The Late, Great Johnny Ace
John Lennon was 40 when he was killed; that murder took place 40 years ago today. Walter posted beautifully earlier about Lennon, but I figured if there were an artist worthy of two posts, it was, as Paul Simon called him, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace.”
I spent most of my teenage years trying to be John Lennon; eventually I realized that position was permanently filled. The whole band (you know who I’m talking about, right?) grabbed my imagination and still hasn’t loosened its grip. But for a teenage boy of a certain age and sense of alienation, John cast a particular spell. His lyrics were often incandescent with imagination. His melodies could be propulsive and muscular and tender and beautiful: sometimes at the same time.
The Witty One
And then there was his wit: stinging, diamond-hard, and lightning-quick.
“For this next number, I’d like to ask your help,” Lennon said to the audience at the Royal Command Performance in 1963. “Will the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands? And the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry.” Another time, on the BBC, as they were just starting their careers, the band introduced themselves (tough to believe there was a time when any of them needed to identify themselves):
“Ringo: I’m Ringo, and I play the drums.
Paul: I’m Paul, and I play the um, bass.
George: I’m George, and I play the guitar.
John: I’m John, and I too play the guitar. Sometimes, I play the fool.”
There are a multitude of more moments like that sprinkled throughout his all-too-brief 40 years. In short, his voice – a plaintive, nasal snarl imbued simultaneously with haunting vulnerability – was one of the few things that pierced the thick shell of my self-conscious, adolescent cynicism.
Lennon also had a prodigious amount of demons. He was far from a perfect man, but today isn’t the day too dwell on that. In fact, that he was so unflinching in his honesty about himself – about everything – and struggled to be a better person is an example and consolation for those of us who are trying to do the same thing as we wrestle with the darker angels of our nature.
My life, and indeed the whole world, would be a tangibly darker, lonelier place without his time here, just as it would no doubt be a little better if had been allowed to live the last four decades.
The first time I heard John Lennon’s name was when I heard he had been killed. I was bewildered by the weight of grief that pressed on so many of the adults around me that day and the weeks that followed.
Now I get it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years have blurred past us since that time. As Lennon himself instructed us on one of his final recordings before his murder, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”