In our censorious age, it’s worth thinking of all the revered writers, artists and musicians of the past who might find themselves ‘cancelled’ if they were alive today.
Would John Lennon be cancelled? Today, he is considered a saint, but in our society sanctity is conditional on death: the living are less readily forgiven.
In his youth, Lennon possessed an almost pathological distaste for the disabled. Fifties Liverpool was home to many people who had suffered amputations during the war. John would ridicule them, imitating their uncertain movements as they tried to cross the streets. His biographer, Philip Norman, records 17 different occasions when John taunted the handicapped.
He could also be merciless to women. Shortly before his death, he confessed to an interviewer from Playboy magazine that as a young man, he had been ‘a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and hit women.’
Craig Brown ponders if in our censorious age, John Lennon would be ‘cancelled’? Pictured: Lennon and wife Yoko Ono during their famous bed-bound protest against the Vietnam War in 1969
His first wife, Cynthia, was one of his victims. Furious that she had danced with someone else at a party, he followed her into the women’s loos.
‘Before I could speak he raised his arm and hit me across the face, knocking my head into the pipes that ran down the wall behind me,’ she wrote in her autobiography.
The same happened to his first girlfriend, Thelma Pickles. At an art school dance in Easter, 1959, the two of them sidled off into a darkened classroom.
‘We went thinking we’d have it to ourselves but it was evident from the din that we weren’t alone … I refused to stay, and he yanked me back and whacked me one.’
John could also be deeply unpleasant to strangers. In his autobiography, Eric Clapton recalls travelling to a Beatles Christmas show in Hammersmith in 1964. On the underground, an elderly American woman asked Clapton for directions, and then asked him where he was going.
‘I told her I was going to play guitar in a concert with the Beatles. ‘The Beatles?’ she said, astonished, and asked, ‘Can I come along?’ ‘If you want to, I’ll try and get you in,’ I replied.
‘When we arrived at the Odeon, I told the stage manager she was a friend of mine, and took her off to the Beatles’ dressing room, which was on the same level as the stage. They were getting ready to go on, but they took a moment and were really friendly and polite to her. But when we got to John, and I introduced her, he made a face of mock boredom.’
Hailed as a saint, Lennon was known to hit women, mock the disabled and behave rudely as his whim dictated
John then started making obscene movements inside his coat. ‘I was really shocked, and quite offended, because I felt responsible for this harmless little old lady … I got to know John quite well later in our lives, and we were friends I suppose, but I was always aware that he was capable of doing some pretty weird stuff.’
Six months earlier, a young fan had wheedled her way into the Beatles’ suite at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. The journalist Chris Hutchins was present. He recalled what happened next.
‘Hi, guys, I’m Donald O’Connor’s daughter,’ I heard her say as I was enjoying a drink with the band.
‘It took me a moment to work it out, then I realised that her father was the actor most famous for playing Gene Kelly’s sidekick in Singin’ In The Rain. The guards had been sufficiently awed to let her in, but John was unimpressed.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, love, I really am,’ he said. ‘Just heard on the radio about your dad. You must be grief-stricken.’
‘Mr O’Connor’s daughter was taken away in hysterics and it was left to someone else to give her the good news that her father was alive and well.’
By all accounts, John came to regret the crimes and misdemeanours of his youth: his beautiful song Jealous Guy stands as eloquent testament to that remorse. Pictured: John and Yoko in 1980
Today, any aspirant pop star guilty of such callous behaviour would doubtless be banned from radio and television, and dropped by his record label.
Anyone who loves the music of John Lennon and The Beatles should be grateful that the Sixties were a less intrusive and more forgiving age. If not, their careers might have ended before they started.
By all accounts, John came to regret the crimes and misdemeanours of his youth: his beautiful song Jealous Guy stands as eloquent testament to that remorse.
In my recent book about The Beatles, I barely touched on these darker episodes.
Of course, we should now be able to overlook the worst aspects of his character, and to celebrate his many extraordinary qualities.
But if we can forgive John, shouldn’t we also forgive others, perhaps less fashionable?