On the 38th anniversary of the untimely assassination of John Lennon, we wanted to step back and reflect on one of rock’s greatest songwriters and poets. Lennon’s musical contribution was enormous, his pathos and introspective soul spoke to a nation of lost British souls, and then to the rest of the world.
John Winston Lennon was born October 9, 1940, into a working class family in Liverpool, England. His early life was difficult. His father took off to the seas, leaving his young mother to raise her son alone. When he was a teenager, Lennon’s mother was killed in an auto accident. Lacking parental guidance, Lennon was a troubled youth, prone to rage and anger. Eventually he channeled his passion into art school and then into music.
As did many youths of his generation, Lennon turned to American Rock and R&B for its sheer energy and unabashed disregard for authority. Lennon took to it like a magnet to steel. Forming a friendship with Paul McCartney and then George Harrison, they formed a band that played covers of their favorite American artists: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, et al. While the lives of Lennon and his bandmates were in disarray, the focus of the band and their music became a unifying force giving the band a purpose and raison d’etre.
The band, first the Quarrymen, to the Silver Beetles, then to The Beatles, crafted a sound in the 1960’s that changed the world. From poor boys living in a rugged British seaport town to the greatest stars of their generation.
The thing about Lennon was his ability to speak for a generation. As he grew, the rest of the world grew with him. Lennon and The Beatles early career was filled with great rock songs as well as elegant love ballads. The spirit and charisma of these songs captured the world. But if it were just based on these early songs, the Beatles legacy would’ve been the same as The Dave Clark 5 or the Herman Hermits. It was The Beatles’ mid and later career that really showcased their genius. The first time we heard “In My Life” from the album Rubber Soul (1965), we knew that Lennon was a sensitive genius.
There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed.
Some forever, not for better. And some have gone, and some remain.
All these places have their moments with lovers and friends I still can’t recall.
Some are dead and some are living. In my life I love them all.
51 years later, it remains a very moving song.
Lennon matured as an artist, dipping into the existential world of life’s finality. Soaring songs from Revolver (1966) such as “She Said She Said” with the iconic “I know what it’s like to be dead, I know what it’s like to be sad,” to the netherworld from “Tomorrow Never Knows”:
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream – It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within – It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone – It is knowing, it is knowing
And ignorance and hate mourn the dead – It is believing, it is believing
But listen to the colour of your dreams – It is not leaving, it is not leaving
So play the game “Existence” to the end – Of the beginning, of the beginning
If Lennon’s career had ended there, he still would’ve been my generation’s greatest poet. In 1966, rock critics said after Revolver, the Beatles were done… that there was nothing left to contribute. Wrong. Very Wrong. Lennon turned inside out, from introspection to statements of exploration and reflections of society. Then Sgt. Pepper’s (1967) was released, a thematic album of psychedelic brilliance that literally and figuratively turned the world on.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967) came next, a trippy ride into the world of the bizarre. Lennon (with a little help from Sir Paul) gave us “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the iconic “A Day in the Life”. Each a masterpiece. Just when the world was thinking that the Beatles were a bunch of self-involved hippie druggies, we get “All You Need is Love”, an anthem of love and forgiveness. But not to be too soft, Lennon then gave us “Revolution”, daring the world to “show me what you got.” One of his final Beatles contributions, “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” is a song of unbridled passion. The song’s abrupt ending mirroring the act of love itself. Brilliant!
We love Lennon more than any of the other Beatles because he always seemed so accessible. He had a sharp and witty sense of humor, but was also sensitive and capable of deep love. He was able to get under our skin, into our heart and souls. Personally, I felt he spoke for me and my generation. Singing songs of emotions I felt but could not express.
In September 1980, I had started a job at ABC TV, 6 blocks from where Lennon lived with his wife Yoko Ono and their son Sean. On Monday evening December 8, 1980, I was lying in bed at my parents’ house. My father came into my bedroom and told me the profoundly sad news: Lennon was assassinated. It was, without a doubt, the worst day in my life. It was the loss of my innocence and opened a world of despair for me and the rest of my generation. One of the world’s greatest artists was needlessly killed.
The next day I went to W72nd Street to visit Lennon’s home in the famous Dakota building. The entire block from Central Park West to Columbus was closed, and there were hundreds, if not thousands of people milling around. Bewildered and confused. Tears everywhere. It was silent except for the occasional boom box playing his music. Even 36 years, later the scene still haunts us all.
We must take time to celebrate Lennon’s life, his music and his contribution. He may be gone, but never to be forgotten. Thank you John…we miss you every day and we will love you always.