Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I was commissioned by Time Magazine in 2000 to write an appreciation of Lennon on the 20th anniversary of that tragic loss. My 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.
John Lennon with his group The Quarrymen on Saturday July 6th 1957 at the Woolton Village Fete in Liverpool, England. Just one hour later he met Paul McCartney for the first time. The Big Bang that started The Beatles... Photo: © 1957 Geoff Rhind. Used by kind permission of Geoff Rhind and The Quarrymen
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.
I'm not referring to jealous friendly rivals such as Mick Jagger -- who has never entirely recovered from Lennon writing the Stones' first hit "I Wanna Be Your Man" (after begging John and Paul for a song) only to discover that John had given him a throwaway so weak that Lennon then threw it into the Beatles roster as a Ringo vocal!
No -- the true measure of John Lennon's greatness was that in the 1970's he terrified the most powerful man in the world. He literally petrified the then President of the United States into a succession of illegal acts of persecution -- out of fear that Lennon's popularity would prevent his re-election.
The story -- in condensed form -- is this. In 1971, Lennon recorded his follow-up to the ground-breaking Plastic Ono Band album -- the powerful Imagine album. Shortly before the album's release in October 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono decamped England and moved to New York. The album and the Imagine single immediately topped the charts and solidified Lennon's position as the world's most influential rock star -- particularly in America.
Lennon was at the height of his political involvement at this time -- railing against the war in Vietnam and many other injustices. Within weeks of arriving in the US he was meeting with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and other members of the New Left. America had just lowered the voting age to 18 -- and the upcoming 1972 presidential election would be the first opportunity for America's under-21's to vote.
Lennon expressed interest in partaking in fund-raising, voter-registration anti-war rallies and concerts -- that would take place in many of the 1972 primary states. With the full protection of the First Amendment (which protects citizens and non-citizens alike) -- Lennon's intended actions were completely legal.
But Congressional Republicans who cherished their beloved President -- Richard Nixon -- were worried. The popularity of John Lennon could help galvanize the anti-war movement and result in a massive vote against Nixon. After all, Lennon's anthem Give Peace A Chance had been sung by over half a million demonstrators at the famous November 1969 anti-war rally in Washington.
On February 4, 1972, a secret memo (now revealed under the Freedom of Information Act) was sent to Richard Nixon by none other than the late Senator Strom Thurmond (then a youngster of merely 70.) In the memo he railed about Lennon and the danger he could cause the President's 1972 re-election campaign. Fortunately, Thurmond (writing as a member of the Senate Judiciary committee) had a solution in mind. "If Lennon's visa is terminated it would be a strategy (sic) counter-measure." Though he noted that "caution must be taken with regard to the possible alienation of the so-called 18-year old vote if Lennon is expelled from the country."
This memo arrived in the Nixon White House shortly after the notorious 1971 John Dean memo in which he proposed "We can use the available political machinery to screw our political enemies."
As we all know -- Nixon followed Dean's advice to the letter. And John Lennon was on the receiving end of a vicious 4-year campaign of FBI surveillance and INS harassment.
(In 1975 the INS chief counsel on the case resigned his position -- telling Rolling Stone magazine that the US government was being more vigorous in its attempts to deport John Lennon than it was in its attempts to expel Nazi war criminals dwelling in the US.)
Threatened with imminent deportation at a time when he and Yoko needed to be in the US (they were trying to trace Yoko's daughter who had been abducted and taken to America by Yoko's previous husband) -- Lennon was forced to tone down his quite legal political activities. Nixon was safely re-elected, and J. Edgar Hoover, who personally supervised the campaign against Lennon, was allowed to pursue the ex-Beatle aggressively.
(Time revealed the true nature of both Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover.)
One cannot think of a single artist or entertainer prior to -- or since John Lennon -- who had that kind of impact. No other creative artist has ever induced that level of fear in a man who was ostensibly the most powerful man in the world.
Ideas, honesty, passion, humor and brilliant empathetic songs it seems were more powerful. Just imagine that...
And that is why today my eyes are red. My heart is heavy. I will play John Lennon music today. I will watch the video of Lennon insouciantly chewing gum as he sang All You Need Is Love live to 400 million people worldwide by satellite in June 1967. I will laugh as I watch him tweak stuffy pomposity again and again: "Those in the cheaper seats clap. The rest of you just rattle your jewelry..." And I will weep still more tears at the loss of a man who inspired me in my childhood -- and who inspires me to this day.
Paul got it right. It was a drag. It's still a drag. And I'm still inconsolable...