Just grainy film clips & that wonder music
I didn’t become aware of John Lennon until after he died. You see, I was just an 8-year-old kid in 1980, and The Beatles were just a vague presence flittering across my Dad’s AM radio in the car.
The day after Lennon was killed, my older brother bought The Beatles Greatest Hits 1962-1966. By the next morning, I had memorized the lyrics to every song on the record, and my love for John’s music was born.
It’s important to note that I only know of Lennon in retrospect, because that’s probably the case for most of the people within my generation. I can’t ever know what Lennon was like within the context of his times, and that always presents a barrier for truly understanding what he was all about.
That’s not the case for the other three Beatles, because I have watched them closely ever since that day when I played that record over and over. I could form my own opinion of what made them tick, even as that view was ultimately filtered by whatever media was presenting them to me. There’s Paul, eager-to-please and perpetually chugging ahead in the face of tragedy and turmoil, even as his nostalgia for the past and his faith in rock ‘n’ roll never wavers; Ringo, the quick wit and amiability belying the soulful sadness for lost friends and his interrupted band that’s undeniable even behind the sunglasses; and George, wary and bruised by fame, yet clear-eyed about his legacy and, ultimately, the picture of dignity in his final moments.
John Lennon, as a person, will always be to me just grainy film clips and fuzzy sound bites and other people’s words. I’ve read more than a few biographies on John and the band, and I can draw as many conclusions as I want from those, but it’s ultimately like the telephone game you play as a kid. It’s impossible to fully trust even the worthiest of sources more than genuine experience.
Although John’s 70th birthday is upon us, rife as it is with celebrations and reissues of his music, it’s the fact that 30 years have passed since his death that looms large over how he is viewed today. It becomes increasingly more difficult to separate the man from his achievements as time churns forward. Most of those who know are facing their own twilights, while we, the ones now in charge of teaching his legacy to an even younger generation (as I try to teach it to my own daughter) are largely ignorant of the full truth.
Luckily, John Lennon left us with the consolation of his music, which allows us to fill in the gaps as we see fit. Lennon wasn’t the most artful or elegant songwriter, but he was, without a doubt, the most resonant.
Even though what he wrote was intensely personal and, especially in his solo years, extremely autobiographical, his words reside in the deepest hearts of multitudes of people. His messages were fearless in their directness and simplicity, unfettered by any agenda or concerns of how they might be perceived by the cynical. As trite as it may sound, he really was trying to make the world a better place with the tools he had at his disposal, and his battles with his own frailties as he made that attempt kept him always at the level of his fans.
People are fond of guessing about how his life might have progressed had tragedy not intervened, what kind of music he might have made, etc. But, as John himself was fond of bluntly reminding the Beatlemaniacs who couldn’t let go, we do have all the old records. And those records are not only brilliant, but they are also infinitely malleable, capable of filling in the gaps of our own lives.
For example, when my Dad died suddenly in 1982, “Watching The Wheels”, Lennon’s ode to his hard-earned domestic bliss that was, of course, interrupted by his own death, held an almost unbearable poignancy for me. As I struggled through my teenage years with the loneliness of feeling that no one else really understood me, I clung hard to the lines “No one I think is in my tree/I mean it must be high or low”.
When I unexpectedly became a father to an amazing little girl seven years ago, “Life is what happens to you/While your busy making other plans” hit home with an almost comical accuracy.
A few years later, I stumbled upon the girl who provided the romantic happy ending that I never thought was in the cards, and “In my life, I’ll love you more” suddenly made perfect sense. And now, surrounded by more love that I could ever have fathomed, my lifelong faith in “All You Need Is Love” has been rewarded.
I think it’s safe to say that most John Lennon fans have this kind of circumstance-specific attachment to his songs. Even though he is not around to bemuse, bewilder, challenge, and, yes, maybe even frustrate us with his deeds and words in the current time, even though he cannot add anything more to his musical legacy, we shouldn’t really feel robbed in any way.
His music, with all the guidance, solace, inspiration, and joy it provides, is always right there for us to access as we go riding on the merry-go-rounds of our own lives. We can’t bring him back, so it’s all we’ve got.