John Lennon, 1940-1980
In 1971, I wrote something about John and Yoko that they liked a lot, and to show their appreciation they invited me and my girlfriend Dominique to John's 31st birthday party--in Syracuse, where a Yoko Ono retrospective had been mounted. I've never been one to hobnob with the stars, but who could resist John Lennon? He'd always been my own personal Beatle, and probably yours. He was the one who could have been a friend of ours, the one we might have known in school or on the scene--the bohemian, the artist, the intellectual. Still, even after the party jet and the room down the hall from ex-Beatle security, I was reluctant to intrude. But this was the only famous person Dominique had ever wanted to meet in her life, and she wasn't about to let the chance slip by. Eventually we got to the Lennon suite, where J&Y watched themselves on the news and signed 26 autographs for Dominique's fifth-grade class. Among those present was Ringo Starr, grumpy because he'd called room service an hour before and there was still no food.
"Did you tell them who you were?" Lennon asked.
It should go without saying that Ringo hadn't.
"Well, why not?" Lennon asked. "You've got the fucking fame--you might as well get something out of it."
A few weeks later the J&Y entourage picked me up on Avenue B, where the limo attracted more attention than the star--one of the local youngsters thought I was the Beatle, while another didn't know what a Beatle was. After sitting around awkwardly in my dingy living room for a few minutes we repaired to the Cookery for discussions of Chuck Berry's jail years and celebrity as a depletable resource--John wondered whether he should lay low for a while. He seemed astonishingly quick and intense--partly, no doubt, because he was. But it's also true that unprotected by professional obligation I found myself starstruck, and I remember the meeting, our last, with some embarrassment--even as we analyzed how finite his fame was the man radiated an energy that befuddled me, just by being John.
More than most pop stars, Lennon tried to do good with his fame, but that doesn't mean he had much success. By the time I'd met him there'd been bed-ins and the beginnings of war-is-over-if-you-want-it, so mystically well-meaning that they cost him almost nothing and accomplished little more. But less than a year later he squandered his resources on the ill-fated agitprop of Some Time in New York City--the most politically ambitious and artistically impoverished music he ever recorded. After that came the traumatic separation from Yoko and the half-hearted professional rock, a vocation for which this compulsively honest and necessarily direct artist showed little taste. In the end he chose--bravely and wisely--to lay low, to keep silent until he had something to say. Reunited with Yoko, finally a father again, he retreated into domestic pursuits, and when the couple returned to the studio after five years it was their pursuit of mutual retreat that they celebrated. One astute observer said Lennon seemed "infantilized," which is true, but while the record was no Imagine or Plastic Ono Band, I found its candor irrefutable. Lennon had always seemed like someone who might make good new rock and roll when he was 60--and I was 58. Nothing about Double Fantasy damaged that fantasy for me.
Well, the dream is over. Lennon's death was unprecedented. This tragic superstar wasn't another chronic suicide; he wasn't killed, or even murdered. He was assassinated, a fate heretofore reserved for kings, politicians, and captains of industry. Yet as I sit here alternating between my records and WNEW's all-night vigil, I must admit that my feeling of loss is qualified by a false sense of inevitability. We've been expecting this to happen, haven't we, ever since Phil Ochs wrote "Crucifixion" and various assholes (the acid freak who introduced me to the Doors was one) began imagining Bob Dylan's martyrdom?
As I began writing it bothered me that I wouldn't know much about the alleged killer, Mark David Chapman, until after deadline. Then I decided that whether the putative motive was ambulatory anomie or personal ressentiment or even twisted politics, the underlying pathology would be the same--the anonymous eating the famous like a cannibal feasting on testicles. But that's too simple. As my wife said despondently an hour after the event: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon" Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?" The fact is obvious enough. Dylan, of course. Jim Morrison, possibly. Neil Young, conceivably. But Paul McCartney? Neil Diamond? Graham Nash? George Harrison? Ringo Starr? Never--because they don't hold out hope, even if they'd sort of like to be able to. Joh Lennon held out hope. He imagined, and however quietistic he became he never lost that utopian identification. But when you hold out hope, people get real disappointed if you can't deliver. You're famous and they're not--that's the crux of your relationship. You command the power they crave--the power to make one's identity felt in the world, to be known. No matter that the only thing you're sure it's good for is room service. No matter that you're even further from resolving anyone's perplexities than the next bohemian, artist, or intellectual. You're denying your most desperate admirers the release they need, and a certain percentage of them will resent or hate you for it. From there, it only takes one to kill.
Of course, many more of your fans will be like Dominique--enthralled, yet basically self-possessed. And they'll mourn.
Village Voice, Dec. 22, 1980