“Imagine there’s no Beatles, imagine no iconic movies, no White Album, no poetry books, no drawings,” wrote Linda Winer for Newsday after panning the recent debut of of the new Broadway musical – Ballad of John and Yoko – drawn from John Lennon’s writings. “Then imagine there’s no son before Sean, no mistress named May Pang, no deep depression, nothing really serious with drugs.” As Linda Winer and others have pointed out in this most recent re-imagining of John Lennon’s life through art, this production is very”Ono-centric.” Passing quickly over Lennon’s career in the Beatles, the production gives little time to his first marriage, or to the son he fathered before he met the Japanese artist. It also omits his affair that forced the couple apart for more than a year.
But when has the omission of so-called “facts” or the bending of time ever stopped people from embracing a hero of mythic stature? As much as folks try to “get real” with regard to our mythic icons, the myth and that which gave it to us will still prevail. John Lennon may have been a cheat and a jerk… but one fact that does go without disputing – he was John freakin’ Lennon.
The Beatles and its component parts of John, Paul, George and (yes) Ringo continue to be one of the greatest cultural influences in Western culture hands down. Granted, John worked hard in latter years to separate himself from the Beatles in interviews, but essentially the parts and whole merged beyond separation – one of pop musics best exponents of Perichoresis.
Frankly, it is difficult to ‘imagine’ pop music as we know it without the ghostly presence of John Lennon lurking behind the scenes. Not just the shape of his art but the shape of his epic life – humble UK art student turned Hamburg indie musician turned megastar turned gunned-down hero of flower children around the world turning The Dakota Hotel and Mark Chapman into cultural icons in their own right. If there is a taproot from which our current understanding of pop music draws its strength, John Lennon would seem to be a good candidate.
In the area of Christian critics – John Lennon thought alot about Christianity and wasn’t short on words in regard to where the state of the union is. Lennon’s now classic statment in an airport in 1966 – “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and will be proved right. (The Beatles are) more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples that were ordinary. It’s them twisting it (the story of Jesus) that ruins it for me” is still something I hear pop up from friends who feel Lennon understood something the Church never has.
I do think Lennon is right to some extent. After the media backlash and bonfires at youth retreats fueled by copies of Rubber Soul, Lennon responded by stating “Look, I wasn’t saying the Beatles are better than God or Jesus. I said ‘Beatles’ because it’s easy for me to talk about Beatles. I could have said TV or the cinema, motor cars or anything popular and I would have gotten away with it.”
Maybe the vector Lennon should have taken – rather than there are alot of things more ‘popular’ than Christianity – is what he would later frame in his signature post-Beatles song “Imagine”. Namely, that the problem with religion today has more to do with a lack of imagination than with a drive for certainty:
Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isnt hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…
It is a moving song with a piano track that gets me everytime. I have never embraced Lennon’s neo-Marxist utopianism – that humanity is infinitely perfectible, meaning is purely found on an imminate plane, and “love is all we need” seems down right glib coming from a guy who could afford to dwell upon his navel thanks to the royalty checks filling his bank account daily from “Love Me DO. Regardless, the song still gets me. I suppose it is my own lack of imagination that stirs under the weight of Lennon’s tune – the fact that we live in an age of unbridled horrors against the poor and marginalised and nothing seems to change. Perhaps Lennon’s honesty in the final verse – the prayer of unity – is what gets me in the same way the end of It’s a Wonderful Life gets me every Christmas:
You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.
It is a drippy utopotian statment – akin to George Bailey in the big singalong of Burn’s Auld Lang Syne– that we aren’t the only one dreaming of a better today and hope for tomorrow… but there is something to that. And maybe that is where we begin.