Thursday, December 8, 2005

Days in a Life: John Lennon Remembered

"All you need is love." (John Lennon, "All You Need is Love")

"Instant karma's gonna get you..." (John Lennon, "Instant Karma")

It was 25 years ago today that John Lennon was shot and murdered. It is perhaps a measure of Lennon's importance that many can remember where they were when they heard the news. I know that I certainly can. The morning of December 8, 1980, I was in the midst of a particularly vicious bout of the flu. I had no intention of getting out of bed, let alone going to school. It was a bit after 6:30 AM CST that my brother awakened me with the words "John Lennon is dead. He's been shot." My immediate reaction was to tell him that was BS--he was lying. I stumbled out of bed to the living room where Today was already on the air. Jane Pauley looked as if she had been crying. Tom Brokaw looked as if he was in shock. It was true. Lennon, leader of The Beatles, was dead.

For the next few days it seemed as if news coverage was devoted only to the life and death of John Lennon. Outside the Dakota in New York City, 5000 people gathered to mourn the man's passing. On show after show, those who knew him remembered him. Lennon's image appeared on both the covers of Time and Newsweek. And in many, perhaps most cases, Lennon's murder was described as an "assassination," a word usually used of the murders of politicians and heads of state. It would seem that John Lennon was not merely a musician in a rock band.

While it is clear that Lennon was mourned immediately after his death and is still being mourned today, it is more difficult to measure his legacy. Clearly as one of The Beatles he changed the shape of rock music. The Beatles expanded the parameters of the genre in ways that no other artists have before or since. They utilised chord progressions that had never been heard before in rock 'n' roll. They had the audacity to start songs off with the chorus ("She Loves You" was one of the first songs in which this was done). I don't know that they invented the concept album, but they did create one of the earliest and arguably the most influential one( Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). They revolutionised recording methods. They introduced instruments never before used in rock music--the sitar, the mellotron, and so on. Indeed, they were absolutely fearless when it came to their music. They could just easily perform a simple rock tune with George on lead guitar, John on rhythm guitar, Paul on bass, and Ringo on drums, and then turn around and perform a song complete with a full symphony orchestra. Among the firsts that The Beatles can claim is that they were the first band to perform in stadiums, although this was due more to their enormous popularity than anything else. Quite clearly, The Beatles changed rock music in ways than no other person or band has. And they may have changed it more than anyone else, too.

As a solo artist Lennon's career never quite measured up to his career as a Beatle. This was not unusual, as it it is also true of the other Beatles. Still, Lennon had an impact in a way that other rock artists never did. "Give Peace a Chance" became an anthem for pacifists everywhere. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" has become a Yuletide regular. Perhaps no other song Lennon wrote has had the impact of "Imagine." It came in at #3 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs and has ranked high on other "greatest songs" as well. Indeed, it is perhaps the only solo song by a Beatle to have the impact of a Beatles song.

While it is hard to gauge Lennon's impact as a musician, it is even harder to measure his impact beyond his music. He was certainly an activist, but he was not the first singer to be such. Folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and others preceded him in that regard. But arguably he brought such activism to a wider audience than any other musical performer before him. And he did so in such ways that were more outrageous than any performer before. John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged "Bed-Ins" to protest the Vietnam War. On the Mike Douglas Show he urged viewers to call people and tell them that they love them. Of course, this may point to a more important part of Lennon's legacy than his activism. Pegged as a Beatle from early in his life, Lennon was the first Beatle to break free of the Beatle image. He insisted on being himself, no matter how outrageous that may be. Earlier singers--indeed, most celebrities--insisted on protecting their images. Not Lennon, he didn't seem to care about his image that much. He posed nude with Yoko Ono on an album cover (Two Virgins). He retired for five years to raise his son Sean. No matter what happened, Lennon insisted on being himself.

Of course, it is important to remember that John Lennon was not a perfect person. As much as many of his fans might regard him as a god (and I must confess that I am guilty of that myself), he was a mere mortal. His treatment of his first wife Cynthia could quite aptly be described as abusive. His marriage to Yoko Ono was not always smooth. He was by his own admission an inadequate father to his son Julian. He was a heroin addict. Although there can be no doubt of his brilliance, Lennon could also be reprehensible. On this however, we must consider two things. First, how well would many of us appear to the public if every single thing about our lives were made open to everyone? In life and death Lennon's life has faced close scrutiny, both the bad and the good. Second, it often seems that genius is accompanied by deep personal flaws. Byron, Mozart, Kubrick, and many other brilliant people were often flawed human beings. It is perhaps the curse of being a genius in an otherwise mediocre world.

Regardless of his faults, I find myself mourning Lennon today as I do every year. I don't know what the first song I ever listened to was, but chances are it was a Beatles songs. Their songs were constantly played on the radio when I was young and my older sister (17 years my senior) owned their albums. There was even a Beatles cartoon on Saturday mourning. Even if the first song I ever listened to was not a Beatles song, they were the first group I ever got into. I have been a Beatles fan since early childhood. Their breakup was big news when I was in first grade. I continued to listen to Lennon's music even as a solo artist. Arguably, he has had more impact on me than any other musician, perhaps more than any artist in any medium. Given that, I do owe John Lennon a great debt for in part making me who I am today. And it is a debt I fear I can never repay. I don't know that anyone could.

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