, where there had been and still is a lack of discourse. Admitting wrongness is only a step, but we cannot undermine the importance of that step.
From the 1980 Playboy interview:
“I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
Justified or not, fans will continue to love John Lennon because of how his career represents our own will to change and the possibilities of individual evolution. Lennon constantly fought with himself, but always gave enough self-improvement to keep us hopeful for a sea change. And that steadily growing self-awareness continues to string along the fans most eager to forgive him.
But his own self-awareness, even if skewed, is what contributed to the rawness of the album Imagine and the real source of its greatness. As a stand alone song, “Imagine” only prompts us to envision a peace that will never exist. It’s a futile prompt that will only make us feel further from it and resent the very notion. In its wholeness, Imagine is the painful process of reimagining a better self — a more realistic route to change. And for those that still believe such change is possible, we find at the end of Imagine a map of how Lennon gets there.
Mary Von Aue is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.