Imagining Lennon at 70

October 9, 2010

Had he lived, John Lennon would be 70 years old today. Imagine that.

I was 22 years old when he was murdered. I heard about it in a club called the Blarney Stone, near Centenary College on Youree Drive in Shreveport.

I don’t know whether there was a general announcement — in my mind someone heard it on the radio and whispered it in the ear of one of the guys in the band between songs. He took the microphone and told us  Lennon was dead. The piano player sat down at his Fender-Rhodes and pecked out a solemn, wordless version of “Imagine.” Then we all left.

We did not go home. Some of us went to the Freeman-Harris Cafe, a soul-food place in an poor area called the Bottoms where James Brown and B.B. King and Prince would eat when they were in town. We got a bottle of whiskey and a plate of fried chicken livers.

We got drunk that night and told ourselves it was because some unworthy little man — another  Lee Harvey Oswald — had murdered a person who was important to us. Already we were calling it an assassination, an ideologically inspired assault. Lennon was a martyr, not a victim, and we were the bathetically bereft. We flattered ourselves by imagining he was one of us, that we were like him. Someone organized a vigil, there were candles, there was weeping. There were all sorts of posturing and wallowing and bingeing on sentiment.

We were sad, no doubt about that, but there was something self-aggrandizing about the way we exploited the occasion of his death. We were so sensitive and dashing with our moist eyes and broken hearts.

Every generation needs its pick-up saints and tragic ballads; Lennon was a guitar player and a songwriter, a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band. He was talented and uncommonly intelligent, and the facts of his execution secured his place among the tragically slain famous young. He wasn’t so fascinating that we couldn’t make him stand for whatever we wanted. We still do.

Imagine Lennon at 70.

But then consider that Lennon was never  what we imagined, what we made of him in our heads. He was flesh and blood and bone; when he died he was a painfully thin 40-year-old man who had been through a lot. He was very rich and probably passably happy. He had a family, he had re-entered public life. He seemed less shrill, less angry than he had a few years before. The deepest tragedy of John Lennon, maybe not be the whole truth, but my best guess, is that he was in a pretty good frame of mind when he was killed. He had no intention of jopining what Kurt Cobain’s mum would later call “that stupid club” of Chattertons, of rock stars dead before their time.

Lennon might have been poised for a major comeback. He might have made a lot more good music.

The truth is I didn’t care much for Double Fantasy when it came out, in part because it was a gentler, kinder album than I expected. I liked my Lennon nasty, taunting — the Lennon of “How Do You Sleep?” as opposed to the Lennon of “Watching the Wheels” or “Beautiful Boy.” I preferred the primal-scream Lennon who didn’t “believe in Beatles” to the domesticated house husband who sang about starting over.

But then it’s been 30 years since Lennon was murdered, and 30 years is longer than Lennon  knew Paul McCartney. The further away we get from these events, the more compressed they seem — the Beatles were a moment, not an epoch.
None of the Beatles — not even Lennon — escaped mediocrity in their solo work. Perhaps that was inevitable. You can only burn so hot so long, and in retrospect you can see the strain starting to show as early as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and certainly in the albums that followed it.

These days, you can get by on the collateral Beatles you encounter; “Penny Lane” bleeds from a passing speaker and you smile. You don’t need to hunker in the dark with headphones, listening for the point where the chicken at the end of “Good Morning Good Morning” turns into a guitar. If you are of a certain age and inclination, you have probably assimilated the entire Beatles’ catalog. You might not have any trouble describing John Lennon as one of your heroes.

I miss him too. As much sometimes as I miss my 22-year-old self.

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