Wednesday, December 08, 2010

John Lennon, Thirty Years Later

John Lennon died thirty years ago today. Howard Cosell broke into the Monday Night Football broadcast to announce Lennon's assassination, and I broke in to my sleeping roommates' bedrooms to tell them, and we all sat up for most of the night, watching on TV as the crowd which formed spontaneously around the Dakota Hotel sang "Give Peace a Chance." We talked quietly among ourselves. Mostly I felt sick. My roommate Mike, then 20, a child of the post-Beatles generation, shook his head and said, "I just don't get it." The rest of us simply looked at him. Nobody had the energy to explain. You had to be there, and if you were there then you didn't need to have the arbiters of culture explain to you the importance of John Lennon. Mike was right. He just didn't get it.

John Lennon was an icon, and everybody knew it. He wore an invisible sign around his neck that read, "I am the '60s." He was flower power and anti-war protest, Woodstock (even if he wasn't there) and hippies and radicalism and idealism that actually believed it could change the world. Incidentally, he was also an incredible songwriter and performer.

I don't have to recapitulate the phenomenon that was The Beatles. Suffice to say that during one heady week in April of 1964 The Beatles had the five best-selling songs in America. The Top 5. At the same time. No other performer or band has even come remotely close to that kind of mass appeal and musical dominance. But it didn't satisfy. In retrospect the massive hit "Help" should have been an eye-opener, but it wasn't. And in 1970 Lennon hit the wall. Who needed the Beatles? Certainly not Beatle John. All of the fame, all of the drugs, the shrieking girls and adulation and #1 singles and money and cars - all of it was bullshit. If all you needed was love, then where was it?

Lennon got it all out of his system on his first solo album called The Plastic Ono Band, a great primal scream of pain and loss. It was psychotherapy set to a backbeat, and it was one of the most brutal and awe-inspiring albums ever recorded. The opening lines of the opening song set the tone: "Mother you had me/but I never had you/I wanted you/But you didn't want me." By turns raging, wailing, desperately sorrowful, Lennon confronted his demons and captured the ensuing melee on magnetic tape. It was his finest moment in a career full of fine moments. Near the end of the album Lennon sang:

God is a concept by which we measure our pain
I'll say it again
God is a concept by which we measure our pain
I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I-ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in tarot
I don't believe in Hitler
I don't believe in Jesus
I don't believe in Kennedy
I don't believe in Buddha
I don't believe in Mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in Yoga
I don't believe in kings
I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality
The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
I was the Dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
And so dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is over

Those who might be inclined to look for heresies can surely find them there. I just hear the sadness. It was an infinite sadness, bottomless, because it was a litany of despair. It was the sound of hope dying.

We've carried on for thirty years now, and some of us now hold on to a different dream. It's a dream where people can change and be changed, radically, where you need a lot more than love, where, in fact, you need God. There are days when it seems like far more than a dream, when it seems like life itself. But I understand, too, that part of John Lennon that rails against the false idols that promise so much and deliver so little. He was one himself, and I think he knew it.

John Lennon was a great man who was broken and deeply flawed, a man full of contradictions, equal parts cynicism and idealism, peace and love and strident anger. I suppose that, except for the greatness, he's always reminded me of me. Perhaps that's why, in some inexplicable way that will only make sense to those who understand icons and why people might honor them, I truly loved him. Perhaps that's why thirty years down the line I still miss him, and why today is a sad day. Sometimes you need a lot more than love. Sometimes you need a damned bullet-proof vest, and I hate that. The cynical part of me asks, well, what did you expect? The idealistic part of me mourns that that was and is so, laments that the dream is over, and remembers strawberry fields gone forever.


Tim Coons said...

Thanks for this meditation on Lennon. It honors his brilliance and broken humanity.

Living the Biblios said...

Looking back in hindsight, from our age of terror and security, the way John lived in New York City--without guards and out in public--said a lot about his hopes for a world of peace and understanding.

While I grieve that Lennon was never a "believer," he at least knew that Jesus was someone to be reckoned with.