by Martin Lewis
December 8, 2007
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
The world has had to come to terms with the senseless murder of John
Lennon nearly three decades ago. But for the millions around the
world who were deeply enthralled and touched by Lennon's gifts - the
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 hoopla on every anniversary of his death. "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 27
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 60s and early 70s - he and Yoko Ono
consciously 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
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 70s.
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 a working class man 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!
Nor to the inexplicable bleatings of detractors such as REM's Michael
Stipe who implausibly claims never to have been influenced by Lennon
or the Beatles and to regard them as "elevator Muzak." (Actually
close analysis of Stipe's lyrics reveals that he is telling the
truth. He is much more influenced by the Monkees!)
No - the true measure of John Lennon's greatness was that in the
1970s 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-21s to vote.
Lennon expressed interest in partaking in fund-raising,
voter-registration anti-war rallies and concerts - which 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
(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
This is a column I originally wrote for TIME.com in 2000 - on the
20th anniversary of John Lennon's death. I republished it on HuffPo
in December 2005. I offer it here again as my homage to Lennon on
this painful anniversary.