Cynthia Lennon, the first wife of John Lennon, died today of cancer at the age of 75. Her son and only child, Julian, wrote a beautiful song to her, which you can find on Youtube.
And it so happens that I just finished reading her memoir about her life with John Lennon and after John Lennon called John.
And I can tell you that it is well-written and an excellent read. It is candid; honest; and it is very revealing. She didn't hold back. She was just a normal girl with normal ambitions and normal expectations who happened to meet John Lennon at art college. He was the bad boy, and she was the good girl, and their union was not instant. But, once it started, it had all the intensity of young love- a very passionate connection.
But, they broke up once- after he hit her hard, in the face. It was because he thought she had flirted with another boy, which she hadn’t. But, he saw it that way, and he lost control of himself. But, after some weeks, he apologized to her for that and told her that he would NEVER strike her again. And that's one promise that he kept.
Such a thing is never defensible for any reason, and one should never make excuses for it or make light of it. However, I don't think it would be fair to characterize him- the person that he was, at the core of his being- based on that one incident.
The actual circumstance of their wedding was the unplanned conception of their son Julian. It was after the Beatles were going but before they made it big. But, it wasn't a forced marriage. They sincerely loved each other, and it was something they both very much wanted. And the marriage lasted for 10 years.
So, how did such a strong passion (which they undoubtedly had) go wrong? The incredible success of the Beatles had a lot to do with it. It would have been an awful lot for anyone to adjust to. And, it didn’t help that he was gone an awful lot- on world tours, making movies, etc. She traveled with him sometimes, but not always and not usually.
She heard rumors of infidelities, but she didn't provoke him about it. And when he finally came clean in admitting it, he said that it was just sex, that the one he loved was her, only her. I guess that was supposed to be a comfort. But, my impression from reading the book is that his trysts on the road were not the cardinal reason for their break-up. In many ways, she was very tolerant of him; you might say too tolerant.
Of course, the one tryst that mattered a whole lot and changed everything was the one he had with Yoko Ono. But, Yoko Ono was really more the last straw than the cause of his break-up with Cynthia because their marriage was already on the rocks and crumbling at the time John and Yoko met. So, what was the cause? It was mainly drugs; his use of drugs.
John Lennon got started early on drugs. He had an affinity for them. He was a heavy smoker from a young age. And tobacco is a drug, right? He got into alcohol early too. And the culture for him, as it was and is for many, is that getting drunk, getting wasted is a good thing, that it's something to aspire to. And on the Beatles' first tour of the US, they met Bob Dylan, and Dylan introduced them to marijuana, which the Beatles took to heavily. Did they love marijuana? From that point on, they had employees repack cigarettes with marijuana so that they could travel with it freely all over the world. It worked most of the time, but occasionally it didn't, such as in Japan.
But, "Cyn" could tolerate all that; it was the LSD she couldn't stand. And John was one of those guys who, when he got into something, he got into it big-time. And, he got into LSD big-time. And, he wanted her to trip-out with him, which she did, several times, at his insistence. But, she never liked it. It was always a horrible experience for her. She never had a good trip. And finally, she refused to do it with him at all. So, he did it with others or by himself. Obviously, that was not good for the marriage.
And when he met Yoko, she introduced him to the joys of heroin. And pretty soon after that, it was all over for him and Cyn, and pretty soon after that, it was all over for the Beatles as well.
Previously, I read a long biography of John Lennon. I am most intrigued with musical genius, so I like to read the biographies of musical geniuses, which I think John Lennon was. But, from reading Cynthia's memoir, I definitely came away with the feeling that he was a very troubled, and in many ways, very dysfunctional person. Despite all the “awareness” one is supposed to get from taking LSD, he became increasingly unaware- of the hurt he was causing her and others- others who loved him very much.
Cyn tried very hard to save the marriage- for her son’s sake and even for her own sake because she continued to love John. And even after Yoko came along, if John had agreed to straighten out and curtail further involvement with her, Cyn would have forgiven him. That’s the impression I got. But, it was just the opposite. Although he was the offending party, he acted as though Cyn had betrayed him.
From the health perspective, it is interesting that Cyn reported that the heavy drug use, particularly the LSD, suppressed his appetite, and the result was that he started losing weight. And then when he met Yoko, she right away got him started on a Macrobiotic diet, consisting mainly of brown rice and vegetables. Of course, that is healthy food- don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of people who would benefit greatly from eating more brown rice and vegetables. But if that’s all you eat is brown rice and vegetables, and if your system is used to eating chipped beef, Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips, and whatever else the British eat over there, you are going to lose weight. Of course, the weight loss is a good thing if you happen to be overweight, but he was never overweight; that wasn't his nature. John Lennon was a classic "ectomorph": long and lean and thin by nature. So, the radical and extreme change in diet was simply too much for him, and it resulted in undesired weight loss. And his weight loss continued and worsened. Eventually, he was nearly emaciated.
The bottom line is that John Lennon was very much inclined towards: obsession, and Yoko Ono became his latest obsession. Most painful of all to Cyn was that John’s obsession with Yoko very much hurt his relationship with his son, Julian. Inexplicably, John went long periods without seeing Julian- for years. And, it may have been longer if left entirely to himself. But, I don’t doubt that he loved his son. It's just that he kept waiting for things to settle down, but they never did.
And he loved his other son too, whom he had with Yoko, Sean. But, he would get moody and snappy with his kids, especially with Julian. He just did not have the patience to be around kids.
And let’s face it: children require a lot of patience. But, that’s something that John Lennon did not have. For example, he reacted badly to the way Julian laughed. And I don’t mean just to make fun of him for the way he laughed, which would have been bad enough, but rather, he got seriously irritated with him about it. “Don’t you ever let me hear you laugh like that again” he would scream. Who does that to a child?
But eventually, John started having Julian make visits from England to his famous residence at the Dakota Apartments in New York, across from Central Park. So, it was him and Yoko and Julian and Sean and whatever servants they had. There was no mention of him doing sports with the boy, but he did get him started in music, teaching him the guitar, etc. And, you know that Julian Lennon went on to become a successful musician in his own right. The song he wrote as a tribute to his mother really is lovely.
But, for the most part, it is a very tragic story with far more lows and than highs. (I don't mean in the drug sense.) It’s tragic because of the way John Lennon died, but it’s also tragic because of the way he lived. And, it is tragic because of what he didn’t get to do. He never really reached the level of friendship and accord with Julian to make up for all the years of neglect. And that’s according to both Cynthia and Julian. And he never really came around to apologizing to Cynthia and acknowledging the fact that she was OK: as a wife, as a friend, and as his partner in life. It was him; it wasn't her. She was true-blue.
She was as devoted to him as any woman could be to any man. And, I think it was her nature to be that way; very loyal and devoted and faithful. But, his drug-laden mind would play tricks on him and make him see things that weren't real. Such as: if she was just friendly and warm to someone, a man, John took it as a sign that she was pining for the guy and scheming to bed him. It was ridiculous. And, it seems that to a great extent it was his way of rationalizing his own infidelities- by seeing the same fault in her, which did not exist.
He wasn't good at being a husband or a father, and it was partly because his own parental experience was so bad. His father had walked out at the beginning- so he really had no father. The man, Alfred Lennon, did show up after John had become wealthy and famous, but mainly to put his hand out. Did John help him? Yes, he did, but it never led to anything good.
And there was a problem with his mother too. She was living with a man who was not her husband, and the whole situation was deemed sordid, and John was placed in the custody of his Aunt Mimi, who became his mother figure. He did see his mother, Julia, who was Mimi’s sister, but it was more like visiting his aunt. So basically, his aunt became his mother; and his mother became his aunt; their roles were reversed. And then, his mother Julia died suddenly in an auto accident when he was only 12. And, by the way, his tribute song to his mother, entitled Julia, is very beautiful. Hey, John Lennon was a musical genius; an immense talent- talented enough to write so many beautiful and enduring songs. If he had only written Imagine, it would have been enough to make him worthy of permanent recognition, in my opinion. But, all this musical creativity went on despite his chronic drug abuse. But, I don’t think for one second that the drugs were the source of his creativity. That is ridiculous. The creativity came from him, not the drugs. And, I think he oscillated between being high and coming down from being high, and both states were very destabilizing. I think it came down to the “Law of Dual Effects” that Herbert Shelton used to talk about, where the high that people get from drugs, whether LSD or cocaine or heroin or whatever, is followed by a low when the initial effect of the drug wears off. It leaves you depressed- very depressed. And that, I suspect, was the primary cause of his erratic behavior, which included angry outbursts, mood swings, sullen withdrawn periods, and a whole lot of insensitivity and callousness. He was ping-ponging back and forth between various drug states and the effects of drug withdrawal, and that went on for years; decades.
And the irony is that once he realized that he had a lot of influence on people, he tried to use it for good, such as joining and even leading the Anti-War movement. So, he cared about people; he cared about humankind. But, he never developed the ability to relate well to people one-on-one, especially to the people he was closest to, and particularly his own family.
At the very end of the book, Cynthia Lennon summed it up, and she did not mince words. She wrote this:
“I never stopped loving John, but the cost of that love has been enormous. Someone asked me recently whether, if I’d known at the beginning what lay ahead, I would have gone through with it. I had to say no. Of course, I could never regret having my wonderful son, Julian. But the truth is that if I had known as a teenager what falling for John Lennon would lead to, I would have turned around right then and walked away.”
As I said, it is a tragic story, and really, it is heart-wrenching. Oh, but what music. If you were going to list the top songwriters of the rock and roll era, it's hard to Imagine John Lennon not making everyone's short list.