Like hundreds of thousands of other people, I remember exactly where I was when I heard that John Lennon had been murdered, because I was watching Monday Night Football when Howard Cosell broke into the telecast to make the announcement. Of course it was a huge shock, but Lennon was not an artist that I’d thought about for a long time. Unlike his fellow Beatles, Lennon had decided to drop off the face of the Earth for five years, upon being reunited with Yoko and celebrating the birth of his son Sean. And in the years leading up to that joyous occasion, Lennon had set something of a record for embarrassing public drunkenness, going on what he referred to later as an 18-month bender which featured such highlights as getting thrown out of the Troubador one night after putting a Kotex on his head. Hardly the stuff of which legends are made.
Like all The Beatles, Lennon’s solo career was maddeningly inconsistent. He was capable of greatness, and he was capable of pure dreck. And most astonishingly, he was capable of perfectly adequate, mediocre music – something that he’d never been accused of as the leader of the fab four. Listen today to something like “#9 Dream,” and your first thought is “yeah, that’s pretty cool, that sounds good.” But then you remember you’re listening to the same guy who just 4 years earlier had sung “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” as vital a piece of music as has ever been recorded during the rock era, and all you can think is “what the hell happened?”
And of course, the comparison is patently unfair. Because as Robert Christgau once wrote, John Lennon’s greatest accomplishment was The Beatles. And make no bones about it, John Lennon was the leader of The Beatles. And that is in no way intended as a slight to the remaining Fab Three. Paul McCartney was a magnificent collaborator, and fully capable of greatness on his own. George Harrison was a great lead guitarist. And Ringo Starr, while not Keith Moon or Charlie Watts, deserves his place in the pantheon of great rock and roll drummers. But it was Lennon’s wit, and Lennon’s audacity, that made all the difference. He was the straw that stirred the drink.
And John Lennon was smart enough to know that what he had with The Beatles was something special. He was never going to top what he had accomplished as the leader of the greatest band of the rock era. So he cleaned himself up, he reunited with the love of his life, and he dropped out of the public eye so he could take care of his young son. And then, while on vacation in the summer of 1980, he went into a club and heard The B-52s, and in a spasm of excitement, immediately realized that the sounds they were making represented exactly the kind of music that Yoko had been wanting to make for years. And so he went back to the studio, recorded new (and outstanding) songs of his own, but primarily to make her the star he always thought she should be.
And then, on the night of December 8, 1980, Lennon heard, in the words of a great essay penned by Jay Cocks for TIME magazine after the murder, “a voice out of the American night.” He turned, and he was cut down.
No one can know what would have happened, had Lennon not died on that night. It would have been nice to find out. After all, Bob Dylan went 22 years between masterpieces, and I like to think that John Lennon could have done the same thing. Everyone who cares about music – even a little bit – should be missing John Lennon today.