John Lennon: I Heard the News, Oh Boy (32 Years Ago Today)

Dec. 8

john-lennon(I wrote this story initially for the now-defunct,) The John F. Kennedy assassination, the John Lennon assassination. Funny, you never forget where you were when you heard about the two Johns.

I heard about JFK from my second grade teacher in class. We were sent home in November 1963. But in December, 1980, I was writing rock criticism for the Boston Globe and had just left an Iggy Pop concert at the Paradise Theater. It was Iggy on the comeback trail – wild, raw, ferocious. I went with a few friends to their nearby apartment, to wind down and listen to some late-night music on the radio. Then, the news came crackling through, life changed, and that Iggy review was never written.

Shot! Lennon!? Why?!

I called my colleague at the Globe, Steve Morse. Through shock and tears, we discussed what we knew we had to do: Put the sorrow and anger aside, dig deep into the memory bank of Beatles and Lennon’s solo music, go in to the paper and cobble together a Page 1 appreciation for the next day’s paper, and get it done in about an hour. We divvied up his career, somehow made some sense and staggered to our homes early in the morning.

I had dinner with Steve recently and it came up. “I still remember the incredible emotions of that night,” he said. “In many ways, we lost our youth and I can still feel the tears, but a job had to be done, and, ultimately, it was an honor to write a joint appreciation of the man.”

That was pretty much how I felt, too. Steve and I had both had seen the new documentary “The US vs. John Lennon,” and that period – when Beatlemania had vanished and Lennon had begun his ascent into anti-war activism as a songwriter and as a person – was made vivid again. And the government’s attempts to yank his visa and deport him – with the furtive work of the FBI and the INS – made you ashamed all over again. Lennon was clearly targeted because of his anti-war, anti-Nixon sentiments, and, moreover, his power to stir the people. I wonder what people who weren’t around then will make of this.

Lennon had always been quick with a quip. In the film, longtime Lennon friend Elliot Mintz opined that “when he met Yoko, he found the rest of his voice.’’

When John and Yoko got married in 1969 at the Rock of Gibraltar and then staged their Amsterdam “bed-in” honeymoon, I thought it was a crazy stunt. Watching this again through the tunnel of time in the movie, I thought perhaps Lennon was just being canny, figuring that since the media was going to surround them anyway, why not try to impart a message of peace?
As to the repetitive, lilting – but persuasive – anti-war song “Give Peace a Chance,” he said, “Happiness is a good vibe … In essence, we’re selling it like soap. … Hundreds of millions will hear ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ like ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’’’

There are some who will never forgive Lennon for his abandonment of Beatle-dom and his embrace of Yoko and left-wing politics. But whatever innocence the Beatles supposedly brought to America after the Kennedy assassination was gone by the late ‘60s as the Vietnam War raged and protest mounted. To Lennon, not speaking his piece wasn’t an option. “You have to be politically aware,” he said in the film. To dodge that aspect – as a songwriter – would be to take a pass on reality and miss the tempo of his times.

Those first two “real’’ solo records, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” (1970) and “Imagine” (1971) were stunners – and troubling to many Beatles fans. The song “God” put a nail in the Beatles coffin. The first album was a primal scream, a mostly unadorned, mid-tempo work steeped in bitterness and disillusionment, with Lennon shedding idealism (beliefs in God and Beatles), expressing anger and, yet, exhibiting love and faith in Yoko. If the Beatles was his old rock, Yoko was his new rock. The second album had some anger (directed at Paul McCartney, at hypocrisy, at war), and more love aimed at Yoko. It boasted the famous title song – a paean to equality and the dream of a world without possessions.

It’s that latter song that may have gotten him killed. Late in 1980, Esquire published a caustic piece about Lennon the landowner, and painted him as a very rich man flummoxing the public with his utopian dream of non-ownership. Mark David Chapman read the piece, and there is the belief that it triggered Chapman’s sense of betrayal. I remember being angered by the piece, too, and wondered how accurate it was. But Lennon was a man of many contradictions – he left Yoko, he lived a debauched life in LA, partying it up with Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson, and he made that wretched “Sometime in New York City/Live Jam’’ record. The search for love and peace were constants in his life, but the man tried a lot of philosophical approaches, to say nothing of a lot of drugs – pot, LSD, heroin.

There are many horrible facts about his killing, not the least of which is that he had just come out of his self-imposed hibernation. The most politically active singer-songwriter of the early 1970s had been inactive, politically and musically, for five years. He retreated from rock in 1975 after “Rock and Roll” to become a househusband, raising Sean. (Albert Goldman, in a controversial bio, paints those not as idyllic days at all, but isolated and drug-addled.)

When he did emerge, he did an interview and simply said rock ‘n’ roll “was not fun anymore. I chose not to take the standard options in my business – going to Vegas and singing your great hits, if you’re lucky, or going to hell, which is where Elvis went.” (Doesn’t sound drug-addled, sounds … smart.)

Lennon and Ono released “Double Fantasy,” in November, 1980. It was a breezy album that celebrated domesticity in general and their son in particular with “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).’’ It was about accepting middle age and finding pleasure in it. I remember thinking the album slick, mild, and reasonably tuneful, which is to say, rather disappointing.

He explained himself in “Watching the Wheels,’’ singing, “People say I’m lazy/Dreaming my life away/Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me/When I tell them I’m fine watching shadows on the wall/’Don’t you miss the big time, boy?/You’re no longer on the ball’/I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round/I really love to watch them roll/No longer on the merry-go-round/I just had to let it go.”

It was certainly not the edgy, agitated, challenging Lennon I loved. It was passive, content. But it was where he was at. He had to be true to himself and he couldn’t fake anti-Reagan or anti-Thatcher activism – the punk rockers were doing a pretty good job at that, anyway – so he wrote what he knew. Billy Idol and Generation X picked up Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” and gave it a thorough, punk-rock thrashing. The words still rang true. Idol and company just upped the tempo and put more of a snarl in.

That Chapman shot Lennon at that phase of his life – well, any phase is horrible – but just as the man seems to have found inner peace is doubly tragic and ironic. After all the government harassment he put up with, a lone gunman, a former admirer who felt wronged, walks up, hails him and kills him. John Lennon: Dead, frozen in time at age 40. It just shouldn’t have been that way.

I asked Steve Morse where he thought Lennon might be had he lived – he’d be 66 – and Morse said, “he would have probably experimented with just about everything – from world music to hip-hop, I could see him doing that – but hopefully by now he would have put it all together, no doubt in ways that would still enlighten and inspire.”

I’m not sure. I had the feeling that Lennon was on a path he might have continued on, playing music that’s now called “adult contemporary music.” (Rock-lite for people who used to love rock.) He might have helped ease his generation into retirement without steering them to shuffleboard.

But who knows what might have stirred him? Lord knows, Neil Young has remained political and relevant into his 60s. Bob Dylan has remained both a workhorse and enigmatic. Would Lennon have been moved to action by the 9/11 attack on his beloved adopted city? The subsequent invasion of Iraq? Bush in general? I wouldn’t have minded hearing what Lennon had to say – or, really, to sing – about those things.

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