John Lennon Plays Basketball with Miles Davis and Hangs Out with Allen Ginsberg & Friends

I’ve always had the impres­sion of John Lennon as an aloof fig­ure, and I’ve some­times had dif­fi­cul­ty rec­on­cil­ing the give peace a chance per­sona with the angry young man and his acid tongue. Motorhead’s Lem­my once called him “the ass­hole of the band,” say­ing, “if you read his books, he’s not the peace-lov­ing nice guy that you heard about.” That may be part­ly true (his first wife Cyn­thia might agree), but it needn’t negate his ideals nor his activism and char­i­ty. Lennon was com­pli­cat­ed, and prob­a­bly not an easy per­son to get close to. On the oth­er hand, he may be the most self-reveal­ing of all the Bea­t­les (lit­er­al­ly). Perhaps—as Lennon says in voice-over nar­ra­tion above—his life, like his exper­i­men­tal 8mm films, was “self-edit­ed.”

Though not shot by Lennon him­self (and not tech­ni­cal­ly “home movies” as the YouTube uploader describes them), the can­did films above and below show a relaxed and play­ful Lennon at his 31st birth­day par­ty on Octo­ber 9, 1971, goof­ing off with Yoko and sev­er­al oth­er well-known fig­ures (the same day, an exhi­bi­tion of Lennon and Ono’s art opened in Syra­cuse). Allen Gins­berg, Ringo Starr, and Phil Spec­tor bob in and out of the shaky frame below.

Above, Miles Davis hangs out with the cou­ple and plays bas­ket­ball with Lennon. Keen­er eyes than mine may spot oth­er leg­endary celebri­ties. Avant-garde film­mak­er and one­time Warhol cam­era­man Jonas Mekas shot the footage, call­ing it “Hap­py Birth­day to John.”  Mekas describes the audio track as “a series of impro­vised songs, sung by John, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and their friends—not a clean stu­dio record­ing, but as a birth­day singing, free and hap­py.”  In a 2002 inter­view, he con­veyed his impres­sions of Lennon:

John was very open and curi­ous, a very quick sort of per­son, who caught on imme­di­ate­ly. He did a lot of 8mm film­ing him­self. At the begin­ning of Hap­py Birth­day John, you will hear him talk­ing about what he was try­ing to do.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Appear­ances on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 and 72

Bed Peace Revis­its John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Famous Anti-Viet­nam Protests

How I Won the War: John Lennon’s Absur­dist (Non-Musi­cal) Film Appear­ance, 1967

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Elizabeth says:

    He was very young — just turn­ing 31 — to be sub­ject to such con­clu­so­ry crit­i­cisms of his char­ac­ter. If he was an angry young man, he just bare­ly had the time to begin to mel­low. He was only 40 when he died.
    Thanks for the very inter­est­ing piece and for the films.

  • Sherry says:

    I would like to take the peo­ple who crit­i­cize Lennon and have them live his life up to the age of 30 and see how they han­dle it. His life was like liv­ing in the eye of a freak­ing hur­ri­cane, and most of the time he han­dled it with hon­esty and grace. I have done a lot of research on the man, and there are a ton of crap writ­ten about him and some great stuff too. I tend to focus on what the peo­ple who actu­al­ly knew him have to say. Detrac­tors like to hold up his treat­ment of Cyn­thia (first wife) and Julian as the ulti­mate tes­ta­ment to his sup­posed bad char­ac­ter, but if you lis­ten to what both of them have to say now, you will find that they both love him dear­ly and under­stand what he went through. He promised Julian once, that if any­thing ever hap­pened to him, he would send a mes­sage to Julian that he was still with him and watch­ing over him, and that sign would come in the form of a white feath­er. Even after death, he deliv­ered and Julian got the feath­er. That does­n’t sound to me like a neglect­ful father. He was an incred­i­bly tal­ent­ed, intel­li­gent, com­plex, play­ful, fun­ny, gen­er­ous, car­ing and con­flict­ed human being whose every move was under the micro­scope. In the words that the Bea­t­les made famous, let him be.

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