Thirty years ago today, Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon outside of the Dakota apartment house near Central Park. Howard Cosell, in his trademark staccato cadence, broke the news on Monday Night Football: “A unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead…on…arrival.”
In six wild months during 1980 and 1981, assassins took aim at the pop star, the president, and the pope. It seemed like the chaotic 1960s all over again, save for the fact that its symbol had been gunned down.
Unlike Michael Jackson, whose last impression was that of a ghoulish pervert standing before a judge, or Elvis Presley, who went out as an overmedicated, bloated casino act, Lennon left us wanting more rather than less. After five years away, the adopted New Yorker returned to the limelight in 1980 with an album and single that topped the charts, albeit posthumously. John Lennon enjoyed an encore befitting of a Beatle.
Perhaps eclipsing that public encore were the changes in his personal life. After stumbling through a haze of drugs and alcohol in the 1970s, a sober Lennon returned to wife Yoko Ono, finally succeeded in starting a family with her, and lived the quiet life of a “househusband” from 1975 to 1980. Fatherhood the first time around had eluded the essentially fatherless Lennon. Removed from Beatlemania hysteria, Lennon had been for son Sean what he hadn’t been for son Julian: a dad.
His musical comeback owed as much to the comeback of his personal life as it had to his renewed focus on rock ‘n’ roll to the exclusion of politics and drugs. Politics, Lennon concluded, had “almost ruined” his music. “It became journalism and not poetry. And I basically feel that I’m a poet — even if it does go ba-deeble, eedle, eedle, it, de-deedle, deedle, it.” That politicized John Lennon — holding bed-ins for peace, singing for marijuana offender John Sinclair, featuring activists Bobby Seale, Ralph Nader, and Jerry Rubin on The Mike Douglas Show during a guest-hosting stint — coincided with the chemicalized John Lennon. The stringy-haired beardo rhapsodizing about imagining no religion was John Lennon. But so too was the leather-clad child of the fifties belting out a stripped-down cover of “Stand By Me.”
His radicalism was more consistently musical than political. He was constantly trying to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. “If we want to go bullshitting off into intellectualism with rock & roll,” he explained to Jann Wenner in 1971, “then we are going to get bullshitting rock intellectualism. If we want real rock & roll, it’s up to all of us to create it and stop being hyped by the revolutionary image and long hair.” This may seem an odd statement coming from the creator of “Revolution 9.” But the bare-bones sound of his early solo recordings — “Mother,” “Isolation,” and “God” — reflected this lack of pretension. So too do straight-forward fun rockers such as “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” (#1) and “Instant Karma!” (#3).
John Lennon once said if the music he played hadn’t been dubbed “rock ‘n’ roll,” “Chuck Berry” would have been a suitable alterative name. He explained to Rolling Stone, “No group, be it Beatles, Dylan, or Stones, have ever improved on ‘Whole Lot of Shaking,’ for my money.” He overtly paid tribute to his fifties heroes in his 1975 covers record, Rock ‘n’ Roll. More subtly, he did so in his periodic Teddy-Boy haircut and his second and final solo #1, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” a sonic homage to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll in which Lennon apes the vocal styles of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.
He came to regret the early 1970s politicization of his art. “That radicalism was phony, really, because it was out of guilt,” Lennon recalled a few months before his assassination. “I’d always felt guilty that I made money, so I had to give it away or lose it. I don’t mean I was a hypocrite. When I believe, I believe right down to the roots. But being a chameleon, I became whoever I was with. When you stop and think: what the hell was I doing fighting with the American government just because Jerry Rubin couldn’t get what he always wanted — a nice cushy job?”
“Politics plays hell with your poetry,” revolutionary John Reed once concluded. Before he died on December 8, 1980, musical revolutionary John Lennon learned that lesson, too.