I don’t normally hold onto mementoes of events; no scrapbooks of the moon landings from when I was a kid, not even my own newspaper clippings from when I used to act clutter up my shelf space. But I’ve held on to the front section of “The Globe and Mail” newspaper from one particular day now for almost twenty-five years.
Tuesday December 9th 1980 and the headline read: John Lennon shot dead in N.Y. They had picked up the American Press (A.P.) feed because the story had broken so late. It’s not much more than a straight reportage of the facts surrounding the event, the flat details of John’s life, and the fact that he was survived by a son from his first marriage, as well as his current wife Yoko Ono and a five-year-old son named Sean.
Periodically,/I pause to think about the world./Not something tossed off casually with slogans or platitudes,/just trying to keep track./Gauge against some standard,/(whose)/How are we doing?/ Richard Marcus “Thinking About John Lennon” Steps To Maturity 1994 p37
Of all the articles and photos and stuff that came out during the month afterwards, in all the magazines, newspapers, special issues etc., this is the only thing that I’ve held onto. It’s survived countless moves, a flood that destroyed all my books and records, and a variety of hard hearted cleanings which have seen the throwing out of countless other objects clung to because of sentiment.
Yesterday I was over at my drugstore picking up a prescription and I idled away the time while waiting by looking through their magazine rack. What caught my eye was a huge glossy commemorative issue that “Life Magazine” has published in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lennon’s death.
As I walk through neighbourhoods,/separated from lives by windows;/traces of sounds,/figures grouped around flickering blue light,/sipping and talking,/laughter and candle light./All echo in my head./ ibid
I casually leafed through it and looked at the photos and read what the people who had taken the photos had to say about John or the Beatles and when they called my name to tell me my prescription was ready, I just stuffed it back on the shelf. The photos were nice and the book was well put together, but I had no desire to buy it.
I realized something latter; why it was that I had no interest in those things that are being passed off as memories of John. It’s because they aren’t memories of John, they’re memories of people’s association with fame. Look, these articles and pictures seem to say, I knew John and was intimate with him. See, there I am posing with the Beatles, John took that picture.
Down these early evening darkening twilight avenues,/thoughts pile on top of each other./Bricks without mortar laying foundations for what I’m not sure./ ibid
I feel cheated when I read this stuff. I don’t care about these people who I’ve never heard of. Even if their name rings a bell they shouldn’t be more important than the subject they are covering. It ends up that the “People Magazine” mentality of personal fame being more important than anything else subverts any emotional impact that the author may think they are imparting.
Pity the person who might be interested in finding out why this guy John Lennon was so important to people. He was just a pop musician for God’s sake. He didn’t save anyone’s life by discovering a cure for an illness; the stuff he wrote will never be considered great literature; and he wasn’t the most exemplary of human beings either.
The drunk teens staggering to their party,/the trees and the birds,/the arrogant cars tooting their masculinity,/and me./We all fit as pieces into the same awkward puzzle./ ibid
He abandoned his first wife and child for another woman. His second wife threw him out for eighteen months because he was an asshole, he spent that time drinking and being even more of a jerk. It appears only self-interest that saved him and brought him crawling back to his second wife.
So why the idolatry, why the iconic status given to this man when there have been so many pop musicians? What made John Lennon transcend the teenybopper pinup image that defined the Beatles early career and rocketed them to fame?
Lives continue as if all is normal/evening strolls for inspiration,/parties and T.V./We’ve fallen so far,/can we get back what we’ve lost?/How can we smile in the face of what’s happened?/ ibid p.37-38
John was the times he lived through. He not only wrote and performed the soundtrack for the times he was in the public eye he exemplified them and defined new territory. In the early sixties when all was still John F. Kennedy optimism and idealism he epitomized the fresh face and energy of the post World War Two (Baby Boomers) generation.
He was slightly cheeky, a little irreverent with his hair, but unlike the Mick Jagger and the boys from the Rolling Stones, he and the Beatles were still boys a girl’s parents wouldn’t mind if they brought home to tea. There were no dark overtones to their music in those early days, they sang about holding hands for gosh sakes, and whose going to feel threatened by that.
There was a time when I didn’t read obits./Now it’s always the same;/no age, no children, no cause of death, sometimes no family./Sorely missed…/Thanks to loving care…/Loving companion to…/Donations to…/How can we say the corner is being turned when we keep walking in a circle?/Yet on we go marching like white rats towards our cheese and electric shocks ibid
When the 1960’s peaked in 1967 the Beatles were leading the way with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They were also turning away from public performances, and leaving the mainstream behind. They were the ones who led the way in the “discovery” of India and Eastern thought in the sixties, opening the floodgates that have since developed into the thriving New Age business. (John was also one of the first to reject it as not for him)
The innocence died at about the same time the Beatles packed it in. The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont speedway in 1969 became the anti-Woodstock that marked the final descent into disillusionment that started with the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy. The Chicago Riots at the Democratic Convention is 1968 followed by Richard Nixon’s election as President of the Untied States had sounded the death knell, and when the Beatles split it was official. The party was over.
Leather and short hair were an easy game to play/convenient nihilism offered “X”ers the label to differentiate from boomers/ All that’s left is the dregs of soulless behaviour,/coffee and ash from a long dead party./Where are we now?/Transitory phases mark the place for a beginning/or a continuation./ ibid.p.39
John started the seventies in bed for peace with his new wife Yoko Ono, but he had been the pop star for too long and had never grown up. The man who had written, “Women is the Nigger of the World” it turns out was the same as every other man. But long before it became fashionable for the famous to check into detox centres, look into their hearts, or whatever their court orders stipulate, John Lennon decided he wanted to be a human being not a celebrity.
He vanished from the public eye for five years, spent the time raising his new son and being a househusband while leaving Yoko to run their business affairs. They had just released a new album, Double Fantasy, and were returning from a recording session for material for another, when he arrived home just before midnight on the eighth of December and was killed.
I’ll keep imagining,/dreaming,/and speaking pie in the sky/and hope someone is listening./ ibid
Part of his iconic status was that he was so human, that he made mistakes. Unlike Paul, George, or Ringo, John was abrasive and difficult. Unlike so many others the choices he made weren’t based on career or image; they may not have always been good or wise ones, but they were always real. He genuinely didn’t seem to care what we thought of him, whether that’s true or not only he knew and he took that knowledge to the grave.
He was the smart Beatle, the one who always had the witty comment, the quick one liner. But he was also the one who said they were more important than Christ, which didn’t seem so smart. Maybe it shouldn’t have been said, because of how it sounded, but the fact remains that for a time the Beatles were a bigger part of most people’s lives than anything else.
When John Lennon died it was more than just one person dieing. A piece of anyone who had lived through the time of his career died. His death marked the end of any chance of the Beatles ever performing together again. It was the final death of an innocence that people could cling to as the world became increasingly more complicated and dangerous.
What these commemorative pieces miss is that it wasn’t the man’s fame that was important; it might not have even been the man himself that mattered. What mattered most of all was the importance we had attached to him in our minds and hearts. He was our potential for change and our link to an idealized past in one package.
Unlike any public figure before, during, or since him no one has come close to representing the era they lived through in the same manner. He was the right man in the right time, and his death marked the end of that time.