The Last Day in the Life

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ahead of the times and once in a while turned, bowed low, gave the times a razz and dared them to catch up. The slow songs were heart stoppers, the fast ones adrenaline rushes of wit, low-down love and high, fabulous adventure. The songs became, all together, an orchestration of a generation's best hopes and fondest dreams.

The songs Lennon wrote later on his own—Imagine and Whatever Gets You Thru the Night, Instant Karma and Give Peace a Chance and the gentle and unapologetic Watching the Wheels from the new album, or the gorgeous seasonal anthem, Happy Xmas (War Is Over), which he recorded with Ono in 1972—kept the standard high and his conscience fine-tuned. The political songs were all personal, the intimate songs all singular in their fierce insistence on making public all issues of the heart, on working some common moral out of private pain. Rock music is still benefitting from lessons that Lennon fought hard for, then passed along. All his music seemed to be torn from that small, stormy interior where, as Robert Frost once wrote, "work is play for mortal stakes."

Despite the universality of interest in his death, Lennon remained chiefly the property—one might even be tempted to say prisoner—of his own generation. Some —those who regarded the Beatles as a benign cultural curiosity, and Lennon as some overmoneyed songwriter with a penchant for political pronouncements and personal excess—wondered what all the fuss was about and could not quite understand why some of the junior staff at the office would suddenly break into tears in the middle of the day. "A garden-variety Nobel prizewinner would not get this kind of treatment," said a teacher in Oxford, England. Across the Atlantic, in schools and on college campuses, those from other generations showed almost as great a sense of puzzlement, even distance, as of loss. Gretchen Steininger, 16, a junior at Evergreen Park High School in suburban Chicago, said, "I recognize the end of an era—my mom's."

So a little reminder was in order, a small history lesson, and there was no one better to lead the class than Bruce Springsteen. Lennon had lately become warmly admiring of Springsteen, especially his hit single Hungry Heart. Springsteen could probably have let Lennon's death pass unremarked, and few in the audience at his Philadelphia concert last Tuesday would have been troubled. But instead of ripping right into the first song, Springsteen simply said, "If it wasn't for John Lennon, a lot of us would be some place much different tonight. It's a hard world that asks you to live with a lot of things that are unlivable. And it's hard to come out here and play tonight, but there's nothing else to do."

Then Bruce and the E Street Band tore into Springsteen's own anthem, Born to Run, making it clear that playing was the best thing to do. Guitarist Steve Van Zandt let the tears roll down his face, and Organist Danny Federici hit the board so hard he broke a key. By the second verse, the song turned into a challenge the audience was happy to accept: "I wanna know love is wild, I wanna know love is real," Springsteen yelled and they yelled back. By the end, it sounded like redemption John Lennon knew that sound too. He could use it like a chord change because he had been chasing it most of his life.

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