I have seen and heard much about John Lennon today, the 30th anniversary of his murder. I was a teenager, 14, living in suburban New York when I heard the news. I don’t recall the details of that night, aside from watching the news. But I recall sitting in a barber chair getting my hair cut (at a “unisex salon,” not barbershop by that point) as they talked and played his music on the then-still-relevant FM radio stations. I vividly recall watching in the mirrors, the stylists crying, the diagonal rough-hewn pine paneling framing the sad view.
We grew up with the Beatles. For those of us now in our 40s, they were always there. John’s life in New York was part of the whole tale of the band. The story is so well known by now, and yet, I was compelled to watch the PBS documentary that artfully focused on that era of his life. And it was beautiful. There was nothing new to learn, really. But to hear the voices and see the aging faces of those closely associated with him during that period, and to hear all the chatter in-between takes during his return to the recording studio in the late 1970s, added some visceral “you are there” reality to what has sort of become part of the pop culture mythology. It was a moving portrait and well edited and assembled.
It is too easy and tempting to boil public figures — especially one as outspoken as Lennon — to caricatures. To wit: Lennon was a snide arrogant rocker with lefty political views who abandoned one wife and son as he selfishly pursued worldwide fame and fortune; John, the working-class orphan; John the would-be revolutionary and/or avant garde art scenester; or Saint John of NYC, the icon in Central Park in the “New York City” t-shirt who, after being lost in the sin of his own exile in the desert, got wise (found?), gained perspective and served as stay-at-home nurturer to young son Sean in a scene of domestic bliss upset only — but finally – at the end by the gun violence so endemic of the culture in his new home, citizenship he fought hard to gain.
All of this is true, likely. So many contradictions when seen as a whole. And that’s the point that so many have been making, finally. A more complicated and slightly more nuanced picture has emerged over the years. Such snapshots make up a whole portrait, like a Chuck Close work, but those micro shots are difficult to come by. Here is a nice one from Yoko in today’s Times. John Lennon, as hard as it is to believe sometimes, was not a demigod; he was a human being, with all the baggage that comes with it. An artist tries to control what the public views, both with his/her art and, also, of his/her life. Generally, these more intimate moments are kept private, sometimes forgotten, good, bad, or indifferent. Of course, what remains — and maybe what is most important — is the art.
I am not religious, but at times like this holiday season, I like hearing songs about Jesus (“I don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, I just wanna see his face”) and enjoy the whole nativity story as a beautiful allegory about rebirth, the cycle of life, light in the darkest of winter nights, and, as Rick Danko sang, “how a little baby boy brings the people so much joy.”*
And it brings me a lot of comfort to believe in John Lennon the artist, as a demigod, the life he presented to us as maybe part of the art, but no less real. He was showing a version of how to age and become a father to a generation. It brings me great comfort to think of John as a softening man and a nurturing father to a baby and then young boy. And it therefore brings me great pain to think of his murder and the loss of a father who can write a song such as this for his son.
* speaking of The Band song, “Chistmas Must Be Tonight,” stay tuned for news next week of a download of that song and the Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ number, “Christmas Every Day,” to benefit Target Cancer. We recorded these on Sunday night with a bunch of musician friends at Q Division — all live in a small room together. They sound tremendous, if I may say so myself. I am eager to share them.