By John Baiata, NBC News Senior Editor
John Lennon spends the day befitting a man whose intellectual curiosity shows little signs of waning in this, his 70th year. In the morning, he tinkers with the melody to a song he is contributing to a collection commissioned by U2’s Bono, the proceeds of which will go toward Bono’s “ONE” campaign to eliminate extreme poverty and preventable diseases in Africa.
Setting aside his guitar, Lennon sifts through some unattended pieces of mail, the most prominent of which is a letter from former President Bill Clinton, thanking him for his work as a special ambassador to the Clinton Foundation’s Global Initiative, an organization whose wide body of work Lennon describes as “more substantive than anything going on at the United Nations – they’re too busy over there drinking their lunches. ”Yes, his tongue remains as sharp as his legendary wit.
After a quiet lunch with Yoko at the Dakota apartment building that has been their home for nearly 40 years now, the two walk the four blocks to the art gallery they have owned and overseen for years. Afterwards, John and Yoko walk arm-in-arm back to the Dakota. As familiar to the area now as any local landmark, they go unmolested on their way.
It’s folly, of course, to try to imagine the possibilities, for they were snuffed out – along with John Lennon’s life – 30 years ago. And yet that is in essence what Lennon asked us to do, through his art and through his actions. To dream of the possibilities. To consider a world where war was anathema, and love would trump all. To imagine.
Lennon was a confounding soul. Churlish and brutally direct, he could be withering in his criticisms. Yet he was generous and introspective – a complicated amalgam of a man. “A man,” said radio personality Ken Dashow, “of absolute contradictions.”
Dashow, a disc jockey at New York’s classic rock station Q104.3 and host of its popular “Breakfast with the Beatles” program every Sunday morning, says Lennon would be just as relevant if he were alive today. “He would be outraged at the callousness toward the general working man in America. He would have railed against the military/industrial complex. He would have been involved in the political process.”
In 1971, Lennon sat for an exhaustive nine-hour interview with Rolling Stone. Asked to conjure his own future, à la the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty Four,” Lennon said, “I hope (Yoko and I) are a nice old couple, living off the coast of Ireland or something like that. Looking at our scrapbook of madness.”
It’s a nice image, if one that sounds suspiciously like one of Lennon’s many interview toss-offs. Certainly it’s one that Dashow is not buying. “This country was his home. And he felt that New York was the only place he wouldn’t be mobbed by fans.”
‘My whole life is a tribute to him.’
Sean Lennon, the youngest of Lennon’s two sons and the only child between John and Yoko Ono, was just 5 years old when his father was taken from him.
In Philip Norman’s well-received 2008 biography, “John Lennon, The Life,” Sean tries to reconcile the icon with the man he knew, however briefly, as his father: “I feel like my whole life is a tribute to him. But to go to a museum or see a movie that depicts his life, it just hurts… I don’t need to see movies or shows about him. I don’t need to prove to the world that he did all those things.”
As painful as those exercises may be for those who knew and loved him, they’re all but requisite for the many who never knew the man, but feel as if they do because his work is so personal, his music so resonant. The slew of projects that coincided with what would have been his 70th birthday just two months ago is testament to that. The bottom line, says Dashow, is “anything that brings him closer to the listener, to his true fans, gives you a deeper understanding of his work.”
Early musician activist
Lennon’s life, particularly his post-Beatles life, was defined as much through his activism as through his music. The two, of course, were two threads of the same cloth. He practically invented the musician-as-social-activist persona that is so ubiquitous now. Songs like “Gimme Some Truth,” a diatribe against the political machinery of the era (embodied by the Nixon administration’s attempts to deport him for his anti-war stance), seem particularly apt today.
He leveraged his celebrity to try and affect change to an extent, arguably, that no musician had before. Could he have sustained his place? “He couldn’t help himself,” Dashow argues. “Great artists can’t just turn off the spigot… He had to comment on everything that was going on.”
Yoko Ono, asked this past October what Lennon’s take on the world’s state of affairs would have been now, told the Associated Press: “He would have been totally angry. He would have felt like he wanted to run somewhere and just bang something or strangle someone, you know? But then I think, I’m sure he would have relaxed and decided he should still be an activist.”
What is the legacy?
So how do you measure a legacy, 30 years on? Through the lives of his wife and sons, and their noble efforts to keep him relevant? Through the discographies and exhibits, the downloads and documentaries? By counting the number of times protestors have taken to the streets to the strains of “Power to the People” echoing in their ears, or a parent has sung “Beautiful Boy” as their child drifts off to sleep? In all of these ways.
On the morning of December 8, 1980, the day of his senseless murder, John was joined by Yoko for an interview with RKO radio. He talked about the turmoil of the 1970s, and spoke hopefully of the future: “It’s still up to us to make what we can of it.”
That simple, declarative sentence neatly sums up Lennon’s mindset. It’s not up to the authorities, or fate, he was saying, to pave the way forward. Had he lived, he would almost assuredly have carried the torch further. Needling the cradles of power, denouncing the status quo, and exalting us all to just… Imagine. It’s easy if you try.