“The death of a man who sang and played the guitar overshadows the news,” said CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, on Dec. 9, 1980, reporting on the shooting of John Lennon. People who held vigils for Lennon five days later remembered him as more than just a member of the Beatles. Lennon used his music and fame after leaving the group to encourage a generation’s dreams of peace, love and social justice. Each of the Beatles did great things after the Fab Four went their separate ways but John Lennon was always the most political, the most rebellious -- the only one the Nixon administration tried to silence.
John’s mother, Julia Lennon, gave him up to be raised by his aunt; his father had no interest in raising him. If that sparked his subversive nature, his aversion to authority spiked at age 17, when Julia was killed in a hit-and-run accident involving an off-duty police officer’s car. Lennon and his mother bonded over rock ‘n’ roll before her death, and Julia had seen him perform with his first band, The Quarrymen, which fueled his dreams of stardom.
Throughout his career with the Beatles during the rapidly changing 1960s, Lennon and the group transformed the way people viewed music, art and life, driving an increasingly vocal young generation’s awareness of drugs, Eastern religion and politics. The song “Revolution,” written during a turbulent year of protests and riots in 1968, was the Beatles’ message for everyone then and now setting out to challenge the system: “When you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.”
Peaceful world-shaking remained Lennon’s code, even when he aligned himself with radical activism against the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration during the 1970s.
However the breakup of the Beatles came about, Lennon revelled in the opportunity to make music and use his star power as an individual. His second wife, conceptual artist Yoko Ono, whom he married in 1969, was a constant presence, influence and partner in nearly every aspect of his life after the Fab Four.
Ono called her performance art “music of the mind,” and she and Lennon clicked because she matched his subversive style. The duo turned the press frenzy to cover their honeymoon into “a bed-in for peace,” protesting the Vietnam War by sitting in bed for days and urging people to “make love, not war.” Doing another press interview from beneath a sheet the two challenged reporters with the concept of “bagism,” asking how they would judge a conversation with someone if they didn’t know what they looked like.
Songs Lennon wrote during his solo career had varying success, but nearly all spoke for social justice and an end to war. The most famous of these is “Imagine,” which paints a picture of a world not divided by countries or religions with “all the people living life in peace.” Reminiscing on his British roots, Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” tackles inequity and class struggle. Anthems like “Give Peace a Chance” and “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” were a huge hit with Vietnam War protesters. Less popular was his song “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” calling for feminist activism.
Lennon did television spots with Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and did public appearances with peace activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Lennon wrote songs for protest rallies, including one that helped secure the release of John Sinclair, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover police officer after repeat possession convictions.
The Nixon administration feared Lennon’s influence. Shortly after the Beatles broke up, their fan base became much more significant: the 26th Amendment made 18 the national voting age, adding 11 million new voters to the rolls just in time for the 1972 election. Declassified FBI files, available online, released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that Lennon was under surveillance by government agents, the same as civil rights and antiwar protest leaders of the time.