Michael Gerber
Ya follow?
Latest posts by Michael Gerber (see all)
File under “M” for money

In the midst of commenting on Michael B.’s excellent post, I was reminded of something that I’ve said to friends innumerable times but might never have ever written here for you all. I have a lot of Beatle Thoughts like that, sorry. The only solution is for everyone to live with me, and that won’t work because my cat Max gets hemorrhoids around new people.

All John Lennon needed to be happy was to give it all away.

This isn’t the hippie pipe-dream it might seem. Let me explain: At his death, the Chief Beatle was estimated to have an estate of $150 million. Say he’d given away 99% to various charities; he’d be left with $1.5 million, and you could’ve lived very well on that in 1980, even in New York City. (Treasuries were earning 11%.) He wouldn’t have been able to live in The Dakota, sure, but that place is the real-estate equivalent of an expensive watch; it looks like hell to heat, and there are supposedly ghosts. I’m guessing, but a nice (preferably ghost-free, or even minorly haunted) condo on Bank Street in the Village would’ve run Lennon $150,000. Certainly he could’ve bought a nice place in a safe neighborhood and still had a cool million in the bank for a rainy day.

Think about it: In six weeks, he would’ve known—for sure—whether Yoko only loved him for his money. And any friends that stayed, from Paul to Harry to Elton to the guy at the drugstore, were the real deal.

A “broke” John Lennon would’ve no longer been a target for scammers, pushers and users. He would’ve probably eaten like a normal person again, went to normal doctors, and stopped obsessing over nonsense like the Spear of Destiny. There’d be no security necessary; nobody would kidnap Sean. And he would’ve distanced himself for good from all his supposed competitors in the music business—like Dylan, for example, or Mick or even Paul. In 1980, Lennon seems determined to show that those guys were simply entertainers, while he was something more; this would’ve been probably the only way to show that. With a stroke of the pen, Lennon would have given his political views an unassailable moral power.

If Lennon had liquidated, he still would’ve been able to do the things that he apparently liked to do (read, cook, go to cafes, make new songs), but without nearly so much hassle. He still could’ve traveled, he still could’ve stayed in nice hotels; he just wouldn’t be indulging in the corrosive fantasy of being better than the rest of us. And because he’d once again be living like a normal person, with normal person thoughts and problems, the well of creativity that had been draining since 1963 would’ve refilled; a “broke” John Lennon would’ve been able to write songs that normal people could relate to, because he’d have turned himself back into normal people. (Yes, I know he found “normal” boring, but that was his illness talking. You know what’s genuinely boring? Entirely white rooms. Closets full of shoes and briefcases. Someone talking about macrobiotics.). 

If he’d simply given his money away, John Lennon would’ve never paid for anything ever again. He’d have eaten for free, stayed in rich people’s apartments for free, and gotten free medical care when he needed it, thanks to his millions and millions of fans, made even more devoted by his generosity and ability to walk the walk. Ironically, by leaving first-class for coach, he would’ve become something very very special, something like what the Dalai Lama is today. His actions would’ve sent a powerful message to literally every person in the West: you are not your bank account.

And it’s not like the things John used to make money would disappear. He still had the rights to his work; and most importantly, he could still write and perform. If he had given away his money, then made an album and gone on tour, I suspect that would’ve been…quite the profitable venture.

In fact, I think the only way John would’ve been able to get to where he seemed to want to go—to become bigger than The Beatles, to be known as a songwriter/entertainer, but much more than that—would’ve been some game-upending gesture like this. He wanted to reap the benefits from capitalism, patriarchy, and Western religion even as he transcended them, and that simply cannot work. Lennon wasn’t a hypocrite for both craving the security of wealth and being smart enough to see that the security is illusory; he was merely a product of our society. But there is no shortcut to growth, and whether he admitted it publicly or not, he knew that his money was shackling his spirit to fear and nonsense, and it the weight got heavier the richer he became.

Sadly, a “broke” Lennon never would’ve happened; he was unable to realize his true sources of wealth far outweighed all the ink-spattered linen in his bank account. To him, even in 1980, success really was measured in money, and until that idea died, he couldn’t give it away without destroying all he’d accomplished. For all his gestures in other directions, Lennon definitely bought into the patriarchal idea of hierarchies based on wealth. Sadly, he seemed to be getting more attached to wealth and privilege as he aged; not surprising, as infirmity makes cowards of most. In the midst of all his pontification in the 1980 interviews, “I’ve got mine” is a constant, sour note. He seemed to resent, rather bitterly, anyone who suggested that maybe he didn’t need so much, or that he might, for example, do a free concert.

But giving it all away would’ve been better for him. His generosity would’ve been the most self-benefitting thing he could’ve done. Great wealth simply wasn’t worthy of the guy; getting rich was the least of what he did. There are bond traders that are much richer than John Lennon ever was.

As billionaires and billionaire-ism occupies much of our political talk today, I am struck once again: if John Lennon had really wanted freedom, respect, and abundance, all he had to do was give his fortune away.