John Lennon would have been 80 today. Over on Twitter, that's meant tributes from all over the place. Jurgen Klopp sang 'Imagine'. Carlo Ancelotti said he loved the Beatles, "especially 'Let It Be' and 'Yellow Submarine'". It's all been very moving. It's also meant the dividing lines of who John Lennon is are more sharply drawn than ever.
The concertinaing effect of time presses all the zigs and zags of someone's personality into a flat A-or-B choice, and depending on how much you like him Lennon is now either the soft, whimsical, peacenik Lennon of 'Imagine' and 'All You Need Is Love', or an irredeemable bastard.
And, you know, fair enough. He did do and say a lot of things which are impossible to make excuses for. He was an angry young man, and admitted hitting his first wife, Cynthia; he had a propensity for taking the piss out of people with disabilities while on stage; he made off-hand anti-Semitic jokes about Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
It's hard to square that guy with the beret-wearing revolutionary who hung out with Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, waded into The Troubles in 'The Luck of the Irish' and was tailed by the FBI. He doesn't make sense next to bread-and-babies Lennon, the one who disappeared into New York domesticity in 1975 and invested in herds of Holstein dairy cows upstate.
But that genius-bastard axis has been established for a while, and it's still there on social media. There are the soft-focus genius-worship accounts.
And quite a lot of fan accounts which are extremely horny for Lennon.
screaming & sobbing pic.twitter.com/nZvld0yUic— hourly john lennon ⋆࿐໋₊ (@lennonhourly) October 7, 2020
A related offshoot is omniscient genius Lennon, who gets all sorts of quotes attributed to him no matter how unlikely. (A personal favourite: "Everything will be alright in the end; if it's not alright, it's not the end". The actual source is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.)
There also a lot of people pointing out the egregious things Lennon did. Now, though, there's a third way. The John "The Absolute Madman" Lennon meme that started on 4chan is a prime example of how meme culture spins new meanings out of old images.
The meme culture doesn't seem to be blind to Lennon's shortcomings, but does seem uncertain about how to look at it. Group rules on Beatles Submarineposting, one of Facebook's bigger Beatles shitposting groups, include "No Bait Involving John/Ringo’s Abusive Past" ("Yes, we all know, it’s been widely discussed in numerous Beatles fan circles. Making cheap jokes in a toxic manner will get you kicked and your post deleted") and "No Wife Bashing or Naming John's Killer" ("don't mention John's killer by name and only say 'John's killer' as some members have complained"). Edgier members still drop memes about Lennon's murder though, pitched somewhere in that space between not really meaning the joke but sincerely wanting the laugh.
It's quite hard to tell if all this is good or bad, but it does at least feel like somewhere close to Lennon's own sense of humour. Iconoclastic, always quipping or scribbling crude little cartoons or writing near-nonsense, and punning with a borderline pathological ferocity, he might have quite liked it.
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