In late 1963, not long after the JFK assassination, photos of the Beatles began to appear in the window of the local record store. To say that they looked odd would be something of an understatement. The fellas and I actually got a laugh or two out of it. Then we noticed that the girls weren’t laughing, and decided that maybe we should take the Beatles more seriously. A couple of months later, on February 9, 1964, the band made the first of three consecutive appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. We were watching. Everyone was watching. In the days and weeks that followed, a lot of guitars were sold. The sound of hair growing was almost deafening. Make no mistake. The Beatles didn’t just change music. They changed everything.
Lennon was the one we looked to from the start. McCartney was fluffy and glib. Harrison was quiet. Ringo was basic. But Lennon was clearly a serious artist. He made music, he wrote books, he acted in films. He said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He was right, but he had to apologize anyway. You could see how much he hated doing that. It breaks my heart to watch it to this day. He fell in love with an exotic woman, an avant-garde artist. We threw stones at her (never at him), as if it was our business. It was embarrassing. Then the Beatles broke up, and broke our hearts, but there was more heartbreak to come. John continued to make music, they all did, but it wasn’t quite the same. Then John went away for awhile. We missed him, but got on with our lives. Then, suddenly, he was back with a new album. The old thrill returned. Then he was dead, and we learned what heartbreak really was.
The Jets were playing the Miami Dolphins that night. In 1980, Monday Night Football was the most watched tv broadcast every week. I was sitting in my apartment watching the game with my friend George when Howard Cosell broke the news. We stared at each other in disbelief. I think we watched the rest of the game, but there was a dull ache beginning to build inside of us. The next morning, the full weight of the loss began to sink in. At the record store where George and I worked, it was all Lennon all the time for the next few weeks. On the next Sunday, Yoko asked people to come to Central Park to remember John. I couldn’t face it. I took a drive to the country, found a lonely place in a state park, and sat in my car. WNEW-FM had a live broadcast of pianist David Sancious playing a solo instrumental version of “Imagine” at a local recording studio. I listened, and remembered. — Ken Shane
John Lennon was the strangest Beatle for me, and that is due to the push and pull of his persona. Paul was always the approachable, affable guy. George, who started out as “the mean one”, would become the searcher. Ringo was always, you know, Ringo. He’s a born lever-puller. But John kept everything under a veneer of detached cynicism, it seemed. He seemed to sneer at the absurdities presented to him, and as the band grew more popular, the more absurdities popped up, the more he seemed to distance from it.
A lot of this revealed itself in his solo work, sometimes angry but mostly scarred and vulnerable. For all of this fame and wealth he came into, what he couldn’t have were fundamental things, necessary things, and those celebrity trappings often seemed more like straitjackets than tuxedos. ”Mother, you had me but I didn’t have you.” While he sang “Working Class Hero” with the voice of derision, how being such isn’t much of a life at all, he also adds asides for those who who would dare to be the nail that sticks up – they’ll hammer you down. In his youth, how many times did Lennon take the blunt-force trauma of refusing to wear the uniform? Strangely, from this gilded perch he now inhabited, he still sounded like the outcast. Sure, he was huge, but somehow inside he was still denied those necessary things.
Lennon never came across as the pop-star ingrate though, not in the way that so many others have. Tabloids have earned themselves some mighty coin for stories of how the flavor-of-the-week would give it all up for being normal again, blissfully incognito. It’s not that Lennon disliked what he had so much, but more that he wanted a sense of normality, even though he had no idea what that normality actually was. “How Do You Sleep?” may have been a tirade against what he deemed was McCartney’s wasting of talent and opportunity, or it might have been jealousy for Paul being able to cope so easily. *How dare he sing silly love songs while I’m not really even sure what the hell love is?* Lennon seemed to find that peace toward what we now know to be the end of his life. Double Fantasy seems like the moment he gained his equilibrium with being iconic, enough to let the past be passed and to be truly at peace with his future. No more lost sessions with Harry Nilsson drinking away the confusion. It wasn’t a silly love song but it was just like starting over.
And then it was over.
New York still had WNEW-FM then, and I recall the out-of-body experience of hearing them play “A Day In The Life” knowing his was over. I was pretty young then, and my understanding of what Beatles were came from a catalog of songs I’d known all my life, some images of them running around really fast, other images of them as psychedelic cartoon characters, and this bizarre concept that they weren’t really human. The culture had elevated them to that mythic state, and the reality that one had died, and had died in such an ignominious fashion – being gunned in the back like some old west cur that walked away with the winning poker hand – was more surreal than Mr. Kite’s circus fare. When that distorted voice sang, “I read the news today, oh boy…” it took on an altogether different meaning.
Given how I’ve come to see John Lennon, a lot of his songs have altogether different meanings now. His signature song, “Imagine”, leaps to mind and to me is no longer a call to harmony and an idealistic roadmap for getting there. For me, he’s no longer the philosopher poet trying to reveal the better way. He’s trying to convince himself as much as he’s attempting to convince you. He’s looking for those fundamental, necessary things, nothing to kill or die for, a brotherhood of man, a definition of the normality he found so elusive. The audience gravitates to the song not because of the round-rimmed, rose-tinted vision, but because we’re all struggling to find sanity among the supposed sane, parity where there seems to be none, and equality where the deck seems stacked against us. We love John Lennon because, in the most basic ways, he was the most like us; we just didn’t recognize it. — Dw. Dunphy
I was ten years old when John Lennon was killed, not quite old enough to fully realize the impact he’d had on the world outside my family’s rather insular cultural fortress (my parents had been Nixon supporters, so Lennon’s virulent anti-Nixon stance had gone rather unappreciated). My mother told me the news as I padded from bedroom to bathroom to begin the day. I thought of the young guy on the sleeves of the early Beatles records in my folks’ collection. It was sad news, yes, but the full impact wouldn’t hit me until much later.
My immersion in the man’s art came in my teen years, as I read Ray Coleman’s enormous biography and amassed the late-period Beatles and early solo Lennon records whose depth I found fascinating, beyond anything else I had been exposed to, with the possible exception of Dylan’s mid-Sixties work. When I thought of the music McCartney and, to a lesser extent, Harrison had made after December 8, 1980, it made me wonder what Lennon might have contributed, what hits or misses he might have come up with, or whether it might have been possible for the Beatles to have made music together again. What Lennon left us resonated with me then, and continues to do so. To this day, Plastic Ono Band chills me; Walls and Bridges warms me up again. “Julia” saddens me; “Come Together” makes me want to rock out.
When I hear “(Just Like) Starting Over,” though, I think of a very cold New Jersey December morning, when the news was full of one face, the radio was full of one voice, and a sadness I was too young to comprehend enveloped the popular culture I was just beginning to consume in quantity. — Rob Smith
John Lennon was murdered after my bedtime, so by the time my mom mentioned it offhandedly the next morning, I had already missed Howard Cosell’s iconic announcement on Monday Night Football as well as the first news footage of chanting mourners keeping vigil outside the Dakota. Lennon had barely been on my radar screen as a 15-year-old – he had vanished from the music scene just as I was becoming a fan, so for me he was just some old guy whose comeback record sounded like he was trying to be Elvis. Soon enough, though, I was thoroughly entranced by the media coverage, and quickly I became a raging Beatlemaniac, obsessed with every detail of their career … and, particularly, of Lennon’s life.
As a biography-devouring kid I couldn’t help but notice how our heroes’ legends often seem grounded in key moments from their youths: George Washington and the cherry tree, Abe Lincoln walking a mile to return a library book, JFK on PT-109. But the biographies targeted to kids don’t often get into the emotional or psychological traumas that often shape a man’s life. So it was a revelation as a teenager to trace the connections between Lennon’s chaotic early years – his father’s absence; his mother’s abandonment, return, and violent death; the death of Stu Sutcliffe; his marriage to the pregnant Cynthia, just as Beatlemania was getting started – and his later achievements, ideas, mistakes and misadventures.
Lennon certainly made it easy for the masses to follow along: More than perhaps any other major pop artist, he laid out his life and his psyche for all to see. It began even before his audience knew it was happening (“Help!”, “I’m a Loser”), but it crested after the arrival of the similarly exhibitionist Yoko. Here was a guy who turned his honeymoon into a Top 10 hit, who documented his Primal Scream therapy on one of history’s greatest albums, who repeatedly made his concerns our concerns (“Revolution,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “God,” “Imagine”) … except when he failed spectacularly to do so (Some Time in New York City).
His last years, when he removed himself from our presence, remain a haze of uncertainty – was he really the blissfully domesticated dad he portrayed in his last interviews, or was he the coked-out paranoiac of Albert Goldman’s telling? Still, even those five years in the Dakota wilderness couldn’t erase the fact that Lennon had merged the personal with the artistic, and captured the popular imagination, as few others ever have. Sadly, just as he was re-emerging into the public eye he fell victim to one fan’s twisted, all-consuming investment in his hero’s legend – and the world mourned the assassination (not merely the “murder”) of a very public man whose life story, as well as his art, encompassed the most brilliant highs and the most devastating lows. And one 15-year-old … like undoubtedly millions of others who first encountered John Lennon at that most inopportune of moments … immersed himself in that story, and that music, and was never the same afterward. — Jon Cummings