Thursday, December 8, 2005

Lennon

It was Dec. 8, 1980, early in the evening in Boulder, Colorado, and I'm sitting in my bedroom at the foot of my bed with Marjorie, my next-door neighbor and infatuation of the moment. With my roomies sitting in the next room noisily watching ABC's "Monday Night Football," I kissed Marjorie for the first time; we necked and snuggled and considered the possibilities of spending some big percentage of our lives together; and then we heard, with the door not quite closed enough, the unmistakable voice of Howard Cosell telling us, telling the world, that John Lennon was dead.

Things started to turn sour for me and Marjorie from almost that moment on. It took a while to fully play out, but our romantic fortunes went downhill -- which shouldn't have been surprising. One way or another, things went south for all of us from that day on.

Some mile markers in life are unavoidable, like road obstacles that are too big to drive around. There's no escaping them when they happen or even years later. There's behavior that's common to our species -- or maybe just particular to our era: we tend to measure the gravity of events in the context of the terminal. We all have our stories of where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy or Yitzhak Rabin. John Lennon joined that pantheon of eternals, but in a slightly different way.



Lennon always had an edge about him. In his life as a Beatle and afterward, there was a sense of the precipitate, the volatile about John Lennon. More than any of the other Beatles -- the often-sullen George, the relentlessly chipper Paul, the phlegmatically loyal Ringo -- John embodied rock and roll's potential for unalloyed danger, that feeling you get in the best rock music of careening headlong into a new and strange place -- and not being frightened by the prospect in the least.

Long before that nightcrawler trapped him in the vestibule of the Dakota, John Lennon wore a target; it's been said that years before the Beatles exploded, when he was still playing with the Quarrymen, blokes in his Liverpool neighborhood wanted him hurt, or worse, for reasons we can only guess at now.

His was rock and roll's first outright assassination. With his killing, legions of fans got the wake-up call they'd been dreading, or avoiding, at least since the Beatles broke up a decade earlier.

And it was hard to let go. It was, and still is, hard to give up that giddy frisson of the Beatles' first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, when four shaggy knuckleheads in suits landed in a country numb from the loss of Camelot about nine weeks before they arrived. The audience that night, its screams like a flock of crazed birds, was a taste of the future. The screams followed them around the world for six years -- the reaction of fans who lost themselves in a music and a style and a world-view that began the transformation of popular culture.

Not long after the bottom fell out of the Beatles, in 1970, Lennon was warning us. Telling us in his fashion to get ready. Be prepared for anything. Grow up. "I don't believe in Beatles," he told us in the song "God." "The dream is over." Lennon was teaching us to grow up even while, paradoxically, he was growing up himself. There were dalliances for a time when things with Yoko went badly.

He hangs out with Harry Nilsson in L.A. He and Harry get tossed out of the Troubadour for heckling the Smothers Brothers. He goes to another nightclub and gets upbraided by a waitress for wearing a tampon on his head. He learns the process of starting over.

We're lucky that the fruition of that process was something positive. Rather than an obituary of a rock star who passed from the scene with a spike in his arm or a shotgun to his head, we got from John Lennon the evidence of his mellowing, his maturity. You can't listen to "Double Fantasy" without hearing that growth process in the works; like a butterfly fighting its way out of a cocoon, John and Yoko were fighting to regain their own identities -- regain, hell! maybe fighting to just have identities separate from those foisted on them by the media, the music biz, and always, always, the fans.

We got a taste of that great possible. But only a taste. Now, a quarter century after Lennon died -- sounds tree-ring strange saying "quarter century" -- we're in some ways more in need of his candor, his wit, his passion, than we ever were before.

John Winston Ono Lennon remains an indelible spirit of our times, a man whose wrestling with demons within and without has made our own caged match with reality a little more bearable. It's a real tribute to someone's life when you find that you miss that person, need that person, feel that person's presence more and more as time goes by, not less.

John Lennon was a rock dropped into the water of our time and our lives, and the ripples from that rock get stronger and stronger all the time, the further and further we get from their source.

Imagine that. Just imagine.
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Image credits: Top photo: Roy Kerwood, 1969; Dakota: David Shankbone

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