It’s difficult enough to stop to think about what John Lennon would have been doing if he’d been alive to celebrate his 80th birthday on Oct. 9, 2020. It’s also difficult to try to encapsulate what he achieved in the 18 years he spent as one of the most famous artists in the world.

From the moment the Beatles became hitmakers with “Love Me Do” in October 1962, people demanded to know what it was like being John Lennon – and throughout his career he tried to answer the question as best he could. In many ways his life was part of his performance, which placed pressures on him and those around him that often became difficult to bear.

Below is a selection of quotes – 80 in total, to mark his birthday – that demonstrate the breadth of ideas Lennon expressed, covering himself, music, fame, peace and love and life itself. They’re taken from conversations across most of his years of activity; so while at first glance some may seem contradictory, the underlying message becomes more visible with time.

As he said himself: “Always see me as me. I was always me, all the way through it.”

Lennon on Himself

“When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

"I'm cynical about society, politics, newspapers, government. But I'm not cynical about life, love, goodness, death. That's why I really don't want to be labeled a cynic."

“I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”

“I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”

“I used to be cruel to my women, and physically. Any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.”

“I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”

On his young son Julian: “I think he likes Paul better than me … I have the funny feeling he wishes Paul was his dad. But unfortunately he got me … It must be hard to be son of anybody. He is a bright kid and he’s into music. I didn’t encourage him, but he’s already got a band in school.”

On Yoko Ono: “If she took them apart, can we please give her the credit for all the nice music that George made, and Ringo made, and Paul made, and I’ve made since they broke up?”

On his estranged father: “I was too upset about what he’d done to me and to my mother and that he would turn up when I was rich and famous and not bother turning up before. So I wasn’t going to see him at all, but he sort of blackmailed me in the press by saying all this about being a poor man washing dishes while I was living in luxury. I fell for it and saw him and we had some kind of relationship.”

On his move to New York: “Some of the nasties think I’m here for tax reasons. But it’s hardly worth explaining to people. I only decided to live here after I’d moved here.… I left everything in England. I didn’t even bring any clothes. I just came for a visit and stayed. If I had wanted to do it for tax I should have informed the British Government; I would have gotten an amazing tax-refund for one year. But I forgot to — so I just ended up paying taxes anyway, here and there.”

“I don’t live it down. I’ve lived it down, played it both ways. Especially when you first get money — you live it up. I had all the biggest cars in the world … and I don’t even like cars. I bought everything that I could buy. The only thing that I never got into is yachts. So, I went through that period. There is nothing else to do once you do it. I just live however makes me most comfortable.”

“My defenses were so great. The cocky rock and roll hero who knows all the answers was actually a terrified guy who didn’t know how to cry. Simple.”

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

“I don't want to grow up but I'm sick of not growing up… I’ll find a different way of not growing up.”

“My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

“Nobody controls me. I’m uncontrollable. The only one who controls me is me, and that’s just barely possible.”

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it. It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”

“I am just some guy who did … whatever. Always see me as me. I was always me, all the way through it.”

Lennon on Music

"Music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it.”

“I write songs because that’s the thing I chose to do. And I can’t help writing them, that’s a fact. Sometimes I felt as though you worked to justify your existence, but you don’t; you work to exist, and vice versa, and that’s it, really.”

"I'm always proud and pleased when people do my songs. It gives me pleasure that they even attempt them, because a lot of my songs aren't that doable."

“I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody’s noticed. I used to wonder whether I’m a genius or I’m not, which is it? I used to think, well, I can’t be mad, because nobody’s put me away, therefore, I’m a genius. A genius is a form of madness, and we’re all that way, you know, and I used to be a bit coy about it, like my guitar playing.”

“Just before I record, I go buy a few albums to see what people are doing. Whether they have improved any, or whether anything happened. And nothing’s really happened. There’s a lot of great guitarists and musicians around, but nothing’s happening, you know.”

"There is nothing conceptually better than rock and roll. No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones have ever improved on 'Whole Lot of Shaking' for my money. Or maybe I’m like our parents: that’s my period and I dig it and I’ll never leave it."

“‘I’m a Loser,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Strawberry Fields,’ they are all personal records. I always wrote about me when I could. I didn’t really enjoy writing third person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things like that. I like first person music. But because of my hang-ups and many other things; I would only now and then specifically write about me.”

“But it’s my music with my band when it’s me singing it, and it’s Paul’s music with his band. Sometimes it’s halvey-halvey, you know. When we write them together, they’re together.”

“Sometimes I used to listen to something, Buddy Holly or something, and one day the record will sound twice as fast as the next day. Did you ever experience that on a single? I used to have that: one day ‘Hound Dog’ would sound very slow and one day it would sound very fast. It was just my feeling towards it. The way I heard it. It can do that. That’s where you have to make your artistic judgment to say well, this is the take and this isn’t. That’s the way you have to make the decision: when it sounds reasonable.”

On “Help”: “I meant it, it’s real; the lyric is as good now as it was then. It’s no different. And it makes me feel secure to know that I was that sensible, or whatever – not sensible, aware of myself. … It was just me singing ‘Help’ and I meant it.”

“The best stuff usually comes out on impulse. Or inspiration. And I hardly have to think about it. But I am always writing. In the back of my head, or if somebody says something, I’m storing it away — a line, or an idea. There is never a moment when I’m not writing, almost. Although I don’t think I’m writing. There’s a specific time when I just sit down and write.”

“I think the music reflects the state that society’s in. It doesn’t suggest the state. I think poets, musicians, artists or whatever they are of the age, not only do they lead that age on but they reflect the age. And I think that’s what the pop music is doing – it’s mainly reflecting."

On why the Beatles split: “They remembered that they were four individuals. You see, we believed the Beatles myth, too. I don’t know whether the others still believe it. We were four guys… I met Paul, and said, ‘You want to join me band?’ Then George joined and then Ringo joined. We were just a band that made it very, very, big that’s all. Our best work was never recorded.”

On the Let It Be movie: “I felt sad, you know. …  that film was set-up by Paul for Paul. That is one of the main reasons the Beatles ended. I can’t speak for George, but I pretty damn well know we got fed up of being sidemen for Paul.”

“The camera work was set-up to show Paul and not anybody else. And that’s how I felt about it. On top of that, the people that cut it, did it as if Paul is God and we are just lyin’ around there.”

"After Brian [Epstein] died, we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.”

“But we sold out, you know. The music was dead before we even went on the theater tour of Britain. We were feeling shit already, because we had to reduce an hour or two hours’ playing, which we were glad about in one way, to 20 minutes, and we would go on and repeat the same 20 minutes every night.”

“That’s why we never improved as musicians; we killed ourselves then to make it.”

“[T]he only thing I sometimes miss is just being able to sort of blink or make a certain noise and I know they’ll all know where we are going on an ad lib thing. But I don’t miss it that much.”

On touring: “I think it would be a drag. I am sure I enjoyed parts of it, but not much of it. My decision was already made on touring, long time ago. … you gotta pull a group together, invent a group. And then you gotta whip them into life, make them a real group, and not a bunch of guys. Then you gotta go around all those snotty little dressing rooms — and all you get is money. That’s all you get from a tour: cash.”

On “How Do You Sleep”: “I was answering a few little messages that Paul sent to me on Ram, you see. Only I publish my lyrics, you see, he doesn’t, so you have listen dead hard. … Paul personally doesn’t feel like I insulted him, because I had dinner with him last week. He’s quite happy. If I can’t have a fight with my best friend, I don’t know who I can have a fight with.”

“People are afraid of Beatle music. They are still afraid of my songs. Because they got that big image thing: You can’t do a Beatle number … You can’t touch a Lennon song; only Lennon can do it… It’s garbage! Anybody can do anything. A few people in the past have done Beatle songs. But in general they feel you can’t touch them. And there are so many good singles that the Beatles wrote that were never released. Why don’t people do them? It’s good for me; it’s good for Paul. It’s good for all of us.”

On a Beatles reunion: “That’s another point altogether, whether it would be a good idea or not… at one period when they were asking me I’d say, ’Nah, what the hell? Go back? Not me.’ And then it came to a period where I thought, ‘Well, why not, if we felt like making a record or doing something.’ Everyone always envisages ‘the stage show’… for me, if we were together, [it would be the] studio again. … It’s never got to a position where each one of us wanted to do it at the same time. … If we wanted to do it, then it would be worth it.”

“All music is rehash. There are only a few notes. Just variations on a theme. Try to tell the kids in the Seventies who were screaming to the Bee Gees that their music was just the Beatles redone. There is nothing wrong with the Bee Gees.”

“As in a love affair, two creative people can destroy themselves trying to recapture that youthful spirit, at twenty-one or twenty-four, of creating without even being aware of how it’s happening.”

On the critics: “They’re entitled not to like us, and we’re entitled not to have anything to do with them if we don’t want to.”

On reviewers “trying to read something into songs that isn’t there”: “It is there. It’s like abstract art really. It’s just the same really. It’s just that when you have to think about it to write it, it just means that you labored at it. But when you just say it, man, you know you’re saying it, it’s a continuous flow. The same as when you’re recording or just playing, you come out of a thing and you know 'I’ve been there' and it was nothing, it was just pure, and that’s what we’re looking for all the time, really."

“What we’re trying to do is rock and roll, with less of your philoso-rock is what we’re saying to ourselves and get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are. You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio if I’m getting into it I’m just doing my old bit, you know, not quite doing Elvis legs, but doing my equivalent – it’s just natural. Everybody says we must do this and that, but our thing is just rocking – you know, the usual gig.”

‘When Paul first sang 'Hey Jude' to me – or played me the little tape he’d made of it – I took it very personally. ‘Ah, it’s me!’ I said. ‘It’s me.’ He says, ‘No, it’s me.' I said ‘Check, we’re going through the same bit.’ So we all are. Whoever is going through that bit with us is going through it; that’s the groove.”

Lennon on Fame

On the early days: “When we hit town, we hit it. There was no pissing about. There’s photographs of me crawling about in Amsterdam on my knees coming out of whore houses and things like that. The police escorted me to the places, because they never wanted a big scandal, you see. I don’t really want to talk about it, because it will hurt Yoko. And it’s not fair.”

On approaching the height of fame: “That was a great period. We were like kings of the jungle then, and we were very close to the Stones.… I spent a lot of time with them, and it was great. We all used to just go around London in cars and meet each other and talk about music with the Animals and Eric and all that. It was really a good time, that was the best period, fame-wise. We didn’t get mobbed so much. It was like a men’s smoking club, just a very good scene.”

“Everybody wants the image to carry on. You want to carry on. The press… want the free drinks and the free whores and the fun; everybody wants to keep on the bandwagon. We were the Caesars; who was going to knock us, when there were a million pounds to be made? All the handouts, the bribery, the police, all the fucking hype. Everybody wanted in, that’s why some of them are still trying to cling on to this: ‘Don’t take Rome from us, not a portable Rome where we can all have our houses and our cars and our lovers and our wives and office girls and parties and drink and drugs, don’t take it from us, otherwise you’re mad, John, you’re crazy – silly John wants to take this all away’.”

On his extreme fans: “I’m not their fucking parents… They come to the door with a fucking peace symbol and expect to just sort of march around the house or something, like an old Beatles fan. They’re under a delusion of awareness by having long hair, and that’s what I’m sick of. They frighten me.”

On his New York home: “It is a big apartment, and it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t have grounds … you know, it’s secure. And people can’t get in and say, ‘I’m Jesus from Toronto, and all that. That still happens. Which was happening in the other apartment. You just couldn’t go out the front door, because there would be something weird at the door.”

"I've got used to the fact —​ just about —​ that whatever I do is going to be compared to the other Beatles. If I took up ballet dancing, my ballet dancing would be compared with Paul’s bowling."

"Why should the Beatles give more? Didn't they give everything on God's earth for ten years? Didn't they give themselves?"

“I think Mick [Jagger] got jealous. I was always very respectful about Mick and the Stones but he said a lot of tarty things about the Beatles, which I am hurt by. I’d like to just list what we did and what the Stones did two months after on every fucking album… he imitates us.”

“It’s not 1965, it’s ’75. People just see me. And occasionally just bother me a bit. But the most they ask for is an autograph. I don’t care, I sign an autograph. Sometimes the taxi drivers, if they are young, get a little bit … And I say, ‘Yes, it is me. Keep your eye on the road.’ But apart from that it’s no hassle. In general I just walk around. I love it. People just say, ‘Oh, it’s him,’ or, ‘It isn’t him,’ but they don’t jump on me. Because I’m not in the prime of my career, or whatever they call it.”

“Carrying the Beatles or the ‘60s dream around all your life is like carrying the Second World War and Glenn Miller around. That's not to say you can't enjoy Glenn Miller or the Beatles, but to live in that dream is the twilight zone. It's not living now. It’s an illusion.”

“If I play rhythm guitar in back of Elton’s record, or in back of David Bowie’s, somehow I’m lowering myself? I think they are good artists. And they are friends of mine, and they asked me to go and play. It’s like in the old days. Like Brian Jones is on a track of the Beatles years ago. And he played saxophone. In those days you weren’t allowed to say, the record companies wouldn’t allow it. So it was never mentioned. Everybody used to play on each other’s sessions, but nobody ever said anything.

“I could still be forgotten when I’m dead. I don't really care what happens when I'm dead.”

Lennon on Peace and Love

“Declare it. Just the same way we declare war. That is how we will have peace… we just need to declare it.”

On “Give Peace a Chance”: “You were saying that in America they’re so serious about the protest movement, but they were so flippant that they were singing a happy-go-lucky song, which happens to be one I wrote. And I’m glad they sang it, and when I get there I’ll sing it with them… that was a message from me to America or to anywhere: that I use my songwriting ability to write a song that we could all sing together.”

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.”

“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”

“Peace is not something you wish for; It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.”

“We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”

“If everyone could just be happy with themselves and the choices people around them make, the world would instantly be a better place.”

“If someone thinks that peace and love are just a cliche that must have been left behind in the '60s, that’s a problem. Peace and love are eternal.”

Lennon on Life

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity.”

"One of my big things is that I wish to be a fisherman. I know it sounds silly —​ and I'd sooner be rich than poor, and all the rest of that ... but I wish the pain was ignorance or bliss or something."

”Rituals are important. Nowadays it’s hip not to be married. I’m not interested in being hip.”

“If there is such a thing as genius – which is what . . . what the fuck is it? – I am one, and if there isn’t, I don’t care. I used to think it when I was a kid, writing me poetry and doing me paintings. I didn’t become something when the Beatles made it, or when you heard about me, I’ve been like this all me life. Genius is pain too.”

“Well, pain is the pain we go through all the time. You’re born in pain. Pain is what we are in most of the time, and I think that the bigger the pain, the more God you look for.”

“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

”Time you enjoy wasting was not wasted.”

“You can’t just keep quiet about anything that’s going on in the world unless you’re a monk. Sorry, monks!”

“Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.”

“Trying to please everybody is impossible – if you did that, you’d end up in the middle with nobody liking you. You’ve just got to make the decision about what you think is your best, and do it.”

“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”

“When you’re drowning you don’t think, ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would notice I’m drowning and come and rescue me.’ You just scream.”

“It’s quite possible to do anything, but not if you put it on the leaders and the parking meters. Don’t expect Carter or Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself.”

“The thing the ‘60s did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”

“I know we make our own reality, and we always have a choice, but how much is preordained? Is there always a fork in the road, and are there two preordained paths that are equally preordained? There could be hundreds of paths where one could go this way or that way — there’s a chance, and it’s very strange sometimes.”

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

 

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