The early and tragic death of a hero, a leader or a cultural icon always produces reactions of greater intensity than the sad passing on of a revered figure at a grand old age. The loss is not the pang of regret. It's the burning pain of what might have been.
It's certainly true that when Lennon was shot he was immediately mythologized and canonized. Did we overreact to Lennon's death in 1980? Are we pining for a mythological cipher now?
John Lennon was not God. But he earned the love and admiration of his generation by creating a huge body of work that inspired and led. The appreciation for him deepened because he then instinctively decided to use his celebrity as a bully pulpit for causes greater than his own enrichment or self-aggrandizement. For several key years in the late '60s and early '70s, Lennon and Yoko Ono turned their lives into a virtual "Truman Show" to promote the issues they believed in.
One of Lennon's many gifts was his humor. He knew that many people were laughing at them. He didn't care. He cared that the message was being heard. If disbelievers were going to ridicule his peace protests, that was at least preferable to them being engaged in violence. One of the secrets of Lennon (and indeed all four Beatles) was that he took his work seriously. But he never took himself too seriously.
What is the Lennon legacy? There is the astonishing body of music. The jaunty anthems he wrote in the early Beatle years (19621965) may have been teen love songs, but they displayed an exuberant joy that is surprisingly undiminished by the passage of time. Then, once Bob Dylan showed him that lyrics could be personal, Lennon tapped into his feelings and revealed a gift for sensitivity and self-awareness that completely belied his oft-proclaimed status as "just a rocker."
From mid-1965 onwards he learned how to inject his feelings into his songwriting. One thinks of the reflections in "In My Life" "Though I know I'll never lose affection for people and things that went before..." and the lines in "Help!" "When I was younger , so much younger than today...." He was still only 24 when he wrote those words. An old soul indeed.
Poets and playwrights wrote of insecurity. Pop singers may have (justifiably) felt it. But they certainly didn't sing about it to their fans. Lennon did. "Every now and then I feel so insecure," he sang in "Help!" He also admitted to jealousy, suicidal depression and (in "Cold Turkey") heroin addiction.
When he undertook primal scream therapy under Dr. Arthur Janov in 1970, Lennon instinctively took painful revelations and turned them into cathartic art. Lennon had been abandoned by his father before birth, and then again when he was 5. His mother gave him up to be raised by her sister. Lennon lost his mother again when he was 18, when she was run over by a drunken policeman. Twelve years later, Lennon philosophized it simply and heartbreakingly. "Mother... you had me but I never had you. I needed you but you didn't need me."
And in the song's stunning coda, Lennon set to music a repeated plea that was primal and universal. "Mama don't go... Daddy come home." His howls of anguish unheard-of in popular music were truth at 33 revolutions per minute.
His gut decision to turn his life into art set Lennon apart from McCartney in terms of style. Lennon was a diarist , while McCartney was a dramatist. Many followed Lennon into the new world of singer/songwriter-dom. But few matched his poetry or honesty. For Lennon, confessional songwriting was much more than just the prominent use of the first-person pronoun, which seemed to become the norm in the self-obsessed '70s.
It's interesting to read the initial reviews of Lennon's 1980 album "Double Fantasy," which included several paeans to the joys that maturity was bringing, like his rueful warning to his five-year old son that "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." A lot of reviewers then bemoaned the album because of its gentler lyrical themes. As usual, Lennon had grown up before his critics. After his death, the poignancy of the lyrics assumed unbearable weight. But the lyrics were beautiful before the loss. It took the "other plans" of a deranged human for some people to get the message.
Lennon was certainly no saint. His personal life did not always match his philosophy and aspirations. When he fell in love with Yoko One who was truly his soul mate and muse he treated his first wife rather shabbily. The divorce settlement, while broadly in line with the conventions of the day, was not the act of a generous or gracious man. His laudable devotion to his second son, Sean, was partly in reaction to the guilt of his neglect of his first son, Julian. Though he was just starting to make amends with Julian, his murder took place before the reparations were that far along. Julian to this day bears the scars of the shortfall between intention and action that affects many parents. But for the son of a suddenly canonized dead father, there was nowhere to go to get that love. And castigating a murdered hero wins no friends.
Lennon's admirers accept those faults, just as Martin Luther King's personal failings are put in perspective by the greatness of his achievements. We know that heroes are flawed. And we are sad for those they hurt. However, those weaknesses don't diminish the overall achievements. They are simply a reminder of human limitations.
Of all Lennon's legacies, one of the most enduring, and perhaps the most impressive, is who his enemies were. The true measure of his greatness was that in the 1970s he terrified the most powerful man in the world.
Shortly before the release of his powerful "Imagine" album in October 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono decamped England and moved to New York. The album and the "Imagine" single immediately topped the charts and solidified Lennon's position as the world's most influential rock star. Lennon was at the height of his political involvement at this time, railing against the war in Vietnam and many other injustices. Within weeks of arriving in the U.S. he was meeting with Jerry Rubin and other members of the New Left.
Lennon expressed interest in partaking in fund-raising, voter-registration anti-war rallies and concerts, which would take place in many of the 1972 primary states. With the full protection of the First Amendment (which protects citizens and noncitizens alike) Lennon's intended actions were completely legal.
But some Republicans worried that the popularity of John Lennon could help galvanize the anti-war movement and result in a massive vote against Nixon. On February 4, 1972, Senator Strom Thurmond sent a secret memo (later brought to light via a Freedom Of Information Act request) in which he railed about Lennon and the danger he could cause the President's 1972 reelection campaign. The proposed solution? Revoke Lennon's visa. "If Lennon's visa is terminated it would be a strategy (sic) counter-measure." But, Thurmond noted, "caution must be taken with regard to the possible alienation of the so-called 18-year-old-vote if Lennon is expelled from the country."
The result? John Lennon was on the receiving end of a four-year campaign of FBI surveillance and INS harassment. In 1975 the INS chief counsel on the case resigned his position, telling Rolling Stone that the U.S. government was being more vigorous in its attempts to deport John Lennon than it was in its attempts to expel Nazi war criminals.
It's hard to think of a single artist or entertainer prior to, or since, John Lennon who had that kind of impact. No other creative artist has ever induced that level of fear in a man who is ostensibly the most powerful man in the world. Ideas, honesty, passion, humor and brilliant empathetic songs it seems were more powerful. Just imagine that....
And that is why today my eyes are red. My heart is heavy. I will play John Lennon music today. I will watch the video of Lennon insouciantly chewing gum as he sang "All You Need Is Love" live to 400 million people by satellite in June 1967. I will laugh as I watch him tweak stuffy pomposity again and again: "Those in the cheaper seats clap. The rest of you just rattle your jewelry." And I will weep still more tears at the loss of a man who inspired me in my childhood and who inspires me to this day. It's a drag. And I'm inconsolable.