Saturday, October 9, 2010

In Honour of John Lennon's 70th Birthday

Today, at around 3 PM CDT, it will have been seventy years ago that John Lennon was born. I have probably written more about John Lennon in this blog than any other famous person. The reason for this is quite simply that, outside of those people I grew up with and knew personally (family, friends, neighbours), John Lennon had a far greater impact on me than any other individual in history.

From the sheer number of people who have honoured him the past few days it would seem I am not alone. The news is filled with stories about John Lennon, from a number of articles from news services such as Associated Press to articles in such newspapers as The Times, The Liverpool Daily Post (naturally), The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. Every major broadcast network, at least in the United Kingdom and United States, have aired tributes to him, sometimes more than one (NBC aired one on The Today Show and one on The NBC Nightly News). Even Google debuted a new John Lennon doodle for their logo. Fans have began gathering last night in Strawberry Field, that portion of Central Park in New York City, honouring John. Today in Liverpool Julian Lennon and his first wife Cynthia unveiled a new monument in his honour. In Reyjavik, Iceland today at 3:00 PM CDT, 8 PM GMT Yoko Ono will light the Imagine Peace Tower, the monument in honour of John and his vision.

It is very clear that for many, perhaps most people, John Lennon has become something greater than a mere rock star. Indeed, he has become something more than a legend. He could certainly be described as an icon, but it seems to me that John's status has surpassed even that of other icons. Even such legendary icons as Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley seem to pale in comparison to the reverence in which John Lennon is held. He occupies a position shared only by prime ministers, presidents, and religious figures (indeed, in 1980 his murder was not described merely as a murder, but an assassination), but even then he seems to somehow be something much larger. I think it would be courting blasphemy to call John Lennon a god (I am not sure that many do not pray to him, however), but his position in our society seems to be something close to it. I think the only thing equivalent to John's place in our society today is that Christian saints occupied during the Middle Ages. He is certainly not a god, but he is something more than a mere man.

I do think it would be correct to describe John Lennon as a hero. In Norse myths and the Icelandic sagas it was believed that when a hero was born, the wolves would howl and the eagles would cry in acknowledgement. I am not sure any wolves howled in Liverpool that night 70 years ago and I do not believe eagles are even to be found in England, but John Lennon was certainly born to sound and fury. John Lennon was born in Liverpool Maternity Hospital on Oxford Street to Julia and Alfred Lennon just as the city was being bombed by the Germans. Many accounts have noted how his Aunt Mimi Smith was able to see her way through the darkened Liverpool streets by the light of the bomb blasts. John received his first name from his paternal grandfather, John "Jack" Lennon. He was given his middle name, Winston, in honour of then prime minister Winston Churchill.

Despite the dire circumstances of his birth, John Winston Lennon was in some respects born at a fortuitous time. In 1956 a skiffle craze erupted in England, with youths forming bands to perform the obscure American genre of folk music. Among those bands were The Quarrymen, formed by John Lennon. In 1957 a musician named Paul Mcartney joined The Quarrymen, and he and John soon became friends. In 1958 Paul invited a young school friend George Harrison to join the band. The Quarrymen grew away from the skiffle sound, which proved to be a short lived musical fad, and turned to something more lasting--rock  'n' roll. By 1960 they would become The Beatles. Initially The Beatles would be only one of many rock groups which formed in England in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Very early in their career they found themselves contracted to perform in Hamburg. It was in Germany that they would hone both their performing skill and their song writing skills. They returned to Liverpool well trained musicians. As a result their popularity grew in Liverpool, to the point that they were one of the premiere Merseyside bands. Eventually signed to EMI, they released their first single, "Love Me Do," in October 1962. It met with moderate success, as did the next single, "Please Please Me." Their next single, "From Me to You," would prove to be a bona fide hit, It would be their fourth sngle, "She Loves You," that would establish The Beatles as a new phenomenon. It became the fastest selling single in the history of the UK charts and the biggest song ever in the UK for years.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Beatles soon became the biggest selling pop act in British history, leading to the coining of the term "Beatlemania." There were those who said they were a fad, but they would be proven wrong. It was not long before The Beatles' singles conquered the charts in the United States and then The Beatles themselves conquered the nation. Contrary to the naysayers, The Beatles were not a passing phase. They built upon their success to the point they went beyond mere rock stars. They were even more than legends. They became icons in their own lifetime. Although it was disputed from time to time, John Lennon was perceived as their leader from the beginning. It was reflected in the press from 1964 onwards and in The Beatles' own movies. Even the great Sir Paul McCartney, thought by a few to be the band's leader, said,"I definitely did look up to John. We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest." It was John who was the band's spokesman, their funniest and wittiest member, and often the most outspoken.

Always opinionated and a bit of a thinker, it was while John Lennon was with The Beatles that he began to change and evolve, to form his own vision. He began to address this vision in his songs. He did it earliest in songs co-written with Paul McCartney: "The Word" and "We Can Work It Out." He later addressed it in songs he wrote alone for The Beatles: his masterwork "All You Need is Love" and "Revolution." Encouraged by his wife Yoko Ono, John Lennon would continue to shape his vision. After The Beatles he wrote such songs as "Give Peace a Chance,"  "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," and,  what some consider his signature song, "Imagine." He and Yoko held a Bed In for Peace. In connection with his single "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," he and Yoko bought billboards in eleven major cities reading, "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko." Much of John Lennon's poltical activism seemed over the top at the time, what we would now call "guerilla marketing," but it got his message across. John's message was simple, summed up in a few words, "Give peace a chance," "All you need is love," and the now current "Imagine Peace."

In his song "Imagine," John sang, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." John Lennon was far from the only dreamer and his message did resonate with his fans. Many who grew up listening to The Beatles would incorporate John's vision into their own lives. It should be no surprise that when he was murdered, his message was incorporated at the impromptu memorials held by fans in New York City and Liverpool. Throughout the years John's message has become as inseparable from his image as his status as a Beatle and a solo performer. Even before he died John had become more than a rock star. He was more than an icon. He was the voice of a whole group of people, whose lives he had touched in a way no pop star had before. Upon John's death one young New Yorker expressed what many of us felt, "I can't believe he's dead. He kept me from dying so many times before."

Of course, as much as we revere John Lennon, it is important to realise he was not perfect. He was not always a good husband to either of his wives. He was not always the best father to Julian. He could be difficult with his friends, even his fellow Beatles (particularly Paul and George). He became addicted to heroin. But for all John's faults, which were many, what showed through the most in him was that he genuinely cared about his friends, even those he was sometimes hardest upon. Indeed, John even cared about his fans. For all his status as an icon, John Lennon was always approachable. He was known to talk to fans, to express concern for them, and to sign autographs for them. It was this openness that made us love him even more. And, sadly, it would be this openness which would lead to his death.

As I have said before, John Lennon impacted me more than any other celebrity and in ways I can not even measure.Along with the other Beatles, he was the first performer in any medium of which I was aware. The Beatles' songs were ever present on the radio when I was a toddler and a young child. On Saturday morning there was The Beatles cartoon. I would watch both A Hard Day's Night and Help! on NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. When The Beatles broke up, it was John who remained my favourite Beatle. His songs spoke to me in a way Paul, George, or Ringo's did not. The day of his death remains etched in my mind in a way that only the deaths of relatives and close friends are. His vision, his message, became incorporated into my own world view. I certainly am not the pacifist that John was. I can look back at history and see where war was necessary and unavoidable (case in point, World War II), but ultimately I believe war is something best avoided, an absolute last resort. Ultimately, I believe we should give peace a chance. John would influence me in other ways. If I believe in treating people decently, without regard to gender, ethnicity, nationality, or religion, it is largely because of John. True, much of my moral and ethical world view was shaped by growing up in the South where young men above the lowest stations in life were trained to be gentlemen, but much of it also attributable to John Lennon.

Like many fans, it was John's songs that first drew me to him, but, again like most fans, it was his vision that made him more than a rock star for us, more than a legend, more than an icon. John's vision was of a more perfect world, where mankind could exist in peace and harmony without regard to ethnicity, nationality, or creed. He expressed this vision in song after song. "The Word." "We Can Work It Out." "Revolution." "Give Peace a Chance." "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." For many his vision is best summed up by the song "Imagine," which has become omnipresent on the telly and the radio of late. But for me it is another song which I consider his piece de resistance, the song which best summed up his vision. It was a song which he performed with The Beatles as Britain's entry on Our World, the first globally televised television programme. The song's title summed up John's vision succinctly and precisely: "All you need is love." It is the strongest, most powerful message John ever espoused. After all, if one has love, peace is sure to follow.

Terence Towles Canote

9 October 2010


Along These Lines ... said...

Yay, nice post about JL and my all-time favorite pop group.

Raquel Stecher said...

Wow. That post was very moving. First of all, I like how this was a personal tribute to John Lennon. You provided lots of information about him but also gave your own personal perspective and detailed how Lennon had a profound impact on your life. I like what you say about him being more than an icon and that he was assassinated not murdered. And that he wasn't perfect. You paint a very rounded image of what Lennon has become to all of us.

Great post!