The Lonesome Death of John Lennon

I try not to engage with the news to much, its pretty much a constant babble and I assume that anything of real importance will get though to me somehow. I had assumed that the 40thanniversary of John Lennon’s death would somehow be a big deal. There was a certain symmetry to that tragic event, he has now been dead almost as long as he was alive and the anniversary of his last birthday certainly did creep into my consciousness. Although I didn’t seek it out there was nothing on the Wednesday when he died or the following day when we all got to hear the news. Admittedly I don’t remember any commemoration of the 40th anniversary commemoration of Glen Miller’s demise in the 70’s but this was John Lennon for Rod’s sake!

I remember the fateful day as well as I can remember most things. The weather was traditionally awful, dank and drizzly. I was still at Polytechnic but not particularly gainfully employed. For a brief period co incidentally my old school friends Phil and Dunk we also living in Nottingham, Phil was working as a lab technician and Dunk had just started a Christmas job as a sales assistant in a, now defunct, department store as well as having a room in my sharedhouse. We had agreed to meet at lunch for a drink, the fact that two of us were going back to work was no barrier. In my early days of employment, I could drink more in a lunchtime than I might consume in a whole week now. Pubs were rammed between 12 and 2pm.

I arrived in town a bit early. In the 70’s and 80’s Nottingham was dominated by the Evening Post Sellers who arrived around 11am and stayed until rush hour selling the local rag.It was only after wandering around a bit, I realised that the headline on their stalls was about Lennon’s death. I bought the paper and adjourned to a pub to read it I then went to another pub to share the news with Phil and Dunk. It was shocking but I couldn’t remember being that shocked. We had a couple more pints then they went back to work and I went to spend my afternoon sitting as close to the gas fire as I could manage without combusting.

As a house we sat around to watch the news, it must have been a big event because it disrupted the evening schedules for a couple of hours. Inevitably anyone who had ever known Lennon was trotted out for  a quick tribute, broadcasters had to do their work in those days there was no reading out tweets. At one point someone posed the question that no one wanted to think about ‘I suppose there’s no chance of the Beatles reforming now?’

Lennon had told us the dream was over a decade earlier, but we chose not to believe him. In retrospect the 70’s was a grim time to be a Beatle, not only were there endless law suits but any interview was bound to touch on the possibility of the Beatles getting back together again. Even mainstream newspapers would report the fact that Paul had been on the phone to John in the hope of rekindling the dream.

Among rock critics it was very much the opinion that John was the real deal. McCartney was Mr Showbiz, happy to dash off an insipid ditty then appear on a chat show being Mr Macca thumbs aloft and generally being bland and positive and cheerful. Most ironic was the charge that he preferred to be in a band with his talentless wife rather that his old mates from Liverpool (who were pretty much sick of being in  bandwith him). One of the great strengths of the Beatles has been their positivism but in the 70’s we wanted our rock stars to be a bit more edgy. Lennon was honest and direct, he said what he thought, he was an artist, McCartney was a hack.

All bollocks of course. With the benefit of hindsight we can appreciate McCartney’s work ethic, his ability to constantly push himself and experiment, his almost effortless gift for melody and the fact that Linda was quite a nice person. 

The fact remains though that for the 70’s Lennon didn’t achieve a great deal musically. He did what he did best on the first Plastic Ono Band album which is the only Lennon album I’ve felt the need to own. Imagine was not bad at all kind of on a par with George Harrison’s early solo stuff but as soon as he was resident in the USA Lennon appeared to be struggling to come up with anything musically that didn’t rely heavily on 50’s rock and roll (quite literally on his ‘Rock and Roll album).

One of Yoko Ono’s impressions on Lennon was to get him to consider himself as an ‘Artist’. One thing we know about artists the world over is love of talking about themselves and their experience of the world. Another trait is often an inability to distinguish between what they produce that is genius and what is self indulgent which certainly accounts for his very first recordings and the amount of Yoko screaming on others.

It was quite a wise decision to withdraw from public life for a number of reasons not least was the fact that he avoided punk and a lot a new wave which might have shown up how regressive his own recording might have been. Despite this I was really shocked when ‘Just Like Starting Over’ was released. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I had hoped for something better that another 50’s parody telling the world how much he loved Ono. Years have mellowed me but I’m still disappointed.  

In retrospect Lennon and McCartney needed each other so much. Lennon was lazy and often unfocussed but given a little direction from the right person (not you Yoko!) his imagination was unfettered. McCartney could churn out songs with relatively little effort, but he too needed someone to focus him and sometimes tell him his songs might be a bit crap. Given time they would have worked together again, its also pretty likely the Beatles would have had some sort of reformation. We ought to be very grateful we were spared that, it wouldn’t have been as good as we would have hoped we are very luck to have all our Beatles in one place and time.

Lennon was 60% the Beatles who in turn were 50% the 60’s which were 50% fantasy anyway. The idea that the Beatles would reform and everything would be great again was childish and a false hope. Lennon told us that in 1970 but would we listen?

And that’s the great thing about Lennon, he was intelligent in a way we aren’t allowed to be anymore, he was a musician, a writer, a poet and actor, a comedian an activist, and because he was untutored, he could get over concepts directly. The song Imagine is pretty trite but also brilliant, its just about imagining, just like war is over if you want it. Admittedly he moved from one idea to another but at least he had ideas, few people are so bold these days. Had he lived it’s pretty likely he’d have made some terrible records, name anyone from the 60’s who hasn’t. He’d have said plenty of stupid things and made plenty of mistakes because he was that sort of person.

Now social media exists we just are not tolerant of anyone who makes any sort of error. There’s plenty on YouTube about what a terrible husband and father Lennon was, how he mocked the disabled and was just nasty to lots of people. It’s all true of course but there’s also a lot of clips of performances and interviews where he just lights up the room time and time again.

And that’s why I still miss John Lennon

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