Where would John Lennon have moved?

Michael Gerber
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This morning I had a stray thought: what would John Lennon have done if he’d survived? Where would he have gone? Now don’t get too excited: I was all set to write a big long thinky post about this, but today has been nothing but furious fingers typing typing typing, so I will keep it short, and let the commentariat do the opining for me.

In Life After Death for Beginners, my novel about a Lennon-like character who survives an assassination and has to find out who shot him and why, I put the main character here in Santa Monica. I am not serious about that, but I think it makes sense for several reasons. First I genuinely do think that John Lennon liked the sea, and liked it here—there’s a lot to like—especially back in the 70s-80s when it was a sleepy little beach town. (Plus, in LA they know how to treat rich people. There’s a reason all the petro-rich Iranians came in the 70s and 80s; the Westside’s a sweet place for exile.) Second because he would be far away from all the people who’d he’d known and associated with for the five years previous. And finally, because I was so goddamn sick when I was writing it, it was impossible for me to travel for research. So I was writing what I could write.

But the real Lennon? I don’t think he would’ve stayed in New York City, not for a second. His love of NYC seemed to stem from being able to move around like a non-famous person, and that would’ve been impossible. (I think he would’ve been gratified by the outpouring of love; for a bit.) He didn’t like nightlife; he didn’t seem to want to associate with the old pals. But he did like to travel, had been to Bermuda in 1980, Japan several times (dig this neat page), and planned to visit the UK in 1981.

My guess is he would’ve hightailed it to Japan, for two reasons: Yoko, and no guns. The rigidity of Japanese society would’ve felt like safety to him, and he would’ve been able to spot a bonkers Caucasian fan coming a mile away. However, I think that eventually the isolation of being a foreigner in that country would’ve gotten to him. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d done a blend of what George and Paul did.

This nice shot of Friar Park came from this nice blog.

George picked basically one place, FPSHOT, and made it his castle. Behind those walls, he was famously prickly/uninterested in housecalls from random fans (and can we blame him)? But as his own near-miss with an assassin eventually showed, that strategy has flaws. (Actually, I don’t think Friar Park had a wall around the property until 2009. Very different from These United States; in the US, the wall is the point.)

Paul, on the other hand, has many houses—London, Scotland, Beverly Hills, Arizona, Long Island, add more in the comments—so he effectively lives everywhere…and nowhere. In the end—by age 79—I betcha that’s what John would’ve done. Been seen places occasionally, living the private jet, private club, cosseted multinational life of the very wealthy. We’d have seen photos of him at weddings, graduations, and so forth. Elton’s wedding in 1984; Cyn’s funeral. But unlike Paul, I don’t think he would be spotted bopping around Beverly Hills.

What do you think?

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  1. Michael bleicher Michael bleicher wrote:

    Ooh, to me, this all depends on how the Eighties go for him. Do he and Yoko get divorced? If so, I could see Yoko keeping the Dakota, just as she did during the separation, and John moving to one of their other properties—somewhere on Long Island Sound, or upstate—as his main residence. He loved Scotland as a boy and his next move could well have been somewhere secluded and more pastoral, and also laden with reminders of early childhood—but still close enough to Manhattan when he had the urge to party. In the longer term, I agree it’s likely that he would have ended up somewhat like McCartney, with residences all over the UK and America. But being more of a homebody, I think John would have needed more of a defined home base. And if he got divorced, some of this would also depend on what Wife #3 (new parlor game: what would SHE have been like? Is she a caring but independent artist? Is she a Scientologist? Literally anything is possible!) wanted.

    Had he remained with Yoko, I can also see him living in Japan for a while. I also do not see this coinciding with a period of good mental health for him. What John thought he wanted—predictability, isolation, public deference—and what was good for him were not necessarily the same thing, and I think Japan would’ve been the Dakota Years Times Five but without as many drugs. It’s so hard for me to conceive of J&Y staying together as anything other than a business partnership that I have a hard time imagining them moving to Japan together, though, where John would’ve been REALLY dependent on her, and where she would’ve been further away from the Western music scene she apparently wanted to dominate in her own right. In that scenario, I could see Lennon spending most of his time in Bermuda or Jamaica, perhaps hanging out with fellow British tax exiles/recovering junkie Keith Richards.

    • John with no shooting: he and Yoko part ways, the Beatles re-form, maybe he becomes a Scientologist. (I’m serious.)
      John with any kind of fan violence: he and Yoko bond, he isolates, and stops making music publicly.
      George learned his disdain for fans from John. John’s relationship with fans was…complex, tending towards negative. Maybe that was changing, but not if he felt physically at risk.

      • Michael bleicher Michael bleicher wrote:

        There was a lot of stuff going on in 1980 in order to make that assassination attempt a successful one, but John’s relationship with Beatles fans that you describe helped to the conditions necessary for it to happen. That mixture of deep, deep need for fans’ worship, and the aversion to fans thinking they understood John that led to the cynical/teasing/cryptic word games of songs like Glass Onion, creates a mix where a suggestible, mentally unwell person can perceive a type of power in Lennon that’s well beyond “poet” or “entertainer.” Cultural figures who have that kind of power either have extremely secure protections between them and the public, or they get killed (directly or indirectly).

        I think Dylan, for example, recognized this, and that explains why he spent his entire post-1966 career running from the guru/prophet mantle people tried to bestow upon him. John recognized this too, but could not consistently square it with his other emotional needs.

  2. I sense there’d have been a return to the UK, and to Paul specifically. After that is anyone’s guess.

    • Isn’t there scuttlebutt that they had a recording session booked?
      It’s like 1975 in New Orleans all over again.

      • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

        That’s what a few different people who could’ve been in a position to know have said. A commenter here named Elizabeth posted an interview in which a music industry person claimed studio time was booked for Dec. 9 in London (but I think canceled while Lennon was still alive). All very sad. And the stop smoking cure in 1975 didn’t even work.

  3. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    maybe he becomes a Scientologist.

    I agree, there’s a good chance that could have happened.

    And then after a few years, he becomes disenchanted and breaks free. Only trouble is they make his life a living hell after he writes a “Sexy Sadie” song about David Miscavige.

    John had a tendency to dive headfirst onto a new therapy or trend or treatment, become disillusioned when it didn’t immediately solve all his problems, and then look around (not see a mark) and realize he was the mark. And then he’d complain to the press or write a song.

    Which is fine if you’re dealing with the Maharishi or Arthur Janov. But the scientologists?

    • Yes, agreed. The thing about Maharishi and Janov was, whatever you feel about their modalities, they and their organizations seem to be basically benign. You can leave them.

    • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

      Yes, and in my experience that’s completely typical of people in immense pain looking for some type of therapy (traditional or otherwise). The therapist/guru is not going to just slip you the answer one day.

  4. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    Michael B., couldn’t agree more that what John thought he needed and what he really needed were sometimes poles apart — true for us all at some points, but tragically true for him in the late 1970s, IMO.

    Setting aside for the moment the question of fan violence, I think a lot would depend, post-1980, on what happened with “Double Fantasy” and the projected tour in support of it. The album is recalled in almost wholly positive terms today, but initial reviews were more mixed. And what exactly would that John and Yoko tour have looked like? How would it have played, and how would they both feel about it?

    My sense is that 1981 would have been a big year for John and Yoko in determining what the future of their relationship, and John’s music career, were going to look like.

    • I think that’s right, @Nancy. And I think it’s FAR from certain that a Double Fantasy world tour would’ve been a smashing success. The smart money would’ve been against it, in fact — “domestic bliss” doesn’t really fill stadiums.
      The interesting thing to ponder is: what then? I think John would’ve hightailed it back to Paul and tried to kick everyone’s ass again. I think his ego would’ve demanded it.

  5. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Elton John has some stories to share:

    Yoko Ono summoned Elton “urgently” to the Dakota a couple of years after John Lennon’s murder. She’d discovered a bunch of songs that John had recorded demo’s for and wanted Elton to finish them. This is startling because you’d think she’d have asked Paul McCartney. Elton declined. He writes: “I thought it was too soon, the time wasn’t right. Actually I didn’t think the time would ever be right. Just the thought of it freaked me out…I thought it was horrible. Yoko was insistent, but so was I. So it was a very uncomfortable meeting.”

    Elton notes that ultimately Yoko put the songs out just as they were, on album called “Milk and Honey.”


  6. Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

    Do you not reckon John’s ego would have demanded that he succeed *without* Paul Michael? That’s the track he’d been on since 1968, and the day of his death he was carrying a tape of “Walking on Thin Ice”, the song he was determined to turn into a #1 hit. I would have thought crawling back to the hugely commercially successful Paul would have felt like giving up.

    • I dunno. That’s my best guess: I dunno. Sometimes Paul was his “brother,” sometimes he was his deadly rival.
      Remember: Double Fantasy wasn’t selling great. Reviews were just OK. And John might have *wanted* to turn “Walking on Thin Ice” into a #1, but given that his last one was with the incredibly hot Elton John in 1974, his ability to turn any tune into a #1, much less one sung by Yoko, was really dubious.
      I think he might’ve woken up one morning and realized, “If I’m getting back into the game, for reals, I need Paul.”
      Or he might have gone the other way: the idea that, at 40, he no longer had to compete with his peers for the dollars of 16-year-olds. And I think that if John had lived and done that, he would’ve encouraged Paul to feel the same, and together they might well HAVE become titanically successful again. But Lennon alone? Not a hitmaker in 1980, before his death.
      Even with that push, which is impossible to express if you weren’t alive then — “Thin Ice” was a flop. In 1981, I was a HUGE Beatles and John fan, deep in grief, and buying records (LPs and 45s). I didn’t buy “Walking on Thin Ice,” of Season of Glass, and even if I’d been tempted, the sleeve would’ve stopped me.

  7. Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

    It’s always fascinating when hugely gifted people don’t understand their own gifts, and John and Paul share a strange talent for underrating their finest work and overrating whatever idea floated into their head over breakfast. Note that I didn’t say I agreed with John about WOTI – it’s good in an eccentric way and has some great guitar on it, but it was hardly going to be the next Voulez-Vous.
    I also think J&P shared this old-world showbiz desire to appeal to absolutely everybody and reach #1 with every single. They’d kick against the impulse every now and again and release a JL/POB or a McCartney II, but they were pop stars at heart. From the mid-’60s on you get all these bands ploughing psychedelic, prog or roots furrows and not particularly caring if they sell (Led Zeppelin didn’t even release singles!), but the Beatles fundamentally belonged to an older generation. To this day it’s unthinkable to Paul to do a live show without giving the public EXACTLY what they want – no reinventions or experiments allowed!
    I really like the idea of a 1980s John walking a Talking Heads-ish middle line between pandering to audiences and deliberately alienating them, and I think he had it in him.

  8. To this day it’s unthinkable to Paul to do a live show without giving the public EXACTLY what they want – no reinventions or experiments allowed!

    Too true. The most different I think I ever remember him getting, besides lowering keys, was a very brief reference to the Earth Wind and Fire horn line at the tail end of “Got to Get You Into My Life” on his ’79 tour.

  9. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    An enjoyable experiment was Paul blending A Day In The Life/Give Peace A Chance in his live shows.

    • Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

      @Sam, I’ve seen him do the odd thing like speed up the end of Helter Skelter or drop a Hendrix riff into the coda of a song, but I wouldn’t really call that experimentation – it’s not on the same planet as Zappa’s reinventions or Dylan’s complete overhauls. Fundamentally Paul and Jagger are give-the-audience-what-they-want guys and Dylan and Zappa are I’ll-do-what-I-want guys. Both have their place but I wish Paul would stretch himself that bit more – the problem with pleasing everyone is you never get the chance to offer your true fans a deeper kind of pleasure. It’s like with classical – “Beethoven’s greatest hits” concerts will always sell better, but people who love the man’s work want to hear the Pastoral Symphony all the way through and will pay good money for it. Why not have both?

      • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

        I’ve thought about this too, and I wonder if McCartney needs a level of predictability and audience pleasing to feel comfortable performing. I think Beatles-level fame did a number on them all, and I think that maybe McCartney is able to perform for the public only so long as there’s a screen in place — a translucent one, but a screen. To me it goes with the stories about Lennon, Harrison, and Linda that he tells on stage: I think he may stick to the same ones because doing so makes the emotions manageable.

        • Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

          That sounds about right – but I think there’s an overwhelming need for people’s approval there too, and feel he’d be much happier and more relaxed if he could let it go. I sense a deep sadness and insecurity in Paul that comes through even in frothy stuff like the Carpool Karaoke video. You just want to take him aside and say, ‘It’s OK. You’ve done it. Literally the whole world loves you now. Just relax, do whatever the hell you want to do and we’ll love you anyway.’

          • Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

            Yikes, that’s what happens when you’re typing on a cracked screen while walking to something you’re slightly late for. Could some kind soul please add ‘think’ after ‘I’ and add an s to ‘come’?

          • This is the tragedy of NOT identifying alcoholic family patterns (assuming that this is where Paul’s behavior comes from) and rooting them out as best you are able. Even the relatively more benign versions, like Paul’s, really RUN you. They are a compulsion.
            Paul’s strategies have worked for him, but none of us should ever doubt that he’s paid a high price, emotionally and psychologically, as a result. And of course we’d want him to rest and enjoy. But that may not be possible without a pretty major personality overhaul, and the “success” weighs against that.

          • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

            Yes, I very much think approval is part of it too for McCartney. In his own way he’s just as wounded as Lennon was, and this is the form it takes for him.

  10. Avatar Andrew Roblin wrote:

    What a great site. Thank you.

    So…If John were alive, what would he be doing? Here’s what I think:
    * Outspoken about LGBTQ rights. Honest about his sexuality.
    * Outspoken about mental health. Honest about his mental illness.
    * Outspoken about the risks of psychoactive drugs. Honest about his history of dependence.
    * Enjoying playing, singing and writing songs, including with Paul McCartney.
    * Enjoying the healthiest days of his life.

    Of course, I’m an optimist.

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