Of all the public deaths that haunt our world, the one that hit me hardest was the murder of John Lennon. Youth was over. Idealism lay slain. I'd been too young to fully appreciate the loss in earlier assassinations. Not so by December, 1980. I'd graduated college, married, become a father and planted my feet in a serious job. Like Lennon, I'd settled down.
His memory always comes to mind this time of year, even without the help of media visuals such as “Across the Universe,” maybe the best movie ever made about “hippies,” and one that features more than two dozen songs by Lennon / McCartney. I watched much of the film with a lump in my throat. Go see it if you ever rode a magic bus, fought in Vietnam, fell in love, protested a war, aspired to create art, or quarreled across the Generation Gap-that earlier front in our so-called Culture Wars.
John Lennon, of course, was a player in that cultural divide and his memory remains a lightning rod for public passions. Wednesday night I watched a TV repeat of the 1994 film, “Backbeat,” about the Beatles' early years working German nightclubs. The laddies mostly wore leather jackets and slicked-back hair. The idealism and seminal anger that fueled Lennon's art, music and fame are well portrayed.
In the end, fame killed the young composer, poet, prophet, provocateur.
On Dec. 8, 1980, a former fan named Mark David Chapman drew a gun and shot John Lennon dead in front of his New York apartment. I remember how much older the world got that night, that week, that winter.
As I wrote in a column that ran in the News-Sentinel (Dec., 1990) winter solstice came early in 1980, as the shadow of Lennon's death fell across the land.
He had only recently returned to the living, it seemed. His first album in years, “Double Fantasy,” was the work of an artist who had come to terms with demons. This was Lennon at home with wife and child, content to watch the world roll by without leading the way.
I was talking to some friends about the Beatles just this past Tuesday in Knoxville's Preservation Pub, when a friend asked me when I'd first heard the Beatles. I tried throwing my mind back to those times. I was a youngster of about 8 or 9. The country still mourned the murder of another charismatic leader named John Kennedy, and the Beatles made things new and fun again for a lot of us. The energy seemed to burst from the TV into my parents' living room when they lit into “All My Loving” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The song sounds quaint now, but it's still strong, and at the time it was electrifying. It started us dancing and singing along that night. The Beatles never let us stop. They were pied pipers of the dawn. A flood of music became anthems for an age of vibrant experimentation in new ways of looking at the world. Little did we suspect, as burr haircuts and bouffants made way for shaggier looks, all the changes to come the next six years.
Six years. Could all those classics have been the work of six or seven years?
Even their titles hint at the richness of the offering. “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Norwegian Wood,” “A Day in the Life,” “Penny Lane,” “Let It Be,” “In My Life,” “Yesterday,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Across the Universe,” "All You Need Is Love...."
The late scholar Joseph Campbell once called Lennon an archetypal hero on a vision quest to experience ultimate reality and bring back a gift that would enrich the tribe, and so he was. His tribe was the world, which still rings with Beatles tunes. Lennon brought back more than that though. He brought a vision of how the world could be made better. It's most clearly stated in his song, “Imagine.”
How strange to hear that musical vision waft through the marketplace like so much Muzak these days. For beneath the beauty of the melody and power of the vocal performance lies a radical prescription for utopia. Lennon's song calls for an end to private property, an end to organized religion and more. Needless to say, his utopia is not one the world is likely to embrace soon.
Never mind. Lennon's life and death serve as reminders that the world is both transcendently beautiful and unspeakably tragic. It's to his credit that he sought to reconcile this Whole Earth to itself. His Christmas-season death tolls with two bells, as I wrote in 1990. One rings with life and hope. The one that speaks death and despair can never blow that one away.