The Lennonzen

Today is not only the Day of Atonement, it's John Lennon's birthday (October 9, 1940). Here's a tribute to Lennon that I wrote in
Jewish Currents in March-April, 2005. I think it bears repeating.

When it came to fame, the Beatles stood apart from all the rest. early in the '60s, Lennon described the group as "more popular than Jesus," and he wasn't half wrong. But John used that top-of-the-world celebrity status to broadcast a wonderfully democratic message. When the Beatles were featured in the first international satellite television broadcast, viewed by many millions of people around the globe, John pooh-poohed celebrity and the cult of the individual by singing:

There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung. . . .

All you need is love.

And long after the Beatles broke up, he persisted in telling his fans: Never mind idol-worshipping. I'm just a pained, uncertain, evolving human being, like you — and each of us should be valued and given the chance for fulfillment. "Because we all shine on/ like the moon and the stars and the sun . . ." ("Instant Karma," 1970). Because "Whatever gets you thru the night, it's all right" (Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," 1974). Because:

Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear.

Why in the world are you there

When you're everywhere!

Come and get your share!
"Instant Karma"

And rather than responding to the emptiness of celebrity by turning to mysticism, Lennon took the existentialist plunge: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," he wrote ("God, 1970). "I don't believe in —" and he listed every idol imaginable, including the Beatles themselves. Yet his skepticism was never despairing, for he could imagine a world "of no heaven . . . no country . . . no possessions . . . no religion . . ."

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
"Imagine" (1971)

When John Lennon died (December 8, 1980), I was 29, working as assistant editor of Jewish Currents, and trying to understand my elders, who formed its backbone community. Paul Novick, the 90-year-old editor of the Morgn Freiheit, wrote in that paper about the public outpouring of grief over John's murder. In an amazed and humble tone, Novick confessed to ignorance and wonder about how beloved a figure John had been. I was reminded of another great democratic artist, Sholem Aleichem, who had been similarly mourned in 1916. The "generation gap" was thus bridged by love — and here I am, still mourning for John and working, once again, for Jewish Currents.


Blogger Fred Mindlin said...

Interesting parallel, Larry. There's a wonderful tribute to John in the form of an animated film based on an interview with him in 1969 done by the film's producer, then 14 years old. He hid in the closet of John's hotel room with a tape recorder...


8:14 PM  
Blogger Cyber said...

A beautiful post, nicely illuminating a beautiful life. I remember when the crowd of mourners were around his house following his murder, they were singing "All we are saying is give peace a chance" over and over and over in the rain. A bit too young then to go, I was listening on the radio. "Imagine" was my wedding song and I've always had a special feeling for John Lennon, warts and all. May his memory be for a blessing.

9:41 PM  

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