It’s almost 40 years after John’s assassination and many people still ponder the “what ifs” about his life. What if he would have returned to live in England before Dec. 8, 1980? Would he still be involved in music today? In politics? This beloved musician left behind not only his great influence, songs and talent, but also many unanswered questions that have caused people to concoct conspiracy theories by the dozens. In the midst of it all, the irony of some of his songs, his game against death itself.
John began a fight for his life the moment in 1966 when he told a British reporter friend of The Beatles, that Christianity would vanish (apparently by the young people’s apathy towards it), and he added that for kids, The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. This statement caused nothing in his homeland, but in America, “for some reason”, unleashed hell in the Bible-Belt.
The Beatles had been shaking the social conventions that saw them as “good old white boys who played black music like Elvis but still obeyed the Jim Crow rules of white Christianity” as interpreted by the KKK. When they were on tour in the American South, they didn’t want to play if audiences were not integrated. Moreover, their open admiration of black singers, their friendship and companionship with the black artists who toured with them as opening acts, made them targets in the convulsed South where people were being killed because of race, where any white-black union was branded as communist subversion.
John said he was afraid to talk, even to apologize (which he was pressured to do), because happy-trigger people in America abounded. Just 3 years before, they had killed the President. What can you expect to happen to others less powerful? But marked he was, by destiny or by the people who owned it. The mainstream media told us to believe his words came from an inflated ego not from a sincere way to observe society. From then on, the media, the religious right, and later the politicians, began to hate John Lennon.
A year later, John meets Yoko at an art gallery. Soon after, in 1968, he divorces his first wife Cynthia, and the world meets Yoko. Needless to say, it was hate at first sight. Not only his new lover was hated for “breaking up” a marriage, but also for her race, appearance, art, personality. Although John fought to defend her always, she was also blamed later for The Beatles breakup. Still today, many people ignore John’s words from a 1970 Rolling Stone magazine interview where he states that he was trying to quit the band. In that same interview, John says that even Paul and spiritual George were mean to Yoko at the time. As much as we have to thank George Harrison for his lyrics in All Those Years Ago, we should pay more attention to his great hit While My Guitar Gently Weeps and see if its lyrics don’t fit his opinion about John’s behavior when the White Album came out. The mob mentality has blamed Yoko while dismissing the many love songs John made about her: The Ballad of John And Yoko, Grow Old With Me, Woman, Just Like Starting Over, Dear Yoko and others. He had the chance to get rid of her on several occasions but he didn’t. They became inseparable. (John’s statements about Yoko in the Anthology book, page 301 are clear.)
Nevertheless, he had his own demons to battle against: depression, drug addictions, emotional and psychological traumas, and as a shadow from the past, his choice of words in some songs was not the most adequate, although unquestionably ironic. In the White Album, one of his songs: Happiness is A Warm Gun, he uses the word gun in a sexual context, but still, it’s like a cruel self-fulfilling prophecy to use this word so lightly. Then again, in the Abbey Road album, his song Come Together begins with a bass riff while he says: “Shoot me” barely masked by McCartney‘s playing.
After The Beatles disbanded, John moved to New York. Free from any obligation to his former band mates, company or any manager, he began to express his political opinions about the war in Vietnam, the liberation of political prisoners, and other taboo subjects for artists like him who depended so much on people’s approval and popularity to make money. He joined the few courageous voices of other famous people like Jane Fonda to condemn the war and returned his MBE medal to the Queen in protest of her support to the war. He left behind the writing of superfluous impersonal songs and began to sing only what he believed in. Thanks to that,we treasure songs like: Happy Xmas (War is Over), Imagine, Working Class Hero, Power To The People, Luck of The Irish, God, Give Peace A Chance…
John didn’t want to be killed for a cause, nor he wanted to be a leader. He believed in causes, not in leaders. In 1971, he said in the left wing Red Mole: “It seems that all revolutions end up with a personality cult, even the Chinese seem to need a father-figure. I expect this happens in Cuba too, with Che and Fidel. In Western-Style communism, we would have to create an almost imaginary worker’s image of themselves as the father-figure.”
In 1972, he released the probably least known, least commercial album of his career: Some Time in New York City. 9 political songs, 1 celebrating life in his adoptive city. The cover, simulating a newspaper front page, had the song titles like headlines and showed photos of him and Yoko, both singing with their band at the time, a photo montage of President Nixon dancing naked, and one of communist professor in trouble Angela Davis. Among the songs relevant to what was going on at the time: Attica ( about the prisoners revolt that ended in a massacre), John Sinclair (about another dissenter who was sentenced to 10 years for selling two marijuana joints) and Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (about women’s historic oppression by men in society)
For his rebellious attitude, his support to anti-establishment causes, he needed to be punished. He was put under surveillance by the U.S government and classified as a potential threat to national security. Then, it was decided to better deport him using any bogus charges, the modus-operandi used with most political radicals. For the next 5 years, John concentrated on fighting the deportation case, becoming a father, and retiring until his comeback in 1980.
From the good group of songs he came out with the final months of his life, Living On Borrowed Time (released posthumously) is one of the least known. However, in this attempt to create a calypso-reggae type of song, he names it with ironic accuracy of how he was really living.
“I saw the news today, oh boy…”. December 8, 1980. The “deranged fan” shot 5 times, hitting John 4. He shot from a professional standing position, Dirty Harry style. These “deranged” assassins have been around for decades.
What followed was the inhumane ordeal his widow and young son had to endure in the days after his killing. Not only they had to go through their own mourning after the shock of the event, but also deal with the overwhelming crowds trying to show sincere condolences, while many others were trying to make a buck out of the tragedy including the publication of a front page photo of John’s corpse by a despicable New York newspaper. (Read the Playboy Magazine article titled: The Betrayal Of John Lennon by David and Victoria Sheff).
Sean, John’s 2nd son, has always believed his father’s killing was more than just a random act of someone looking for fame.
Irony surrounded John’s life, but also his death. In the city where he was killed, where he fought to stay and belong to, where he wanted to raise his kid, there’s only a tiny corner at Central Park, across from his Dakota Building apartment, dedicated to his memory: a simple mosaic on the ground with the engraved word Imagine where people leave flowers and notes. Meanwhile, in communist Cuba, where The Beatles‘ songs were looked down and excluded for years, where nobody cared about John Lennon on Dec. 8, 1980, where most people couldn’t tell the difference between John Lennon and John Denver, there’s now a statue of the British singer sitting on a bench at a Havana park that’s becoming more popular than the island statues of its own Cuban heroes.
His music lives on.
See: The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2006), LennoNYC (2010)