Lennon's Other Legacy
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
We've spent a lot of time--and money--celebrating John's 70th birthday. But the 30th anniversary of his death offers a cultural milestone that's equally resonant today.
'Tis the season for John Lennon. The former Beatle had the misfortune of being murdered on Dec. 8, 1980, mere weeks after his 40th birthday, and so for the past few months we've had to endure a wearying deluge of documentaries, reissues, biopics, and exhibitions of the sort that only the twinned, round-number, life-bracketing anniversaries of an assassinated pop legend could possibly occasion. At first, it seemed as if the releases might reveal something new about Lennon's music. But now that the date of his death is approaching and the tributes haven't stopped, it's clear that the most revealing thing about this year's anniversary extravaganza isn't some remastered version of "Imagine." It's that Lennon's celebrity--the very thing that killed him--is still large and lucrative enough to inspire such a frenzy of "commemorabilia."
The hullabaloo is a reminder that Lennon, one of the most innovative musicians of the last century, was also a pioneer of fame--a man who courted, commented on, used, retreated from, and was finally consumed by his own gargantuan renown. In the process, he expanded our notion of what stardom could mean, and of what effect it could have. "Our life is our art," Lennon and Yoko Ono told Rolling Stone three days before he died--a novel sentiment in the days before reality TV. As the Kardashian industrial complex tightens its grip on our culture, it's worth reconsidering the lessons of Lennon's celebrity, both the ones we've learned and the ones we're at risk of forgetting.
In the dank basement dressing rooms of Liverpool and Hamburg, Lennon would fire up his fellow Beatles with a bit of call-and-response bonhomie. "Where are we going, fellas?" he'd ask, to which Paul, George, and Ringo would respond, "To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!" Within two years they were there. The problem was that the "toppermost"--defined as the airspace above Elvis--turned out not to be the pleasantest of places. Onstage in Chicago, Lennon was hit in the head with a shoe. In Madrid, the band saw cops beating up its fans. Ringo, a Gentile, received an anti-Semitic death threat in Montreal; at the British Embassy in Washington, a diplomat cut off part of the drummer's mop top as a memento. Show after show, "cripples" (as Lennon unaffectionately called them) materialized backstage, in wheelchairs or oxygen tents, waiting to be healed. In Melbourne, a visiting Liverpudlian shimmied eight stories up a hotel drainpipe to tap on Lennon's window. He eventually offered the lad a drink, but the fanaticism on display was frightening. As Lennon told a reporter in 1965, "We'll either go in a plane crash or we'll be popped off by some loony." Justin Bieber's concerns are presumably less existential.
In the midst of the maelstrom, irony became Lennon's first line of defense. It was also the engine of his allure. From the start, he regarded his own fame with an air of amused detachment, analyzing and mocking the hysterical new mode of stardom he'd come to embody as though he were watching it from one step away. Summoned to perform for the Queen Mother at the Royal Variety Performance in November 1963, Lennon, of course, obeyed. But he couldn't resist exaggerating his bow and asking the audience to "rattle your jewelry" instead of clapping. The group's first U.S. press conference, held at John F. Kennedy International Airport the afternoon they arrived in 1964, was more improvisational, but no less pointed--a satire of self-promotion in real time, with Lennon leading the way.
REPORTER: Would you please sing something?
LENNON: We need money first.
REPORTER: What do you think your music does for these people?
LENNON: If we knew, we'd form another group and be managers. …