Imagine John at 70
Oct 3, 2010
By Sean O'Toole
I was 12 when John Lennon was shot four times in the back outside his
New York apartment.
It was December 8 1980, the start of the school holidays. ABBA - not
The Beatles - was it for me. Listening to the radio endlessly replay
news of Lennon's death on a crackling medium-wave frequency, I was unmoved.
Thirty years later, I am still largely indifferent about the Lennon
legend. I blame it on one too many nights in Japanese karaoke booths,
where the refrain "rub, rub, me do" retains a surreal currency. Also
the naive conviction that sleeping in, growing your hair and singing
a peace anthem will make everything alright.
And yet, whatever I might say, the Lennon myth lumbers on, converting
trees into books. Last year Philip Norman published a major new
biography on the Beatle most likely to be shot in Memphis in the
summer of 1966 - you know, the year Lennon told the Evening Standard
that Jesus wasn't so hip anymore and "his disciples were thick and ordinary".
Norman's book has been hailed "the best life of Lennon to date" by
The Observer, which hasn't brought the print presses to a halt. The
Cynical Idealist is author Gary Tillery's recent attempt to draw on
Lennon's "restless intelligence" to fashion a self-help "philosophy".
Lennonisms by a sometimes Maoist.
Still forthcoming in 2010: Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon
and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy; Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other
Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life; and December 8, 1980: The Day John
In some ways, it's as if this self-described "loudmouthed lunatic
musician" has never left us, and Mark David Chapman, the nut job with
a JD Salinger obsession who gunned him down, never existed. Imagine
the possibilities. Lennon, a spry 70-year-old.
What would he be? A talking Thomas the Tank Engine like Ringo Starr.
A divorced dude like that other Beatle, the one Lennon called
"McArtrey, son of Jim McArtrey". And the music? Perhaps he'd dip into
the "Great American Songbook" like Rod Stewart. Better still, he'd
reinvent himself as a cool codger, a survivor, just like Johnny Cash,
Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop.
The possibilities are plentiful, each as viable and foolhardy as the
last. After all, these are merely speculations on a creative life cut
short early. Yes, my tone has shifted. Despite what I said before, I
have a soft spot for Lennon. Here's why.
It is 1961: the Liverpool press are curious about the band's
insect-sounding name. "It came in a vision," writes Lennon, still
taking his cues from comedian Peter Sellers, not the LSD - "a man
appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them 'From this day on you
are Beatles with an A'. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him."
1964: a TV host named Ed Sullivan introduces four young Brits in
matching suits to America. Lift-off! Around this time journalist
Richard Braun asks the four most photographed musicians in the world
about Avedon and Cartier-Bresson. "They had never heard of either." Right on!
1965: Noël Coward, a hangover from stiffer times, writes in his diary
that The Beatles are "bad mannered little shits" whose live shows are
"like a mass masturbation orgy".
1966: Lennon, 25, lives among London stockbrokers and drives a Rolls,
a Mini Cooper and a Ferrari, the latter painted black after the fact.
Lennon is, in his own words, "famous and loaded" - but he admits,
"All I know is, this isn't it for me."
It is still 1966: "John please don't go; they'll kill you!" implore
English fans as The Beatles leave London for the US. How right they
were in retrospect, those "modern adolescents" as Coward mocked them.
While the US press fixate on his Jesus remark, Lennon pursues other
tangents: the antiwar movement, black power, Maoism.
1971: Lennon tells Rolling Stone that The Beatles best work was never
recorded. "As soon as we made it, we made it, but the edges were
knocked off. You know, Brian Epstein put us in suits and all that,
and we made it very, very big. But we sold out, you know." The ritual
denouement, otherwise known as the confessions of a Pop Idol.
1972: the G-men are onto Lennon. An internal US government memo
headed "John Winston Lennon: Security Matter - New Left" details the
singer's ineligibility for a US visa "due to conviction in London in
1968 for possession of dangerous drugs (marijuana)" and his donation
of $75000 to an antiwar organisation. They fail.
1980, the end of the line: Lennon is a househusband, and proud of it.
He tells Playboy: "It's better to fade away like an old soldier than
to burn out." Don't worship the dead, he adds. "Making Sid Vicious a
hero, Jim Morrison - it's garbage to me. I worship the people who
survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo." He is denied the chance to do the same.
"I'm shot," he says, stumbling into The Dakota apartment building
Imagine if John Lennon were still making music, and speaking his mind
October 03, 2010
How would we be celebrating John Lennon's 70th birthday if Mark David
Chapman had never fired that bullet?
There is no guarantee he would have lived to see Oct. 9, 2010, of
course. By the time of his death, at the age of 40, Lennon had
already lived hard harder than the other Beatles. Still, he
demonstrated startling resilience. During his infamous Lost Weekend
in the mid-'70s, he partied like an out-of-control teenager, and he
was able to bounce back from that.
Call me crazy, but I think he would have made it.
And if he had made it if he had gotten to the age of 70 as a
living, working artist, rather than as a cherished memory we would
surely have a better grasp of John Lennon than we do now. We approach
Lennon in 2010 with the same mix of reverence and hagiography that
cripples our understanding of the Kennedys. As so frequently happens
with the victim of an assassination, the fallen Beatle has become an
icon that means all things to all people.
Lennon has come to symbolize the aspirations of a generation, a heavy
burden to place on the shoulders of one powerfully conflicted man.
His murder at the dawn of the 1980s was supposed to represent the
final loss of innocence for Baby Boomers. It was supposed to sound
the bells of doom for the classic era of rock music. For millions,
the martyred Lennon, raised above criticism by the circumstances of
his killing, means peace and love and nothing but.
A bit of a brawler
This view is not wholly undeserved. Lennon did stand up for peace and
love. But there was much more to the artist than the surviving
caricature suggests. As "Nowhere Boy," a new Lennon biopic, reminds
us, the leader of the Beatles was no hippie. In his early years, at
least, he was a bit of a brawler. He was extremely competitive, and
had a knack for creating controversy that makes Eminem and Lady Gaga
look like teacher's pets by comparison.
Lennon was the original intellectual bad boy: the model for the
dangerously smart iconoclast who refuses to conform to anybody's
marketing plan, or anybody's idea of how a public figure ought to
behave. Most pop fans know about the firestorm he started when he
suggested that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. What's less
well known, although it is scrupulously documented in "The U.S. vs.
John Lennon," a 2006 film, is that Lennon's anti-establishment
activities had the CIA and the FBI in a tizzy during the early '70s.
50 Cent cannot make a similar claim.
Man versus icon
Which gets us to the point about Lennon the man versus Lennon the
icon. So much is made of the Beatle's appreciation of peace in the
abstract that we sometimes forget that he was committed to specific
peace movements. We know he was anti-war by principle; we forget that
he was committed to opposing real wars that happened during his
lifetime. This was a man who sent his MBE back to the Queen to
protest Britain's involvement in Vietnam. It is virtually impossible
to imagine that Lennon, if he lived, wouldn't have spoken out often,
and outrageously, against the war in Iraq and its cousin, the ongoing
war on terror.
If he had, he would have been stepping into the cross hairs of a
different kind of war (and another that he would surely have
abhorred) the culture war that is currently making topical
conversations in America impossible. Radio talk show hosts and
enthusiastic partisans would have called Lennon a traitor, or worse;
he would have been vilified as a socialist stooge for daring to
imagine a world without possessions.
Consider that a substantial portion of Bruce Springsteen's audience
still hasn't forgiven him for the crime of campaigning for John Kerry
in 2004. Springsteen is an earnest liberal who would never go out of
his way to offend anybody. All he wanted to do was participate in the
political process. Lennon was a radical. A scrupulously nonviolent
radical, but a radical nonetheless. Lennon wanted to turn the
political process inside out.
Back to work
Lennon's temporarily retreated from the public arena in the late
'70s. But "Double Fantasy," the 1980 set released shortly before his
death, was a document of artistic renewal. Clean and clearheaded, in
full possession of his staggering gifts and his famously big mouth,
Lennon would have been a force in the '80s a writer of his talent,
and his experimental proclivities, does not need to recharge his
batteries for very long.
It has been suggested that as long as his great frenemy and spiritual
twin Paul McCartney wasn't doing anything too spectacular, John
Lennon was content to rest on his laurels. I doubt that's true, but
I've got to admit that the cute Beatle wouldn't have pushed the smart
one very hard during the Reagan years. It's hard to imagine Lennon
attempting anything like McCartney's neoclassical "Liverpool
Oratorio"; he was far too committed to the rock beat to abandon it
for strings and horns.
But since 1997, McCartney has returned to making first-rate pop
records records so inventive that even the critical Lennon would
have conceded their excellence. It probably wouldn't have mattered to
Lennon that his former bandmate had become the most commercially
successful songwriter in popular music history. But he wouldn't have
shied away from an aesthetic challenge.
What would Lennon's response have been to something as audacious as
McCartney's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard," or his avant-garde
collaboration with producer Youth as the Fireman? He wouldn't have
tried to compete with McCartney as a tunesmith or craftsman. As he
did on "Abbey Road," he would have instead favored back-to-basics
rock. Since he was always a provocative lyricist and since he never
backed away from a fight he surely would have wanted to distinguish
himself by writing about controversial topics and answering his
critics with his verses. (Rap music would have appealed strongly to
his sense of pop as an ongoing conversation.)
By October 2010, Lennon would likely have penned more protest songs
with the reach and force of "Imagine." And since a protest song is no
good unless it is delivered by a great singer, Lennon would,
undoubtably, be performing again.
Which answers our original question. We wouldn't have had to
celebrate Lennon's 70th birthday, because he would have been
celebrating it himself onstage, or on television, or somewhere the
world could watch.
And all of us, fans and detractors alike, would have tuned in.
Tris McCall: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Lennon's 70th birthday: these tacky souvenirs and adverts insult
John Lennon would have been appalled at the tat surrounding his 70th
birthday, writes Neil McCormick.
By Neil McCormick
02 Oct 2010
'You get the biggest prize when you die, a really big one for dying
in public," John Lennon said in one of his final interviews, in 1980.
"I don't appreciate the worship of dead Sid Vicious, or dead James
Dean. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for
what? So that we might rock? It's garbage, you know. I'll take the
living and the healthy."
When do the dead stop having birthdays? If John Lennon had lived, he
would have turned 70 next Saturday, an imaginary anniversary being
commemorated with the rerelease of remastered versions of his solo
recorded output. These can be bought separately, or alongside a
hardback book of Lennon's artwork as part of a handsome, LP-sized
John Lennon "Box Of Vision" ("the exact same John Lennon Box of
Vision that will be stored inside the John Lennon Time Capsule"). Can
you hear a faint voice, twisting in the wind: "It's money for dope,
money for rope…"?
This is the latest offering from a posthumous, multi-million-dollar
Lennon industry, partly fuelled by his widow's sometimes suspect
desire to keep the flame burning. It has led to such dubious tributes
as a TV commercial for the Citroën DS3, a Mont Blanc fountain pen
retailing at $27,000, a limited edition Gibson Imagine guitar
($10,748), alongside the usual array of Lennon-branded mugs,
clothing, books, calendars, prints and even an Imagine brand of Ben &
Jerry's ice cream.
And that's just the official merchandise. Last month, the lavatory
from Lennon's home in England was auctioned for £9,500. The last
album he ever autographed, for his assassin Mark Chapman, went for
$525,000 in 2003. In 2009, his bloodstained clothes and glasses were
part of an exhibition in New York.
Yet the worship of Lennon his transformation into a brand
immediately identifiable by a scrawled cartoon of a Jesus rocker in
spectacles only serves to obscure the raw life in his music.
Lennon's brutal slaying robbed him of his raging complexity, turning
tragedy into martyrdom. Looking back through blood-tinted National
Health spectacles, we see only St John, thin face reposed and
angelic. And the quest to know more about this icon takes us into
some pretty strange places. In its current issue, Vanity Fair has had
the temerity to publish an "interview" with a 70-year-old Lennon,
imagining (with a banality that insults its subject) what might have
been had he survived.
But Lennon doesn't need to be rekindled through speculation. As he
said a few weeks before his death: "I've done more in my life than
most people would do in 10… even if I never did another damn thing."
The progression of Lennon's songwriting is the story of popular music
in our time: the joyous sexuality of the early Beatles; the explosion
of colour and complexity as pop became art, fully embracing the
pretentiousness of the avant garde; the shedding of such pretensions
in pursuit of truth and beauty, in a spirit of sometimes brutal,
sometimes tender candour.
"There is nothing conceptually better than rock 'n' roll," Lennon
said in 1970. That was the mine he was digging into from the days of
his skiffle group, the Quarrymen (school motto, "Out of this rock you
will find truth"). It was there at the very end, snaking through the
grooves of Double Fantasy, his final album. On a new, "stripped-down"
version released on Monday (the only genuinely worthwhile addition to
the Lennon canon among the latest remasterings, offering something
closer to the essence of his performance), Lennon kicks off a lean,
rocking (Just Like) Starting Over with a whispered "This one's for
Gene and Eddie and Elvis and Buddy!" But we can add another name to
that litany: "It's all about me," as Lennon explained when he
released his first solo masterpiece, Plastic Ono Band, in 1970. "I
don't know about anything else, really."
Plastic Ono Band is a sparse, uncomfortable, utterly magnificent
attempt to blow through the obfuscation and myth making, in order to
not just reveal himself but actually discover himself. It is an album
that gave birth to the confessional singer-songwriting genre, which
reverberated throughout pop culture, from punk to hip hop. After
Plastic Ono Band, nothing less than the truth would do.
And it is that truth which keeps Lennon's solo work so fresh. It
certainly wasn't always great. Imagine is superb, described by Lennon
as "Plastic Ono with chocolate coating". Walls And Bridges (1974),
which documents a fleeting break-up with Yoko, is tender yet funky,
with some real gems. The lovingly crafted Rock 'n' Roll (1975) is
brilliant, suffused with joy and purpose, even though Lennon wrote
none of the songs.
But even on his misguided political rant Some Time In New York City
(1972), the creatively exhausted Mind Games (1973) and the mostly
self-satisfied Double Fantasy, there is a visceral, emotional
intensity in Lennon's need to express himself that remains utterly of
"If I'm singing, 'a wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom', I mean it," he
once said. In the end, that's all that really matters. Why worship
the dead Lennon, when you can still listen to the live one?