What would John Lennon be doing if he were alive today?
It must have been December 9, 1980. I remember a hirsute face staring back at me from the newspaper with a headline that said something about a former Beatle having been assassinated in New York. In the weeks that followed, that face appeared in its various avatars in the magazines my parents kept round the house.
Irrespective of whether the publication was newsy or gossipy, the accompanying article invariably expressed the kind of sorrow people feel at the untimely demise of a family member. The outpouring of so much grief made me curious. Who the heck was this Lennon guy? One day I asked my father to buy me a Beatles album. A week later, I was begging him for another one. The first one had got scratchy; it was so darn good that I couldn’t stop playing it every minute I got.
I guess there is an anomaly in the fact that the tragic nature of his death made John Lennon come to life for so many of us who did not live in the 1960s. But then anomaly, quite literally, was John Lennon’s middle name, which was Winston, after Winston Churchill. Can you think of two Britons who could be further apart? The portly pillar of the British establishment, who cast himself as the chest-thumping standard-bearer of the Empire, is as far as any Briton can possibly get from the rebellious, working-class, wafer-thin Lennon.
As if that isn’t enough, Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman was so obsessed with J.D. Salinger’s cult novel The Catcher in the Rye that he even signed his copy of the book as its protagonist Holden Caulfield. The cheeky adolescent Lennon, with his penchant for getting into trouble at every school he attended, could easily be a prototype for Holden Caulfied, albeit one from the wrong side of the tracks.
In 2012, John Lennon the rockstar, however, remains the biggest anomaly. We live in an age where rockstars are manufactured by record labels. Plastic surgeons and public relations machines play their part in molding them for the right look and image. The material they get to record is handpicked by music industry executives with a nose for market trends… Where would someone like John Lennon fit in this world?
For starters, he was anything but telegenic with his small eyes, his long nose with the bump in the middle, his thin face and thick mop of hair combed down over his forehead. Then the Lennon brand of clowning on stage was hardly politically correct. At times it could be downright cruel, like when he poked fun at disabled people for their disabilities. And as far as relinquishing artistic freedom is concerned, well, he’d probably react to something like that in language that would make a sailor blush. That is if he hadn’t already used his fists.
That he possessed an unusual musical talent is apparent in his singing voice, the much-copied falsetto that changes tone and mood effortlessly, as well as his penchant for wordplay that makes him an irresistible songwriter. Remember ‘Please, please me, whoa yeah/Like I please you.’
But, even more than talent, in an age where art is loath to take chances, it is his fearlessness as an artist that makes him admirable. The Beatles were already the biggest band in the world, before they forayed into psychedelic pop and experimented with fusion with the sitarist Ravi Shankar. Rather than do all that, they could have followed their one-time hero Elvis Presley and simply become a brand that belted out the kind of music that made them famous.
As the bandleader, Lennon was pivotal in expanding their musical horizons. Furthermore, he never shied away from making political statements, as in his iconic post-Beatles track ‘Imagine’ and his virulent opposition to the Vietnam War.
To get a sense of his uniqueness, you have to go to Liverpool. When I visited in 2008, it was still one of the more depressed British cities with a fair number of dingy streets and tough neigbourhoods. Looking at them, I could well imagine how difficult it would have been growing up working-class in the 1950s when the city’s traditional shipbuilding industry was in terminal decline. The black cab driver, who drove me about, said he couldn’t wait to move because of the racism. To think someone could come out of all that and win the world through a musical message based on love and universal brotherhood is humbling.
What would he be doing if he were alive today? Probably more of what he did in his lifetime. Telling the world through music and other means to love and give peace a chance.
Who can argue we don’t need more of that?