By Avi Davis
October 09, 2010
It's a landmark event for Beatledom. John Lennon, dead these thirty
years, would have turned seventy years old today.
For many '60s survivors who grew up in thrall of the Fab Four, the
idea that such an important symbol of the youth culture has arrived
at the threshold of old age (if such a category still exists in our
teen-obsessed culture) must be profoundly unsettling.
It is as if that entire generation had finally found itself washed up
on the very doorstep of senility.
There can be no doubt that Lennon, in his partnership with the
brilliant tunesmith Paul McCartney, did craft some of the most
memorable pop tunes of the 20th century. That might be reason enough
to celebrate his life. But Lennon's failure to complete his life's
journey has frozen his memory in perpetual mid-life. There he
presides as the guru of peace and love, an unfazed and unrepentant
hippie whose vision for world peace remains unfettered by reality or
subsequent historical events.
Forgotten, or perhaps conveniently overlooked, is that Lennon's solo
work in his ten post-Beatles years was far inferior to anything he
did as a member of the group. It was weak even by comparison to the
output of his fellow Beatles (and yes, I include Ringo Starr in that
assessment). His coda, the cloying and maudlin "Double Fantasy"
(1980) was an embarrassment for such a great talent, and perhaps
evidence that his muse had permanently fled.
Part of this can be attributed to Lennon's early '70s determination
to make political statements rather than music. Moving permanently to
New York City in 1970, he and his wife Yoko Ono became lightening
rods for radicals and far-left causes. Feminists, Black Panthers,
Yippies, and peace movement activists all pitched their tents under
the Lennon/Ono carapace to propagate their liberation politics. The
recorded product of this eclectic jamboree, Sometime In New York City
(1972), is a rather tuneless and bleak attempt to capture the radical
zeitgeist. It bombed and is regarded universally as one of the worst
post-breakup efforts by any of the Beatles.
While Lennon's post-Beatles recordings, save for the very early ones,
can be largely dismissed, what can't be dismissed is his cultural
influence. Lennon stands today as the most revered icon in the
pantheon of the peace movement -- a figure of such sainted majesty
that he has been practically beatified by secular humanists. This
reputation balances precariously on the foundation of just one song
-- the anthemic "Imagine."
"Imagine" dredged up some half-baked Romantic notions and presented a
vision of a world free of conflict. Attached to an ethereal melody,
it seems to float in a sea of mysticism, painting a picture of a
utopia that most Communist leaders in the 1970s would have recognized.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
Would Lennon have matured intellectually as he aged, ultimately
recognizing that this formula for world peace -- written in a swishy
mansion in the English countryside, far from the Communist despots
and authoritarians who at that time imprisoned nearly half of
humanity -- could not work? Would he have understood that there was
something a little skewed about attempting to denude the world of
religion, governments, sovereignty, and wealth?
Would he have finally understood that his adopted home, the United
States, actually stood as the last best chance for humanity to
preserve the liberty that had allowed him to pen such masterpieces
such as "Across the Universe" and "A Day In the Life..."?
Probably not. Naïveté is one of the great privileges of the rich and
famous. Insulated from the hard realities of life, our pop icons are
safe and free to make ignorant guesses about the world and pose
solutions that suggest more, not less, misery for its human
population. Once having made such a statement of principle, it is
highly unlikely that Lennon would ever have retired his "Imagine"
philosophy. Unlike McCartney, who has revealed himself to be
comparatively sensible on a number of important security issues,
Lennon, socially alienated as a child and conditioned to reject
convention, likely would have continued to find some gratification in
oppositional politics and ideologies. It is doubtful he could ever
have written a song such as "Freedom," which McCartney penned in
outrage following the attacks of 9/11.
But his legacy remains, and his "Imagine" vision continues to inspire
the contemporary antiwar movement, a fact of which he would doubtless
have been proud. Yet as the threat of a nuclear Iran grows and
Islamic terrorism sets Western society in a state of constant alert,
the notion that we can embrace those sworn to our destruction in a
"brotherhood of man" presents as nothing more than an irresponsible
failure of imagination.