the still-surprising John Lennon

The anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination forty years ago has brought forth a rich crop of rediscovered valedictions from 1980, one notably by Robert Christgau, the dean of rock critics, written on rush deadline for the Village Voice. Read this (as I have for the first time this week) and you understand exactly why they “crucified” him, (as Lennon predicted they would in the bouncy but bitter Beatles song near the end of his time with the band, “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”)

Christ you know it ain’t easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going
They’re going to crucify me

Christgau wrote of this sad consequence of Lennon’s idealism in his 1980 farewell:

“As my wife said despondently an hour after the assassination: “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. John 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.”

That insight remains true, don’t you think? It’s tragic, but it’s also astonishing how creative Lennon was, how much he gave, how much light he shed. This year, in the pandemic, Lennon’s ground-breaking flight from music and fame by choice in the 1970s. choosing to be a “househusband” became — says Rolling Stone — more timely than ever. In a best of the pandemic records for this year list they extoll Lennon’s first solo record.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was released nearly 50 years ago, but with songs like “Working Class Hero,” “Mother,” and “God,” it’s remained more relevant than ever. “Isolation” is particularly fitting, and not just for its obvious title. It’s a song about Lennon shedding his Beatles skin and revealing himself for the first time, while admitting that he and Yoko are just like everyone else — afraid of being alone and trying to make the world a better place. Celebrities can wallow in their wealth and sing “Imagine” all they want, but it’s “Isolation” that truly captures this horrifying moment. ” —A. Martoccio

As he sang:

People say we got it made
Don't they know we're so afraid
Isolation

Up until the very end of his life he remained capable of surprising us, and even perhaps of surprising himself. I was pleasantly shocked and thoroughly charmed to read in a last interview with the New York Times Lennon rhapsodize about the younger self he rediscovered out walking:

“There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. That’s what I learned in the last five years. I rediscovered [in Hong Kong], the feeling I used to have as a youngster, walking in the mountains of Scotland with an auntie. You know, you’re walking [gestures fast] and the ground starts going beneath you, and the heather, and the clouds moving above you, and you think, Ah, this is the feeling they’re always talking about, the one that makes you paint or put it into poetry because you can’t describe it any other way. I recognized that that feeling had been with me all my life. The feeling was with me before the Beatles.

So this period was to re-establish me, as me, for myself. That’s why I’m free of the Beatles. Because I took time to free myself, mentally, from it, and look at what it is. And now I know. So here I am, right? It’s beautiful, you know. It’s just like walking those hills.”

from the cover of the 1998 box set of Lennon solo recordings

Amen John. Miss you still.

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