On this day in 1940, John Lennon, one of the 20th century’s most important cultural icons, was born in Liverpool, England. Had he not been murdered in December 1980, today would have been his 70th birthday. I’d imagine at this point, a Beatle as a senior citizen is not a foreign concept-both Paul and Ringo are quite active to this day. And perhaps because of the circumstances by which I became familiar with John, he’s always had an old sage quality to him, so mentally picturing him at 70 isn’t incredibly difficult. It’s certainly interesting to wonder what he’d be up to if he were still alive-how he would have reacted to the changes in music and society over the years. If the 40 years that he was alive were any indication, he’d still be raising hell today.
A few of the folks over at Popdose wrote a series of powerful pieces in commemoration of the anniversary of Lennon’s birth. I was tempted to join in, but a combination of being too busy and not really feeling sure how to articulate what Lennon meant to me kept me from participating. After all, I was only 4 when Lennon died, and while I certainly remember the hubbub following his murder (truth be told, his was the first celebrity death I can even remember), it didn’t affect me: not only because I was so young at the time, but because at that age all I knew of John Lennon was from the handful of times I’d heard “(Just Like) Starting Over” on the radio or on “Solid Gold”.
I was officially introduced to The Beatles in fifth grade. I knew who they were before then, and was vaguely familiar with certain songs (especially considering the fact that Paul McCartney was still huge at that time), but when I first heard the tapes of “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” (given to me by my social studies teacher at the time)-well, that’s when I became a fan. As I grew older and discovered the Beatles more, my fanhood was cemented. It’s often been said that every Beatles fan adopts a favorite-you’re either a “John person” or a “Paul person” or a “George person” (something tells me that there are not very many “Ringo people”). Once I really got into their music and started reading up about their history, John was the one I identified most with. He was the most unsettled, the most rebellious, the one who questioned things, the one who was least afraid-the one who most believed in the power of good, and probably the one whose faith in the things he held dear was tested the most. The first T-shirt I ever bought with a musician’s face on it was a John Lennon shirt. What he stood for meant a lot to me even then, and strangely enough, the only two reactions I can remember getting from the shirt probably would have pissed John off. One co-worker at the time (keep in mind that I was working for a national record chain then) wondered if the guy on my shirt was Paul McCartney (yes, I’m serious), and as I was coming out of the subway station one day, an older black gentleman tsk-tsked at me and mumbled under his breath about how wrong I was for wearing a shirt with a white man’s face on it. Proof that not everyone got the message John was trying to send out. What Lennon represents to many people is much bigger than the color of his (or my) skin.
There’s a certain honesty in John’s lyrics, and most importantly, in his voice-no matter the mood. I’ve personally always classified the presence of “soul” in a piece of music by how much the song affects you emotionally. If we use emotional resonance as an arbiter of soul, then John Lennon had more soul than every artist in the current R&B Top Ten combined. He could do playful (I was just listening to “I’m Only Sleeping” earlier today) as well as wistful (“In My Life” and “Watching the Wheels”). He could certainly do bitter (“How Do You Sleep?”) or angry (“Working Class Hero”) as well, and not sound like a hypocrite by turning around and making a song like “Imagine”. He was certainly not afraid to speak his mind. Hearing the words “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” coming out of the speaker floored me the first time I heard it, and I can’t say that there are too many days that I don’t ponder that theory at least once. You can definitely say a piece of art has legs when you’re still pondering a song’s basic concept fifteen years after you first heard it. How many huge-selling artists today would even think of coming out with a record that had that line in it? I’d imagine most record companies would squash a lyric like that for fear that music fans in Middle America would be offended.
Whether you’re a Lennon fan or not-whether you’re a Beatles fan or not-you have to give the man respect just on the basis of the legacy he left. When you hear an artist lay their soul bare on an album-there’s a little Lennon in that. When you see Bono glad-handing world leaders and waging his campaign for world peace-there’s a little Lennon in that. When a formerly youth-identified artist makes his or her settled-down-and-married/wizened-old-person album-there’s some Lennon in that. When Kanye makes seemingly ridiculous statements and gets everyone riled up-guess what? There’s a little Lennon in that. What the man did in forty short years on Earth (and even afterwards) served as a paradigm shift of sorts for musicians, artists and pop stars, and he will continue to touch the souls of people seeking solace or wisdom or answers through art for years to come.