If things had gone another way, today John Lennon would be turning 80 years old this year; which also puts us at the 40th anniversary of his murder. Shortly we will know a post-Lennon world longer than Lennon’s entire lifetime.
It is strange to experience a world in which the Beatles recede in importance as a cultural signifier. Older people keep their memory alive of course. Young people are like goldfish swimming up a schizophrenic slipstream. I don’t blame them for it; it’s how they experience the world now. The Beatles. Frank Sinatra. Napoleon Bonaparte. Confucius. It’s all just so much cartoon data they randomly encounter, like chunks of rock as you cross the asteroid belt. Information just flies past them. Nothing has more meaning than anything else. No one is more important than anyone else. A 15 year old “Youtube celebrity” is as significant as the ruler of a country. I am old enough to remember a time when people remembered times.
John Lennon, in his time, was a person of rare significance. For a while, he appeared to confuse himself with Jesus Christ, and you really couldn’t blame him for it. He was far from a stainless saint, but people treated him like he was infallible and Holy, and that’s liable to turn your head. In the end, that narcissistic-sounding refrain from “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (“they’re gonna crucify me”) did come true after a fashion, so perhaps we can forgive the self-centeredness at the heart of it. Physical fear is a part of every celebrity’s life at certain times. There were people who hated Lennon passionately, just as many people love him. And there were some nuts who love-hated him, like his assassin, to a smothering degree.
Lennon was killed just as I was discovering him. His music, and that of his Beatle colleagues, had been around since before I was born, but the band had broken up when I was four or five years old. My parents were much too old to be Beatle fans. I was vaguely aware of this song or that. In 1979 or 1980 one of the big three networks broadcast a TV special about the 1960s, and for some reason that show really energized me. It was a retrospective of an era that had ended ten years previously, and I was 14 as I was watching it, the perfect age to be responsive to talk of idealism, and peace protests, and civil rights, and experimentation, and free love, and drugs, and art, and all kinds of music I had grown up on but had never really heard put into a context before. And that’s probably the first place I got some kind of capsule primer on the significance of the Beatles. Somewhere in there I purchased the Red Album and the Blue Album, still the best “Beatles 101” course known to man.
Towards the end of 1980, Lennon began to crawl out of the hidey hole he had been living in for the past five years. He had been in retirement since I was in the fourth grade. I had never directly experienced him as a contemporary figure in pop music, at least with any awareness of it. In 1980 he emerged with his new album Double Fantasy. The timing was such that it was also the same year as the tenth anniversary of the break-up of the Beatles. There was just suddenly a lot of Beatles stuff in the air. I wasn’t real crazy about most of the material on Double Fantasy (to be blunt it seemed like the fantasy was the Lennons’ and nobody else’s), but I did really like the single “(Just Like) Starting Over” and had bought a copy (of the single) prior to his death. All these articles and interviews started coming out about him. This January 1981 issue of Playboy hit the streets weeks before the pub date as is common practice, yet was still poignantly post-mortem. It contains a terrific interview, lasting several pages (alongside “cleavage in the office” and “women to saddle up with”):
It was all very NEW YORK. There was a certain easily identifiable aesthetic that came out of New York in the mid-late 70 s — I think of black and white photography, Saturday Night Live, punk, new wave, disco, CBGBs, Studio 54, Blondie, No Wave cinema, the Stones’ Some Girls. I had just made my first trip to New York but I had only seen Broadway, so I can’t claim to have experienced any of that other stuff first hand in its heyday apart from radio and television. But Double Fantasy, and the Dakota-dwelling Lennons felt part of that aesthetic.
And then, a confusing welter of events. I’ve just tracked down the timing of it:
October 27: “(Just Like) Starting Over” was released in the U.S.
November 4: Ronald Reagan was elected Present
November 8: my 15th birthday
November 17: Double Fantasy released
December 8: John Lennon assassinated by a wacko
January 20, 1981: Reagan sworn in as President
March 30, 1981: Reagan shot by a wacko, but lives
There is an interesting parallelism to the two shootings, and they happened so close to each other, there are aspects that get can mixed up. I had long mixed up Mark David Chapman and David Hinkley, sort of merged them into one nut who was obssessed with both Catcher in the Rye and Jodie Foster. (Chapman was Catcher in the Rye; Hinkley was Jodie Foster). Reagan, in fact, had also been on Chapman’s short list of figures to assasinate. The dichotomy of these events is downright striking. These two polar opposite figures from the 1960s: Reagan, Governor of California and the nation’s foremost conservative vs. Lennon, youth leader, poster boy of the counterculture. And then what TRANSPIRED as a result of who lived and who died. Reagan killed so many of the ideals Lennon had articulated in his song “Imagine”. So much has gone so wrong since 1980.
I, who had been so energized by that documentary about the sixties, wanted MY sixties so badly, my cause, my movement. And there was nothing like that going on. I was interested in punk for awhile, but punk was merely nihilistic and destructive. It had no goal beyond the negation of the false; to offer a vision of its own would have been hypocritical. And yet there was obvious stuff that needed to be done. Racial equality had obviously not been achieved, yet it had fallen off the agendas of both political parties years earlier after the widespread backlash against school desegregation (i.e., “bussing”). People were vocally against Reagan’s military misadventures in the Caribbean and Latin America and the nuclear arms race, but there was no critical mass to the opposition, no apparent generational commitment to stopping him. If anything, Reagan seemed to be setting the tone for the culture. As we wrote here, the results of that shift were lamentable. We’re feeling the effects worse than ever at the moment.
I was a freshman in high school when Lennon was killed. At that age, it really did seem like he had been martyred, All of that Christ imagery in his songs and his discourse seemed like prophesy. (Those references had actually been partial motivation for the psychotic Chapman, a devout Christian). And the lamentations when he died! In the news media, and throughout the world. It must have been hard for Lennon’s friends and family, including the three surviving Beatles, to navigate their own natural grief against a backdrop of the public’s near-religious reaction to the event. He really was thought of by many as something like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, on the strength of having spouted some fairly conventional platitudes about world peace and the like in his youth. He headed no religion, he founded no foundation, he simply LOOKED the part. For awhile he had LOOKED like Jesus (as traditionally portrayed in Western art) and that was good enough for a lot of young people, including the not-so-young Charles Manson, who was much more serious about playing the Jesus role.
So…even if you didn’t literally believe that Lennon was Holy, something short of that still stuck to him. To boys and young men he was the undisputed star of the Beatles (and he did start and lead the band after all), even if girls preferred Paul McCartney. Good looking, funny, angry, blasphemous, an avant-garde art student, “Bad Boy” and Alpha Male Lennon was a “Working Class Hero” to many, even as late as my day. I liked a lot of the music of my own time as well, but I found myself living in a sort of dual headspace throughout my high school years, dreaming about glory days that never were mine. For a time, I even listened to Lennon’s solo LPs, out of a feeling of duty or something, although in time I realized that the only two I actually liked were John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971). And as the decades went on, and I became older than he was at the time of his death, Lennon began to seem, well, immature, to me in some ways. Self-indulgent. Though in other ways, visionary and eternal — the kind of guy we could use right now.
But how does one explain to a young person that Lennon wasn’t just another popular musician? I mean, he was, and he was always the first to declare that he was. But to his fans he was more, in ways that could never be articulated.
Since we are in the business of providing perspective, here’s an additional timeline of related events:
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the other three Beatles got a measurable bump in public attention which might not have been their portion if life had gone on as usual:
May, 1981: George Harrison releases his nostalgic single “All Those Years Ago” featuring the two other surviving Beatles, as a tribute to Lennon
October, 1981: Ringo releases the LP Stop and Smell the Roses, featuring the moderately successful single “Wrack My Brain”, written by Harrison
April, 1982: McCartney reunites with Beatles producer George Martin for the first time in almost a decade for the album Tug of War, which features the Lennon tribute “Here Today”. It is his best received album since 1973’s Band on the Run and is rated by some as his best to date
January, 1984: 2nd string tracks from the Double Fantasy sessions are released as Milk and Honey, yielding several posthumous hit singles for Lennon
September, 1984: John’s son Julian Lennon (for whom McCartney had written the song “Hey Jude”) releases the single “Too Late for Goodbyes” — sounding eerily like father
November, 1995: Surviving Beatles reunite for Anthology, adding their own parts to two Lennon demos “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”, which are released as singles
November, 2001: Harrison dies. A subject for a different day.
For over two dozen other essays on the Beatles go here.