Lennon Lives

The former Beatle's 70th birthday is marked by films, albums, concerts and more. Why we still can't let John go

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Jane Bown / Camera Press / Retna

John Lennon photographed backstage before a Beatles gig at the Granada in East Ham, England. March 9, 1963.

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"I used to think the Beatles were just a '60s thing, something for my age group," says Beatles historian Martin Lewis. "But every year I go to these Beatle fan festivals, and a new crop of kids, ages 13, 14, 15, are there. The music just passes from generation to generation."

Even Lennon's high school bandmates the Quarrymen have been able to base a healthy music career on Beatles nostalgia. "I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn how many people wanted to see us play," says drummer Colin Hanton, 71, who last performed with Lennon in 1959, when they were still teenagers. "I'm not even a musician," admits guitarist and singer Len Garry, 68, "but people want to hear us because, you know, we 'knew him when.'" Since re-forming in 1997, the Quarrymen have toured 13 countries and put out two CDs. They do not regret leaving the band that later became the Beatles.

The Music
Lennon's musical gifts didn't come in the form of nimble fingers or pitch-perfect performances. Rather, he wrote some of the most achingly personal songs popular music has ever seen. "Mother," from 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, in which he screams—literally—about his deceased mother and estranged father, can depress a listener in just two lines. Even early songs such as "I'm a Loser" and "Help!" carried hints of desperation beneath the boisterous rhythms of the early Beatles sound.

In one of the last interviews he granted, Lennon told Playboy's David Sheff in the fall of 1980 that he didn't understand, or agree with, the continued adoration of the Beatles and their music. "I don't have any romanticism about any part of my past," he said. "I don't believe in yesterday."

It's been 30 years since his death, but John Lennon's music still sounds new. There he is, mashed up with Jay-Z on Danger Mouse's Grey Album and on movie sound tracks from Love, Actually to The Social Network. Sally Draper screams for the Beatles in this season of Mad Men. His music has been remixed, remastered and, on the recent Double Fantasy reissue, stripped of all overdubs and layered tracks. Capitol Records' new John Lennon Signature Box sleekly presents his entire solo career from start to finish: when listened to in order, it's a comprehensive view of his evolution as an artist. Lennon has his own airport in Liverpool, a memorial in Central Park and the Imagine Peace Tower — a beam of light in Reykjav√≠k, Iceland, that on a clear night is said to shoot 13,000 ft. (4,000 m) into the sky. Yoko Ono has asked fans to send 1 million Twitter messages of peace and love to the tower's website on Oct. 9.

The Legacy
Perhaps that's why we still celebrate John Lennon: we want to believe that he's listening. Despite his cynicism, he was honest and hopeful at heart. "We're all relatively young people," Lennon told Playboy. "The game isn't over yet." Sadly, he was wrong. Lennon has not aged since 1980, but the rest of the world has. To hear his voice now is to remember who we were when we first heard him— when we too were young and the future seemed exciting and uncertain. When we listen to John Lennon, we remember how that used to feel.

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