By Rodger French
December 8, 2012
(Originally published in 2005. Revised and lightly edited.)
A lot of us have been observing December 8 as a day of remembrance and reflection each year since that horrible night in 1980 when John Lennon was assassinated by a religio-wingnut loser who "ended an era" by murdering an unarmed musician. For me, Lennon's death resonates right up there with that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not that the two are necessarily comparable in terms of their place in history. Both men were, however, very conscious of the important roles they came to play in our culture and neither was averse to taking risks. Their legacies loom large in my life.
But in certain personal ways, John Lennon is the more important figure to me. He was a great musician, something I strive to be. He was also fearless about living his own life, for better and worse, and usually in the public eye. Finally, he was clever and a smart-ass. I liked that.
A zillion people have written exhaustively about Lennon, The Beatles, and the ways in which they changed the landscape of popular music. But music is a visceral thing, especially for a teenager, and I have my own distinct memories. The first time I heard The Beatles was on a broadcast of "The Jack Paar Show." That film clip constituted, as I recall, their initial appearance on American TV, and they sang "From Me to You" (still one of my faves). And then "She Loves You" hit the airwaves (WAKY-AM in Louisville, KY), reached right out through the radio and took my breath away. Still does.
But it was with the release of "Rubber Soul" that I started to pay close attention to Lennon's writing, particularly "In My Life." I was very impressed that a Rock & Roll star in his mid-20's would write such a serious, reflective song. It was about this time that I started to regard John Lennon as something of a surrogate older brother (I'm the eldest of three boys), a person I could look to for a certain amount of guidance in how - and how not - to approach life.
So I came of age to, among many interesting things, Lennon's music. It accompanied me through high school, college, the Navy, marriage, divorce, and experimentations with altered states of awareness. I took great comfort in knowing he was out there somewhere, and I always wished him the best; especially when he came out in opposition to the war in Vietnam, was hounded by the FBI, and ended up on Nixon's "Enemies List," a badge of honor in my estimation. When he finally got his Green Card and was able to set up legal residence in New York City, I was glad for him.
Lennon and his music went away for five years and, well, that was cool because I was pretty sure he needed a break. But in the autumn of 1980, I heard "Starting Over" on my car radio and realized that John Lennon was back... and he sounded damned good. "Double Fantasy" was a great comeback album and I was happy that Lennon's music was going to be part of my life's soundtrack once again. Besides, I figured we needed all the help we could get, what with the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Talibangelicals.
And then John Lennon was gone.
Not Eddie Cochran gone, not Jimi Hendrix gone, not even Elvis Presley gone. Accidents, drug overdoses, bad lifestyles... in the world of Rock & Roll, those kinds of deaths are at least comprehensible. But John Lennon was stalked and gunned down in cold blood, in front of his own home, by a man to whom he had given an autograph that very day. At the age of 40, one of the best and most important musicians of my time was taken away for no goddamned good reason. I will never get entirely over it and I will never forgive his assassin.
Never... because he ended the life of someone who still had great music to make. Never... because he silenced a voice for peace in a world of pain. Never... because he took John Lennon away - from his family, his future, and his chance to grow old. And, selfish though it may be, I was looking forward to that, because Lennon would have been a great old man; someone worth watching, listening to, and learning from. His death was a profound loss.
I miss John Lennon. But, life goes on and I'm sure he wouldn't want us to wallow about in maudlin nostalgia, thank you very much. Besides, we still have the music. So here is a personal and eminently transitory playlist to celebrate the life of an extraordinarily creative and remarkable man. My Top 10 for today, December 8... for all of us living on borrowed time.
In My Life
Tomorrow Never Knows
Strawberry Fields Forever
I Am the Walrus
Across the Universe
Working Class Hero
Watching the Wheels