John Lennon, 1980

John Lennon: Disability Rights Champion?

John Lennon has always been one of my heroes; top of my fantasy list of people I would like to have dinner/be stuck in a lift with. Prompted to re-examine this after recent online criticism about him, I looked closely into his activities alongside the disability rights movement in America in the early seventies.

I need to begin with how John Lennon first came into my life. My first experience of death was his assassination, Christmas 1980. I was six months younger than his own five-year-old son. Even though I knew him as ‘John Lemon’, I was familiar with many of the songs from ‘Imagine’. He held the status of poet and guru for my parents, and someone they had grown up with as a cultural reference point. They had just bought his long-awaited ‘Double Fantasy’ album.

I remember seeing that they were deeply shocked and asking them to explain what had happened to their hero, where he had gone, and when was he coming back.

group of people hold a banner. on it is a picture of John Lennon and the word 'why?'

More than a death, this was a violent murder. A man had killed someone my parents felt close to. As nobody in my Family had died at that point in my life, I thought that bad things didn’t happen to people that my parents loved. The mortuary photographs that appeared in the press and later, the image of his shattered and twisted spectacles in a pool of blood, quickly escalated what was already a terrible loss into a cosmic lesson for a little boy.

I kept returning to this seminal moment as I trawled through my memories for the Creative Writing courses I took some thirty years later. I wrote this poem then to try and capture a child being unable to process such a grown-up concept.

Death in the Eighties

Violence on a cold Winter’s night in New York.
A colourful working-class hero living a peaceful life,
shot, murdered, dying on the cold sidewalk
witnessed by your killer, a doorman and your screaming wife.

Your tragic loss echoes in Autumn Drive.
A hero idolised by my parents for so long,
Why couldn’t Superman, have saved your life?
You can’t be dead; I can still hear your songs.

Images, interviews, people holding candles singing and crying,
Your mangled metal spectacles covered in your precious blood,
the bloodstained shirt you wore as you lay dying
You only wanted peace, but the world never understood.

Life will never be the same,
Is war closer, is peace further away?
is life and death just a game?
My friend Timmy calls, it’s time to play.

As a person of interest to me, I explored Lennon’s music, books films, visited New York and Liverpool. I wanted to understand why he had a great influence on me. His story is compelling has everything: Rags to Riches, Coming of Age, Redemption, and it begins and ends with Tragedy.

His early years and time as a Beatle are well documented and we can all agree are hallmarked by his brilliance, tenacity and mistakes. He was frequently abusive and obnoxious. It his redemption that interested me. Broadly speaking, disability is one, or a series of transitions. I admired John Lennon as someone who was making a transition themselves. The mid 1960s were a time of great change and upheaval for Lennon and the world around him. In his twenties, he was dealing with the fall-out from his ‘bigger than Jesus’ statement, experimenting with drugs, spiritualism and avant-garde art. As he begins to question the world around him, his relationship with Japanese artist, Yoko Ono, began and his first marriage started to fall apart. Lennon expressed his misgivings about War through his role in the 1967 film, ‘How I Won the War’ and song, ‘All You Need is Love’ both released in 1967. Mentor and friend, Brian Epstein died of an accidental drug overdose later that year. In a frenzied end to the decade, America sent more and more combat troops to Vietnam, Martin Luther King jr and JFK were both assassinated in 1968. After His first marriage collapsed, John and Yoko were married in 1969.

But how did he influence me? ‘Crippled Inside’ from the 1971 album, Imagine, is a song that really spoke to me. In this up-beat Country and Western number, Lennon cheerfully warns:

“You can go to church and sing a hymn,

judge me by the colour of my skin,

you can live a lie until you die,

but one thing you can’t hide

is when you’re crippled inside.”

It is really a bleak stab at hypocrisy in our establishment and Lennon uses ‘crippled’ as an insult. However, He also sets out his vision of universal equality in the previous and title track on the album, ‘Imagine’. As a teenager struggling to come to terms with my own disability some fifteen years later, the meaning I took from both songs and their order on the album was that we are all equal as people, but some people are crippled on the inside. This really helped me to understand that disability isn’t who we are but also applies to everyone on a social level. Later, when I learned about the Social Model of Disability, this concept fits very well. It is why I have always maintained that “Disability is other people”.

Sadly, I quickly realised that Lennon did not intend my personal enlightenment. It is well known that his “bizarre obsession for cripples, spastics, any human deformities and people on crutches … was a subject which was to manifest itself throughout John Lennon’s years of fame.”[1]  Through this brief examination, I satisfied myself that he was a man of his time. As a younger man his acerbic wit, and short temper meant he was not someone I would have liked or would have liked me. But I believed he grew up and became a tender father and an enlightened man at the end of his life and that’s the John Lennon I’d always wanted to meet.

Recently, I saw a tweet someone had written expressing their absolute contempt for John Lennon as a human being. The charges against him were nothing new: absentee father, misogynist, wife beater and being a ‘phony’ for preaching peace and love as a rich man. Surprisingly, most of the replies agreed with this take. Initially, I put this down to the poster examining him with today’s ‘woke’ moral values or perhaps reeling from the existential lesson that their childhood heroes were nothing of the sort. As someone who had been through this process myself some time ago, I felt that this was the right time to revisit my understanding of his life and my own reasons for admiring him. My adult life has been shaped by the quest for Disability Equality. For Lennon to remain one of my heroes, I had to learn if he had any involvement in this.

As Lennon lived in America for the last ten years of his life, my focus is on the struggle for disability equality there. There had been efforts to establish and protect the rights for disabled people in America since the early 1800s. The laws passed up until The Second World War were at worst eugenic and at best paternalistic in nature and strengthened the role of doctors in the lives of disabled people. More progressive laws protecting the rights of disabled people and representative groups began to emerge during from the 1940s. In 1963, President Kennedy called for a reduction in the number of mentally disabled people in residential treatment centres. Inspired by the successes of other Civil Rights movements, the seventies were a very exciting decade for disabled people in America.

Disability Activists in 1970

The Beatles broke up in 1970 and Lennon moved to New York in 1971 as things were really hotting up. Disabled in Action was founded there, and a number of chapters were also started in various other American cities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was the first law to give a universal definition of disability and prohibited Federal programs from discriminating against disabled people. Amid demonstrations by Disabled Activists in Washington and elsewhere, it was vetoed by Richard Nixon in 1971 and 1972.

It is in this year when John Lennon showed that he clearly understood both the differences and similarities between other forms of oppression. In 1972, he released ‘Some Time in New York’ . ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ was track number one and a clear presentation of his revolutionary credentials. Before performing the song on the Dick Cavett show, Lennon cites Irish revolutionary James Connolly’s statement that ‘The female worker is a slave of the slaves’ as his influence for the song. Lennon reveals his understanding of the links between that the oppression of African Americans, the Irish, and that of Women. For me, it underlines Lennon’s call to recognise oppression a universal evil and ‘do something’ about it.

Following the poor performance of his latest album in the charts and amidst his battles for citizenship with the US Government, John Lennon needed some good publicity. He had seen Geraldo Rivera’s report for ABC TV on the physical and sexual abuse of the children and the poor facilities at the Willowbrook State School for Retarded Children in Staten Island. Possibly with George Harrison’s successful benefit concert for Bangladesh the previous Summer in mind, He contacted Rivera and suggested they organise a benefit concert. In August 1972, the Lennon’s performed at two benefit concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden. In what was to be John Lennon’s last live performance, $1.5 million was raised, the Lennon’s bought and donated $60,000 worth of tickets to the sold-out events. In September, they performed on Jerry Lewis’ annual telethon which raised $9 million in aid of Muscular Dystrophy. ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ was performed at all three events. Riviera later testified at Lennon’s successful Court of Appeal hearing in 1975.

The issue for disability equality continued moving forwards, and Nixon, now President, finally signed Section 504 into law in 1973. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, the first disability rights group that was created and led by disabled individuals, and the first ever national group that represented different impairment groups, was founded soon after.

Throughout the last ten years of his life, Lennon still kept his cutting wit and caustic sense of humour. He still lost control and lashed out at those around him. In 1973, Lennon, estranged from Yoko Ono, went on an equally productive, but alcohol and drug fuelled bender known as the ‘Lost Weekend’. Lennon argued with, and is believed to have physically attacked his lover, May Pang, in public and had to be restrained by a friend (Harry, 2000). He returned to Yoko Ono, and their Son, Sean, was born in 1975. Lennon took a five-year break to be a stay-at-home Dad marked the final stage in his journey of self-evolution. He was murdered in December 1980.

Lennon admitted to David Sheff in his final interview that “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace.”[2]. His talking about himself in the past tense is important here. He also spoke about renewing his relationship with his first son. We just don’t know if Lennon would ever return to the behaviours that he rejected at the end of his life, but He recognised his mistakes and humanity and was trying to be a better person.

John Lennon still tops my list of people I would love to meet, not because he was idolised by my parents, of the significant impact of his murder on my five-year-old self, or because his music gave meaning to me at a time I badly needed it, not because he may have influenced the call for disability rights, but because he was a human being, not a phony. People grow and change and become better versions of themselves. We learn from our mistakes by embracing them. We need people in positions of influence to show us we can turn our lives around and lead us by example. Just like Dickens’ Scrooge, there has to be redemption. It mirrors our own transitions through life. The genuine optimism in his last ever recording, ‘grow old with me’, is the voice of someone who I believe has realised that.

Lennon’s decision to instigate or participate in Nationwide events in 1972 must have brought attention to disability rights at a critical time. When we met, I would ask the question only he could answer: Why he instigated and participated in the One to One Concerts and participate in the telethon in 1972. Was it just a means to cynically raise his profile during his Immigration trouble, spitefully show up an old colleague, or did he identify and grasp an opportunity to champion the rights of disabled people at a crucial moment? It was probably a mix of all three, but I think that his decision to organise the concerts and donate his own money to ensure they were successful, strengthens his case as a champion. In the same way I casually dismiss his current critics, am I still holding him to an unrealistic moral standard and still grasping for meaning in things he did and said nearly fifty years ago? I hope after a long and lively talk, we would part as equals and the best of friends.

Richard Brown

April 2020


[1] Coleman, Ray. John Lennon the Definitive Biography, Pan Books (1995) p.86

[2] Sheff, David. All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. (1981). P.182

3 Comments

  1. It is by chance that I read this article as I had to change my password due to an alert to attempted hacking of my twitter account and then logged in.
    I may be biased as your Mother, but found this a very impressive piece, well researched and excellently written. Although, a lifelong fan of Lennon I had never considered his life, work and motives as closely as you and had never considered his views or links with physical disability.
    Most enlightening and thought provoking!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. John Lennon is a very complex character, but I am convinced that he became a better person. I think that is something we can all aspire to. I’ve opened my post to the public, it will be interesting to see how others respond.

      Like

  2. Wow, very impressed with the quality of the post. Just something about his soul. I would love to reblog this or keep it to read over. This blog is about as high as you would ever see. Thank you, Dr.

    Liked by 1 person

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