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.
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
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.
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.