The bombs rattled through the week.
The worst bombing of the war. German hate rained from the sky. Slamming, explosive, percussive. This once proud port city, now battered in ruin. Mortar and brick reduced to gravel and dust And blood. And, more pounding. More than sanity could endure.
And then, one night, abruptly a gap.
On October 9th, 1940, an uneasy calm fell over the night, and soon Mimi got a call. Julia had given birth to a son. She came as soon as she could to meet her sister, and the boy who would change their lives forever.
I was writing in my girlfriend’s kitchen. She and her children were visiting her parents in Shrewsbury and I had the place alone to finish a presentation for a class on “Myths and Legends”. It wasn’t a theater or radio class, and so held little interest to me. But, there’d be no passing without the project so, never one to easily relent to pressure not of my own making, I was stuck. The Pats were on tv in the other room. Game to the wire. I was writing at the kitchen table. Words cane out they landed nowhere, stubbornly refusing sentence structure. I would write, and then pace. Write and then Grab a beer, check the game on TV, then back sporadically to write words that meant nothing to any of the others on the page.
I heard Howard talking from the TV in the other room. It sounded like something had happened. I walked in to find the score tied and John Smith lining up to kick with seconds left on the clock. Then the phone rang. I dont remember how it fell. There were shards everywhere. My girlfriend on the phine. “Did you hear?” The game was coming down to the wire, but the world was only hearing one thing. “John Lennon … shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.” My girlfriend telling me he was wounded. More calls. Rumores, conspiracies, bargaining, denial, rage. The game in overtime. Howard reiterating “dead … on … arrival.”
I read my paper aloud in class that next morning, still drunk, with no sleep. I said there were no heroes left. No myths or legends left. Everything we believed had been shattered, slammed, broken and discarded. Did we have a God? Did we have soldiers to admire? Police to trust? Laws to believe? Reasons to be, other than to simply breath through another day of pollution in the stench of a dying world? Were we here to move through a rote existence as fodder for the grind? What was left for those with imagination? What was left for those who longed to believe? What was left for those whose spirit yearned toward a greater cause? Dr. King, John and Bobby, Malcomb X. Any ray of hope, condemned for the sin of shining.
The pounding relentless, percussive existence, the wars, the traffic, the hatred. People living on the streets of the most powerful societies on earth. People with so much, feeding off those who could not feed their children. All of us huddled together under the savage canopy of an unjust heaven. I looked up from my presentation and saw tears in my friend Keira’s eyes. Her over-mascaraed face streaming. Tears in a few others. Embarrassment and shuffling in some. The usual sleepy college drift in most. But, tears welled in me. And anger. Alive with the death of anger, I rained hatred and spoke more lucidly than I ever had in that class, the words having finally joined in a chorus of disappointment and rage.
I got a D on the assignment. It bore no relation to the class, they said. Nor were the teachers, both two generations older, particularly moved. Another of the punk generation, railing against the supposed ills of a society from which they nonetheless fed. The world was shattered that day. But they had grades to keep, and a reputation to uphold in this fucking school that taught the worst conformity in the guise of artistic creative expression. I walked broken through hallways unslept and unkempt hugging, crying, raging. There was a vigil that night. All of us packed into a cold wet night holding candles, singing his songs, which were our songs. There were punks, hippies, business folk, students and workers. I saw a man in a suit with his arm around a pink haired girl. It was a strange mix and spoke to the universality of love that comes from music, and came from this man. There was a commotion behind me. I turned and someone’s dog was excitedly wanting to play, trying to pull his family away, unsure why he was at the park if not to play. No one was upset, and we all took turns playing with the dog. It was incongruous to the mood and a perfect counterpoint to our feelings.
At some point I had sung myself out, was freezing and hadn’t found the solace I wanted. I just gave up and made my way to Alan and Donny’s and sat and stared at the television for a week.
It It seems strangely fitting that many of the progenitors of the rock generation were born in the rattle and rubble of war. The worst bombing anyone had ever known. The relentless pounding of the cities, buildings shaking, the streets rattling beneath. Mick and Keith, Ray, Pete and Jimmy all born amidst the rubble and sludge of war. The rocks of war. Kids who grew up in broken fields, playing in the rocks, eating rations.
England had nothing then. Well, nothing except a bumper crop of babies. Babies no one knew what to do with. So, they sent them to school. The good students were packed away to what was left of good schools, keeping the upper crust flaky. The lesser were sent to technical schools trained to support the rebuilding. And the rest, those whose minds worked in less linear ways, who were battered inside, were poor or sickly, or could actually draw were sent to art school. Sure. There’s no economy. Give em some quills and call it a day.
Rattled loose from the moorings the Rock generation came of age hiding transistor radios under tattered covers in bed, listening to transmissions from pirate stations that played music from America. Black music from America. The same music Bobby Zimmerman listened to under thicker covers in iron belt Minnesota. The same music stolen from the slaves, stolen from Africa, that Keith was hearing in Dartford, and Ray on Muswell Hill and John up north in the forgotten hash of Liverpool in a house called Mendips on Menlove Avenue. All lost in the trance of ancient drummers calling from the dark continents of the heart. Songs of pain and misery that rose up in the glory of God and love and sex and sex and sex. And, just as the boys were old enough to begin to stroke their own night rhythm, came a king from Memphis. And, that just shook their world open. And soon those boys would burst from their covers and reenact the percussive pounding of their birth. They’d steal and plead and cry to have some uncle, mother or friend fork up for a mail-order guitar. And out they rode into the night to bang their choruses of rage and love and hormones through garages, back lots and empty rooms across the country.
Rock was forged from the rubble of war, and would, in turn, unleash its pounding fury on the world. A music born of anger and fueled by the rebellion inherent in the self-hatred of a race born into an exploding world. And John was the heart of that rhythm. His Irish sea captain’s ferocious drive, the incessant strumming of his guitar. His ability to lead by the brute force of a will to survive. John butted his way through schools, and created bands around him to play skiffle, and a new music mash up of rhythm and blues, soul, jive, folk, skiffle, country, rock-a-billy, rock n roll and pop. His Beatles became the first and ultimate punk band. Leather clad, slicked hair, amphetamine fueled adrenaline, hammered into shape in strip clubs on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, where they learned to “mach show”, pete best hitting the bass drum on every beat in order to pound the rhythm into the hearts and minds and night. Coming back home after these excursions, they were welcomed and tempered by the girls who adored them and nurtured by their mothers – Pete best’s mom who had the club that they played their first domestic residency, george’s mom who would make them food and offer a place to rehearse.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that women, or Dakinis which represent the feminine principle, call forth the teachings, nurture them and bring them into corporeal form. When it comes to magic, women always lead. Men follow, grudgingly, to church, or war, to work and to the dance floor. The Dakinis loved John. They adopted him, and fed him and adored him and his band until the men had to join in, and the world around them could no longer ignore the din. Most of their contemporaries at the time regarded this period as their greatest. They hadn’t had a hit yet, but their reputation resounded before them.
When that fist hit came, the entire country opened to them. Three hits later, and it was the world. And, again it was the girls who screamingly heralded the arrival of a new wave of human thinking.
But, world dominance comes at a price. And the leather clad punk band gave way to cheeky lads in Edwardian suits. The tightly honed fusion of beat, and rhythm and audience, gave way to a screaming spectacle. “The fans gave their money”, George Harrison was said to quip, “but the Beatles gave their nervous systems.”
Other than delivering milk for his uncle, John had never really had another job. He was a millionaire at 21. He was the oldest and first of his generation to open the doors of the heart of the world. Soon, the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Yardbirds followed bringing American music to America and re-establishing British honor, financially and culturally. You cannot overstate the role the British invasion played in reestablishing Britain’s self-respect, economic stability and cultural integrity on the world stage. The Beatles were controversially awarded the MBE in recognition. They were invited to play for the queen, at which point Lennon famously quipped “would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.” The world was in love and hate with his arrogance and brilliance. Though he did what he could to squeeze his enormous passions into a commercially suitable box, John continued to head butt his way through life accruing the adulation of fans, the respect of peers but also enemies, great controversy and death threats.
The band ended touring, and went on retreat in India with Maharishi Marahesh Yogi. That relationship was eye opening, and I think had karmic effects for the band, who were to begin disintegration into the separate facets of genius from which it was comprised. Lennon wrote some of his most wonderful songs there, and shortly after: “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “Dear Prudence”, “Across The Universe” and most notably “Sexy Sadie” which was initially entitled “Maharishi” (“what have you done? You’ve made a fool of everyone”) and the line “you came along to turn on everyone” was perfect double entendre, and a beautiful example of his acerbic wit. But, the band fell apart.
And, then came Yoko. And then came the most public courtship, relationship artistic statement, which became a life screaming out loud in public. At one point in the sessions for the movie “Let it Be” (then titled “Get Back”), Lennon sits with Yoko at his side, and asks Ringo to crash the cymbal to “give me the courage to come screamin’ in.” And then they began “Don’t let Me Down” a song which is a perfect example of the harsh, rugged savage grace of the man, still frightened, still honest, and despite being one half of the most successful songwriting partnership in history, willing to ask his partner for a cymbal to give him courage. I hear the Irish shanty troubadour in him. His relentless drive, imploring the world to listen.
And Yoko Ono, avant guard Japanese underground New York art celebrity either pursued, or ignored him; manipulated or liberated him; enslaved or nurtured him, became his port in the storm. They bonded with a fierceness that consumed both of them, and eclipsed his all boy world. He said, being with Yoko was like being with my mates, except we can go to bed together. In interviews with the two of them he is at one admiring, in love, amazed and also rudely dominant. He interrupts, criticizes, cuts her off, as well as agrees and supports her, sometimes in the same sentence.
He begins a life in public, in bed with her, in bags with her, merging art, pop, communication and activism. He is narcissistic, self-involved millionaire whose genius was to be as he was, and turn it all to promote the good in society. He had a political sloganeer’s knack for a great line, and some of them – “All You Need Is Love”; “Give Peace a Chance”; “Imagine”; “War is Over (If You Want It)” changed things at the time, and have lived with us for a long time. Lennon felt a responsibility to himself to live honestly. But, he also had a genuine love of the world, and the need to use his good fortune and high visibility to help that world.
In 1975, that came to rest, as John settled in to New York City, a regular fixture on the Upper West Side. He turned his business over to his wife, who employed an astrologer to help turn his earnings into millions. Lennon believed in astrology, studied Tibetan Buddhism and UFO’s. They were passions of his, along with wife and child, his box of incredible weed and a television he would surf through endlessly in his Dakota mancave. Some say he remained a junkie. Others claim that those days ended with marriage. Some claim he was bisexual, or even gay, that he used people, that he squandered fortunes even as he pretended to care for the downtrodden. He was violent, chauvinistic, boorish and, at least when Paul met him at Woolton Fete in ’57, had bad breath. What is clear is that he suffered from depression, and a need to isolate. The man never had a job, except to have every word he uttered become a significant statement. He never had a childhood, except the one he was never released from. He never had a life, except that of the biggest rock star of his generation. Whisked away into the bowels of the machine, he never knew normalcy. He was never able to process wounds and heal the hurt that remained so alive within him. So, was he a junkie? Or, was he scared of the world he had helped create, and lived in a cave of his own sequestering, only to emerge butterfly forth at 40 to begin starting over. And then 5 shots rang out and ended that.
The shooter crouched in military stance, about 6 feet behind him, and fired 5 shots into his back and, and as he turned, into his side. Any 4 of those shots would have been fatal. John was killed on his doorstep after he’s returned home from an interview to promote his newly released album. Killed just as he came out of hiding. As soon as he was free again. As soon as he could speak free of the shrouds of heroin, depression and secrecy. As soon as he began “Starting Over”, it was gone for all of us.
I believed then it was an assassination. And, I believe that now. I’m not a flake. I’m a triple Taurus, have a capricorn moon and practicality runs engrained in my DNA. But, I believe he was assassinated. Call me a stooge. I believe John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered. Sounds like I’m nuts right? But, whether or not its true in fact, it says something very true about our view of society. We don’t trust it. We don’t trust ourselves. You can’t trust something you don’t believe.
What is it we believe?
In one of his last interviews, he discussed his violent days, and the few times he took it out on the women he knew. This was an intense admission. Naked, as he was. Imperfect and embarrassing. How did this stand with his pleas for peace and love? “Its the violent ones that know how important peace is”, he said. During the inevitable backlashes that seem to rise against his legacy, like mother waves every 8 years, when people then look for arcane scenarios to defrock him, they will claim that his pleas for world peace and invocations of a very practical common kitchen sink version of sanity, were fraudulent. He is routinely discredited because he was violent, rude, hurt people and smelled badly. Well, you know what? I believe that those are exactly the reasons his statements are valid. He understood the hurt the world suffered. He experienced it from both ends. He was imperfect, flawed, and had a heart only an Irishmen could bear. And bear it he did. In public, learning as he went. Learning as we all went. We grew up together. We hurt and loved and laughed together. The pain that made him flawed, made him human, made him genius and made many of us love him.
During one of his last interviews in 1980, Lennon was asked if, in light of the drastic political swing to the right under Reagan and Thatcher, and the gross commercialization of music, art and life, if he looked back on his days espousing peace and love with any regret or embarrassment.
Lennon replied, “If you smile and someone punches you in the face, it was still a smile. You can’t take that away. The smile has always been there.”
And the smile will always be there for those with the courage to come screaming in without embarrassment, with their full heart. And, for those of us who need it most, the idea of imagining peace is most important and real.