Enzo Gentile

John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Buil Around it / Danger Box, 1968 courtesy Fondazione Bonotto

The human voice is the privileged seat of difference: a site which escapes all science.
(Roland Barthes, 1986)

There are many faces, voices and sides to any artist. John Lennon perhaps had more than anyone else. He took hold of the ‘60s, crossed them and led them with him, taking the age of black & white and turning it into colour: more potent, more heretical and more intelligent. In other words, more Lennonian.

Even as a child, he understood that he had a different approach from that of other children, and that he was simply special. During his school years, that understanding became ever more of a certainty. “People like me are aware of their so-called genius at ten, eight, nine... I always wondered, ‘Why has nobody discovered me?’ In school, didn’t they see that I’m cleverer than anybody in this school? That the teachers are stupid, too? That all they had was information that I didn’t need? I got fuckin’ lost in being at high school. I used to say to me auntie, ‘You throw my fuckin’ poetry out, and you’ll regret it when I’m famous,’ and she threw the bastard stuff out.”

With a family background which defined as ‘difficult’ would be a major understatement, and which John often drew on in his songs, from ‘Mother’ onwards, the age of infancy and puberty passed rapidly, giving way to his headlong charge into adulthood, the path of his youth devoured in a sort of ‘auto-da-fé’, sowing a long series of clues and signals.

“A couple of teachers would notice me, encourage me to be something or other, to draw or to paint – express myself. But most of the time they were trying to beat me into being a fuckin’ dentist or a teacher.”

Lennon was curious, restless and transversal; an experimenter, shifting, deviant, and indeed a multiple of himself: a multitasker to use a contemporary definition. Guided by his own intuition and by the courage to go against the grain, he was stimulated by challenges to be thrust into the face of power, be it recording companies or high-brow literary culture, bound up in a lexical cult which John was to tear apart, modify, transform and tame to suit his own wild punning, with giddy plunges into the thickets of nonsense or sharpened for all-out provocations. And then cinema, with a highly respectable acting experience presenting an all-enveloping craziness (‘How I Won the War’, directed by Richard Lester), but most of all drawing, figurative art, with a stroke which regularly accompanied his poems, short stories, his wideeyed incursions in a language driven by an inventive force that was never quite brought under control: pure dynamite. “The only contact I had was reading something about Oscar Wilde or Dylan Thomas or Vincent van Gogh – of the suffering they went through because of their vision... I saw their loneliness. Surrealism had a great effect on me because classithen I realized that the imagery in my mind wasn’t insanity. Surrealism to me is reality. Psychic vision to me is reality. Even as a child. When I looked at myself in the mirror when I was 12, 13, I literally used to trance out into alpha. I didn’t know what it was called then.”

John Lennon, the omnivorous multimedia artist, disarmingly limitless in his journey through expression, testimony, and a song for freedom to be multiplied through the most diverse and malleable of languages. Lennon had studied little and badly, yet his adolescent suffering (outlined clearly in the film ‘Nowhere Boy’, dedicated to him in 2009 by director Sam Taylor-Wood) and certain existential hitches had honed his sensitivity, far beyond the limits of imagination and common capacities; nevertheless, everything he did seemed to be dictated by the simplicity of his ‘magic touch’, so bereft of ornaments, burdens and speculation. “I remember that I went a bit out of my mind when I was about 14: I went more or less off the rails. I was always like that when I was at school. Art was the only thing I could do, and my headmaster told me that if I didn’t go to art school I might as well give up life.”

For more than half a century, Lennon’s works, songs, messages and gestures have said much more about him than any kind of critical/quantitative phenomena: figures, music charts or record achievements. Lennon the political, the philosophical, the activist; the intimate Lennon, the bard, the father; Lennon citizen of the world, sinner and saint, antenna and radar, Lennon the Big Brother who stood on our side. In his heritage as an artist, and even more so in that as a human being and planetary narrator, we like to see the traces that were to remain – and that will remain in the future – if anything, in an even more persistent way than his songs, despite their having become consolidated hymns, watchwords, eternal mantras right around the globe.

“I’ve always been politically minded, you know, and against the status quo. It’s pretty basic when you’re brought up, like I was, to hate and fear the police as a natural enemy and to despise the army as something that takes everybody away and leaves them dead somewhere. I mean, it’s just a basic working-class thing, though it begins to wear off when you get older, get a family and get swallowed up in the system.”

John as a popular icon and totem; John as a pagan idol and lay herald of calls for peace; missions connoted by a highly original form of religiousness, also to be found in his songs and writings, leaving slogans and questions in his wake, taken up to fight righteous battles even decades later. John the single and indivisible, who may still be clearly sensed as he draws in air, singing his words a cut above those of others. “In my case I’ve never not been political, though religion tended to overshadow it in my acid days; that would be around ‘65 or ‘66. And that religion was directly the result of all that superstar shit – religion was an outlet for my repression. I thought: Well, there’s something else to life, isn’t there? This isn’t it, surely?’”

As time goes by, the further we drift from the origins, the more those roots tend to appear as monumental: sentiments deepening to the point that Lennon’s image now comes across as even greater, both as a musician, of course, and also of his alter ego, capable of dealing with entirely different matters, interfacing continually with the destiny and the vibrations of the planet. With someone like John, we shall continue to make discoveries: on one hand there are splinters of songs that we know by heart, entwined in the very Dna of history; on the other hand the subtle art of an osmotic, chiaroscuro literature together with all that which revolves around it, to be decoded, held up against the light until we are left breathless. Everything is Lennon, and luckily so.

“In the two books I wrote, even though they were written in a sort of Joycean gobbledegook, there’s many knocks at religion and there is a play about a worker and a capitalist. I’ve been satirising the system since my childhood. I used to write magazines in school and hand them around. I was very conscious of class, they would say with a chip on my shoulder, because I knew what happened to me and I knew about the class repression coming down on us – it was a fucking fact but in the hurricane Beatle world it got left out, I got farther away from reality for a time.”

“All you need is love, as the song goes. This really is my fundamental political creed. We all need more love.”
(J. Lennon)