Monday, July 11, 2011
On The Killing of John Lennon
John Lennon was murdered by on December 8th 1980 by Mark David Chapman. This is not about that. This is about a killing that in a way is metaphorical, but really more real for those who never actually met John Lennon, which is to say, for all intents and purposes, all of us. So, since it's really the real killing of John Lennon for almost everybody who is alive, I guess you can call the metaphorical killing of John Lennon, in fact, the real killing of John Lennon.
If you run across any random person on the street and play a sample of Imagine, and then play a sample of Happiness Is A Warm Gun, a TON will immediately recognize Imagine, and have no idea what Happiness Is a Warm Gun is. Everybody who knows the latter however will also know Imagine. This infuriates me. It's kind of silly that it does infuriate me, but this is sort of about why it infuriates me.
John Lennon was an interesting person. As already stated, and obvious, none of us ever met John Lennon. We all just have an idea of John Lennon. That idea lives on. So in a way, you could say that John Lennon might still be an interesting person, since the idea of him, which is all we ever had in the first place, still exists. But that would be a lie. Not because he is dead, but because the memory that pervades our society of John Lennon is no longer interesting. John Lennon of today is really no more interesting than Santa Claus. He's a one dimensional figure of goodness to be admired in some sort of abstract way. This bores me and infuriates me, if such a duality is possible in the first place.
John Lennon was at times homophobic and something of an anti-semite. As the kids today might say "he was just doing it for the lulz", but he nearly drove Brian Epstein to nervous breakdowns many, many times, by relentlessly making fun of him for being a gay Jewish man (this despite, and maybe because of, the fact that John openly enjoyed the fact that Epstein was highly attracted to John, even going on a vacation with Epstein, and when he wasn't relentlessly making fun of him, he and Epstein were often close friends. Yes, it was very complex, that's the point). Nobody knows that John would ever say something so reprehensible about somebody who he knew, and knew it hurt his feelings like that. People will get angry at you for pointing it out, despite the fact that there are several recordings of him singing "baby you're a rich man too" as "baby you're a rich fag Jew." "Nope, didn't happen" according to our collective memory of John Lennon. John was obviously an imperfect man, with human imperfections and some vile things that were actually true about him. But that's precisely what was interesting about him, and precisely why he has been murdered in a real sense, in our memories. Because we are forgetting that.
The Beatles were a fascinating band. This is just objectively true. No musical act in history has had even 1/10th of the words written about them as has been written about The Beatles. They were many things, to many people. They were a never ending riddle in a lot of ways. Just when you think you had The Beatles figured out, you find something else out about them that was interesting, fascinating and surprising (or in the case of people who listened to The Beatles in the 60's they actually did something that surprised you). The Beatles were masters of having multiple layers both musically and personality wise. On one level, they were a bubble gum pop act that made several albums before they ever had a single song that didn't include the word Love in it at some point. Yet, even in the early days they were doing things musically, on a sort of below the surface level, that were very complex. Be they interesting melodies, harmonies or harmonic structures. Even their love songs were more complex than the typical "you're beautiful, I love you" fare that was being put out by other bubble gum pop acts of the time.
None of The Beatles fascinated people more than John Lennon. He was acerbic, he was brash, but he could also be gentle and write very humble little sweet songs. His stated goal was to "rock the face off of the world." Yet, many remember him for Imagine. Many remember him as the ultimate symbol for the idea of "Peace, Love, Dope."
At some point, John Lennon became a Hero. A legend. The thing about legends is that we don't like flawed legends. When we call someone our hero, we don't like the idea that this person was flawed, and not really a better person than you or I are, really. When it comes to legends, we like them black or white, not gray. We like our heroes as platonic ideals. And just like you can hear freshman philosophy majors argue whether or not Plato had a platonic place in the platonic world for mud, or if mud was just a weird combination that only existed in reality, as John Lennon became a platonic ideal, we had to get rid of the complicated stuff. John Lennon was mud, beautiful, interesting mud. But we had to turn him into either dirt or water, because those are proper platonic ideals, while mud isn't. That is, we had to get rid of the things that made him interesting and fascinating in the first place. We had to hyper inflate the importance of such a saccharine sweet, completely average song like Imagine, into some canonical masterpiece, while simultaneously forgetting or at least lessening the importance of his much better, much more complex songwriting.
People often think of John Lennon as being a gentle rocker. Nobody listens to the actual Plastic Ono Band album, which still sounds acerbic, and quite frankly, difficult to listen to even today. It's an inconvenient truth that he wasn't actually very gentle, or even kinder than average, as a person, and especially not as a musician.
Another mis-memory of Lennon is that he was pure artistic integrity. That he was completely true to some higher calling of artistic vision, and the money was only accidental. This was completely opposite from the truth. Lennon once remarked in the early days "I'll wear a balloon if people are going to pay me." Yet, this gets ignored, typed over with things about his artistic integrity.
Also, most people forget everything about Cynthia Lennon. People forget that John openly courted her when she was engaged, and that he intimated her husband with repeated threats of physical violence. People forget that Lennon admitted to actually physically abusing nearly every woman (including Cynthia) he had ever had any sort of relationship with, with the exception of Ono.
So, who cares if we misremember John Lennon? Isn't it no more harmful than our idea of Santa Claus as a perfect jolly fat man that brings joy to little kids? In fact, might it even be a good thing that we forget that he was at the very least a woman hitter, among many other flaws? Doesn't this misremembering give us something better to aspire to? Even if these purely white, pristine heroes don't actually exist, might it not be a good thing that we at least pretend that they do?
No, I don't think so. First of all, I think it makes us lessen ourselves. We are mostly intimately aware of just how fucked up we are. I know at times I'm a pretty shitty person, that sometimes does pretty shitty things. I can't not do shitty things occasionally. It's one thing to strive for perfection, but it's quite another thing to think it can be achieved. Beatifying John Lennon into a saint, in a lot of ways, makes us all downgrade ourselves. And there's no surer path to doing more shitty things than downgrading ourselves. By creating this perfect person, we actually push ourselves further away from what we desire to be, instead of helping us get closer.
Secondly, maybe this is just me, but perfect people, even in theory, are boring. They're predictable, they always do exactly what you expect them to do, because they do just the right thing. Fuck that. Those people, even though they don't exist, suck. While some might view the platonic world as a sort of heaven, to me, it'd be a sort of hell, albeit without suffering. Nothing interesting would ever happen. The John Lennon of our collective memories could never have written Happiness Is a Warm Gun, it's too complex for a perfect person to write. A novel about the John Lennon, as we collectively remember him, wouldn't sell any copies at all. It'd be kind of cool for like 5 pages, then you'd realize nothing remotely unpredictable is going to happen, because all he ever would do, according to how we remember him, would be kind and nice and peaceful.
John Lennon was just as fucked up as we all are, just as bad of a person as we all are. He may have been better at expressing that through music than any of us, but that's both the point and besides the point. We do nobody favors, with perhaps the exception of Yoko Ono, when we remember John Lennon as a mythological monolithic figure of pure goodness, love and peace.
Sure, there were many great things about John Lennon, we all remember those, so I didn't feel the need to point them out. And don't think that pointing out all his flaws is a small person's way of belittling a great man. John Lennon was a great man, precisely because he was a man, with all the inherent flaws any man has. When we look at John Lennon and his music, it's far greater to see ourselves than some pure non-entity.
So I'll fight a likely pointless battle against this death of John Lennon, because he can still be saved. Because we live in the information age, a lot of this information is out there. It's impossible to completely rewrite history at this point in an Orwellian sense. But we have to make sure that people know this information. We have to make sure that if people have any idea of John Lennon at all, that they know he was just a person, not a platonic ideal. Because it matters. Because The Beatles still matter, because people still matter. Because imperfections not only matter, but because moments of imperfection are what makes life worth living. Because if I hear another person talk about Imagine being one of the greatest songs ever, I might just do something really shitty to them, and John wouldn't want that.
John Lennon was a dude, who could write great songs and sing relatively well. He both promoted peace and beat women. I think it's important that we remember this.
Posted by FJR at 2:12 PM