By Edward Achorn
Forty years ago, on December 8, 1980, I was sitting in front of a computer in a newsroom, working on a story about a local meeting I had covered. A friend who knew I loved the Beatles yelled at me to check out the Associated Press alert.
“John Lennon wounded in New York shooting.”
Quickly, there was a follow-up: “John Lennon dead.”
I went home about 2 a.m. Then, finding it hard to do anything else, I got in my car, drove back to work, and wrote a column about what John Lennon had meant to me. It wound up on the front page.
I never met him. I never even saw him in the flesh — the only Beatle I failed to catch in concert. But that terrible night I felt I had lost somebody close to me, a friend whose music, daring and wit had sustained a kid growing up in an all-too-mad and, at times, lonely world.
Now I am 63. I am a Pulitzer finalist, the recipient of the Yankee Quill Award for lifetime service to journalism, and the author of three well-received books about American history published by New York houses. I am working on another.
I still miss him.
The Lennon merchandise machine has never slowed. This year, his son Sean — five years old when his dad was murdered — curated a box set of his solo music, remixed to give more prominence to John’s incomparably expressive voice, which John seemed to hate and always tried to bury under production gimmicks. A beautiful new coffee table book about John’s first solo studio album, “Plastic Ono Band,” just came out.
John’s band the Beatles, meanwhile, keeps growing in stature. In July, Forbes magazine reported that the Beatles, fifty years after they broke up, were “the biggest rock band of 2020, shifting 1.094 million album-equivalent units through the first six months of the year.” And it’s not just about sales. Music lovers increasingly regard them as having created a timeless, even classic body of work.
But I wonder: Is it possible for anyone in 2020 to plug into what John Lennon was all about? The screams of nearly 60 years ago are almost forgotten, along with the thrill of discovery kids felt with each new Beatles release (and album cover to decipher). Their influence is hard to recapture in the imagination, since no pop artist today is leading a generation — culturally, musically, philosophically, sartorially, and pharmaceutically — the way the Beatles did.
Lennon was at the center of it all, giving the Beatles the drive, the wordplay, the edge, the humor, the wide-eyed innocence, and the compulsion to flirt with danger — risking their fan base by constantly reinventing themselves — that made them very, very big.
He was a bundle of contradictions: A millionaire who sang “Imagine no possessions,” but showed no inclination to give up his own. A peacenik who hit his wife and could not control his jealous rages. A sharp-tongued cynic who cut through nonsense yet could often make a monumental fool of himself in public with his oversized innocence and hope. A man of irresistible warmth and charm who could be mean and selfish. A preacher of peace and love who clearly loved his first son Julian but was almost cruelly distant from him.
At the core was a brilliant and strangely lonely man who craved attention — yet despised fame and tried to down the “myth” of celebrity. (On his final day on earth, he even stripped himself naked to pose with his wife Yoko in a photo shoot.)
It takes no degree and psychology to suspect his hunger had much to do with his abandonment by his parents when he was five. (“They didn’t want me, so they made me a star,” he sang.)
Genius, as it so often does, flirted with a kind of madness in the man. Throughout his life, he had a tendency to withdraw into lazy, trancelike states (he wrote about it in any number of songs, from the Beatles’ “There’s a Place,” “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” to one of his last numbers, “Watching the Wheels”).
He seemed to court danger — taunting gangs in Liverpool, fueling hysteria over the Beatles, doing drugs that he knew could damage his brain, and throwing himself into Yoko’s crazier concepts.
The result was something intensely vulnerable, yet incredibly powerful, almost magical.
The best of it will live on in his recorded songs, sung with tenderness and power, even after the living memory of the Beatles crumbles to dust. No one will ever do anything better than “In My Life” or “Imagine” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Revolution” or “Beautiful Boy” — or the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout.”
George Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001, had it about right when he wryly explained: “The people gave their money and they gave their screams, but the Beatles gave their nervous systems, which is a more difficult thing to give.”
John Lennon gave all of his heart, which is why many of us pause to remember such somber anniversaries and smile when we hear that voice yet again.
(This is an update of a column Edward Achorn wrote for The Providence Journal in 2005, which was reprinted in many newspapers around the country. Read his books about American history.)