John Lennon’s Lysergic Transformation: From Wife-beater to Peace Icon
John Lennon’s Lysergic Transformation: From Wife-beater to Peace Icon
I was 15 when John Lennon was murdered. I had just started listening to The Beatles by way of their career-spanning red and blue albums. I couldn’t get over how good each song was and how they evolved over their years together. I didn’t know them as individuals yet, but that was soon to change. The news channels ran nearly 24/7 images of the vigil outside the Dakota Building in NYC, where John lived with his wife Yoko Ono and five-year-old son Sean. There were thousands, holding candles and home-made signs, many arm in arm, weeping, and chanting the John and Yoko anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”
I was seeking answers and I found them in Lennon’s words: peace…love…truth.
Being a depressed kid, I was beaten down by the meanness of other kids, feeling like I didn’t fit in, and wondering how I was ever going to find happiness in this cruel world. I was seeking answers and I found them in Lennon’s words: peace…love…truth. I was instantly hooked. “Yes. That’s the path I want to follow,” I thought to myself. Voraciously, I consumed the rest of the Beatles’ records as well as Lennon’s solo albums.
Years later, it disturbed me greatly to learn that Lennon was abusive to women as a teenager and in his early 20s. By his own admission, Lennon beat women. In fact, there’s a line in the well-known Beatles song “Getting Better” that goes, “I used to be cruel to my woman/ I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.” When asked about it, Lennon said, “That was me. I was a hitter.” It’s chilling to listen to the lyrics to Rubber Soul’s “Run for Your Life”, because it gives you an idea of his extremely jealous and possessive mindset at the time that he wrote it. “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” Lennon would later dismiss the song as “rubbish”, but it evokes a clear idea of where his head was at the time. When asked about John’s violent tendencies, John’s first wife Cynthia said, “He smacked me across the face,” and she left him for three months over the incident.
By his own admission, Lennon beat women.
So how does one go from being an abusive cretin to an international icon of peace and love in just a couple of years? Something caused a change in him during the mid-60s—after which he began singing songs like “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance”. What was it?
Probably not any one single cause; big changes seldom occur that way. But, one thing we do know is Lennon was doing during those years, aside from making music, was taking LSD—and lots of it. It bears considering the possibility that Lennon’s ingestion of the drug led to a critical shift in his consciousness that not only shaped his personality but led to a new approach in songwriting. Being the lead Beatle and one of the most singular and important songwriters of his day, Lennon’s LSD experiences led to a paradigmatic transformation in popular music and created a new sub-genre called psychedelic rock. It almost became mandatory in the late 60s for rock musicians to experiment with LSD and follow the drug muse to shape their art. As such, rock music gained a certain profundity, as the parameters that had previously limited its scope were no more. The shackles were gone, the beast unleashed. No longer did songsmiths have to conform to the constraints of corporate media. Artists were set free and a psychedelic revolution of music and culture had arrived.
Lennon first took acid, albeit unintentionally, in the spring of 1965 at a dinner party hosted by George Harrison’s dentist. John, Cynthia, George, and Patti were having after-dinner coffee when their host mentioned that he had spiked their cups with LSD. John was furious at first, but “eased” into a stoned euphoria. “God, it was just terrifying, but it was fantastic. George’s house seemed to be just like a big submarine… It seemed to float above his wall, which was 18 foot, and I was driving it”.
Over the next few years, LSD was Lennon’s drug of choice. He took it frequently. One effect of the drug is generally referred to as a loss of ego, which reportedly allows the user to “see things as they are” without the protection of defense mechanisms. This is said to lead to self-awareness, and it certainly appears to have done so in Lennon’s case. Most likely, the drug allowed him to see himself for what he was–like holding up a mirror to his soul. I envisage that he began to outgrow his old abusive self and became an improved version of himself through self-reflection and elevated consciousness. It appears that he came to the understanding that peace and love are the most important concepts in the world, and this new revelation became the focal point for some of his songs.
In spite of its highly controversial image, LSD had been used for its healing properties since the 1950s. Cary Grant famously took LSD hundreds of times under the care of his Beverly Hills doctor. After several sessions, Grant proclaimed, “When I broke through, I felt an immeasurably beneficial cleansing of so many needless fears and guilts. I lost all the tension that I’d been crippling myself with”. Grant may have been the most famous advocate of the therapeutic effects of LSD, but he was certainly not the only one who benefitted from them. In the 50s and early 60s, LSD was known for its intensive healing properties and was considered to be a major therapeutic tool for psychiatrists, many of whom believed that psychedelic sessions yielded results at a much higher rate than standard sessions.
In 1966, the US criminalized LSD after a number of hyper-sensationalized reports emerged that it caused people to lose their minds and, in some cases, become homicidal. Consequently, LSD research fell by the wayside for decades, and doctors had no choice but to discontinue the therapeutic use of acid. Beginning a little over a decade ago, there has been a resurgence in clinical trials and studies implementing LSD, as the medical community explores its use in helping to alleviate depression and anxiety. In more recent years, Silicon Valley professionals have been touting the benefits of micro-dosing LSD and psilocybin in order to improve mood, focus better, and decrease unpleasantness. And, as had been suggested in the 50s, the drug is now being used with some success in addiction treatment.
Lennon’s personal psychedelic phase was overtly reflected in the music of The Beatles. The group released their No.1 single “Paperback Writer” in late May of 1966. The record’s B-side was a song penned by Lennon called “Rain”, that evokes in the listener the sense of an “altered” state—such as might be produced by LSD. The backward vocals and the melody line definitely elicit Eastern mysticism, which the group was pursuing at the same time as various members were using psychedelics.
A couple of months later, The Beatles released their classic album Revolver, which includes the songs, “She Said, She Said”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows”. This writer considers that album to be essentially “soaked” in lysergic acid. Following that masterpiece came two more psychedelic touchstones: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, the latter in November of 1967. Although the Beatles continued to make great music together for another couple of years, their psychedelic period seemed to conclude as the Magical Mystery Tour came to an end.
The changes in Lennon’s personality from 1965 to 1967—during which his acid ingestion was prolific– were dramatic. The machismo was gone. His relationship with Yoko Ono became everything. He glommed onto her like a little boy to his mother. They recorded several poorly received albums together and stayed in bed for a week to promote peace. They got married. Lennon wrote a song about their wedding called “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, which The Beatles recorded. Much to the annoyance of the other band members, Lennon brought Yoko to recording sessions—something that had always been strictly forbidden by the group itself. And, of course, Lennon valiantly defended her against nasty critics who claimed Yoko was ugly. Undoubtedly, meeting Yoko was a factor in Lennon’s transformation, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder if he would have been so open to the relationship—being that Yoko was neither conventionally attractive nor conventional in her behavior—had it not been for the “mind-opening” effects of LSD.
Lennon became and remains an icon–not only among the most famous and influential musicians of the 20th century but one of the most fascinating personalities in the humanities. His image is nearly ubiquitous and elicits many things to many different people, but perhaps, more than anything else, it evokes a feeling of hope–hope for a better world, a world where people love each other and live in peace. He asked us to imagine selflessly sharing the world so that no one goes hungry– and there are few concepts more noble or loving than that.
Lennon never lost his acerbic wit or his barbed tongue. What he did do was grow spiritually. His heightened sense of awareness, increased self-reflection, and overt behavioral changes, took place over two years of intense LSD use. It seems more than a coincidence that during the same period, he was transformed into the global, inspirational icon he is today, more than four decades after his death.