It was the notion of John Lennon the myth, Lennon the martyr, Lennon the super genius, Lennon the real talent behind the Beatles, Lennon the man who saw through everything, Lennon the avant garde artist and Lennon the gentle, peace loving guy who prayed for the world.
Well, I knew John Lennon, and I liked him a lot. He was very kind and generous to me. I was about to fly out to New York and interview him when I got the call in the middle of the night, UK time, to tell me he’d been shot, so I wept many a tear that day.
But for the past three decades the man I’ve been reading about has grown less and less like the John Lennon I knew and, generally, more and more like some character out of Butler’s Lives Of The Saints.
As an art student John used to draw little cartoons of characters covered in warts. And it sometimes seems that the image of him that has mainly prevailed is one in which his own warts, have been largely air-brushed from public memory by misty-eyed fans, and the efforts of his widow Yoko Ono.
That he had many good points, there is no doubting. He was witty and funny and the “attitude” that he gave the Beatles chimed perfectly with the baby boomer aspirations of the Sixties. He was clever with words and brilliant at writing songs around slogans he made up, such as Give Peace a Chance and All You Need Is Love, instinctively knowing how to catch the moment and generate a million headlines. And, in association with Paul McCartney, he left the world an unequalled canon of popular songs.
But he was also easily led. It was not clever of him, for instance, to give financial help in 1971 to a self-proclaimed black power leader called Michael Abdul Malik, aka Michael X, who then jumped bail in Britain and fled to Trinidad.
A couple of years later Malik murdered two people on a commune he was running there and was later hanged for his crimes. Lennon couldn’t have known that it would end like that, but he should have been aware, as were many others, that Malik was bad news. Then there was financial help to an Irish Republican movement in the US at the height of the violence in Northern Ireland; not a good idea for a man of peace.
That was John, though, perspicacious in lyric, but, in a life immured by fame, surprisingly easily gulled by those who knew how to flatter him and scratch an ever open guilt wound.
I suspect the song he’s probably best remembered for is Imagine, the lyrics of which many found uplifting, even if the writer of them didn’t exactly practise what he preached. When an old Liverpool friend saw the wealth he’d accumulated in New York and teased him with the lyrics “remember 'no possessions’, John, 'it’s easy if you try’”, the former Beatle’s reply was characteristically, jokingly self-mocking: “It was only a bloody song.”