This is the fortieth anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. I wouldn’t learn about it until the next morning, when I woke up to WEBN playing “#9 Dream”, followed by the morning DJ reporting the news.
I was 15 years old, in tenth grade. I had discovered the Beatles, through my friend Michael Dearing, late in fourth grade, and had done the sort of obsessive deep dive that is normally only available to adolescents and academics. Beatle and solo Beatle albums became the center of my birthday and Christmas lists, and I devoured the authorized bio that Hunter Davies had written when I found it at my local library — thanks to my dad, I was never confined to the children’s section.
But of the four, John was. . . if not my favorite, then primus inter pares. Maybe it was because he and I both wore glasses, or maybe it was because he was the one who did the oddest things and wrote the oddest songs, and since I’ve been an oddball all my life, I responded to that. But when I was in my early teens, he was one of my heroes, and he had been for years.
And now he was gone. Death, I knew something about even then. My cousin — the best friend of my childhood, had died a year and a half earlier with terrifying suddenness. Along with the rest of my family, I was staggering through that loss of innocence, the realization that people could be lost so suddenly. But I hadn’t applied that lesson to the people I thought of as heroes, and I certainly couldn’t understand why someone would want to kill one of my heroes.
This also became my first encounter with gravedancers, as a Cincinnati opinion columnist named Bob Brumfield wrote a sneering op-ed about the “semi-literate” clods who were upset by the whole business, blaming Lennon for “trying to get his fans hooked” on drugs along the way. I couldn’t understand that either, and even my dad was exercised enough to write a letter to the editor in rebuttal. Among other things, he noted that literacy is a binary condition, so that the term “semi-literate” is itself something of a solecism. He also extolled Lennon’s charitable work, and wondered if Brumfield would ever be remembered as a force for good. (Less than a year later, Brumfield himself died; he was 56.)
The Sunday after Lennon’s murder, his widow Yoko Ono had called for the observation of ten minutes of silence during the afternoon. I wasn’t able to fully keep that. My girlfriend at the time was playing in the high school band’s winter concert, and I was sitting in the audience with her family. I had to be polite, but I felt guilty about it. She’s gone now too, having died of cancer last year.
Now four decades have passed, and I have 15 more years than John got. Over the years, I learned about his flaws as well as his accomplishments, and I’ve learned to separate the dancer from the dance. I’ve learned that great artists can have laughable politics, and that an artist can sell his birthright for a pot of message. John was guilty of both of those from time to time, and I learned to accept that not as a diminution of artistic value, but as part of our common humanity.
So I’ve learned over time both that the people I once saw as heroes are simply people, but I’ve learned the converse as well, that regular, flawed people can do heroic things. John Lennon was part of that process for me, and for that as well as for the music he created, I appreciate him, and I’m sorry he’s gone, along with my cousin, my dad, Jenny, and even Bob Brumfield.
The appropriate way to close this, I suppose, is with music. This song closes Lennon’s Imagine album — I had the version that came with the poster of John sitting at the white piano. It’s not the best known track on the album; that would be the title cut, which honestly I never liked that much. But this song is a favorite of mine, simply because it seems like John being happy and letting us share it.
Thanks for the music, John.