Instant History "Flashback" by Bryce Zabel
John Lennon would have been 67 years old today (October 9) had he not been gunned down 27 years ago on December 8, 1980. Both Time and Newsweek gave over their covers to Lennon's passing. I've chosen Newsweek to focus on because it has that haunting portrait by Richard Avedon. Also, I had previewed the first Newsweek cover to feature the Beatles back in 1964 in an earlier post, and it's interesting to compare how the coverage changed in those intervening years.
Newsweek devoted twelve entire pages to the death of John Lennon in a special "pull-out" coverage. It contained a handful of separate articles entitled: "Death of a Beatle" which was the news coverage, "Lennon's Alter-Ego" about assassin Mark David Chapman, "Strawberry Fields Forever" about the influence of the Beatles, and "An Ex-Beatle 'Starting Over'" about Lennon's new emergence on the public scene after nearly five years of absence.
"Come together, he had once asked them in a song, and now they came, tens of thousands of them, to share their grief and shock at the news. John Lennon, once the cheeky wit and sardonic soul of the Beatles, whose music had touched a generation and enchanted the world, had been slain on his doorstep by a confused, suicidal young man who had apparently idolized him. Along New York's Central Park West and West 72nd Street, in front of the building where Lennon had lived and died, they stood for hours in tearful vigil, looking to each other and his music for comfort."
But, of course, there was no comfort because no matter how many times we sang "Imagine" that week, nothing would bring him back. I remember hearing the news myself -- at the time I was a CNN correspondent in Los Angeles (we had just gone on the air) and I was at home and saw it on the TV. I immediately called my brother and told him and he seemed to react like, "So why are you calling me?" About a half hour later he called back and said he didn't know what he was thinking -- he was devastated like the rest of us. Looking back, I think his delayed reaction came from the sheer out-of-left-field unthinkablility of the news. Nobody saw this coming.
The magazine called Lennon the "unofficial" leader of the Beatles, cited his "numinous influence" on pop culture and noted: "the killing stunned the nation -- and much of the world -- as nothing had since the political assassinations of the 1960s."
"Lennon, semiconscious and bleeding profusely, was placed in the back seat of Officer James Moran's patrol car. 'Do you know who you are?' Moran asked him. Lennon couldn't speak. 'He moaned and nodded his head as if to say yes,' Moran said... Though doctors pronounced Lennon dead on arrival at Roosevelt (Hospital), a team of seven surgeons labored desperately to revive him. But his wounds were too severe. There were three holes in his chest, two in his back and two in his left shoulder. 'It wasn't possible to resuscitate him by any means,' said Dr. Stephen Lynn, the hospital's director of emergency services. 'He'd lost 3 to 4 quarts of blood from the gun wounds, about 80 percent of his blood volume." After working on Lennon for about half an hour, the surgeons gave up, and went to break the news to Yoko."
Newsweek gave Lennon and the Beatles a great deal more credit for their music than they had 16 years earlier. "These are great songs. If they are pop, then clearly pop is capable of greatness in expressing the pathos of mass society." Lest we give them too much credit, however, for "getting it", that same article concludes talking about the song "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", never mentioning (or knowing) that the "gun" was not a firearm, but a hypodermic needle.
Lennon never gave up his passion for social justice. On the day he was shot, John and Yoko had decided on a trip to San Francisco for the following week to walk with Asian workers who were demonstrating for wage equality. Let's close with Yoko Ono's own words:
"Some people are saying this is the end of an era. But what we said before still stands -- the 80s will be a beautiful decade. John loved and prayed for the human race. Please tell people to pray the same for him. Please remember that he had deep faith and love for life and that, though he has now joined the greater force, he is still with us."
A couple of years ago, the Chicago Tribune did some excellent coverage on the murder and its impact and, because of this blog, I even found myself quoted in the piece by reporter Mark Caro.
So 25 years after his death, to many people, Lennon equals peace. Then again, to many kids, Lennon equals pajamas with cute little animals on them, thanks to Ono's licensing of her late husband's whimsical artwork. To some young adults, Lennon may equal the anthemic soundtrack to a sneaker ad. To others, he may simply be a name from the past.
None of these equations, of course, captures the man in all of his complexities and talents, but that's what time does. "It's like there's only so much room in the national cultural hard drive, so as you continue to add more stuff, you don't remember everything about everything anymore," said Bryce Zabel, a screenwriter ("The Poseidon Adventure") and former chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "John Lennon as a solo artist has been reduced to `Imagine,' and as a cultural icon he's been somewhat reduced to the `Give Peace a Chance' guy."
With Lennon not here to create new memories of someone who, if he'd lived, would have turned 65 this October, he has become everyone's property, to be interpreted and shaped in ways that say as much about the beholders as the beholden.