Last week marked 30 years since the passing of music icon John Lennon. At the risk of writing something like a themed paper (probably entitled “What John Lennon’s music means to me”), it would be a big oversight to let this anniversary pass by without some reflection.
I was probably in Fourth Grade the first time I came across some of my dad’s Beatles cassette tapes. It was my first experience with “grown up” music and, like some kid raised on bran flakes who tastes cocoa puffs for the first time, my world was transformed. I was infected with what was surely the best music ever made, and I began absorbing anything and everything I could learn about the band. Even from my modest research as a 10-year-old, Lennon’s unique identity stood apart from the other members of the group.
Paul was the talent, George was mysterious and Ringo was, well, the drummer. But John? John was, to a large extent, what was cool about the Beatles — and we often forget about the transcendent nature of his coolness. It was never very difficult for me to spot a kid with a “Let It Be” t-shirt walking around the halls of Keller High School in suburban north Texas. I expect the case was similar at any high school in the country. Remember, this is not the college scene we’re accustomed to today, where “ironically liking stuff” is hip. This was high school, where liking the right things was life or death. So what does it say about John Lennon when, forty years later, it is still cool to like his band?
In 1964, every girl you knew wanted to marry Paul McCartney. But every guy wanted to be John Lennon. He was like an epic cross between James Dean and Humphrey Bogart — rebellious and nonconformist, but charming and charismatic. He was tough and defiant, but he was funny and immensely likeable.
Last week, I asked my dad what it was that made John so cool. As best my dad could figure, John’s mystique came from him always being in search of something. Far from content with simple young-love songs, the journeyman was the first of the band to dabble in the waters of more nuanced subject matter. He later admitted the lyrics of his 1965 hyper cheesy love song “It’s Only Love” to be abysmal. John was at that time reaching for more with his songwriting — and on the same album as “It’s Only Love” he wrote “Norwegian Wood,” a song about spending the night with a prostitute and burning the place down afterwards.
Certainly the force of the Beatles’ staying power lies with their fascinating evolution. From the boy-hopelessly-loves-girl pop beginnings of “Love Me Do” to the masterwork of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles struck a near perfect balance of pop likeability and visionary substance. Even more remarkable, they did it in the relative blink of an eye, staying together for a mere ten years. Within a three-year period, the Beatles had gone from holding a girl’s hand as the ultimate expression of romantic interest to inviting us all on their Magical Mystery Tour — and John’s search for greater meaning was immovably at the forefront of the band’s identity shift.
The search would take him from ultra classics like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life” to experimental favorites like “I Am the Walrus” and “Revolution No. 9.” Eventually he found Yoko, and by all accounts the search ended. I will not attempt any dissection of the litany of opinions floating around about their relationship. What we know is that the man who could have had any woman on this planet found whatever he was looking for in this Japanese artist and their small family together.
He went on to be an extremely relevant cultural voice after the Beatles disbanded. His anti-Vietnam activism spurned a Nixon administration that worked for his deportation from New York back to England. His views of love, peace and free expression culminated into three minutes and two seconds of some of the most perfect music ever written — the 1971 anthem “Imagine.” It’s a song about doing away with government, nationalism, religion, everything we own. And yet when John Lennon suggests it, the world considers it.
That’s why from the moment Howard Cosell first broke the story to the world on Monday Night Football, Lennon’s death became a watershed moment in popular culture. It’s one of those events that forces people to remember exactly what they were doing when they first heard the news. And now, 30 years later, any of us that enjoy music today are at least somewhat indebted to his influence.
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