UPDATE: My pals over at the HuffPo have syndicated this mournful look back at the bravest Beatle.
It’s exceedingly hard to communicate the importance of a historical figure like John Lennon. The founder and most cerebral member of The Beatles, who settled on their band and brand name 50 years ago this August, would have celebrated his 70th birthday Saturday if not for the metafictional madman Mark David Chapman, who assassinated Lennon 30 years ago this December.
Because of that tragic collision of reality and fiction, any consideration of Lennon’s sheer artistic influence should be concerned with what happened within and without his Liverpool-born frame. Because he is unfairly lost to us now, all we have are mounting media replications to inform and console us. Even those with memories of his true form will fade in time, leaving us with nothing but compelling, competing fictions.
Which, in turn, means that when we examine Lennon, we must examine not just a temporal snapshot but the history of music, film, comics, conspiracy theory, literature, poetry, politics, technology and further forms of human communication, from his birthday onward. That’s a disorienting task in the increasingly crowded signals of our 21st century. But Lennon transcended all of those and more within four short, brilliant decades, and now he’s achieved escape velocity into the realm of conflicted myth.
Image courtesy DC Comics
Witness the perfectly timed Friday premiere of the British biopic Nowhere Boy, a romantic recall of his early years of abandonment in which he was bounced like a toxic football between two parents torn apart by World War II. Or the capitally timed deluxe box set Gimme Some Truth, featuring all of Lennon’s remastered solo albums, a sonic recombination overseen by his life, art and business partner Yoko Ono. Or the American Masters documentary LennoNYC, which chronicles his post-Beatles life and death in Gotham and arrives November 22.
Or listen to Superman, who invoked Lennon’s name to talk a jumper off a ledge in a recent comic. Or beware the FBI, whose infamous director J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly tried, at the urging of Richard Nixon, to deport the proudly oustpoken Lennon throughout the early 70s, a national shame framed with smarts in the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon. Lennon is evidently still a threat from across the universe: The FBI seized Lennon’s fingerprints from a New York auction house two days before his 70th birthday.
Dig much further into our intertextual unconscious and you will find that Lennon helped birth media innovations of all sounds and signs. The first pop feedback on “I Feel Fine.” The first backwards-tracked vocal on “Rain,” a still-underrated classic whose revolutionary noise and beats paved the way for psychedelia and trip-hop, and helped invent MTV. It’s arguable that Lennon also helped give birth to hip-hop in the mind-wiping classic “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a song whose reel-to-reel splicing made Lennon and Beatles producer George Martin skilled samplers and DJs well ahead of their time.
Don’t forget all the record-breaking chart-busters. Or the first international satellite hookup of millions in 1967, whose song “All You Need is Love” Lennon specifically wrote to transmit peace across the planet. Lennon’s socially aware anthems — from bouncy and blistering Beatles tracks like “The Word” and “Revolution” to solo classics like “Imagine,” “Working Class Hero” and many more — have redefined the political lexicon.
Add in blockbuster crossovers like A Hard Day’s Night, in which Lennon led his Liverpool mates across the pond, who in turn made multimedia history and incited mass hysteria wherever they went. How many other bands boast successful iterations in film and animation, to say nothing of music? The Beatles evolved animation forward with their 1968 film Yellow Submarine, and even entertained the kids with singalongs in a cartoon series that lasted three seasons. With the recently released The Beatles: Rock Band, Lennon and crew became the first group with a dedicated videogame whose unforgettable catalog you could repeatedly perform, even inhabit.
Before you can even talk about Lennon’s music, the timeless work he masterfully crafted with The Beatles and on his own, you have to swim through an ocean of influence swarming with masterpieces.
Lost beneath it all is the real John Lennon, a persistent problem for a pop and political culture so drenched in hyperreality that it can’t stop saying Really? or Real Americans or Keeping It Real or other market-oriented deviations of the term. The reality of John Lennon is that the reality of John Lennon was under mounting assault once The Beatles broke the world wide open with possibility.
Whether he was knowingly fortifying that myth to keep his dreams of rock ‘n’ roll history alive in the early ’60s, or escaping into hermitage in the late ’70s, Lennon knew that myth worked if your heart, soul and mind were open to that possibility. What he also knew is that myth carried an almost unbearable cost.
He spent the early ’60s dodging that cost, and the Ku Klux Klan, the self-described “terror organization” that openly promised to enact vengeance upon him for implying that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. After that, The Beatles stopped touring altogether, an amazingly short three years after the release of its first album.
Lennon also endured ceaseless volleys of condescension and ridicule for marrying an older, Asian woman at the end of the decade, a pointless heresy that the couple tried to turn into commercials for peace. But once peace transformed into protest, Lennon then spent years fighting Richard Nixon’s corrupt administration to remain in the U.S. with Ono, as the FBI subjected him to harassment and surveillance. He also spent it ducking worldwide anger that his disagreements with Paul McCartney cost The Beatles their short but immeasurably influential career.
In the end, Lennon couldn’t duck the vertiginous myths that inspired a self-described nobody like Chapman to murder a man who deserved to live longer than most of us. Chapman was reportedly angered by Lennon’s Jesus apostasy, and rationalized his transgressive violence by emulating another myth, the so-called phony-killer Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s soiled novel A Catcher in the Rye. But while Chapman’s dumpy mortal coil rightfully rots away in New York’s Attica prison, having once again been thankfully refused another parole last month, the rest of the world must continue to cope with the very myths and possibilities that ended up taking John Lennon away from us, way ahead of schedule.
And so we continue to fill in the blanks where Lennon once stood, with Nowhere Boy, with LennoNYC, with Gimme Some Truth, with sky-high lasers in Iceland and in Second Life, with repeated listens to shattering classics like “A Day in the Life,” probably the most important pop song of all time.
Yet eventually, the myths collapse into a continuum standing in for the human who helped manufacture them with every innovation. And it is that intertextual continuum that deserves our attention, not just on Lennon’s birthday but on every day, especially those where The Beatles are compared to culture vultures like Duran Duran, Oasis, Justin and Jersey whoever and whatever. Because Lennon’s continuum is comprised of spiraling texts of conflicted humanity and creativity, it demands that we work hard to remember what real even means anymore, which gets harder and harder as every hyperreal day passes.
“Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see,” Lennon sang in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But it’s no way to live. His liberating and enduring life and legacy are bittersweet proof of that lethal thesis.