How To Pay Tribute To A Man You’ve Never Met, Yet Managed To Save Your Life Anyway, While Still Acknowledging His Flaws.
I doubt I’d be here without the Beatles. I don’t mean I’d be dead (though I don’t discount that possibility), I mean I wouldn’t be me. The Beatles are among that most exclusive of cohorts: people without whom you literally cannot picture what the world today would look and sound like. The difference is, most of that cohort achieved that distinction through violence or the exertion of political power. The Beatles, uniquely, did it through the sheer genius of their music and the force of their personalities.
And the most forceful personality of all was John Lennon’s. The acknowledged “leader” among a band of erstwhile equals (at least during their early years), Lennon quickly established himself as a man to be taken seriously with his intelligence, razor-sharp, zero bull wit, one of the great singing voices in rock history and, above all (with a little help from his friend and fellow composing genius, Paul McCartney), his unique and prodigious gifts as a songwriter.
The Impact Of John Lennon On This Boy (And A Few Million Others)
I was younger, so much younger than today (11) when John Lennon was assassinated on December 8th, 1980. I remember the next morning, my school bus driver was visibly shaken as she drove us to school. “Imagine” was playing on the radio. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “John Lennon was killed.” “Oh,” I said solemnly. After what I felt was a respectful interval, I asked, “Who’s John Lennon?” The look on the driver’s face was among the saddest faces I’d ever seen.
But at 14, I discovered The Beatles for myself, and, to borrow from video game parlance, it was like the Universe had suddenly leveled up. I became obsessed, and though I’ve learned to partially control that obsession in most social interactions, it’s never really gone away. For a 14 year old of a certain disposition, John Lennon was everything you’d ever want to be. Brash, talented, funny, rebellious, suffering no fools and taking no prisoners. That many of these traits stemmed from childhood trauma didn’t concern kids like me. In fact, the more I read about him, the more hooked I was. He was the only Beatle who grew up comfortably middle class. And though he suffered several severe psychological blows in his childhood (the likes of which I was certainly spared), it showed to me that being angry was an acceptable response to the world. In fact, when viewed from certain angles, it was the only authentic response to it. Any of my perfunctory efforts at homework quickly yielded to practicing guitar.
Most of all, of course, it was their music that got to me. Music of immense, indescribable joy that sometimes also managed to have just the right sized thread of loneliness and sorrow running through it simultaneously. Music that said that the world was made for discovery and taking chances: that there was always something new ahead to explore, delight in, and learn from. It made me feel more alive and less alone. It still does.
John Lennon: Bigger Than Jesus? Maybe Not, But A Lot Funnier.
A man like Lennon wasn’t going to enjoy the scrutiny and monotony of adulation and attention without some bumps in the road. Nor could it erase his past. He’d always been angry, and on occasion violent. He was a cruel, cutting drunk (and in the early days, he drank a lot). He was cruel and cutting when sober at times, too. On at least one occasion, he hit his wife, Cynthia. He was serially unfaithful (I mean, rock star). He was, charitably, a largely indifferent father to his older son (Paul was far more a father figure to Julian than John was).
I think there was a time when most of us, including myself, just sort of brushed past those things because we wanted to like him so much. These days, there’s no doubt a cohort of people who advocate “cancelling” him (and good luck with that). I think both approaches are misguided, largely because, for all of his flaws, Lennon never pretended not to be flawed. In the largely McCartney penned 1967 song “Getting Better,” Lennon contributes the following lines: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat and kept her apart for the things that she loves/Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.”
Do I believe he deserves a medal for this, or even praise? No. What I do think, though, is he lived his life, especially from that point on, with an honesty that at times verged on the embarrassing. He was willing to let us see his struggle to become a better person. He was willing to let us see him often fail in that pursuit. He (usually) admitted his mistakes.
I won’t delve into the whole fraught and nuanced role of Yoko Ono in John Lennon’s life, but give her this much: she helped open his eyes to the oppression of women. For a man who once quipped, “Women should be obscene and not heard” to actively campaign for feminist causes shows an admirable willingness to learn and try to evolve.
On a far less serious point, the churlish and childish interview he gave in 1970, “Lennon Remembers” set in a motion a narrative that he was the only serious artist in the band, and was personally disparaging of his former bandmates, especially Paul. Any serious student of the Beatles knows the idea of Lennon (or even Lennon and McCartney) being the only reasons The Beatles were the Beatles knows this is hopelessly wrong. Lennon later dismissed many of his comments from that interview, but he never shied away from the narrative that he was the genius of the Beatles, a view which only picked up steam after his death. But it just isn’t true.
Instant, Or At Least Cosmically Speaking, Relatively Quick Karma
I’ve outlived John Lennon by 11 years. I like to think I’m a little more evolved than I was then. And I have no doubt John would’ve continued to grow wiser, too. I also think he would’ve gone overboard at times and looked foolish sometimes, because he did that, too. I don’t think anyone, especially Lennon, would nominate him to be canonized (except maybe that week or so in ’68 when he thought he was Jesus. Ah, acid).
But one of the things I’ve learned in my 51 years is that a person can do bad and foolish things, and still have wisdom and leave the world a better place than he found it. In fact, I’ve realize all of us have done bad and stupid things. Some of us take that as an excuse to compromise with our best intentions. John Lennon, for all his flaws, did not. He did some ugly things in his life. He tried to learn from them. And, like few others in history, he left the world a remarkably richer, wiser, happier place than he found it.
I, and millions of others, owe him a debt for that. So I’ll be listening to him all weekend, and although he was taken far, so absurdly far too soon from us, I’ll be grateful we had him, warts and all, as long as we did.