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Happy 73rd Birthday, John Lennon
Let’s start with some historical vertigo:
Seven years from now, we’ll be looking back over a period of time that is as long since John Lennon was shot as that brutal event was from his birth.
Worse than that, the span of his fame lasted for just 17 years, 18 if you were in the UK when the Beatles released their first single “Love Me Do.” To put that into even steeper perspective, it’s been roughly the same length of time since the first Toy Story movie, or “The Bends” by Radiohead. And during that brief spell in the spotlight, the entire world changed around John Lennon and his gang of mates.
Some of the forces that precipitated that change came from within the band, some from without. A good many of them came from John himself, whose commitment to making a ruckus and winding up people in authority (or anyone he considered fair game) was fuelled by a difficult childhood and recurring trauma. Throughout his teenage years, people close to him, elders and mentors alike – his mother, his art school buddy Stuart Sutcliffe, his uncle George – died suddenly and without warning.
He quickly became adept at channelling his feelings into creativity, and when there wasn’t a song to write, a poem to knock out or a cartoon to draw, there were always gags to crack, faces to pull or arguments to start. And this from a man who characterised himself as essentially lazy:
And you can see that willingness to tell everyone off, to let fly, in everything he did; from the impatience with musical conventions in the early Beatles songs to the scathing gobbledigook of his psychedelic masterpieces and on into his self-lacerating solo work and constant demand that the world buck its ideas up and stop doing wars all over the place.
At the same time, he appears to have been one of the most trusting and open of celebrities, taking all sorts of strange people into his confidence – Magic Alex, Allen Klein, Michael X, and to a certain extent the Maharishi – and often lashing out once they inevitably failed to meet his impossibly high standards.
In fact, the one subject about which he rarely wrote with impatience or implied criticism was Yoko Ono, the love of whom gave him the confidence to express his greatest insecurities and deepest wounds in musical form.
It’s tempting to assume that, had he lived until now, he’d be following the same pattern, only with a modern twist: lashing out at perceived slights on Twitter, popping up on chat shows and demolishing one guest while charming another into a duet on a new song about something that displeased him.
He’d have ridden out hip hop, grunge, Britpop, synthpop, EDM and all points between, probably had a good dabble with all of them, and, like his estranged bandmate Paul, would still be looking for a new way to say that same old thing.
There would undoubtedly have been a Beatles reunion, probably in the ’90s, possibly even earlier, at Live Aid or just for their own pleasure, and as these things often are, it probably would have felt like an anticlimax, but that’s only to be expected. His solo work would have had peaks and troughs in quality and interest, but the songs and artwork and writing and wisecracks and faces would have kept on coming.
Ships that are powered by that kind of fuel are not only hard to steer, they’re (almost) impossible to stop.
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