On 8 December, 1980 at around 10.50pm, John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrived back at their home in New York’s Dakota building from a recording session at the Record Plant. As they walked through the archway of the building a demented fan named Mark David Chapman – who earlier in the day had asked Lennon to autograph his copy of the Double Fantasy album – stepped from the shadows and shot him four times in the back from close range. Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Had he lived he would have turned 80 on 9 October this year and as we prepare to mark the 40th anniversary of his premature death, it’s indicative of his enduring influence that Lennon has become a touchstone in the so-called ‘culture war’ currently convulsing our political discourse.
In the run-up to the anniversary of his death we can expect everyone from Boris Johnson to Black Lives Matter to claim him for their side. There have always been those utopian dreamers who have claimed Lennon as a philosopher king on the strength of Imagine. Others have made him a poster boy for their revolts and revolutions, a socio-political avatar only rivalled by Bob Marley in the pantheon of rock’s radicals.
Then there are those who would blunt his radicalism by co-opting Lennon to the establishment. Lennon and The Beatles were, “never the counter-culture,” according to Daniel Finkelstein, a huge Beatles fan who also happens to be a Tory grandee in the House of Lords and was a senior aide to David Cameron in Downing Street. In Finkelstein’s world view, Lennon was an agent for capitalism for: “Commerce is and always has been the engine of rock music.”
Others still will use the anniversary of his death to denigrate his legacy. Melanie Phillips, a spiteful neo-con social commentator and a long-time scourge of anything to the left of Margaret Thatcher in her columns in The Daily Mail and The Times, excoriates Lennon as an enemy of civilisation whose pernicious influence has undermined the hegemony of Western democracy.
Seeming to stand logic on its head, she sees Lennon’s most famous post-Beatles song as a manifesto of evil. “What we were being told to imagine was not a prescription for loving the whole of the human race, but a denial of our very humanity,” she fulminates. “Lennon’s utopia is not a dream, but a nightmare: a formula for a dystopian war of all against all.”
Heaven knows what Lennon would have made of his legacy being fought over so fiercely and divisively four decades after he sang his last note, but we can hazard an educated guess that amusement, bemusement and perhaps downright anger would all have been in there.
“A part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician,” he said in one of his final interviews before his death. “But I cannot be what I am not.”
Neither can we know what Lennon might have become and what music he might have gone on to make. Paul McCartney has intimated that dying was a smart career move. Had their fates been reversed, would John today be seen as the conservative figure and Paul as the radical icon?
The Beatles’ collective legacy has already been examined in this Music Legends series (HFC 424), but the anniversary of Lennon’s untimely death presents an opportune moment for a critical reassessment of his career as a solo artist, which attempts to rise above the political factionalism of those who would claim him for their own ends.
When the Beatles broke up in 1970, Lennon had not even turned 30. It was a disarmingly young age at which to bear the weight of having changed the world, but under the influence of Yoko Ono, his creative focus had already begun to move beyond the group by as early as 1968.
They had met in November 1966 at one of Ono’s experimental exhibitions and their affair began in earnest in May 1968, while Lennon’s wife Cynthia was away on holiday and he invited Ono to stay at his Kenwood home. They spent the night recording what became the Two Virgins album, after which, Lennon reported, they, “made love at dawn”. When Cynthia returned home, she found Ono in residence and wearing her bathrobe.
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