Listen to our essay and decide for yourself.
Full transcript below the cut
It is one of John Lennon’s most famous and beloved solo songs, from his most celebrated album. Jealous Guy tells the story of a man driven by insecurity and paranoia to do something he regrets. What he does is never specified, nor is the subject of the song. But the emotions conveyed are clear: Please forgive me, I acted out of hurt and fear.
The object of the song is traditionally assumed to be Yoko Ono, Lennon’s wife at the time the record was recorded for the Imagine LP. The melody was actually composed in 1968, with a completely different set of lyrics as a song called “Child of Nature.”
As Lennon explained in 1980, “Paul’s ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ was from a lecture of Maharishi when he was talking about nature, and I had a piece called ‘I’m Just a Child of Nature’ which turned into ‘Jealous Guy’ years later. Both inspired from the same lecture of Maharishi.
The lyrics explain themselves clearly: I was a very jealous, possessive guy. Toward everything. A very insecure male. A guy who wants to put his woman in a little box, lock her up and just bring her out when he feels like playing with her. She’s not allowed to communicate with the outside world – outside of me- because it makes me feel insecure.”
Lennon never spelled out the inspiration for the events described in the lyrics, but he often (repeatedly) spoke broadly about jealousy issues that plagued him throughout his life. In 1971, when asked about jealousy he alluded to both past experiences and his current relationship with Ono.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that a new attitude towards love and relationships – would it be fair to say we’re getting away from the property concept of relationships?
JOHN: Of owning the other person? I think – yeah, we could be. But uh… That’s all very well intellectually, but when you actually are in love with somebody, you tend to be jealous and want to own them, possess them a hundred per cent. Which I do.
YOKO: Yes, it’s real life, all that. And I do it too.
JOHN: But intellectually, before that, I thought – right. I mean, owning a person is rubbish, but. I love Yoko, I want to possess her completely; I don’t want to stifle her, you know? [Yoko laughs] And that’s the danger, it’s that you want to possess them to death. But… that’s a personal problem of mine.
YOKO: But we’re doing alright now – just very nice, you know. In other words, I think—
JOHN: It’s after the beginning, when it cools down a bit – not cools down, whatever, it st– uh, whatever the word is, you know – that you can allow each other to breathe.
YOKO: Yes. When you relax a bit, you know.
JOHN: But at first you tend to strangle each other, I think.
The past relationships – the ones he smothered – could presumably refer to Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. Cynthia has spoken and written about John’s jealousy and controlling behavior.
May Pang, who John lived with for 18 months in the mid-70s, also accused him of intense, sometimes frightening bouts of jealousy.
But there is another contender; the person who had been on the receiving end of John’s jealousy perhaps more acutely, and consistently, than any other in his life: John’s former partner Paul McCartney.
From the start, the famous Lennon/McCartney partnership had been characterized by both a deep, mutual admiration and a driving competitiveness.
The two met as teenagers in 1957 and although Lennon was instantly impressed by the talented McCartney, he also viewed the younger boy as a threat. As Lennon told biographer Hunter Davies in 1968, “I’d been kingpin up to then. Now, I thought, if I take him on, what will happen? It went through my head that I’d have to to keep him in line if I let him join. But he was good, so he was worth having. He also looked like Elvis. I dug him.”
Lennon was more than a year and a half older than McCartney, and a year ahead in school. In the early days, this age difference was significant enough to give John a sense of authority and appease his insecurities about McCartney’s talents.
But, as McCartney later put it: “As I matured and grew up, I started sharing in things with him. I got up to his level…. We grew to be equals. It made him insecure. He always was, really.”
If it was the admiration that kept them together, it was the rivalry that propelled them to greatness. It was a rivalry that motivated them not only to outdo each other, but to impress one another. Competitive admiration created a positive feedback loop for Lennon/McCartney, one that helped the Beatles stay on top for the duration of their career.
In 1998, Neil McCormick wrote in the Telegraph:
“Even writing separately, their close relationship generated an atmosphere of fraternal rivalry that was at the core of a career that saw the Beatles advance in astonishing leaps and bounds, constantly driven to better themselves and each other.
At the time, Lennon described their songwriting partnership as a love affair with a competitive edge. And McCartney has noted, ‘It was a very friendly competition, because we were both going to share in the rewards anyway.’”
Lennon’s jealousy of McCartney is well-documented, although rarely discussed in mainstream media. Prior to Ono’s arrival in 1968, When they were a team, it would sometimes express itself as teasing, like when Lennon would taunt McCartney onstage in Hamburg.
Later, as McCartney began to emerge on his own as a significant songwriter, Lennon’s competitiveness began to manifest more overtly, in increasingly destructive ways.
For Beatles publicist Tony Barrow, “[John] was much misunderstood but mostly through his own fault. He put up his brick wall of sheer bravado to screen off a chronic fear of inadequacy.”
Barrow describes an incident from 1965 where McCartney ran through a dress rehearsal of “Yesterday” for a live evening performance on Blackpool Night Out.
“Beatles Book editor Johnny Dean sat in the stalls close to comperes Mike and Bernie Winters and the other three Beatles, and watched Paul in solitary rehearsal on the stage, singing the song to his own guitar accompaniment. At the end, everybody heard John’s loud and decidedly sarcastic comment.” The nasty remark from John was said to upset Paul for several hours afterwards.
Nothing epitomizes Lennon’s resentment better than “How Do You Sleep,” an ode to everything wrong with McCartney, comprised largely of playground insults, projections and puns.
Lennon’s jealousy also manifested as aggressiveness towards McCartney’s various girlfriends over the years, from Peggy Lipton (who he snarled at when Paul brought her to dinner with the Beatles) to Jane Asher (who Lennon clashed with on multiple occasions) to Linda McCartney (who John, in 1971, publicly declared was not, in his opinion, “particularly attractive.”
Cilla Black, in her 2003 autobiography wrote “[John] liked women, but was always a bit uncomfortable, a bit nervous in their company – always a man’s man. Paul was beautiful – still is – and I know John thought, ‘God, with him around, I don’t stand a chance.’ It’s one of those things young lads have to put up with. They’re all dead worried about whether or not they’re going to get the girls, and John, as a teenager, saw Paul as his rival.”
In fact, McCartney recalled in 1986 that when John began dating Yoko, he had asked Paul not to sleep with her.
PAUL: I mean, he warned me off Yoko once. You know, “Look, this is my chick!” ’Cause he knew my reputation. I mean, we knew each other rather well. And um, I felt… I just said, “Yeah, no problem. But I did sort of feel he ought to have known I wouldn’t, but. .”
Lennon’s jealousy of McCartney continued throughout the rest of his life. Lennon’s staff at the Dakota, where he spent his final years, attest to frequent tirades about his former partner. In his personal journals, Lennon wrote about Paul “almost every day” according to author Robert Rosen, who read the diaries in 1981 after they were stolen by Dakota employee Fred Seaman. When asked, in 2010, about the most disturbing takeaway of the diaries, Rosen replied “That’s easy. His jealousy of Paul, his love of money and his obsession with the occult.”
Paul McCartney, it seems, was fully aware of this issue. As early as 1969, Lennon and McCartney can be heard discussing the issue in secretly-recorded “lunchroom tapes” by the documentary crew filming what eventually became the Let it Be film.
“I have to swallow my ego for you, I have to smother my jealousy for you,” Lennon tells McCartney. And McCartney responds by listening quietly, with seeming understanding and patience.
McCartney, every bit as protective of his partnership with Lennon, had his own jealousies. In 1970, after his exit from the Beatles, he confessed to Ray Connolly in the Evening Standard that “I told John on the phone the other day that at the beginning of last year I was annoyed with him. I was jealous because of Yoko, and afraid about the break-up of a great musical partnership.”
Paul’s transparency about his own jealousy – in the context of losing his partnership with John – has been used against him ever since.
Likewise, his admitted jealousy of Stuart Sutcliffe, [John’s art college friend who briefly became a Beatle and left the band after only a year] has been amplified and mythologized in Beatles lore.
But John’s jealousy -of Paul’s girlfriends, and his individual talents, and his potential for success outside the Beatles, has traditionally been vastly underplayed or outright ignored.
How destructive was this jealousy of Lennon’s? There is enough evidence to suggest it was quite possibly one of the major factors in the break up the Beatles.
Firstly, it’s important to note how close John and Paul were before things began to disintegrate in 1968. Despite Lennon’s bitter recriminations to the press after the band’s split in 1970, everyone in the Beatles circle attests to the extreme warmth and mutual affection of all the Beatles, but most especially John and Paul.
According to Pete Shotten: “There never was, and probably never will be, a group more self-contained or tightly knit than the Beatles were in those days; the way their talents and personalities harmonized was little short of miraculous. Until about 1968 I never witnessed, or even heard about, a single serious disagreement between them.”
Paul Saltzamn, an outsider who observed the Beatles at the Ashram in Rishikesh, witnessed them playing and composing happily together.
“They were very tight. And it was also clear, although they were in various forms of closeness with their wives or partners, it was kind of obvious that they (wives and partners) were part of the outer circle, The Beatles were the inner circle.[…] The wives and partners were the next outer circle, then the friends, this was not conscious, you could just see and feel this. It was palpable.”
In fact, John Lennon was so in love with the Beatles in the summer of 1967, he tried to convince them all to purchase and live on their own private island together, potentially forever. The Beatles, with their families, even vacationed there together for 2 weeks over the summer.
How and why everything exploded in the spring of 1968 is a mystery that, 50 years on, has not yet been solved. The traditional excuse was to blame Yoko Ono. She became a convenient scapegoat, both for those who wished to assign blame (i.e. she broke up the band!) or plaster over the more complicated aspects of the story in a positive fashion (i.e. John left the band to pursue true love!).
But Yoko had been hovering around the Beatles for more than a year at that point; showing up at the studio, calling the office, asking everyone associated with the Beatles to sponsor her art shows. So it makes more sense to assume she was not the cause of the Lennon/McCartney rift, but rather a solution to a disillusioned Lennon, reeling from some mysterious but devastating fracture in the world’s most famous and successful musical partnership.
There has always been a lingering sense that there was more to the story; this suspicion persists to this day, as evidenced by the fact that McCartney is still routinely asked about the break-up. Debate over the causes still rage in Beatles fan discussions. Explanations amongst the authorship is similarly varied. There is no consensus.
The best explanation may simply be that the reasons for the break-up were actually multilayered and complex. Business differences (Klein v. Eastmans), money disputes, Yoko’s disruptive presence in the studio, Lennon’s heroin use, George Harrison’s increasing unhappiness with his junior role, fights over various songs, disputes over Paul’s management style, the list goes on and on.
But this list overlooks the most seemingly obvious question when an extremely tight friendship is suddenly, mysteriously and irreparably fractured with deep, deep wounds on both sides.
Again, we must ask: what changed between John and Paul?
On retreat in India, after attending a lecture by the Maharishi, John Lennon wrote the famous melody for Jealous Guy. But the lyrics at this stage were remarkably different.
On the road to Rishikesh
I was dreaming more or less
And the dream I had was true
Yes, the dream I had was true
I’m just a child of nature
I don’t need much to set me free
I’m just child of nature
I’m one of nature’s children
John Lennon didn’t need much to set him free, but he apparently felt he was on the verge of a great discovery. Within weeks his hopefulness turned to deep despair and the suicidal ideation of Yer Blues.
Fast-forward to 1971. John and Paul’s once close, loving relationship was now in the dumpster. John was angry at Paul and said many hurtful things in public, seemingly designed to damage Paul’s reputation or maybe just hurt his feelings. But every so often, John’s pain and confusion would slip through, too.
When asked by Peter McCabe about Paul’s marriage to Linda, John tells a long, rambling story about how Paul briefly had a side job winding coils and driving a lorry in 1961, when the Beatles were still a working, but not-yet-famous band.
John freaked out over Paul’s day job, and built it into a metaphorical battle between himself and Paul’s father (with whom Paul, 18 years old at the time, still lived). This was a battle John proudly declared he won the first time around.
But that was way back in ‘61. Still, in retrospect, John could see the writing on the wall. So for Paul, “it was always going to be a family” John told McCabe, in a way that perhaps made sense to no one but him.
A month prior to the Beatles trip to India, Paul had gotten engaged to his girlfriend of five years, actress Jane Asher (the pair subsequently split in the summer of 1968). Perhaps John assumed that with a legal marriage to Asher on the horizon, the metaphorical marriage of Lennon/McCartney was coming to an end.
Although John had “won” the battle against Paul’s dad in 1961, When faced with the same decision seven years later, John suggested, Paul chose family over John.
One thing seems clear, in the early 70s, both Paul and John were still grappling to understand what happened to their friendship. How did it unravel so quickly?
Lennon’s tragic murder in December of 1980, not only shocked and devastated the world, it also ushered in a difficult era for McCartney. For years after Lennon’s death, Paul endured a range of awkward, probing questions with little consideration for his personal loss.
And he simultaneously witnessed the deification of Lennon, the former best friend who had smeared their relationship so famously in the early 70s. Worse yet, in the last year of his life, while promoting his and Ono’s comeback album Double Fantasy, Lennon couldn’t resist taking a few public swipes at McCartney. His public tone towards Paul in 1980 was mostly kind, often affectionate and occasionally wistful, but Boy Oh Boy, nothing makes a headline like a Lennon zinger (especially those at McCartney’s expense)! So they were repeated and reprinted ad nauseam after his death. John’s supposed disdain for Paul (both professionally and personally) became part of the Lennon Legacy, part of what people cherished about him.
Books such as Shout and The Love You Make were quickly published, lauding Lennon as the singular genius and “3/4 of the Beatles.” Despite great success with early 80’s hits such as “Say Say Say” and “Ebony and Ivory,” the press couldn’t let go of their favorite story: Lennon barely tolerated McCartney and always looked down on him artistically.
McCartney was also pressed to describe, at seemingly every interview, the state of his relationship with Lennon at the time of his death. No one was prepared to take “it’s complicated” for an answer. McCartney, who has never been especially good at telling reporters to Sod off, would instead ramble evasively about phone calls and cats and baking bread.
Privately, he was much more candid. In 1982, a distraught McCartney called up Hunter Davies, the author who had, in 1968, published the first and only authorized biography of The Beatles. After pouring his guts out to Hunter’s wife for an hour, Paul continued his grief-fueled rant to Hunter, who took notes and later published them without Paul’s permission.
McCartney was worked up over several things, amongst them an impromptu TV eulogy Hunter delivered hours after John’s death which Paul considered “dead tasteless.”
“He became so jealous in the end. You know he wouldn’t let me even touch his baby. He got really crazy with jealousy at times. I suppose I’ve inherited some of that…
I understood what happened when he first met Yoko. He had to clear the decks of his old emotions. He went through all his old affairs, confessed them all. Me and Linda did that when we first met. You prove how much you love someone by confessing all the old stuff. John’s method was to slag me off.”
John slagged me off to prove his love to Yoko? This might’ve been illuminating information if anyone had paid attention to it. But no one did.
Publicly, reporters still pressed him. What was the breakup really about? McCartney stuck to pat answers. It wasn’t Yoko’s fault, he insisted. John just fell too in love. When he felt like mixing it up, McCartney occasionally suggested “it had come full circle,” implying the band had simply run its course.
Then, in 1985, McCartney stepped outside the canned responses and opened up to an unlikely source, Playgirl magazine. Perhaps it was a compassionate journalist? or the perceived audience of the magazine? Maybe McCartney was just tired, exhausted from the scathing reviews of his film Give My Regards to Broadstreet, his own legal troubles (1984 saw McCartney’s fourth drug bust). But whatever the impetus, Paul decided to drop a bomb in the middle of a magazine adorned with naked men: Jealous Guy was about me.
It was a weird time. The people who were managing us were whispering in our ears and trying to turn us against each other and it became like a feuding family. In the end, I think John had some tough breaks. He used to say, ‘Everyone is on the McCartney bandwagon.’ He wrote ‘I’m Just A Jealous Guy’ and he said that the song was about me.
The most startling thing about this revelation was that no one actually picked it up. There were no follow-up questions, no reevaluations of the song. No Beatle book has ever even mentioned it (with the exception of Jon Weiner in Come Together: Lennon in his Time). This revelation which could potentially explain more about the break-up of John & Paul than dozens of films, books and pontificating “Beatle experts” has been all but completely ignored.
If Jealous Guy memorialized the collapse of Lennon/McCartney, no one wanted to hear it.
Paul broached the subject gently, obliquely, a few more times. In 1986, in one of his most candid interviews to date, he attempted to explain to reporter Chris Salewicz why he always felt sympathy rather than anger at John’s post-1968 behavior.
Paul revealed that John had explicitly asked him not to steal Yoko away when the two first started dating.
“And um, I felt… I just said, “Yeah, no problem.” But I did sort of feel he ought to have known I wouldn’t, but. You know, he was going through “I’m just a jealous guy”. He was a paranoid guy. And he was into drugs. Heavy.”
When Salewicz mentioned Lennon’s early-70s defacement of Paul’s McCartney’s wedding photo (as recently discovered and published in the Observer) McCartney replied, “Well, I mean, I think that starts to show the sort of pain he was going through. I think… […] If someone took your wedding photo and put ‘funeral’ on it [as he did on that manuscript], you’d tend to feel a bit sorry for the guy. You’d think, wait a minute.”
Wait a minute, indeed! Angrily defacing a wedding photo is emotional behavior with sobering implications, difficult to chalk up to professional jealousy or routine competitiveness.
In an interview with Bob Costas in 1987, Costas broached the subject of Lennons’s Imagine-era attacks on McCartney, suggesting they revealed a deep emotional attachment to his former partner.
COSTAS: if somebody didn’t, mixed in with it all, genuinely love somebody, genuinely care about their feelings about them, they wouldn’t go to the lengths, in whatever strange way, that John did to lash back at you! They wouldn’t hold a pig on the cover to parody you holding a sheep in ‘RAM’! They wouldn’t, you know, call your stuff rubbish and write ‘How Do You Sleep’. They wouldn’t do it!
McCartney agreed, once again with a sympathetic tone.
PAUL: Oh, I think that’s right. I think that’s right. He was- he was very hurt, there were people turning him against me. It was his way of defending himself. He was- he was quite pissed off about the ‘McCartney bandwagon’ as he once called it, you know? [mimicking John] ‘Oh, bloody- he’s gettin’ on all the telly, he’s sellin’ records!’ Yeah, he was- he was a jealous guy!
Why did McCartney appear to lack resentment and anger in his response to HDYS? The traditional explanation, as posited in most books, is that McCartney was simply too afraid to retaliate.
But it’s worth considering why his response always seemed imbued with sympathy, forgiveness and the constant desire to de-escalate and make amends. Perhaps McCartney’s anger and hurt at HDYS was tempered by the paranoia and fragility Lennon expressed in Jealous Guy.
In 1988, Derek Taylor was asked about some nasty words Lennon had said about him in Lennon Remembers, his famous 1970 interview for Rolling Stone. “John later retracted some of it, and we became friends again,” Taylor explained. “And I forgave him. He would forget he’d said it, and expect to be forgiven, as he always was.”
Ditto For George Martin. And Glyn Johns. And George Harrison, all of whom have spoken about Lennon’s public attacks from this era.
Here’s Tony Barrow again:
[John] was much misunderstood but mostly through his own fault. He put up his brick wall of sheer bravado to screen off a chronic fear of inadequacy. He claimed that he was not a cruel person but I for one found his humour very painful on a number of occasions.
If, as I did, you stayed around long enough to find out, you discovered that when he was not bullying or bellowing, John could be exceptionally considerate. There was a truly gentle side to his nature. He was a hard nut to crack but once you got through that protective shell there was a good-hearted fellow hiding within.
History reveals that it was not just plausible, but typical of Lennon to lash out at the people he loved and subsequently ask for forgiveness. When looked at from this perspective, it would certainly not be out of character for Lennon to include both Jealous Guy and How Do You Sleep on the same album.
Is it possible that Jealous Guy has contained clues to the breakup all along? Let’s look at the story it tells:
I was dreaming of the past/ And my heart was beating fast
I began to lose control
I didn’t mean to hurt you/ I’m sorry that I made you cry
I was feeling insecure/ You might not love me anymore
I was shivering inside
I was trying to catch your eyes/ Thought that you was trying to hide
I was swallowing my pain
The song is almost always interpreted as a boyfriend apologizing to a girlfriend for a fit of jealous rage. But that is merely the baggage that we bring to it as listeners, the invisible spaces that our brains determinedly fill in.
Beatle pundits have been heard dismissing McCartney’s claim on the basis that Lennon could only be singing to a lover. But the Beatles always loved each other openly, even in 1971. And nowhere in Jealous Guy does Lennon refer to a lover.
I was trying to catch your eyes, he explains
The song actually points to a lack of communication; I needed to know how you felt, but you were avoiding me.
It’s the story of a man who lost control of his words or actions and hurt someone he loved. Although he felt scared and paranoid inside, he put up a front, swallowing his pain. It describes a relationship that fell apart due to jealousy, fear, insecurity. Lack of direct communication.
Brian Epstein’s assistant Alistasir Taylor described John and Paul as “closer than any two men I’ve ever known.”
What happens when your best friend in the world is also your collaborator? And what happens when that collaborator is also your fiercest rival?
If there comes a time when the love is gone, or one of you FEARS the love is gone, or one of you is about to “choose family” and mentally desert the other, couldn’t the most productive partnership in the world quickly turn destructive?
Tony Barrow said about Lennon and McCartney: “They loved each other more than most couples do, and when they split it was more wrenching than most divorces.”
We might never know exactly what transpired between John and Paul, but the simplicity and honesty of Jealous Guy might tell us more than a million books, fan theories or outside opinions.
Music, after all, was the way Lennon and McCartney communicated best.
-Phoebe Lorde April 30, 2021