Imagining Lennon

by Adam Williams

8 December 2005

He walked away from his past and embraced his future, only to have that future taken from him. Had he lived, what would John Lennon have done over the last 25 years?

PopMatters Associate Editor - Columns and Music

The passage of time is strangely contradictory; days proceed with excruciating slowness yet years run their course with startling brevity. We are left with an unsettled wonder, “Where has the time gone?” A quarter century has passed since John Lennon’s murder, yet the 25 years seem inconsequential as we commemorate a day on which many of us lost a part of ourselves. This sad anniversary gives an opportunity to not only recognize the accomplishments, musical and otherwise, of a remarkable man but also to quantify the loss by considering some of what Lennon may have become involved with, had he enjoyed the opportunity to gracefully enter the new millennium.


Lennon in the 1980s, taking on Reaganomics and the yuppie revolution.

What makes Lennon so fascinating as a pop cultural icon, is that he appeared to eschew the trappings of his Beatles persona at every turn, losing himself in his family and various sociopolitical issues. Lennon’s post-Beatles life was initially marked by activism as much as it was by music. He used his celebrity to draw attention to those causes which he championed and consistently showed himself to be a man of principle, pointing the spotlight in other directions whenever possible, as he confronted the status quo while standing up for what he believed in. His pro-peace sensibilities were continually at the forefront of his actions, as he railed against the Vietnam War with his infamous “bed-in” protests, in 1969, and his anti-government stance in support of John Sinclair (commemorated in song on 1972’s Sometime in New York City album).

Sometimes controversial but always committed, Lennon was the template for musician-as-statesman that Bono has spent the past decade trying to emulate. Lennon would have certainly welcomed the end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany, but he may have been less accommodating toward the blind greed and materialism of his American baby-boomer counterparts as they staked their claims on Wall Street. His solo work and charitable endeavors exemplified his efforts to find himself, and bore an undertone of spiritual comfort, as Lennon focused on introspection rather than commercial viability.


Lennon answering the onslaught of the music-video age.

Lennon might have acknowledged MTV as an inventive outlet for artistic expression, but he was just as likely to reject music that had become pre-packaged, glossy style that lacked much substance. As the video age took root, the success of the most popular acts was predicated on what they looked like as opposed to what they sounded like, a methodology that was diametrically opposed to Lennon’s artistic explorations of the 1970s. Although much of Lennon’s work after 1969 was viewed as eccentric, his Double Fantasy album boasted his still formidable songwriting skills, and there is no reason to believe that he would not have continued making music in a similar mold. Certainly by then, Lennon was far removed from his Beatles peak, but he was even more distant from the shallowness and superficiality that dominated the music scene of the early to mid-1980s.


Lennon using Live Aid as the perfect opportunity to reunite the Beatles

With the scope of global hunger and suffering brought to the forefront in 1985, artists of every genre rallied together in a large scale humanitarian effort, making “We are the world” the catchphrase of the moment. Lennon’s track record of topical awareness would have put him center stage with Bob Geldof, and moreover, it might have given him an excuse to ring up his Fab Four mates and sell them on a one-off gig. While music had become a much grander business enterprise in the 1970s than it had been the previous decade, the Concert for Kampuchea in 1979 had shown that egos and competing interests could momentarily be put aside by the participants, as the music flowed forth for a common good. Six years later, Live Aid produced a similar result, although Queen’s legendary performance certainly would have been overshadowed had Lennon reconvened with McCartney, Harrison, and Starr.


Lennon’s take on 1990s grunge and the ensuing wave of Brit-pop.

To a large extent, Lennon is labeled as the voice of his generation, more for his collaborative brilliance with Macca, than for any specific messages he conveyed in his lyrics. Kurt Cobain was closer to Pete Townshend in terms of expressing angst through song and nowhere near Lennon in terms of quality and quantity of recorded material. Nonetheless, Cobain is regarded as the voice of his own generation, and he and Lennon share common ground in many aspects of their personal lives. From battles with addiction and depression, to publicly derided marriages, to their respective discomfort with the generational spokesman labels, both were at similar emotional places in their mid-20s. But Lennon escaped a downward personal and professional trajectory by finding catharsis through musical expression, while Cobain became exceedingly disillusioned and embittered.

Would Lennon have held the generally accepted sentiment of Cobain being a tormented genius? On one hand, Lennon’s artistic side may have lauded Cobain’s efforts, and his ability to speak for so many disenfranchised teens entering the new decade. Conversely, as a wily veteran of the music business, Lennon might have taken a dim view of Cobain’s stance as the long suffering multimillionaire victim. It’s as easy to hear Lennon urging Cobain to channel his demons out of himself through song as it is to envision him berating Nirvana’s front man with a terse, “Damn it, lad, you’ve gone platinum. What’s left to be angry about?”

It’s also not inconceivable to envision Lennon gravitating toward the surge of Brit-popsters, led by Oasis. Despite the Gallagher brothers closely patterning themselves after the Beatles, the band proved that is was far from a knock-off act with its crisp melodies and finely crafted songs. As such, Oasis would have been a logical point of interest for Lennon. Perhaps he would have been drawn to the similarities between his younger self and the re-visitation of the signature sound he helped to create with the Beatles; perhaps he would have simply found solace in a return to his musical roots as a respite from the dour and brooding output of the grunge movement. Having never showed much interest in mentoring young bands, Lennon might have actually viewed Oasis, et al, as creative inspirations, and subsequently, challengers to keep pace with.


Lennon’s view of the Clinton and Bush presidencies.

Lennon was not shy about voicing his concerns during the heavy-handed Nixon administration, nor was he deterred by the observational bulls-eye put on his person courtesy of the FBI. Armed with his wry sense of humor, and living in a far less draconian political climate, Lennon would have feasted on Monicagate and Bush’s frequent conversational faux pas, while publicly denouncing the numerous instances of incompetence and corruption he witnessed from the two presidents. Lennon had made frequent television appearances as the 1960s segued into the 1970s, and was savvy enough to exploit the media to articulate his various opinions on given topics. With a wealth of radio and television outlets at his disposal during the 1990s and beyond, Lennon would have made the perfect talking head: eloquent, opinionated, and of course, respected. Lennon’s greatest impact, however, may have come in the aftermath of 9/11, as a purveyor of peace and as a featured participant at the Concert for New York, and most importantly, as a highly visible resident of Gotham.

Had he not been senselessly murdered, John Lennon would have been approaching the age when most people retire. Yet there is no reason to think that he would have gone quietly into his twilight years. He was far from reaching his potential and had much more to offer through his words and actions. As we mourn another year without John Lennon, we know the world is poorer for his absence, but we can rejoice in all he gave us and think of all he had yet to give.

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