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[Editor's Note: For more on John Lennon, please visit our sister site, Newstalgia]
He sat alone in the corner of Max's Kansas City, three tables away, where I and my young bandmates went to hear Bo Diddley one night. We, and the rest of the crowd, left him alone. That's why he loved New York.
It speaks to John's gifts as a communicator that "Imagine," which is so clearly hostile to God and religion, is so popular in our heavily theocratic society. I'm not an atheist, but atheists who are looking for an anthem should track down a bootleg copy of "Serve Yourself," his answer song to Dylan's Christian hymn "Gotta Serve Somebody." It's hilarious, profane, and cuttingly anti-religious.
(Other atheist anthems include Bad Religion's "American Jesus" and Motorhead's "No Voices in the Sky.")
Lefties should check out the 1971 interview he and Yoko did with Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, where Lennon mixed a hostility toward what he called "God shit" with some die-hard Marxist terminology - although he and Yoko retain some of their unique stylistic flourishes as they chat with Robin and Tariq. He also gives us a glimpse into his polemical brilliance when he talks about the use of simplicity.
Would John have supported the Occupy movement? Last July 4th, when I was hoping more people would "declare independence" from corporate politicians and charismatic corporate politicians, I quoted him:
"You make your own dream ... If you want to save Peru, go save Peru ... Don't expect Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or John Lennon or Yoko Ono or Bob Dylan or Jesus Christ to come and do it for you. You have to do it yourself."
Yoko would know better than I, but they sure sounds like the words of an Occupy supporter to me.
Could somebody like Lennon be a star today? Ask yourself how well he'd do on American Idol - or if he'd even bother trying.
John was the best New Yorker Liverpool ever produced. He was a fine American who happened to have been born in Great Britain. Yeah, yeah, I know he was a difficult person in real life. And maybe he got musically lazy sometimes. But he gave it his all, he kicked down a lot of doors, and he sure left us a lot to appreciate.
Here are 31 things I still appreciate about him 31 years after his death on December 8, 1980:
- That screaming wail that opens "Mr. Moonlight"
- The way his primal album anticipated punk music
- How cool he looked chewing gum on stage
- Playing the organ with his elbow when I saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium for my 13th birthday
- Putting words from "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" to music ... in 1966
- Not being afraid to appear ridiculous in pursuit of a good cause
- Always being willing to care too much, rather than too little
- Embodying the very opposite of "ironic detachment," which has been the definition of what it means to be "hip" for far too long (see #7 above)
- ... thereby being the inspiration for Kurt Cobain (see #7, #8 above)
- Being publicly insecure ("I'm a good guitar player," he said in an interview. "I know I'm not technically that great, but Clapton says I'm good")
- Writing simple sounding but deceptively complicated melodies
- The fact that "Sexy Sadie" was originally called "Maharishi" (explains a lot, doesn't it?)
- Using Asian scales in songs like "Oh My Love"
- Writing a song about karma - and then having Phil Spector produce it
- His feelings about Yoko - theirs is one of the great love stories of all time
- That line from "Backbeat," which I have the feeling he probably really said to Astrid: "I'm not angry, sister, I'm desperate"
- Having the greatest voice in rock and roll.
- That 3/4-size Rickenbacker (if anybody wants to buy me one, I'll send you my address)
- That single-cutaway Les Paul Junior (see #18, above)
- Turning the line "Power to the People" into a gospel chorus
- Not being afraid to let other men see him baking bread and taking care of his child
- His willingness to admit he was wrong. "I changed me mind," he would tell interviewers.
- Giving 100% to everything he sang or played, even if that meant taking a big risk.
- Double-tracking his vocals on "Yes It Is." I didn't notice he'd done it until George Harrison ratted him out in a clip that's shown in Scorsese's Harrison movie (though you can hear it if you listen closely). It still gives me chills ...
- John, I forgive you the whole "Revolution" thing ("out, in" - we were all confused then)
- His dedication to honesty
- Being an proto-rapper ("Give Peace a Chance")
- Being prepared to go to Memphis and march with the laundry and restaurant workers who were out on strike (as he was reportedly about to do at the time of his death)
- Adopting New York City as his home and living there until the end
- Embracing each new passion without hesitation, even if it contradicted the one that preceded it. "the way to know God," said Van Gogh, "is to love many things." (sorry, John! I know it's "God shit.")
- The last line in "Working Class Hero," which was something of a "Twilight Zone" ending: "If you want to be a hero, then just follow me" ...
He sat alone in the corner of Max's Kansas City, three tables away, where I and my young bandmates went to hear Bo Diddley one night. We, and the rest of the crowd, left him alone. He was just happy to be there. We just were happy to have him with us.
For a while, that was enough.