The Day the Music Died

For my birthday my wife Sarit got me the new John Lennon CD box set. The set, besides being a wonderful gift, marked what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday -- October 9, 2010. Unfortunately this year also marks the 30th anniversary of Lennon's untimely death, on December 8, 1980.

I was just eight when I heard the news. My parents played the Beatles constantly, so I knew vaguely who Lennon was, and that his passing was a great loss. Thirty years later, his life and work still loom large. Much of his sustained relevance is testament to his artistic genius and creativity, both with the Beatles and on his own. So many others have addressed Lennon's music talents and legacy, and I am more than content to leave that to those that can address rock and songwriting with more skill than I ever could.

Lennon's timelessness, though, represents more than his gifts as a writer and performer. Two recent films offer a window into Lennon the man. This year's Nowhere Boy depicts Lennon as a teenager, trying to learn who he was and find his place in the world. The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a 2006 documentary, captures Lennon's antiwar activism and the resulting attempts by the Nixon administration to have him deported. Together, these two films are bookend glimpses into what shaped Lennon and how he shaped others.

Nowhere Boy illustrates Lennon's turbulent early years. Director Sam Taylor-Wood, working off an excellent script by Matt Greenhalgh, shows Lennon dealing with an absent father and a mother who only appears intermittently. Just as Lennon is getting to know his mother, she is killed in a car accident. Aaron Johnson, in the lead role, captures Lennon's yearning and longing. Taylor-Wood and Johnson also convey how Lennon's wounds led to both a growing distrust of authority and his use of a quick, biting wit to deal with tough situations.

Arguably no one combined cynicism and idealism better than Lennon. Paul McCartney once described him and Lennon tooling around in the studio. As McCartney gleefully sang "It's getting better all the time," Lennon immediately chimed in with "it couldn't get no worse." Lennon always seemed to keep his distance, which is perhaps why people were so drawn to him. He kept his guard up, and always seemed to regard his celebrity with amusement. After all how was someone who never had a father and who lost his mother supposed to rely on adoring fans?

That's where The U.S. vs. John Lennon comes in. Early in the film directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld tackle the fallout from Lennon's infamous "bigger than Jesus" quote. When you hear the quote in its full context you can see that Lennon was hardly proclaiming the Beatles to be more important or significant than Jesus. Instead, he was commenting on how absurd their fame had become.

Lennon never got wrapped up in himself, much less his celebrity. However, as The U.S. vs. John Lennon shows, he realized his fame could be an instrument for the issues he cared about. Hence the bed-in, "Give Peace a Chance," and a growing voice against the Vietnam War and for other causes dear to him. Even as his activism grew, Lennon did not think that his involvement alone could change things. He said "The war is over ... if you want it." You have to want it and to work for it, I can't do it alone. That may be another reason Lennon's life is so compelling. He was never easy. Lennon always challenged people.

We can never resist someone overcoming adversity, and Lennon faced many challenges. Lennon did so early in his life and again in the 70s by fighting for what he believed in. The U.S. vs. John Lennon vividly details how Nixon's people were offended by Lennon's vocal opposition to U.S. policy. The Nixon Administration, and Nixon himself, were so offended by Lennon that they used every weapon in their arsenal to have him deported. But Lennon did not back down and did not stop speaking out. Like Muhammad Ali, Lennon stuck with his beliefs even at great personal risk.

My favorite scene in The U.S. vs. John Lennon is TV footage of the day when Lennon finally got his green card. The look of joy and fulfillment on his face is overwhelming. You get the feeling that the green card, and everything that came with it, meant so much more to him than any hit record. He now had the freedom to be with his family in New York.

Shakespeare famously wrote, "To thine own self be true." John Lennon was always true to himself. These days many of the rich, famous and powerful seem contrived and phony. Lennon was, and still is, the genuine article, another reason why his legacy remains so strong today. In the mid '70s he walked away from recording to be a full-time "house-husband" and father. He knew what was important to him and didn't care about anything else.

My father often recites his favorite Lennon quote: "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." That line demonstrates Lennon's knowledge that any one person, even himself, only has so much control over his own world. Tragically, Lennon's words proved all too true in his own case. Just as he was mounting a musical comeback, he was killed by a crazed assassin.

Thirty years later, both Lennon's idealism and his cynicism still resonate. Lennon wrote "Imagine" and I imagine him reuniting with the Beatles in the '80s. I imagine my father taking me to see them play. I imagine Lennon as a powerful, much-needed voice against the Iraq war and against our country giving in to fear. But I also imagine Lennon reading the many tributes to him and laughing. I imagine him saying, "Get over it" (in a much more clever way of course). Or maybe he would take us back to "The war is over ... if you want it." Maybe his real enduring message is that a better world comes not through looking at others but at ourselves.

Adam Spector
December 1, 2010

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