It Was 40 Years ago Today
Music legend John Lennon's life was cut tragically short four decades ago.
John Lennon, the famed Beatle who was having a solid solo career, was murdered outside his New York home forty years ago today. He was only 40, meaning he has now been gone almost as long as he was alive.
The New York Times covered it on the front page with the headline “John Lennon of Beatles Is Killed; Suspect Held in Shooting at Dakota.”
Inside, they had a feature by Robert Palmer titled “Lennon Known Both as Author and Composer.”
The Beatles united a generation of young people with their songs, their attitudes and their sense of style, and John Lennon was the thinking man’s Beatle.
Of the four, he was the Beatle who wrote books, the Beatle who embroiled the group in a potentially disastrous controversy by suggesting in an interview that they were more popular than Jesus, the Beatle who embraced the poetic innovations of Bob Dylan in the mid-1960’s and shocked Beatles fans by jumping into performance art, happenings and political protests in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
He was the Beatle who announced, in one of his first solo albums after the breakup of the Beatles, that “The Dream Is Over” – the dream of community through peace, love, mysticism and psychedelic drugs that the Beatles had encouraged and advertised.
And yet, paradoxically, Lennon never lost sight of that dream. “The media are saying that the 60’s were stupid and naive,” he remarked in an interview only a month ago. “But look at how much of what was sniggered about in the 60’s has become mainstream -health food, therapies and all the rest. And love and peace weren’t invented in the 60’s. What about Gandhi? What about Christ? The naivete is to buy the idea that the 60’s were naive.”
To protest Britain’s involvement in the Nigerian civil war and British support of the United States’ role in Vietnam, Lennon, named a Member of the Order of British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 1965, returned his award. The award, the lowest of five divisions of the order, was presented to the four Beatles for service to their country.
Lennon and Paul McCartney were the group’s lead vocalists and songwriters, and as the Beatles grew more and more popular worldwide, their songs grew more complex. By the mid-60’s the Beatles were leaders of a worldwide rock movement that believed music with a beat could and should be intelligent and innovative as well.
The Beatles were the first popular rock and roll band to write their own material, to address a range of serious subjects and to embrace influences that ranged from Dylan’s folk poetry to Indian classical music to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic sound collages. They changed the face of popular music, and popular culture, radically and irrevocably.
Beginning with the mid-60’s album “Rubber Soul,” the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership began to unravel. McCartney began concentrating on pure pop, contributing ballads like “Michelle” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Lennon wrote more complex songs, embodying the conflicts he was feeling acutely as a Beatle: between his private life as an intellectual and an artist and his public persona; between his role as a pop musician and a generational spokesman, and the unresolved personal problems of his childhood.
Out of this turmoil came exquisite songs of euphoria and confusion (“Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), some of the first and best examples of pop surrealism (“I Am The Walrus” and “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”), and electronic experiments that prefigured Lennon’s later collaborations with the conceptual artist Yoko Ono.
Lennon met Miss Ono in 1966 and by 1969, when they married, their romance was being blamed for the disintegration of the Beatles, who officially disbanded in 1970. The couple’s demystification of the Beatles began with their “Two Virgins” album, with its celebrated cover showing them nude, and continued with a series of albums that grafted Miss Ono’s experimental and sometimes intensely grating vocal techniques onto Lennon’s sensibility.
The music was dismissed by most critics and fans at the time, but it has been an important influence on some of the brightest talents in the most recent wave of rock performers.
His post-Beatles albums continued to mirror his internal struggles, particularly “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” (1970), which followed several months of “primal scream” therapy with Arthur Janov and included songs that attempted to exorcise childhood traumas. But Lennon was also, and perhaps first of all, one of the most tale nted pop tunesmiths of modern times, as he proved with the subsequent albums “Imagine” (1971) and “Mind Games” (1973).
In 1975, after recording an album of rock and roll oldies that he recently expressed some dissatisfaction with, Lennon stopped making records to concentrate on rearing the his and Yoko’s son, Sean, who is now 5 years old. ( Lennon also has a son, Julian, by his first wife, Cynthia).
In his own words, he was a “househusband,” tending to domestic duties while Miss Ono supervised the couple’s investments and other business matters.
Finally, in August, the Lennons began making a new album, “Double Fantasy,” which was released by Geffin Records last month and is now in the national top 20. Lennon’s first new single in five years, in the top 10, is optimistically titled “Starting Over.”
The album was conceived as a “dialogue on love,” with songs by Lennon alternating with songs by Miss Ono.
His colleague John Rockwell contributed another titled “Leader of a Rock Group That Helped Define a Generation.”
The Beatles were without any question the most popular, most influential of all rock groups, and John Lennon was the most impassioned, and probably the most deeply talented, of all the Beatles.
In 1964, when the Beatles first reached America to appear on the Ed Sullivan program, bemused adult observers found it difficult to distinguish them. They all seemed similarly gray-suited, mop-topped mannequins; what seized their attention was that their songs – “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the archetype – celebrated teen love in a way that teenagers hadn’t responded to since the days of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
But soon thereafter, as the Beatles began to define their generation, it became apparent that Lennon and Paul McCartney were actually the creative forces behind the band. Ringo Starr was cute and cuddly and George Harrison played eloquent lead guitar and helped channel the Beatles’ energies into Eastern mysticsm. But it was Lennon and Paul McCartney who counted.
The two composed most the band’s songs and were the lead singers. At first they collaborated closely, sharing lyrics and music. Later they tended to compose separately, but for reasons of legality and personal loyalty the songs were still credited to both jointly.
TLennon and McCartney worked together in a classically complementary manner. McCartney was the sunny, bright one, the purveyor of lilting ballads and cheery love songs. Lennon was the harder, fiercer man, the true rocker of the foursome. He had the grittiest singing voice, and the deepest, most convoluted sense of rock’s anger and potential triumph.
The Beatles’ influence expressed itself first of all in the simple sociological dimensions of their success, unmatched in pop-music history to this day. But the band also managed almost singlehandedly to transform the innocent entertainment of rock-and-roll into the artistically self-conscious pretensions of rock. Lennon, with his eager willingness to explore the ramifications of the psychedelic experience, led that transformation more than any other Beatle.
But ironically, it was that very evolution away from the rude energy of early Beatles rock-and-roll that crystallized Lennon’s dilemma for the 70’s. He was once quoted as saying that the band had never made better, more intense music than it had in the cellar nightclubs of Hamburg in 1962. In the 70’s, he tried to find a way to recapture the power of this youth and to reconcile it with his adulthood, but he had severe difficulties in so doing.
I had just turned 15 at the time and only discovered Lennon and the Beatles the year before. The news hit me pretty hard.
His bandmate, Paul McCartney, tweeted this earlier today (thus reminding me of the anniversary):
Far and away his most famous solo hit:
The aforementioned hit from his final album:
My favorite song from said album:
Among my favorites from the Beatles period:
And, finally, a tribute by Sir Elton John: