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A tribute to John Lennon – 26 years after his death

The following is a tribute to John that I wrote last year on this date, which was the 25th anniversary of his murder. I thought it worth repeating.

The modern celebrity, sometimes a marginal talent, revels as he or she walks the red carpet, an invisible halo of glamour and self indulgence written in their superficial and forced smiles. It is really our fault. We idolize and live vicariously through the famous faces we watch. And today, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, I think about how different he was – how relevant he made himself to a generation of admirers, not by wanting to be adored, but by hoping he would be respected.

Adoration never came easy to John. His father abandoned him, His mother was rarely around. He grew up angry, and determined to make the establishment aware of his presence by acting out in school. When that phase ended, be began burying himself in sketching, and thankfully for us, music. His band, the Quarrymen, became the Beatles. John knew early that his enormous talent was not enough. His decision to invite Paul McCartney to join the band was courageous and it turns out, historic.

The irony of his life is that the more successful he was as an artist, the more traps he fell into as a person. Pill popping turned to alcohol and drug abuse, which plagued him until the mid seventies. But unlike the stars who lived in a bubble, Lennon was not afraid to share his private side in public. Almost every song he wrote was about how he was feeling at that time in his life. “I’m loser, he wrote at the age of 25. “I’m not what I appear to be.” When he was 30 (thirty) and totally in love with Yoko Ono, he penned the beautiful “Imagine.” Imagine, if you will, that the song of a utopian world, did not become one of the best selling recorded hits of all time until John was dead because he dared to say, “Imagine no war…. And no religion too.”

His most angry music was written in 1973 when he was fully invested in drugs. Yet, in 1980 he wrote “(just like) Starting Over”, a reaffirmation that after five years as America’s most famous stay at home Dad, he was back and ready to entertain again.

His life was filled with mistakes and redemption. He was a womanizer who loved only three, wives Cynthia and Yoko and May Pang, the alluring and insightful secretary who Yoko fixed him up with. He was a womanizer who became an ardent feminist in the late seventies, a pacifist who became one of the most public supporters of police and firefighters, a sometimes domestic abuser who delighted in transforming himself into a student of the frustrating history of female evolution.

John was unselfish in his pursuits, giving his music away to other artists, to the detriment of his own career. He was also, delightfully and dangerously, one of the few people I’ve ever known who said in public what he thought in private, a man who spent most of his adult life thinking about other people, whether it was victims of bigotry in his native Britain, migrant laborers in California, the people who had little, and the citizens of abundance who gave little.

Personally, he is what I call the poster boy for imperfection. In life and in his amazing after life, we see him as a person whose personal decisions we would want to avoid, but whose personal convictions and search for the truth is something to admire.

My travels with him (and the other Beatles) were electric. My arguments with him about war and peace and his public righteousness made us both red in the face and dry in the mouth. He was especially vitriolic and profane when he told me I was an (expletive deleted) fool to leave New York to come back to broadcast in Philadelphia.

He is a one of those few dead poets we want to know more about. The physical being is gone, but he lives on in other ways.

Even now, 25 years after his murder, John Lennon’s voice resonates through the airwaves and the high technology of the times.

Even now, people ask themselves, “Where were you on the night of December 8, 1980”, just like others asked where they were on the afternoon that John Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas.

I can still remember the words of former Mayor Frank Rizzo who had warned me during a visit by John to Philadelphia in 1975 that Lennon needed more protection. After all, on May 18th 1975, I picked him up at 30th street station where he came alone on an Amtrak train. When he met the thousands of people behind the Channel 6 studios, he stood fearless, enjoying the moment. He had come to Philadelphia to host a weekend charity broadcast. Weeks before he died, he confessed that he met more people in that weekend in the flesh than any other time in his life.

Ultimately, John Lennon was in love with people more than his daunting celebrity persona. Today we remember him mostly as a man who made beautiful music. Then, at his death, and now, with his haunting music and lyrics, he challenges us to think less about ourselves, and more about the world and the people around us


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