Rebellious John Lennon (1940 – 1980) possessed a special acerbic wit that was revealed in his music, writing, drawings, and later in appearances on television, film and in interviews. He was controversial his entire adult life, even more so because of his Political, Social and Peace activism. Controversy seemed to have always found him. In 1966, Lennon faced a fierce backlash from religious and social conservatives, including the KKK, because of a comment had made in an interview:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first, Rock ‘n’ Roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright but his disciples are thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The Vatican issued a protest and radio stations banned The Beatles’ songs. Young people were urged to burn their records. Lennon countered:
“If I’d said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it. If you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”
Lennon is probably the most celebrated songwriter of all time. He is certainly one of the most famous people of the 20th century. He was murdered. He died a revolutionary and a martyr. I love him very much. 57 years have gone by, and I still listen to his music.
The Beatles story is a huge chunk of the last century’s popular culture history. Lennon was at the center of that story. He was the de-facto leader of the band for most of their time together. He was the artistic force who pushed Paul McCartney, and to some degree George Harrison and Ringo Starr, past their teenage idol status and into a sort the music that brought all other Pop Music into the future. The Beatles were bigger than Pop Music. Lennon knew it and that didn’t make him happy.
Young Lennon had wanted to get out of Liverpool, make music, and become rich and famous. He managed to do all of that. He grew to want something else: a purer sound and a more profound art. He felt he could never do that as one of The Beatles.
He dropped acid, studied Eastern Mysticism, and attempted to adjust to his incredible wealth and fame. Lennon was also very unhappy. He was married to Cynthia (nee Powell) and they had a son Julian Lennon when he met and fell in love with Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, who was seven years older. His relationship with Ono was a challenge for The Beatles and they soon all moved apart. After 1970, with the release of Let It Be, The Beatles were over. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr all released solo albums later that year. Because of lawyers, the group was not officially disbanded until 1974.
“Everybody wants to blame someone for The Beatles’ breaking up. They want to blame Yoko most of all. But it was already over musically before I met her.”
After the breakup of The Beatles, Lennon recorded solo and with collaborators. He made some good music and some not-so-good music. He dropped out for half a decade to be a house-husband. In his recordings with Ono, together they pushed the limits of what could even be defined as Pop Music. He was devoted to protesting war and he was hounded by that dick Richard M. Nixon, cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover and the U.S. Department Of Immigration because of it.
On a snowy evening on December 8, 1980, riding together in his Honda Civic, my new boyfriend (now my husband) and I had to pull over to the side of the road as we heard the announcement on the radio that Lennon had been murdered in front of the Dakota Apartments where he and Ono lived with their son Sean Lennon. We wept.
Lennon had only returned to making music that year, with the album Double Fantasy, a collaboration with Ono. Lennon never had a chance to experience his career resurgence.
The world grieved, and musical tributes poured in for years, even from the other remaining Beatles, who all appeared on George Harrison’s single All Those Years Ago (1981). But mostly, fans found solace in Lennon’s music.
The Cranberries‘ I Just Shot John Lennon doesn’t reflect Lennon’s legacy or his contribution to music but instead, it is about the day of his murder. The song’s title comes form the first words that his killer said after he was apprehended, but as Dolores O’Riordan sings “What a sad and sorry and sickening night,” it’s clear this song is all about loss.
Few people felt the pain of Lennon’s death more than Elton John. They shared some incredible and often depraved times together, and John contributed to Lennon’s only solo Number One hit , Whatever Gets You Thru The Night. Elton paid tribute to his fallen with Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny):
Paul Simon’s The Late Great Johnny Ace initially seems to be about the R&B singer Johnny Ace, who, legend has it, shot himself in a game of Russian roulette in 1954. But really, Simon refers to Lennon, as well as John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963. In an interview promoting his 1983 album Hearts And Bones, Simon said that Ace’s death was the “first violent death that I remember”, and noted that Kennedy and Lennon became the “Johnny Aces of their time” with their subsequent murders.
After his murder, Double Fantasy‘s single (Just Like) Starting Over went to Number One on the charts. Roxy Music covered Jealous Guy. And Lennon’s posthumous album Milk & Honey (1984) included the great Nobody Told Me, with the lyric about “strange days, indeed” that was both bittersweet and comforting.