December 8, 2020
Forty years ago today, John Lennon was assassinated. In two short months, John Lennon will have been slain dead longer than he was alive.
Fifteen years ago, at my mother’s funeral service, all 100 of us sang “Imagine,” despite the opening line. I know Mom would have wanted that. She was always the only person I knew to blame Paul for breaking up the Beatles.
Ten years ago, for my wedding ceremony’s only song, I asked my friend Elza to sing “In My Life.” Still a beautiful memory, glad I have the video.
Twenty years ago, I had planned for my first and only tattoo to be of John Lennon as the walrus, but then I looked at the walrus with the round-rim glasses and decided just to get the walrus instead. Only later would my own tattoo spiritually guide me to get an Advanced Open Water Diving Certificate. (John’s song is about Lewis Carroll’s poem, which is about the East and the West.)
Forty years ago tomorrow, on Monday, December 9, I absolutely remember going to Columbus School – it’s now Rosa Parks School – and seeing the stricken, ashen faces of my fellow 9- and 10-year-olds. I’m still bothered that I know his assassin’s name. I’m somehow still bothered at New York City, a place John loved (and wrote songs about); I feel that if John had been living in London in 1980, he’d still be alive.
Thirty years ago, September 1990, I took my first flight without my family. I visited my friends Daniel and Stephen, then attending New York University. I went to the Dakota and to Strawberry Fields. I had someone take a picture of me in front of the Statue of Liberty flashing the peace sign…wearing my new T-shirt that I got from a Paul McCartney concert that summer (the first major tour where he played songs like “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be”; he’s kinda been playing that same tour ever since). What statement was I making? Who knows?
Sixty years ago, August 1960, the nascent Beatles, with Pete Best on drums, played their first gigs abroad, in Hamburg, Germany, learning what they were as a band. For years, I assumed that the energetic playful Beatles’ songs of the early years were mostly written by Paul, but it turns out they were largely written by John. In so many ways, John Big Banged the Beatles into existence, and ten years later, big banged them out.
Fifty years ago, Mom was pregnant with me and no doubt listening to a lot of Let it Be and Abbey Road. Fifty years ago – exactly fifty, December 8, 1970 – John gave an extended one-day interview to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner that Wenner later turned into a book called “Lennon Remembers.” The interview was meant to promote John’s first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, but he actually went on and on about his primal scream therapy, his troubled childhood, his working-class roots, his issues with the 60s as “cultural revolution” compared to the direct activism he now embraced, oh and also how much he hated Paul and George’s recent solo albums. (Paul reacted to the interview by going to court to dissolve the Beatles as a legal partnership.) As John sang on “God,” “The dream is over.”
What would 80-year-old John be like in our lives today? Would he tweet? Would he insta? Would he lead movements? Would the world be different if he had lived 40 more years? (By the way, he’d be “cancelled.”) I mean, we’re pretty sure the world is different because of his first 40 years, right? What is that difference, exactly? Maybe it’s just music, but I think it’s more. John reminds us of the role of art in society and in our lives. They say all art aspires to the condition of music, to touch us in that private place where we allow our dreams not to be over. Having touched the hearts of what seems like half the world in this way, I’ll always love John for trying to push us a bit, to make us want to make a change. Despite how much violent backlash we’ve seen in the 50 years since (including John being killed), I’ll always feel like that sentiment was the right one. Tangentially, it seems that he was one of the first very famous white men to marry someone of another race. I do think that *generally*, when we say “If John Lennon could do it, why can’t we/I?” that leads in a good direction. There’s so much more in so many books, but let’s try to wrap this up.
30 years ago, 20, 10, 5, every year in December, we heard and hear on the radio and in stores, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?…War is over if you want it.” John wrote it 49 years ago, when it wasn’t clear that the U.S. and the U.K. would be involved in these forever wars. It’s become more and more relevant as it’s become more of a challenge to us – if we really wanted it, wouldn’t these forever wars be over? Sometimes I think Lennon exactly demonstrates the limits of the power of the artist and the activist, or perhaps the cognitive dissonance between possibility and reality. And yet, a working-class hero is something to be, right?
In a way, John Lennon is like a nearby redwood tree that I am told I am supposed to love – but I sincerely do love anyway. Today I think back to the sung words I heard on the radio all that winter 1980-81, and I hold back the tears as I sing them back to John. “So let me tell you, again and again and agaaaain, I love you, now and forever.”