Remembering John Lennon on the anniversary of his death

One of the greatest discoveries I ever made as a kid was on a trip to Vancouver, visiting relatives. The pirate treasure in this case was a Beatles record. Back home in Ontario, I had heard the Fab Four’s early stuff echoing out from my older sister’s bedroom; Love Me Do, Help, Ticket to Ride. But somehow their 1966 album Magical Mystery Tour had eluded my ears until the early seventies, when I discovered a cousin’s scratchy copy.

A compilation of singles and b-sides, Magical Mystery Tour wasn’t considered a “real” Beatles album by purists. I didn’t know, and I wouldn’t have cared if I did. What I recall is watching dust motes drift in a shaft of sunlight in my aunt’s living room, while four guys from Liverpool flew me away on a vinyl disc. Penny Lane and Fool on the Hill were terrific; but it was a few of the other songs, the offbeat ones, that really captured my imagination. I had no idea what Strawberry Fields Forever referred to, but I was transported by the song’s altered time signature. I Am the Walrus was even more indecipherable, but I delighted in its word salad and leprechaun chorus (“Expert textpert choking smokers, Don’t you think the joker laughs at you, Ha ha ha hee hee hee ho ho ho”).

For a child from the suburbs of Ontario, the album seemed like something from another time, or another world. Too young for the politics of the sixties, I was old enough by the seventies to groove to the music. Lenin-Marxism was for yippies protesting US imperialism; I had discovered Lennon-McCartneyism.

I found that the Beatles songs I liked best were the ones penned mostly by the eldest member. Paul had a fanbase of swooning teen girls, George had his constituency among spiritual-minded introverts and Ringo had – well, I was never quite sure what constituency Ringo had – but for artists and angry-young-men-in-training, John’s caustic humour and cynical smarts made him a very agreeable model.

The Beatles didn’t exactly ride the crest of a historical wave. The wave rode through them, and they released its energies through song. And John Lennon was the Big Kahuna, the guy hanging 10 on the roiling breaker of sixties psychedelia. By the time my Beatlemania hit full stride in my late teens, I had discovered Tomorrow Never Knows from their 1966 album Revolver, in which Lennon sings over a music track played in reverse, while reading lines inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead via Timothy Leary. (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream / It is not dying…”) The song still sounded fresh when covered a decade later by Electronica guru Brian Eno and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. It still sounds weirdly timeless…and why not? It’s about timelessness, after all.

Speaking of things temporal, Lennon, like all great culture heroes, was both of his time yet transcending it. A talent this prodigious magnifies the possessor in the public eye; and here was a guy who had a mammoth ego to begin with. A sense of immortality clung to his image and music; that’s why his death struck so many so sharply. When the Liverpudlian proved to be all too flesh and blood on December 8, 1980, thousands milled about in New York’s Central Park for days afterward, weeping and playing his songs. (As far as celebrity worship goes, only Princess Diana’s death in 1997 could compare in public outpouring of grief. Both reactions were likely archetypal in origin. The princess who dies young or falls into a deep sleep is a central theme in fairy tales, whereas Lennon wrote his own myth: a trickster figure whose musical sorcerery could command the global imagination, but could not protect him from the obsessive attention of one fan.)

Of all the anecdotes about John Lennon, my favourite involved the comedy show Saturday Night Live. In April of 1976 the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, appeared on national television holding up a cheque made out to the Beatles for $3,000. All they had to do to claim it was to re-form briefly as a group and perform three songs on the show. Michaels probably didn’t expect a serious response. But as it turns out, two of the ex-Beatles had struck up a truce of sorts at the time. “Paul and I were together watching that show,” Lennon said later in a Playboy interview. “He was visiting us at our place in the Dakota. We were watching it and almost went down to the studio, just as a gag. We nearly got into a cab, but we were actually too tired…He and I were just sitting there, watching the show, and we went, “Ha ha, wouldn’t it be funny if we went down? But we didn’t.”

The most striking thing about that anecdote is the “what if” scenario. Would the choice to appear on SNL have taken Lennon on a different route along fate’s garden of forking paths, away from Mark David Chapman?

Lennon’s been gone nearly a quarter century, but we still have his music and film clips to remember him by. The man has become something of a cottage industry for his estate, and while some have accused Yoko of a supposedly ghoulish exploitation of her husband’s memory, she has actually shown restraint and taste in the licensing of all things Lennon. (When was the last time you heard Imagine used to pitch something? In fact, Yoko donated its use to Amnesty International. ) I say the more of the man, the better, so his genius is not forgotten by a generation raised on Britney and boy bands. Take for example, The Beatles Anthology – an expensive reliquary of image and song, containing rediscovered fragments of St. John. As I type, I’m watching the much-seen clip of the Beatles’ recording All You Need Is Love. John and his bandmates are in their Sergeant Pepper getups, and flowers and confetti are scattered on the floor of the studio. The guitar-wielding Lennon sits on his stool, wearing granny spectacles and a handlebar mustache, chewing gum as a bugle strikes up the opening bars of La Marseilles. Perhaps the opening was meant to cue the audience that this is going to be another anthem – and indeed it was. The song begins with one word repeated over and over: “Love, love, love…” Lennon and McCartney had burned off the boy-meets-girl wrapping of past lyrics. This was a song about the flame itself.

The currency of the word “love” may have been deflated over time by the usual suspects (Hollywood, the greeting card industry, Dr. Laura, et al). But back in the mid-sixties, the Beatles were singing about the real deal. They were first among sixties bands with a song that was about agape (love of one for all) rather than eros (love of one for another).

Not all of Lennon’s artistic efforts succeeded. Like the trickster figures in all mythologies, the singer/songwriter managed some embarrassing blunders. As the Beatles spiraled into bickering, legal wrangles, and a permanent split, Lennon collaborated with his avante garde artist wife on the album Two Virgins. (I once had the opportunity to hear this effort, which competes with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music for sheer unlistenability. Or perhaps I just didn’t get it. )

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” according to William Blake, and Lennon certainly didn’t shrink from piloting his submarine-yellow Rolls toward fame’s slippery slopes. A messy heroin addiction was accompanied by some questionable career decisions. John went off drugs, annotating the experience in the 1969 howl, Cold Turkey, and joined Yoko in exploring Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy. Echoes of his magical misery tour are heard on the brilliant 1971 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Mother is a howl of pain about childhood separation, while Working Class Hero is a bitter, clear-eyed remembrance of what most British rockers chose to forget about their beginnings.

Lyrically, Lennon was as unafraid of revealing his dark side as showing his light; and the contrast enabled him to move from the self-loathing pyrotechnics of the White Album’s Yer Blues to the limnal vulnerability of Imagine’s Jealous Guy. But what we sometimes forget about the eldest Beatle is that he didn’t just sing about peace; he was an active force for it. With millions watching, John and Yoko performed Give Peace a Chance live from a Montreal hotel room, joined by such luminaries such as Timothy Leary, Tommy Smothers and Allen Ginsberg. In December of 1972, Lennon recorded Happy Xmas (War Is Over) with the Harlem Community Choir. John and Yoko accompanied the song’s release with a global scattering of postcards and billboards reading “ War Is Over (If You Want It).” The song will be re-released this Dec. 9, the anniversary of its first release and the day after Lennon’s death.

Away from Yoko in Los Angeles in the mid-seventies, Lennon spent a “lost weekend” that went on for several months, partying with pals Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. Saying goodbye to his wild years for good, he returned to Yoko for a five-year stint as a househusband, raising his son Sean. During that period, the public clamored for his return to music. His fans wanted to know if he still had it. Could the culture hero who brought Promethean fire to the suburbs in the sixties do it all over again in the eighties?

By 1980, Lennon returned from his self-imposed silence with the album Double Fantasy. Although the songs were weakened by overproduction, the consensus was that Lennon still had it. Tracks like Watching the Wheels and Woman were up there with his finest Beatles work. This was a joint effort from John and Yoko; his tracks alternated with hers on the vinyl album. To avoid Yoko’s rather interesting vocal stylings, you had to pick up the needle and move it to the next track. The trickster from Liverpool had done it again.

In interviews from this period, the former Beatle said that his phone was being tapped, and that he was being tailed by black cars he believed were from the FBI. (In October of this year the FBI was ordered to release its files on Lennon within a month’s time.) One interpretation of this alleged interest in the ex-Beatle is that with Reagan newly installed, US policymakers were nervous with Lennon’s re-emergence as a public figure, given his previous involvement in the peace movement and various left wing causes a decade earlier. And files reveal there had been a high level interest in Lennon earlier. Some speculate that his 1971 song John Sinclair was the spark for the FBI’s watch list, eventually leading to the Nixon administration’s efforts to deport him. Sinclair was given 10 years in prison for selling two joints to an undercover officer. The song, performed at a benefit for Sinclair, contained the lyrics,

If he’d been a soldier man
Shooting gooks in Vietnam
If he was the CIA
Selling dope and making hay
He’d be free, they’d let him be
Breathing air, like you and me.

More than any one song, it is Lennon’s catalogue that empowers the frequent description of him as a genius. In an interview from the time he said, “When real music comes to me – the music of the spheres, the music that surpasses understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ‘cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium...those moments are what I live for.”

I slipped on some headphones recently to take another listen to No. 9 Dream, from his “lost-weekend” album, Walls and Bridges. I never quite got this tune, but then it hit me; Lennon is describing a spiritual encounter. He hears a whispering voice call out his name, and feels “sudden hot, sudden cold,” as “music touches my soul.” Literal or metaphorical? Drug trip, dreamscape, or something else? Whatever he’s on about, the lyrics seem to be more than just I Am the Walrus wordplay. Lennon appears to be describing an experience so intimate and strange he can only communicate it in song, asking over and over, “Was it just a dream?” But who better to convey a classic shamanic experience than a real shaman – the type defined by anthropologists as the visionary who often doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the tribe? “I’m not going to change the way I look or the way I feel to conform to anything,” Lennon said in his interview with Playboy. “I’ve always been a freak. So I’ve been a freak all my life and I have to live with that, you know. I’m one of those people.”

Whatever No. 9 Dream means, we have a better angle on the singer/songwriter’s intent in the hit single Imagine, from the 1971 album of the same name.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

On one level it’s a just an exceptionally hummable tune from a former Beatle. On another, it’s an unflinching prayer for peace that locks our responsibility for one another firmly in this world. But above all, Imagine is about the primacy of the individual imagination over second-hand belief systems, including those based on exploitation of others:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine became a huge hit. It still gets more rotation on the radio than any other of the ex-Beatle’s solo recordings. In a time when ignorant armies clash on a shared plain of religious fundamentalism, the song has even greater relevance today. But whatever you think of the political or religious sentiments, the central message is clear: think and feel for yourself, don’t allow anyone to do your imagining for you – including some hirsute character with little round spectacles. The singer/songwriter rejected all gurus, all isms, including the hagiography that surrounded himself and his bandmates. St. John was actually no saint at all, and Lennon himself was the first to say so (see sidebar). He was a flawed human being like all the rest of us, doing his best to figure out the world and his place in it.
“It’s quite possible to do anything, but not to put it on the leaders and the parking meters,” the animated Liverpudlian told interviewer David Sheff shortly before his death. “You have to do it yourself. That’s what the great masters and mistresses have been saying ever since time began. They can point the way, leave signposts and little instructions in various books that are now called holy and worshiped for the cover of the book and not for what it says, but the instructions are all there for all to see, have always been and always will be. There’s nothing new under the sun. All the roads lead to Rome. And people cannot provide it for you. I can’t wake you up. You can wake you up. I can’t cure you. You can cure you.”

This wasn’t just some forgettable sentiment about positive self-esteem or personal power. It echoes a previous message attributed to another longhaired peace freak: “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” And that, my friends, is why John Lennon’s most memorable songs still move us, young and old – because they strike that deepest chord, the beauty within us all.

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
Come on!

– Instant Karma