Through Lennon’s Lens: 5 Real People Who Inspired John Lennon Songs

Songwriters are always looking for material. Even the finest of the profession probably run dry from time to time just trying to cook up scenarios and characters whole-hog from their imaginations. Which is why simply writing about people with whom they cross paths can be tempting. John Lennon certainly never shied away from immortalizing people, for good or bad, who happened to come into his life by putting them into his songs.

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Certainly, we could make a whole playlist of songs that were inspired by John’s wife Yoko Ono alone. Let’s instead focus on the one-off songs written by Lennon about people he experienced—songs that tended to be on the critical side. Here are five that we, and certainly the people who inspired them, will never forget.

1. ”She Said, She Said” (from the Beatles album Revolver, 1966)

Despite the somewhat stoic image cut by his iconic actor father Henry, Peter Fonda made a name for himself as one of the leading lights of the ‘60s counterculture, with his involvement in the film Easy Rider‘s production being the most obvious reason. True to his reputation, Fonda was feeling no pain when The Beatles experienced him at an L.A. party in 1965. George Harrison was having a bad LSD trip on that particular day, fearing that he was dying. Fonda tried to comfort him by telling him he knew what being dead was like, which freaked Lennon the heck out. Hence, the opening lines of “She Said, She Said,” which feature a gender switch by John: She said, I know what it’s like to be dead

2. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (from the Beatles album The Beatles, 1968)

Three of the songs on this list are found on The White Album, in large part because many of those songs were written during The Beatles’ retreat to India. They didn’t have much to do there besides meditate and write songs on acoustic guitars. Perhaps out of boredom, Lennon was simply writing about whatever was right in front of him. In the case of the comical “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” Lennon was somewhat mortified when an American named Richard Cooke III went out and killed a tiger on a safari hunting trip and then returned to the retreat seeking enlightenment. And yes, this fellow took his mother with him on the hunt, just as the song suggests.

3. “Dear Prudence” (from the Beatles album The Beatles, 1968)

This one was inspired by The Beatles’ trip to India in more ways than one. The guitar style was taught to the group by the folk singer Donovan, who was also on the trip. (The group would use that style in several other songs in the final few years of their time together.) As for the subject matter, the Prudence in question was Prudence Farrow, sister of the actress Mia Farrow. Her take on the story after the fact was that she didn’t want to come out of her little hut because she was dedicated to the meditation process. But other guests at the time were concerned about her, with Lennon and George Harrison in particular trying to get her to come out more often. Which, of course, led to Lennon’s opening entreaty in the song: Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

[RELATED: Behind the Song: The Beatles, “Julia”]

4. “Sexy Sadie” (from the Beatles album The Beatles, 1968)

John Lennon went from being enchanted by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to being highly skeptical of him in the brief time The Beatles spent in India. There’s been much debate about what went down that caused this. Some reports suggest that the “Giggling Guru” made advances at one of the young female members of the party. Others say that it was Lennon’s buddy “Magic Alex” Mardas who made up the whole story. In any case, Lennon was miffed enough to begin writing a song that initially went Maharishi, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone. George Harrison convinced him to change the title, and it became “Sexy Sadie.”

5. “Steel and Glass” (from the John Lennon album Walls and Bridges, 1974)

This is the one song on this list where Lennon didn’t admit it was 100% about a specific person. But it’s most likely that former Beatle manager Allan Klein was the target. After all, based on the bile in the lyrics and the musical similarities to “How Do You Sleep?,” Lennon’s infamous takedown of Paul McCartney, we can assume that he wasn’t too happy with the person in question. And Lennon had indeed soured on Klein as a manager, as had George Harrison, after both had initially sided with him against Paul McCartney in one of the key arguments that broke up The Beatles. But you can’t pull strings if your hands are tied, Lennon sneers at one point in “Steel and Glass.” But Lennon remained friendly with Klein after the song was released, which means he might have been blowing off steam here more than anything else.

Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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