Thirty years ago today, a mentally ill man shot and killed John Lennon outside the former Beatle’s home in New York City. For those who remember hearing Beatles songs when they first were played on the radio — and for those who learned about the band 10 years after they broke up — the news was profoundly sad. Those not of the baby boom generation were perplexed at the passionate, public grief that followed, believing Mr. Lennon was just a pop star. He was much more.
Mr. Lennon, who would have turned 70 on Oct. 9, was no saint, and the blemishes on his personal and public faces were many. But that he allowed those blemishes to be seen, and confronted them and the hypocrisy they suggested, was part of his appeal. He admitted to being the man of the song “Getting Better,” who “used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved … .” Yet today, the songs with which he is most associated are the hymnlike ode to human potential, “Imagine,” and the guileless, joyful plea of “Give Peace A Chance.”
Several years ago, Mr. Lennon’s son from his first marriage, Julian (for whom Paul McCartney wrote “Hey Jude”), said his father ignored him during his formative years, and that he considered his stepfather his real dad. Yet the last five years of Mr. Lennon’s life, he stayed at home to raise his and Yoko Ono’s son, Sean, changing diapers, playing on the floor with the toddler and baking bread for the family. At 40, it seemed Mr. Lennon had finally wrestled down his demons and settled into domestic happiness. Many of those demons came from the sudden, unprecedented fame — fame he sought, but he did not understand the Faustian bargain inherent in it.
What made his untimely death especially sad was that Mr. Lennon was ready to return to making music and was bursting with inspiration.
He was unabashedly political, too. Ms. Ono, an avant-garde artist, instigated his more radical instincts. Mr. Lennon’s activism upon arriving in New York in 1970, linking with Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the anti-war movement, brought the attention of President Richard Nixon. The White House alerted immigration officials to Mr. Lennon’s arrest in England on drug charges, and used it to try to deport him. He fought the effort for years, and finally a judge ruled in his favor, writing: “If, in our 200 years of independence, we have in some measure realized our ideals, it is in large part because we have always found a place for those committed to the spirit of liberty and willing to help implement it. Lennon’s four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream.”
Words fall short of explaining what John Lennon meant to the generation that lived through and became part of the events of the 1960s and early 1970s. Listen, instead, to what he expressed in songs such as “Instant Karma,” “Give Me Some Truth” and “All You Need Is Love.” It’s all there — joyful exhortation, righteous anger and a deep universal truth.