By Jason Menard,
On this day, 30 years ago, the world lost one of its most influential poets. And while today’s a day to remember the life and music of John Lennon, it’s also a time for those of us approaching a certain age to consider what else we lost on Dec. 8, 1980.
I was only seven when Lennon was murdered in front of his New York home, so his passing didn’t even factor into my life. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-to-late teens that I discovered The Beatles – and it was very soon after that first exposure that I firmly became a John fan.
What drew me to Lennon’s music was that ability to tell a story through verse. In our teen years, we often identify ourselves through music. Certain songs, certain lyrics resonate with us in a way that we don’t experience as we age. I found in John someone willing to expose himself to the world and share his thoughts and emotions. Love, hate, forgiveness, pettiness, politics, religion, good, and bad – he shared his vision of the world and his thoughts about himself through song.
Teenage boys are notorious for their lack of expressed introspection. They may think and feel things, but they won’t share it or analyze it – after all, you don’t want any cracks to appear in that tough façade. Yet, in my case, listening to Lennon (along with certain other artists) showed that there was strength in sensitivity. It helped me explore more themes in my writing – and while my early attempts were less-than-stellar, it started me on a path where I’m much more comfortable with confessional and analytical writing.
But as important as this introspective work was as a teen, the potential for the future was so much greater. When you listen to the entirety of his work from early Beatlemania to his later solo years, you hear a boy becoming a man. He sang of fear and alienation, he sang of mistakes he made, he sang about love. And, most importantly, he sang of maturing – the arrival of his second son prompting a number of songs that showed he was progressing into that next phase of his life.
For a person who once got in so much trouble for saying The Beatles were bigger than Jesus at the time, popularity-wise, there is no more fitting comparison when looking at what we lost. In Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, Padre Blazon, an elderly Jesuit, discusses how one of the challenges for Christians following Jesus’ path is that because he died at such a young age – early 30’s – adherents are left without an understanding of what Christ would have said, thought, and done as he aged. With the maturity and mellowing that comes with age, would a 60-year-old Jesus have preached the same ministry? Blazon questions how a 70-year-old man can find guidance from a man who only lived 33 years himself. And so he continues to search for a God for the aged.
Excepting the loss of Lennon’s life, that’s the greatest loss from this tragedy 30 years ago today. We were beginning to hear what a more mature Lennon had to say. Contrast his introspection over his relationship with Yoko and Sean to that of his first family with Cynthia and Julian.
A 40-year-old Lennon was well on his way to helping to define middle age, just as he chronicled the rebellion and passion of youth. For those of us who related to his music, it would have been fascinating to see where that journey took him – and how he interpreted the path.
In the end, though, perhaps those song lyrics left unwritten may be the most fitting, albeit tragic, conclusion to Lennon’s musical legacy. Much of what Lennon sang about in his later years related to throwing off the shackles of society’s expectations and living one’s own life. A song like God, where John acknowledges the mantles he assumed in the past but grew out of: “I was the dreamweaver/But now I’m reborn/I was the Walrus/But now I’m John”
For a man who grew up in the mass hysteria of Beatlemania, he encouraged his fans to discover who they were as individuals. As God ends, “And so dear friends/You’ll just have to carry on/The dream is over.” Whether the message comes from a cult leader or Oprah, no one should blindly follow whatever their personal guru expresses. But the power of song is that it lets you know someone else has experienced what you’re going through at that moment – and that’s an incredibly powerful message.
Neil Young may have said it’s better to burn out than to fade away. But in the case of Lennon, the lessons he would have learned as the flames of youth burned down to embers would have been fascinating to hear.