Friday, December 16, 2005
Imagine if John Lennon hadn't been assassinated 25 years ago - what would he make of our troubled world? - [Sunday Herald]
by Ian Bell - Sunday Herald Scotland
I’m not sure, but I think I wrote one of the obituaries for John Lennon. It was a long time ago. Last week’s anniversary of his murder confirmed as much, with one of those intimations of mortality you could probably do without: the Beatle was around for half my life, and for half my life he has been gone.
Unless age has overtaken you in such a manner, you probably cannot begin to grasp Lennon’s significance, or care.
Entire generations have come to adulthood who can’t see what all the fuss was about. Some of them think The Beatles were a bit silly, at best. Many more regard Lennon as a preaching, self-involved prat. In certain moods, I agree with them.
Then I listen again. Twenty-five years after his death, Lennon still strikes me as a songwriter of real significance.
I wonder, how would a living Lennon have figured? John, wherever he is, wants to have fun with my wishful thinking. He says that, yes, of course, obviously, sooner or later he would have wised-up and told Yoko to find her own career. He says he would have remembered, sooner or later, that his vocation was rock and roll, not cheesy ballads, and that if Jagger felt capable of taking the stage in his 60s, John Winston Lennon would not be hanging around in the wings.
And the peace thing?
These days, "the peace thing" is a bigger deal than ever. In his day, remember, Lennon was roundly mocked for what seemed infantile, simplistic rhetoric. Lying in bed, or in the bag, or inviting "world leaders" to plant acorns in the name of harmony: his head had been bent out of shape, surely, by Ms Ono? Even when he stated the obvious – you couldn’t not talk about Vietnam, even if you were a mere pop star – his reward was a level of media ridicule without recent parallel. Thanks to ego, or honesty, or both, he wouldn’t shut up. I doubt he would be silent today.
The modern world abounds with peace movements, each one desperately needed, and each of them in some degree in a line of descent from Lennon and his antics. It involves a question Elvis Costello put best in a song title, a question often deemed relevant at this time of year: what’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
All You Need is Love; Give Peace A Chance: old men put their lives at stake in Baghdad, in orange jump-suits, simply to reiterate the proposition. Like Lennon, they are not "practical", they are not "realistic". They misunderstand the geopolitics and fail to grasp the impossibility of success. But for every doubting question, John, in his time, had a question of his own: what else is a person supposed to do?
The riposte was a good one, but it improves with age. My fond belief is that Lennon, alive, would be more radical then ever. I doubt that he would have become more sophisticated, but these days I am suspicious of sophistication. Look up the early, Elizabethan definition of the word and you might see what I mean. A 65-year-old Lennon contemplating the Iraq crime would probably have asked: "What is this shit?" I’m not certain you need to ask much more.
Early death, the extinguishing of talent, and the media’s mania for anniversaries each tend to distort our view of personalities. Lennon has been idealised absurdly. The record shows that he was often a son of a bitch, sometimes violent, always egotistical, possibly disturbed. Vast success turned him into a spoiled brat while, appropriately, he was still a kid. Earlier tragedies allowed the motherless child to believe he had licence for almost any sort of behaviour. His redemption came in the form of self-awareness: he understood himself, good and bad, and decided that love was the answer.
You could do worse. The old boy up in rock and roll heaven, still having a laugh at the expense of a middle-aged fan, insists that he was always smart, but not clever. All he did was talk simple sense. (Mr Lennon, senior citizen: "OK. Hands up. Who doesn’t, in fact, want to give peace a chance? It’s almost Christmas. So what have you actually done, recently? By the way, who doesn’t need love?") The hairy guitarist they treated as a loon turned out to be a practical philosopher. History is littered with parallels.
On another day, in a different mood, I might have been less indulgent. This morning I prefer to believe that Lennon, alive, would have been one voice – a loud one, with leather lungs – among many millions saying: "Just stop." The absence of peace has been humanity’s default position since we stumbled out of the caves and war has one endlessly recurring feature: it’s useless. Doesn’t work. That was John’s insight, the wisdom of a five-year-old, but it pierces still.
Pop music fascinates some of us because it is full of paradoxes. Here’s one: when you reach the age at which rock and roll should no longer matter, it matters more. When you are old enough to conclude that cheap music is trivial and irrelevant, it somehow begins to seem profound. When you have all the education you can use, when you are up to your armpits in "culture", simplicity acquires an extraordinary value. And once you have run through the philosophers and the political scientists, one dead, over-paid scallie talking about peace becomes someone you are glad to have had in your life.