Today is John Lennon’s birthday. The founder of the Beatles, one of the most fascinating musicians of all time would have been 71 had his life not been cut short by a deranged fame-seeking loner. Though he has been gone for over three decades, Lennon remains a compelling figure; a man who has been admired, studied, written about, talked about and portrayed by a countless array of performers. And rarely does a day go by when his most lasting contribution to the world – his music – is not heard on the radio, downloaded by a new fan, performed by an aspiring bar band or discussed at length by those of us still enraptured by his incredible legacy.
Why does John Lennon have such a hold on the world 31 years after his death? In the pantheon of artists who passed away before their time, why is Lennon the most singular figure? It can be argued that in terms of their relative impact on music, Elvis Presley was more significant – the man who basically took blues and melded it with country to forge it into rock & roll. But what is Elvis today? A punchline, fodder for cheesy impersonators in bad wigs mumbling “Thank you, thank you very much.” Towards the end of his life, Elvis became symbolic of the worst excesses of the rock star – bloated, hiding in a cavernous mansion, shooting televisions, eating deep fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and finally succumbing to drugs in his bathroom. While John Lennon certainly had his eccentricities – the bed-ins, the strange recordings of screaming and warbling passed off as “art” – the main reason he doesn’t turn up in the pages of the Enquirer having just been spotted at a supermarket, is that in his message – one of a lasting hope for peace – there is nothing to mock.
Some stars seem more than human. They appear, whether intentionally on their part or not, to inhabit a celestial echelon unattainable by we mortals who gaze upon them from afar with admiration. While John and indeed all four of the Beatles were arguably the greatest and most influential stars of music of all time, what endeared them most to their fans was that throughout the peaks and pitfalls of their career, they always seemed human. They never took themselves as seriously as they could have given the astronomical heights of their achievements, and remained for all intents and purposes, regular lads. They were not perfect nor did they pretend to be; they made mistakes, they fought amongst themselves, they spoke from their hearts without filters and without poll-testing and clearing everything through publicists first. Like the Buddha, they simply were. The honesty of their music and the positivity of the message that resulted from that honesty could not help but touch the soul.
As The Beatles wound down, John chose to devote himself to the cause of peace. He was an unlikely messenger for it – a man who admitted his faults, who did not attempt to veil the rage inside. He could be horrible to those closest to him, particularly to his own family and dearest friends. But just as only Nixon could go to China, a man like John, full of anger and bitterness towards the world, was the only one who could communicate the need for peace so vividly, so completely and so perfectly. We all have that rage inside. We resent the misfortunes that have been thrust upon us through what we feel is not our fault. We want to scream and curse at the whole world. We are all that angry boy crying for his lost mother. And we can overcome it.
John Lennon asked us in the simplest terms, only to imagine peace – knowing that imagining is the first step to making it happen. Most importantly, he recognized that peace was too important a message to be limited to the leadership of one, it must be a mantle taken up by the many. In one of his last interviews, John scoffed at the idea that people considered him a guru, or a messiah. He didn’t want that. He wanted to make his music and be left alone. More than that, he specifically did not want people to rely on him to tell them how to look at the world. In “God,” John steps back from that leadership role, singing, “I was the walrus, but now I’m John. And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on.” This line isn’t a cynical rejection. He knew that people had the capacity to make peace in their own way and that was the only way peace was going to happen. He still sings it to us today and challenges us to take up the torch in his absence.
In one of his most notorious quotes, John once observed that The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus. It’s perhaps dangerous ground to tread, but the popularity of the Beatles and of John Lennon can be likened to that of Christianity in its appeal – in its ideal, most uncorrupted form – to the best parts of ourselves. No matter our stripe, we’re all looking for the answer. John told us that it was love, but he left it up to us to find that love on our own. The challenge of faith is in maintaining the devotion to the search, in the recognition that the realization of the objective may never come until the very end. But the road is worth the walk. And so on John Lennon’s 71st birthday, we lace up our shoes and set out again with his songs playing on our iPod and his dream alive forever in our hearts.