Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Remembering John Lennon (1940 - 1980)

The current generation would be forgiven for not feeling the loss of John Lennon as much as our parents did. Admittedly, I was only two months old when Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan, but as a life-long fan of The Beatles, the loss still resonates every time I listed to one of the songs he penned as a member of Liverpool's finest or as a solo artist. For my parents, who lived through the era of Beatlemania and who followed Lennon's musical and political activities, his death rocked them to the core. Like Elvis Presley before and Michael Jackson after, the death of a music icon resonates as much as what they accomplished in life. On the 30th anniversary of his death, we remember John Lennon as a musician, artist, activist and a larger than life personality who remains one of the pillars of our popular culture.

During his time with The Beatles, he and Paul McCartney penned the bulk of their popular songs and his instrumental contributions on rhythm guitar helped shape their distinctive sound, and although Paul sang many of the Beatle's bigger hits, his vocal stylings on songs like "Twist & Shout", "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were highly underrated. As their career progressed, George Harrison helped to shape their dabbling in eastern styles of music, but John brought in the political ideals that were a reaction to the climate at the time, most notably the war in Vietnam. Songs about peace, love and the end of the war were recurring themes and they carried over into his solo career, resulting in his now iconic peace ballad "Imagine". His seven day "bed in" was a huge media event and it gave rise to another popular anti-war song, "Give Peace a Chance", a song that is so poetic in it's simplicity.

Personality-wise, Lennon spoke as loud as his music and he was known for giving very entertaining, and often very politically charged, interviews and speeches. He openly debated the merits of the war in Vietnam, took part in peace rallies and concerts, and became famous for his billboards that simply said "War is Over...If You Want". Earlier in his career, the infamous "bigger than Jesus" fiasco was his biggest misstep, but only because the sensibilities of the overly religious were offended. He defended his position and the storm subsided, but not before public burnings of Beatles records and memorabilia were held. Later in his career, he became as well known for his activism as he did his music, and this led to the controversy and legal turmoil that dominated his final years in New York. The United States declared him a threat to their national security and initiated proceedings to have him deported, citing an old marijuana conviction as their reason. For a detailed account on this period, check out the documentary "The USA vs. John Lennon".

No matter how iconic a person may be, I don't believe that anyone should be sanctified in death. Lennon penned some of the most enduring songs in pop music history, but he didn't always have the Midas touch. For every "Imagine" and "Merry Xmas (The War is Over), there was the unlistenable "Two Virgins" and some of the more, shall we say, avant garde offerings of the Plastic Ono Band. Opinions also differ on his relationship with Yoko Ono, however I have always felt that the criticism of her was nothing more than sexism and racism masquerading as informed opinion. Heavy criticism was also drawn over the breakup of The Beatles and his relationship with Ono being the catalyst, however they were on a creative and collaborative decline and likely would have imploded regardless.

No artist is above reproach and Lennon has his share of turkeys, but he managed to share political views and engage in other endeavors without descending into embarrassing scandal as so many other artists have. The criticism never seemed to overshadow his music and this is why his legacy will endure with more dignity other artists who died young. Elvis had his steady decline, dubiously dubbed the "Fat Elvis" years, and Michael Jackson...well, that's all I need to say. The worst thing I can point out is the "Two Virgins", both for the music (a collection of noises, feedback, squeals, etc) and the infamous album cover in which he and Yoko are naked, full frontal. I read somewhere that this was inspired by dropping acid and I totally believe it.

Lennon's death on December 8, 1980 was a shock to the system for pretty much everyone and it remains one of those events frozen in time for anyone who was around to experience it. My mother still recalls where she was when the news broke, much as this generation will remember the moment that they first heard about 9/11 or Michael Jackson's death. The outpouring of grief was unparalleled and people still hold annual vigils on the anniversary of his death. The remaining Beatles handled the tragedy with a sense of dignity, as did Yoko Ono, who has done everything possible to keep his memory alive in the 30 years since. From my own perspective, I wasn't old enough at the time to appreciate the gravity of his contributions to music, but I have grown to appreciate both his music and ideologies.

Every generation has lost someone who defined their culture and this raises them to near-mythical status. John Lennon was that for our parent's generation and remains so for a new generation of fans who are discovering The Beatles for the first time. How appropriate it is that the music is relevant again, with the reissuing of their albums and even their own Rock Band video game coming out, and legions of bands cite Lennon and The Beatles as their inspiration. Lennon's death is mourned every year and the prevailing question "what if he was still alive" is a frequent topic of conversation. All I know is that he was a great musician, an irreplaceable personality and a true icon of popular culture. He is definitely missed.

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