On the 10th anniversary of his murder by Mark David Chapman, on December 8, 1980, it’s time to remember why so many people loved John Lennon so much. Lennon wasn’t the plaster saint Yoko Ono has tried to make him, nor the half- mad dope fiend palmed off by debunking biographer Albert Goldman, but someone far more lively and complex. He was funny, angry, smart, crazy, loving, grouchy, a sweet-voiced pop singer, a heroic inspiration, an avant- gardist with the common touch, and, at the same time, the bad boy down the block.
He was also the first of a new breed of rock stars: He seized the opportunity offered by the Beatles’ unprecedented fame and refashioned stardom in his own image. We take it for granted today that rock stars have long careers, dabble in art as well as commerce, and get involved with social and political issues as well as messy divorces. When they do, they’re operating within the large space between Big Beat and Big Ideas that John Lennon originally carved out.
He began whittling at that space in childhood. Born in 1940 — he would have turned 50 this year — and abandoned by his parents in infancy, Lennon grew up rebellious in the comfortable home of his aunt and uncle in lower-middle-class Liverpool. In the mid-’50s, he was sent off to art school, the English education system’s dumping ground for talented misfit adolescents. But even in such unconventional company, Lennon didn’t really fit in. He hung around with slightly younger, working-class louts and — after meeting Paul McCartney at a church fair — even played in a band later called the Beatles. Both rockers and art students initially found his mixture of interests unfathomable.
Lennon didn’t resolve the conflict — in his characteristic fashion, he managed to have it both ways. He found links between the art of Picasso and the rock & roll of Elvis, reveling in their mixture of manic energy, pure whimsy, personal expression, and social satire. And he didn’t just demonstrate that these connections existed; he demonstrated them in a way that, as soon as his band got into a recording studio, proved seductive to an entire generation. From the minute the Beatles turned up, shaking their long hair, sporting their collarless jackets, snickering their way through press conferences, and generally goofing around — until wham! they slammed into a song that told you this brand of fun was serious business — they united art and entertainment, and joined the irresponsible with the visionary.
It was apparent to everyone that Lennon was the Beatles’ leader. But he kept looking for a greater leader, a grander cause outside himself and the music. He sought it first in Scientology; then in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s transcendental meditation, which held his attention for only a few months; next in drugs, which grasped him much longer; after drugs, briefly, in the ”primal scream” therapy of Dr. Arthur Janov; and finally in the psycho-dramatic left-wing politics of Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Yet he also craved the simpler rewards, companionship, direction, and affirmation. He didn’t break off his marriage to his first wife, Cynthia, for years. Instead he slowly slid out of it and into his affair with Yoko Ono. Despite the swinging bachelor possibilities readily available to him, what he really needed was home and family, a shelter for all his eccentricity. But every time he thought he had found the solution to such needs, he rebelled against its failure to solve everything that troubled him. The closest he ever came to a permanent alliance was in his marriage to Yoko, with whom he created a partnership grounded as much in art, politics, and spiritual questing as in matrimonial traditions. And even that union was subjected to periodic breakups and wanderings — most notoriously his mid-’70s drunken bicoastal binge with his and Yoko’s former secretary, May Pang.
Chaos defined Lennon’s career after 1970, when the Beatles broke up. Sometimes he seemed an almost holy fool, chanting ”Give Peace a Chance” as if a slogan could really end all war; sometimes he seemed wholly foolish, as when, with Yoko, he made an entire film consisting of nothing but naked bottoms. Yet out of this tumult emerged his first two solo albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971), which were far more than just personal statements. They were deeply intimate, in fact confessional to the point of embarrassment, but they were nakedly honest even at their goofiest, and brave enough to explore his worst fears. Their self-examination redefined the content of rock for the ’70s.
But Lennon never capitalized on his breakthrough. He tried to extend his political insights with Some Time in New York City (1972), a Yippie-bred agitprop collection whose anthemic ambitions flopped. Then he wandered, making three aimless albums before disappearing into house-husbandry after the 1975 birth of his and Yoko’s son, Sean. Five years later, when he made a comeback, he seemed more at peace. It was as though he’d finally accepted himself as not just the world’s most famous pop musician, but also as a visionary, idealist, and dreamer on a broader scale. ”I’m learning that it’s all right to be soft and allow that side of me out,” he said, and the album he released, Double Fantasy, showed that he meant it.
In the end, it’s Lennon’s vision that links his foolish moves to his great ones. That vision also connects the beginning of his music to its truncated end, tying the Beatles’ 1963 scorched-earth rendition of Barrett Strong’s Motown hit, ”Money,” to his own definitive 1971 solo ballad, ”Imagine.”
In ”Money,” Lennon sang, ”Your lovin’ gives me a thrill/But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills,” conveying not the rage and irony of the Motown original, but, in their place, dashed expectations and grief that life comes down to something so tawdry as cash. In ”Imagine,” he wished himself right out of a world in which money counts at all. The song is far from the platitude that posthumous hagiographers try to make it; instead, it offers hard-won emotional truth. Lennon doesn’t simply clobber his listeners with a series of sentimental instructions (”Imagine there’s no heaven…no country…no possessions”); he gently asks us to go beyond dreaming, to make an effort, at least, to transform ourselves and the world. The meaning of the song sneaks up on us, much the way that, in Lennon’s musical arrangement, strings unobtrusively glide into place beneath his plunked piano. ”You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” he says, so unpretentiously that it reminds us all that the greatest singing is often a kind of prayer.
John Lennon never got to take his vision any further. We were cheated out of a real conclusion, out of the ever-changing music John could have continued to make into old age. Maybe he would even have found a way out of the dilemma ”Money” describes; maybe he’d have gone beyond ”Imagine” and transported a new, more brilliant and tangible political dream from his head to ours. But he still has his guaranteed place in our hearts. Lennon didn’t open broader possibilities for rock stars only; he did it for everybody who heard him. That is why we mourn him still — and, probably, why we always will.