John Lennon is still larger than life

John Lennon is still larger than life

Gunned down outside his Manhattan apartment on December 8, 1980, John Lennon - no stranger to headlines - once again made the front pages of newspapers around the world. So did the words on his death certificate: "multiple gunshot wounds of left shoulder and chest ... left lung and left subclavian artery; external and internal hemorrhage. Shock."

To his fans, those words would always seem terribly wrong and out of place; too chilly, graceless and clinical for a generation that had grown up on the playful, soulful lyrics of Lennon & McCartney. And they generated an icy numbness at the improbability of it all: Why would anyone want to kill John Lennon? And why would anyone want to kill him now?

For those born after the former Beatle's death - many of whom listened to or sang "Yellow Submarine" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" in their strollers - the full breadth of Lennon's legacy may never be fully understood. As with almost everything else about the '60s, you really had to be there.

Still, there's little doubt that Lennon, along with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the late George Harrison, hold a unique place in pop history. In 1964, when the Beatles first touched down on this side of the Atlantic, few rock 'n' roll bands wrote their own songs. And the ones that did, like the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons (whose songs were written and produced by a team that included former members of the band), were locked into a specific "signature" sound from which they rarely strayed.

The Beatles would change all that. With each new effort, they managed to stretch and redefine themselves and, in the process, reinvent rock 'n' roll and change the course of popular culture.

Even today, it's hard to believe that songs as varied as "Michelle," "Eleanor Rigby," "A Day in the Life," "Helter Skelter" and "Norwegian Wood" could be produced by the same band - or that all of those songs, and dozens of others, would make it to vinyl during a stunning creative burst that lasted a mere six years.

It was a grand accomplishment, and every great album released since the emergence of the Beatles owes a debt to their fearlessness, craftsmanship and vision. Their music, along with their attitudes and sense of style, provided a blueprint for a decade that would be unlike any that came before it.

From the early '60 on, the Beatles would inhabit an exalted place in the new culture they were so instrumental in shaping, and Lennon quickly became that movement's leader - a rebel, an outspoken social critic, a lightning rod for controversy. His 1966 comment to a reporter, offhandedly comparing the Beatles to Christ, caused an uproar that Lennon tried - but failed - to finesse his way out of.

But the insanity only added to the Lennon mythology, which continues to this day. "The irony of it all is that John Lennon is bigger in death than he was in life," says journalist Larry Kane, who knew the rocker for 15 years. "And believe me, he was big in life."

Kane's new biography, "Lennon Revealed," is one of almost a dozen books about the former Beatle that have been released in recent weeks to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his death. Each of these books - including "John," a less-than-flattering account by Lennon's first wife, Cynthia - attempts to explain the rocker in some new way. But each seems to reach the same inescapable conclusions: That he was brilliant, larger than life and extremely complicated.

Attempting to sum up her husband after his death, Yoko Ono said that Lennon was an idealist who "tried to change the world with his songs." But she was quick to add that, artistically and emotionally, "he was a very complex person."

Though absent for a quarter of a century, Lennon is still referred to as the voice of a generation to which he, technically, didn't even belong. But baby boomers, many of whom were schoolchildren when Lennon and the Beatles first came to America, would claim him as their own.

Parents were outraged, of course, by these cheeky, longhaired lads who seemed to cause riots everywhere they went. And Newsweek, in a review of the band's 1964 appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," called their music "a near disaster" and their lyrics "a catastrophe."

In the grand scheme of things, it mattered not.

Like his band mates, Lennon continued to write and record after the Beatles' demise. With the Plastic Ono Band, Lennon would continue to top the charts from 1970 to 1975 with such songs as "Instant Karma," "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and his post-Beatles signature, "Imagine."

During this time, he would continue to make headlines, doing things that, even by rock star standards, seemed over the top. Among them: holding a "bed-in" for peace (on his honeymoon with Ono in Amsterdam), posing nude for an album cover ("Two Virgins," also with Ono), standing up repeatedly to the U.S. government (which tried, unsuccessfully, to have him deported).

Whether he was singing or not, bucking convention was what John Lennon did for a living.

Then, in late 1975, Lennon disappeared, immersing himself in the new life he had created with Ono and their son. Centered and sober, he stopped recording and threw himself into his new role as a "house husband," another then-revolutionary concept. By all accounts, he was finally happy, healthy and at peace with himself. Could there have been any better time for a comeback?

By the time of Lennon's death in 1980, the Beatles, though still revered, were ancient history. And Lennon - who had spent years detoxing from the sprawling legend he had co-created in the pubs of Liverpool, the smoky basements of Hamburg and the studios on London's Abbey Road - had only recently completed "Double Fantasy," the landmark album that would be the last released in his lifetime.

His swan song, a meticulously produced collection of seductive and catchy ballads celebrating love, fatherhood and self-acceptance, didn't tell us much about Lennon that we didn't already know, except, perhaps, that he was still capable of making memorable music, and that he had finally struck an artistic balance with Ono, his eccentric wife, muse and collaborator.

"Double Fantasy" propelled Lennon back into a limelight he had shirked for five years and, in the process, reignited a nagging fantasy on the part of his fans.

Even though the top-selling rock group of all time had disbanded 10 years earlier, all Beatles fans knew - or thought they knew - that John, Paul, George and Ringo would one day share the same stage again, if only for one night, if only for one song - for charity, perhaps, or some important political cause, or simply for old times' sake.

Lennon's death provided closure to the Beatles, but not the kind his fans had hoped for.

Updated : 2021-03-03 17:44 GMT+08:00