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Commenter @Justin wrote this morning about John Lennon’s lousy reputation among younger Beatle fans, and the concomitant rise in esteem that Paul McCartney has enjoyed. This has joggled some thoughts about my own fandom that perhaps are worth sharing. I haven’t given this post the obsessive working over that I sometimes mete out to my posts on Dullblog, and that’s on purpose; I’m writing “off the top of my brain,” trusting that this will add something that too much analysis might take away.
When I was growing up, John was my favorite Beatle, and it wasn’t close. I liked the others, but I loved John Lennon. Hands down, he was the person I wanted to hang out with most. He invented The Beatles—the others were essential, each in their way, but he was the person whom that original lightning struck. Lennon was the leader of the best gang ever; he was so damn smart and funny; he’d come from a difficult family situation to become rich and famous and beloved. I wanted—no, needed—to learn everything I could from him, because I was playing the same game, and facing the same long odds, for a lot of the same reasons.
So I snarfled up everything I could by and about John Lennon from age eight to eighteen, and came to feel that this person I’d never met was a friend of mine. Not a peer, exactly, but more like an older brother or an Uncle. I’m sure many of you can relate. This powerful-but-false intimacy was Lennon’s peculiar, ultimately tragic gift, and I cannot think of another public figure who generated it in as much abundance. John F. Kennedy, maybe?
And that, to me, is the difference between Lennon and McCartney; Paul is always an entertainer, while John is always himself. You can like and even love Paul, without any sense that you know him, that you are intimate—or that you can judge Paul, or that he owes you anything. The most passionate McCartney-related positions on this site tend to portray Paul in a passive role; fans are angry over what John or Yoko or Klein or Japanese Customs did to Paul. Moments of Evil Paul—like the “you and your Jap tart” note—don’t capture our imagination, because they don’t seem quite real. Would Paul really do that? Nah. But would John really heave a shitload of bricks through Paul’s bay window? Totally.
Paul is not a puzzle. His statements are not analyzed like the Talmud; we watch him make mashed potatoes and sing in the car and love him like a neighbor. Who Paul McCartney is, and even his agency in specific situations, is always the same: just a bit blurry, a bit distant, a bit changeable—and that’s what has allowed him to remain famous and beloved for 55 years and counting. Paul’s peculiar, saving gift is the reverse of his bandmate’s: he can engender great affection without the illusion of intimacy.
The Paul Is Dead myth rests on the idea that Paul—a collection of truly irreplaceable talents—could be replaced without most fans even noticing; as long as Faul (to use the lingo) looked like Paul, most Beatles fans wouldn’t even notice. Can you even imagine a John Is Dead theory? It falls apart immediately. Who has ever been like John Lennon? Who could ever be like him? Anyway, we would be able to tell right away. Because we knew him.
But, of course, we didn’t.
I was born in June 1969, which places me both in the Gen X cohort, and in the weird group of Beatle fans who didn’t remember the phenomenon first-hand, but were alive and aware during the time that a Beatles reunion seemed possible, even likely. The Beatles were already a legend, but John, Paul, George and Ringo were bright stars in the talk show/show biz firmament—not as dazzling as they’d once been, but nobody held that against them; nothing about the Seventies really stoodd up to the decade before. As P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “The Sixties were about changing the world. The Seventies were about giving up smoking.”
You could say the same about John Lennon. His connection to his times was positively umbilical; to his Baby Boomer fans, he was living their life, only a few years ahead. He’d gone through sex and drugs and rock and roll, and found at the other end, family and children. Just as Lennon had once worried about Nixon and creeping fascism in Amerikkka, he now worried about inflation and his kid eating too much junk food. Just as Lennon spent the former decade trying to save the world, he spent the latter pushing away the cancer sticks. He succeeded in neither, but we loved him for both.
And we did love him—especially after his murder. He was so young, remember, and seemed to be moving in good directions—for himself, and for the rest of us, too. If it has turned out that the idyllic portrait of househusbandry was not quite true, or if John and Yoko weren’t quite as devoted to each other as the press releases suggest, that doesn’t temper the power of the story. John Lennon tried, all right? He tried to write good songs, tried to use his stardom to spread wisdom, tried to be a good dad, tried to be a man of the people…
That was a lot of why we loved him so hard in the Eighties: guilt. He’d made himself available to fans—that’s what we wanted, right? To have him walk among us, as one of us—and we’d killed him for it. Because Mark David Chapman was crazy, because there was no logic behind the murder, it was possible to feel that we’d all been responsible in some way. Each fan remembered all the times they’d spun some fantasy of being friends with John and the others, and realized that perhaps Chapman’s bonkers hatred was the same mechanism, only flipped.
That wasn’t quite fair, but we were all searching for an answer, a reason why. If he’d been living our life, just a few years ahead, what could that horrible ending possibly portend? Lennon’s death was shocking, a final coda to the assassinations of the Sixties. People felt like they’d lost a member of the family; I remember hearing my favorite aunt crying through the phone. And when Lennon’s name comes up, people will still tell you where they were when they heard. “I was walking down Central Park West,” a marital arts teacher of mine told me. “I passed the Dakota about ten I think. Then, when I was a few blocks away, I saw these police cars tearing up the street. That must’ve been them responding to the call.” He didn’t say, “If I had been there, I would’ve prevented it.” He didn’t have to; I knew that’s what we both were thinking.
If John Lennon had a Christ complex, we gave it to him. So it was the most obvious thing in the world, after he’d died that way, to inflate him into more than he had been—more than anybody could ever be. As of December 9th, 1980, and for at least twenty years after that, John Lennon suddenly wasn’t just a fascinating fellow, a Sixties musician who might still gift us with a few more great songs, and the occasional moment of triumphant monoculture (you think Queen was big at Live Aid? Imagine a reformed Beatles). No, he was now a genius, perhaps the genius of our era. Goldman was reviled; that wasn’t the Lennon we knew! By 2002, this ace songwriter and rhythm guitarist with the interesting marriage was the eighth most admired Briton in history, edging out do-nothings like Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson.
But hagiography is, in the end, not really very interesting. And as his widow and her pals at Rolling Stone burnished his legend constantly, there was a subtle shift happening. By the early 90s, the hagiography was so thick I started getting more interested in Paul and George. Lennon had changed from the Beatle I thought I knew, to the one most obscured by publicity.
If the first twenty years after his death was about building him up, the second has been tearing him down. Slowly, the darker stuff began to emerge, drip-fed by Yoko herself: that John was a hitter, that he was bi-curious; that he fell into rages. In our internet age, where hypocrisy is a greater flaw than actual bad deeds, Lennon has come in for a tough time. Sure, he was a feminist—but he beat his wife! Sure, he advocated peace—but he was a shitty father! George (unfaithful, coke-addicted George) was really the spiritual one; Paul (the king of Seventies AOR) was really the genius musician. And Yoko didn’t help, licensing his music to Nike and Apple, and his image to Citroën. People’s boredom with St. Lennon naturally turned to defiling his cult—a cult that no sensible fan should’ve joined in the first place.
So where am I at now, with my good old Uncle John, this man I feel I know even though we never met? Well, first of all, I realize that I don’t know him, and never will. Second, that he was an uncommonly complicated fellow who lived an uncommonly weird life almost no one could possibly relate to. Third, that the image-management that comes from the Estate—whether it’s Yoko’s complicated relationship with the Philip Norman bio, or the disastrous musical, or this upcoming Peter Jackson actually-the-sessions-were-quite-awesome reboot of “Let It Be”—probably does more to obscure the man than illuminate him, and probably turns off most younger fans by making him one-dimensional; more of a walking hypocrite than of a person-in-transition.
In the end, I’m left with fascination and empathy. Admiration and humility. And appreciation. Neither a genius nor a charlatan, sinner nor saint. When I think of Lennon, I remember Suzuki Roshi’s definition of Zen: “Lots of space; nothing holy.” It’s not a bad place to be.
Where are you?