Still a Drag: John Lennon's Death 30 Years On
December 8th, 2010, is the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Beatles historian Martin Lewis was commissioned by Time Magazine in 2000 to write an appreciation of Lennon on the 20th anniversary of that tragic loss. His column (originally titled "It Was Twenty Million Tears Ago Today..") is re-published here with minor revisions to mark the 30th anniversary.
Paul McCartney's instantly-notorious first public comment on John Lennon's murder in December 1980 -- "it's a drag" -- was at the time held up as an example of gross insensitivity by an estranged friend. In reality it was the understatement of devastation. There's a telling line in Sidney Lumet's 1983 film Daniel -- a fictionalized account of the struggles of the two children of executed "spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. "Why don't you console her?" asks someone about the suicidally-distraught daughter at one point. The answer is chilling in its intensity. "Did it ever occur to you that she might be inconsolable?"
The world has had to come to terms with the senseless murder of John Lennon thirty years ago. But for the millions around the world who were deeply enthralled and touched by Lennon's gifts -- the ache remains.
Early and tragic death of a hero, a leader or a cultural icon always produces reactions of greater intensity than the sad passing-on of a revered figure at a grand old age. Our loss is not just the pang of regret that a much cherished person has finally shuffled off the mortal coil. It is also the burning pain of what might have been.
It is certainly true that when John Lennon was shot he was immediately eulogized, mythologized and indeed canonized. And if you weren't a follower -- or were too young to experience the Lennon impact in 'real time' -- you could be forgiven for reacting suspiciously to all the 30th anniversary hoopla. "I mean he was just a pop singer right? Married to that kooky Japanese woman. I'm sorry he died -- but why the fuss?"
Did we over-react to Lennon's death in 1980? Are we pining for a mythological cipher now?
Those are healthy questions. I don't begrudge them. The weight of 30 years of soliloquies hangs heavy on the uninitiated. So let the answers be given.
John Lennon was not God. But he earned the love and admiration of his generation by creating a huge body of work that inspired and led rather than simply following. The appreciation for him deepened because he then instinctively decided to use his celebrity as a bully pulpit for causes greater than his own enrichment or self-aggrandizement.
For several key years in the late 60's and early 70's -- he and Yoko Ono consciously turned turned their lives into a virtual "Truman Show" to promote the issues they believed in.
One of Lennon's many gifts was his humor. He knew -- but accepted that many people were laughing at them. He didn't care. He cared that the message was being heard. If disbelievers were going to ridicule his peace protests that was at least preferable to them being engaged in violence. One of the secrets of Lennon (and indeed all four Beatles) was that he took his work seriously. But he never took HIMSELF too seriously.
What is the Lennon legacy? There is the astonishing body of music. The jaunty anthems he wrote in the early Beatle years (1962-1965) may have been teen love songs -- but they displayed an exuberant joy that is surprisingly undiminished by the passage of time. Then, once Bob Dylan showed him that lyrics could be personal -- Lennon tapped into his feelings and revealed a gift for sensitivity and self-awareness that completely belied his oft-proclaimed status as "just a rocker."
From mid-1965 onwards in both his Beatles canon and his solo oeuvre -- he learned how to direct-inject his feelings into his songwriting.
One thinks of the reflections in In My Life -- "Though I know I'll never lose affection for people and things that went before..." And the lines in Help! -- "When I was younger, so much younger than today..." He was still only 24 when he wrote those words! An old soul indeed...
Poets and playwrights wrote of insecurity. Pop singers may have (justifiably) felt it. But they certainly didn't sing about it to their fans. Lennon did. "Every now and then I feel so insecure..." he sang in Help! He also admitted to jealousy, suicidal depression and (in Cold Turkey) heroin addiction.
When he undertook primal scream therapy under Dr. Arthur Janov in 1970, he instinctively took painful revelations and turned them into cathartic art for a world raised on denial of emotion.
Lennon had been abandoned by his father before birth -- and then again when he was 5. And his mother gave him up to be raised by her sister. Lennon lost his mother again when he was 18, when she was run over by a drunken off-duty policeman. (The fact that the driver was a policeman was an incidental detail -- his profession was not the reason for the fatality -- but it probably colored his attitude towards authority figures.)
Twelve years later, Lennon philosophized the loss in simply and heart-breakingly stark terms: "Mother... you had me -- but I never had you. I needed you -- but you didn't need me."
And in the song's stunning coda, Lennon set to music a repeated plea that was primal and universal. "Mama don't go... Daddy come home..." His howls of anguish -- quite unheard of before in popular music -- were truth at 33 revolutions per minute.
His gut decision to turn his life into art set Lennon apart from McCartney in terms of style. (Lennon was a diarist -- and McCartney -- no less artistically -- was a dramatist.) Indeed, it set Lennon high above the others in his own tree. There were many who joined Lennon or who followed Lennon into the new world of singer/songwriter-dom. But few matched his poetry or honesty. For Lennon, confessional songwriting was much more than just the prominent use of the first-person pronoun -- which seemed to be the norm in the self-obsessed 70's.
It is interesting to read the original (pre-murder) reviews of Lennon's 'comeback' album after his five years dedicated to the raising of his second son Sean. The 1980 album Double Fantasy included several paeans to the joys that maturity was bringing John Lennon. His love of Yoko, "Woman please understand the little child inside the man..." And his prescient warning to his five-year old son that "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." A lot of reviewers were bemoaning the album -- complaining of its gentler lyrical themes. As usual, Lennon had grown up before his critics. The tragedy of December 1980 overtook those foolish reviews and the sentiments were forgotten. Indeed the poignancy of the lyrics assumed unbearable weight. But the lyrics were beautiful BEFORE the loss. It just took the "other plans" of a deranged human for some people to get the message.
Lennon was certainly no saint. His personal life did not always match his philosophy and aspirations. When he fell in love with Yoko One -- who was truly his soul mate and muse -- he treated his first wife rather shabbily. Her financial settlement -- while broadly in line with the conventions of the day for working class men from Northern England -- was not the act of a generous or gracious man. His laudable devotion to his second son Sean was partly in reaction to the guilt of his neglect of his first son Julian. Though he was just starting to make amends to Julian -- his murder took place before the reparations were that far along. Julian to this day bears the scars of the shortfall between intention and action that affects many parents. But for the son of a suddenly canonized dead father -- there was nowhere to go to get that love. And castigating a murdered hero wins no friends. Hence some of Julian's displaced anger towards the "wicked step-mother who stole away my dad." The anger Julian feels is towards his dad -- and that is an anger that dare not speak or sing its name...
But Lennon's admirers accept those faults just as Martin Luther King's personal failings are put in perspective by the greatness of his achievements. We know that heroes are flawed. And we are sad for those they hurt. However, those weaknesses don't diminish the overall achievements. They are simply a reminder of human limitations.
Of all Lennon's legacies -- one of the most enduring and -- perhaps the most impressive is who his enemies were.