Whatever Gets You
To the Light...

Planet Waves | December 2000

[Printable Version]

By Eric Francis

TO THE GENERATIONS OF YOUNG PEOPLE born mouse-in-hand, remote in the other, suckled from Day One on streaming jumpcut interactive multimedia playstations, it may be difficult for me to relate how reassuring it was to have John Lennon with us on the planet.

<><>Do we even know what it feels like to be reassured any more?

<><>In the midst of all the stunning madness and awesome mindless drivel of life, there was a voice, a clear and living voice fueled by that miraculous fusion of love and anger, saying: Give peace a chance. All you need is love. Come together.

<><>Get it, people.

<><>Here is a person would do things like hold press conferences in bed with his wife Yoko to demand an end to war (the Bed-Ins). So threatened was Mr. Nixon that John and Yoko, snuggling in their jammies (or naked in some interviews) would discredit U.S. foreign policy that in 1971 and 1972 the FBI collected nearly 300 pages of files on him. Shorly after, Nixon would be forced to withdraw troops from Vietnam. Maybe the war wasn't such a good policy after all.

<><>Lennon could see through the stupidity we all put up with (they hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool), and was not afraid to open his mouth, nor to use his fame, power and money for ends other than self-serving ones. That's an inspiration.

<><>It was equally devastating when John was shot dead one evening outside his apartment house on Manhattan's upper west side, caught between his own desire to be normal -- he once said of The Beatles, "We're going to stay normal if it kills us" -- and the intentions of a Holden Caufield wannabe who thought John was a hypocrite. Holden Caufield was the lead character in a novel called The Catcher in the Rye, a young prep school student who figured out that people bullshit each other and themselves a lot. If there is such a thing as projection, it must surely include firing a gun at someone.

<><>Caufield, at least, knew what Mark Chapman did not -- everyone is a hypocrite. The question really is one of intent. Murder is the grandest double standard of them all, and nothing lives that does not take life. It's just that some people kill to eat, some kill for profit and some kill to make a point. Point taken. The shooting of John Lennon commenced the 1980s just as surely as the shooting of John Kennedy inaugurated the 1960s, the difference being that one John made his statement by being alive and the other by being dead.

<><>Seriously, do we really have the least clue what John F. Kennedy stood for, or is he just a name, a face and the mocking voice of Mayor Quimby on The Simpsons? Let's see, Kennedy's father Joe was a bootlegger and a Hitler sympathizer. As president Kennedy expanded upon the policy of US military presence in Vietnam, which was a drug and murder fest approaching Nazi proportions. These things hide behind the glorious JFK smile. But John Lennon's voice, his substance, his message, blazed out clear as a star on a cold night. He did not equivocate. The Beatles, with John raging hottest, were a critical inspiration for the massive anti-war movements of the late '60s and early '70s, and for a lot more.

<><>John the artist's death coincided within weeks of the election of Ronald Reagan, and within days of the death of another torch-bearer of our century, Marshall McLuhan. By the time Reagan came along, it was more clear what it meant to be president, though image could still candy coat a lot. Even with El Salvador, Star Wars, Iran-Contra and Reagan's joke, broadcast live on national television, about the bombing of Russia beginning in five minutes, we never quite got it. But then who was reminding us that evil is bad? Michael Jackson? Peace and love were scientifically proven to be a lot of fluff by the 80s, some passé style like tie-dye, or a flopped social experiment. Peace and love became, quite literally, an embarrassment. What really mattered was the stock market.

<><>There is no doubt in my mind that John Lennon would have laid out in plain English what he thought of those travesties, and I believe a lot of people would have listened. El Salvador and Nicaragua were such outrages that there is no way Lennon could have stood silent.

MARSHALL McLUHAN, FOR HIS PART, was probably the most astute observer of the moment when existence was catapulted from life as it was, with its soda shops, segregation and Sha Na Na, to life as we can't possibly grasp it because everything moves so fast today, albeit in circles. Back when God or whomever activated the warp-speed thrusters, John was playing rhythm guitar and McLuhan was a critic of and philosopher on the subject of media. He understood how the media and reality created one another until one could not tell which was which. The Beatles were superb at jumping into this game.

<><>McLuhan once said of The Beatles that they would take the entire screaming mass of humanity packed into their later concerts and would put it on like a mask. When they quit the freak-show circuit, bailed out of the madness of touring and took the mask off, the surprise was that they WERE us. Is it so shocking? They ate food, smoked cigarettes and clowned around. They fought against paying taxes. They enjoyed young women. They got married and divorced, found religion and gave it up. They were talented and lazy and popped pills, and they hailed from a place called Liverpool, which is like being from Ohio, only in England.

<><>The most incredible thing about The Beatles, besides maybe Revolver or Abbey Road, was what distinct individuals they each were, what awesome creative power they had, each in his own right: and how tight they hung together -- and for how long. Among the many things we can barely imagine today are men being that loyal and real to one another, through such chaos, struggles, the death of their manager, and with the pressure of such incomprehensible fame thrust upon them. The reason they could be a group was because they were actually individuals; they respected one another as such; they had differences and dealt with them; they made sacrifices for one another; they got together and did their projects, which were far greater than the sum of the parts. We could learn something useful from that.

<><>We could also learn something useful from the simple observation that they were not afraid to change. We take for granted the progression from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to "I Am The Walrus," but it happened, basically, overnight. Every time The Beatles reappeared, they were different men; they were emerging continuously. For most of us, for most people, famous or not, the prospect of this kind of change and experimentation is terrifying.

<><>Another thing we can't grasp is their impact. The Beatles were technically a form of entertainment. But their work shook and shaped consciousness like the moon landing, like Watergate and the Nixon resignation, and like Vietnam itself, and like exceedingly few things we've experienced since. The Internet and its implications is akin to the impact of The Beatles, but imagine it coming from just four people.

<><>The strange part is they were spreading a message of love, and they meant it. Yet what we need to remember today is that this was a two-part process, with the second part being we were ready to hear it. We didn't laugh at the notion. It's only a businessman, a smug cynic or a very depressed person who would think that world peace or personal happiness is a dumb idea. Today, too many of us fit into those categories. But have we seriously considered the alternatives?

JOHN LENNON WAS NEVER AFRAID to lay his ideas out plain and simple and without the approval of publicists. His most infamous, politically gauche and undeniable quote was the "We're bigger than Jesus" line. It seems laughable today, particularly when you consider all the Christians who happened to be burning crosses and lynching African-Americans in Alabama in those very days. The Beatles were indeed a greatly improved spiritual source over any church. And they were indeed rather popular.

<><>Later Lennon explained, "The youth of today are really looking for some answers -- for proper answers the established church can't give them, their parents can't give them, material things can't give them."

<><>The same is true today, it's just less noticeable, and the wonders of materialism, the technological "bread and circuses," have us in a deeper trance than ever before. Many people don't quite have a grasp on the fact that we want real answers, or at least some real questions. It seems that anyone in a position to make such a comment, that people want more, and have it be heard, would probably be viewed as a fraud at worst or a speaker of moral platitudes at best. Few people in positions of celebrity have the substance, the actual work, or the guts to back up such an idea. Besides, the marketing department would scream.

<><>We are used to people playing themselves off as "politically correct." John was political. We are used to stars donning persona after persona, usually invented by Hollywood. John, one of the most famous men in the world, would walk in Central Park and go out to dinner in normal restaurants in Manhattan. He lived in my dad's neighborhood and we would drive past his house on Central Park West all the time. His choice to live this way revealed something beautiful about the world in that New Yorkers loved him and welcomed him and wanted him to have his life, just like we wanted ours; we left him alone. It never once occurred to me or any of my friends to wait for him outside his building; it seemed a simple invasion of privacy.

<><>In those years, John was raising a kid, being married, dealing with pain, depression and addiction, and recovering from all that had been; that was his business. Just like lots of people who take life seriously.

<><>Yet perhaps because he really needed to make sense out of his life, John had a knack for seeing the cosmic in the ordinary. "Ninety percent of the people on this planet, especially in the West, were born out of a bottle of whiskey on a Saturday night, and there was no intent to have children," John said in 1980. "Ninety percent of us were accidents -- I don't know anybody who has a planned child. All of us were Saturday night specials."

<><>Do the math. The gods and goddesses who created us (namely, our parents) were out of it, drunk and/or sick when that creation happened. We are born into a messed up world and messed up families. We feel like freaks of nature. Could this be why? Maybe we don't belong here. But in fact we are.

<><>He noticed that growing up, most of his friends' parents "bore little resemblance to humanity," adding, "most people were dead. A few were half-dead. It didn't take much to amuse them."

<><>Can you relate?

<><>"My mother just couldn't deal with life," he once said. She gave him up to her older sister and vanished.

<><>"The worst pain is that of not being wanted, of realizing your parents do not need you the way you need them," he told us. "When I was a child I experienced moments of not wanting to see the ugliness, not wanting to see not being wanted. This lack of love went right into my eyes and right into my mind."

<><>"I was never really wanted. The only reason I am a star is because of my repression. Nothing would have driven me through all of that if I was 'normal'." But to call Lennon a star is an odd understatement. He was a social leader and a visionary hiding out as a rock-and-roller. But like a number of others of his weight, people who dared to speak up and make the 1960s the significant moment of social history that it was, he ended up dead too soon, yet was taken out not so much in the line of duty but rather coming home from the recording studio. There are many people who would like to follow John's example. But the message is that it's a risky job. It needs to be safer.

JOHN LENNON'S LIFE SPANNED from the bombing raid under which he was born to the election of an actor to the presidency. In between there was the Second World War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the beginnings of the Central American War. Like most of us he felt like he didn't belong in his family. Like most of us he had his issues with mental illness, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, marital infidelity and plain inertia. His story is in many ways a portrait of ordinary life in the 20th century.

<><>There were three differences, the main one being that despite this all, he got up off his ass and did something real. Yes he had talent, but yes, he did something with it. Perhaps there was no other job he could have held down besides rock star, but he bothered at least to find something he really loved and took it the whole distance. He had every excuse not to. I would say that he made a choice to use his own struggle as what some people call a "power wound" -- a source of strength instead of merely a disability. This is what most artists do.

<><>The second is that he knew doing his work and making a contrinution required cooperation. The Beatles were, by all accounts, together -- till they were not, and that was honest and real, too. Behind The Beatles was a tight organization of people like Brian Epstein, Peter Brown and Neil Aspinall who steered the ship, who took care of business, dealt with the press and provided some insulation from the chaos.

<><>Last is that he didn't scoff at his own ideals. Through all his wounding, his anger, his sadness and his terror of knowing what this world is about, he carried a simple message throughout his life, one about which there can be no confusion.

<><>Let's get it, people.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one++


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