It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that it’s been 35 years since we lost John Lennon. Here’s a piece I wrote that originally was published in Beatlefan #13, December 1980, the special Commemorative Issue published two weeks after Lennon’s death.
I lost a very dear friend Monday night, Dec. 8, 1980 — one that I had never met.
That, I’m sure, is how millions of other Beatles fans felt when they heard the news that a senseless act of violence had taken the life of one of the greatest influences on our generation.
Dead at age 40.
Even now, after all the headlines and television retrospectives and magazine covers and photos of his grief-stricken widow, I can’t quite bring myself to accept that one of the Fab Foursome of John/Paul/George/Ringo — we tended to run it all together like one name, almost a mantra to some — has been silenced forever.
Some people don’t quite comprehend just what that means to those of us who grew up with The Beatles and who are hurting so badly right now. They don’t understand the bond between performers and audience that developed over the nearly 17 years since Lennon and cohorts Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr left the obscurity of Liverpool for the international limelight.
Most of them do at least recognize that the world of popular music has lost a giant. That distinctive, slightly nasal voice of “A Hard Day’s Night”, “All You Need Is Love” and “Imagine” — considered by many to be just about the perfect rock ‘n’ roll instrument — exists now only in our memories and in the several hundred million records it is estimated The Beatles have sold worldwide.
The brilliant, eccentric wordmaster who made up half of the most successful songwriting team in the annals of popular music — and who, for many of us, defined the turbulent but exciting 1960s with his incisive, witty and oft-times painful lyrics — will write no more.
The Beatles revolutionized music. But, quite obviously, they were more than just a musical group. For better or worse, they were in the vanguard (often as instigators) of many cultural upheavals with their long hair, colorful dress, working class origins and outspoken views on drugs, sex and politics.
Lennon, of course, was always the most vocal. He was the one who observed (quite rightly, it could be argued) that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ among the youth of the mid-’60s.
He occasionally spoke too hastily and later repented, and his words were not always full of wisdom. But no one ever doubted his sincerity. John Lennon cared.
We knew that. And even if we didn’t agree with what he said or the way he said it (and, contrary to popular belief, we didn’t all follow him blindly in his ventures into mysticism, drug-induced consciousness alteration and shrill radicalism), we were somehow comforted and at the same time stimulated by the knowledge that our friend was out there searching for some sort of better world.
But, then, the story of John Lennon’s death is rife with irony. He fought long and hard to stay in this country when threatened with deportation because he loved the city where he was to be gunned down.
He felt that in New York City he could walk down the streets unmolested as just another citizen. He couldn’t really, of course.
A friend of mine ended up sitting at a table next to the Lennons at Nani’s Italian restaurant a week or so before his death. A slightly intoxicated patron went up to Lennon, who was quietly sipping cappucino, and demanded to know, “How are The Beatles?” Lennon simply said, “I don’t know.” Not satisfied, the man got drunker and returned to Lennon’s table a little later to pester him some more. Wearily, John looked up at him and said, “Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
John Lennon was still a prisoner of fame, despite his five years away from the spotlight. As Robert Christgau (with whom I rarely agree) observed so cynically, “He died because he was famous.” Or, more pointedly, because the little nobodies of the world like his killer fantasize about the famous. I wonder who is fantasizing about Lennon’s killer right now?
And then there is the sad irony characterized by the title of Lennon’s hit single “(Just Like) Starting Over”. After a five-year self-imposed absence from the music scene, Lennon had just returned to the Top 10 with a song that represented his optimistic state of mind at the time of his death.
As he told Playboy magazine, “life begins at 40 — so they promise. And I believe it, too. I feel fine and I’m very excited. It’s like, you know, hitting 21, like, ‘Wow, what’s going to happen next?'”
He’ll never know.
But those of us he left behind know that the legend and legacy of John Lennon is considerable. He was a lot more than just another rock star. He was a symbol, proof that you could be an innovator and an original and strive for excellence in an age weighted down with mediocrity. And that you could do all that and still make it to the top.
He also showed us that we do not have to become slaves to the expectations others have of us. While still at the top, he walked away from it all to spend time raising the son who shared his birthday. It won’t be easy for little Sean to grow up now that Daddy’s gone, but the foundation built by those five years of intense closeness with his father will no doubt help see him through.
John Lennon wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t afraid of life, of death, of exploring the unknown, of learning. He was willing to admit, as he did shortly before his death, that he had been wrong in some of the things he had said during his radical stage in the early ’70s.
And, once he learned that those joys of family life he had ridiculed Paul McCartney for exulting were really what it’s all about, he set out with a renewed zeal to spread the word.
While many of us welcomed the new upbeat, melodic message Lennon delivered on “Double Fantasy”, others were disappointed to find the former angry young man singing about fatherhood, marriage and family love.
What they failed to see was that this was a mature Lennon singing to us this time around. In Playboy, he dismissed worship of rock stars who burn out at an early age as “garbage.”
“It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne . . . I worship the people who survive.”
John Lennon didn’t waste time looking back. And, in an age where you can hardly avoid hearing a Beatles song on elevator Muzak, he had little patience with those who would insist he and the other ex-Beatles return to the scene of their past glories.
“Everyone talks in terms of the last record or the last Beatle concert,” he told Playboy, “but, God willing, there are another 40 years of productivity to go.”
For whatever reason, God was not willing. And so it is that John Lennon lives now only in his music.
To the end, he was amazingly astute, even when he didn’t know it. In the new song “Beautiful Boy”, written to son Sean, he sang, “Life is what happens to you/ While you’re busy making other plans.”
I feel like crying.
— Bill King