The other day would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. I believe he would have been a cool old man. He loved life and from what I can tell, lived it to the fullest. Every generation has individuals who are deeply important to them as a whole and he was one of those for us baby boomers. I can’t think of any individuals more loved and accepted by a generation than the four piece band John put together in Liverpool in the early ‘60s. The moment, when I heard over the radio that John had been shot and killed, is imprinted in my brain just like when Kennedy was shot, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and two passenger planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Like all icons of any generation, to understand John’s importance to boomers, you have to be part of the generation or talk to people who are. As I recently listened to older news reporters talk about his death and attempt to describe his importance to his “fans”, it was apparent to me that they didn’t really get it. Most young people today have a hard time understanding it as well. I can remember thinking, “What’s the big deal about Frank Sinatra?” But my parents got it.
On February 7th 1964, 77 days after President Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles came to the US. The nation was depressed and needed a lift and the four lads did just that. They were on three consecutive Ed Sullivan shows and played a series of concerts. It was estimated that 45% of Americans watched those TV shows. The headlines read, “Beatles Conquer America”, but it felt like more of an adoption. Somehow the Beatles belonged to us as much as they belonged to England. After all, they embraced our early rock & roll, rhythm and blues and country music, reflecting it all back to us in their own unique way. It was a mutual love affair from the very beginning. Two years and six months later they played their final live performance at Candlestick Park. The venues had gotten too big and the audiences were too loud. Another band may have performed exclusive high priced gigs for the wealthy, but John’s band always belonged to the people.
In the winter of 1967 I was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. One of the few things I liked about the training was marching. Especially when the Drill Sergeants called cadence and we all sang in unison, echoing their creative and often crude poetic rhymes. Much of the marching, however, was done in silence, so I entertained myself by quietly singing my favorite songs. I thought at the time that Rubber Soul was the greatest rock & roll album ever produced. I had listened to it so many times by then, that during those long silent marches out to or back from the rifle range or another training area, I started at the beginning with the first song and worked my way through the entire album.
Not long ago I was at the mall browsing in a music store and came across the Rubber Soul CD. I noticed the songs weren’t in the same order and there were songs from other albums interjected into the mix. I took it up to the counter where I thought the 15 year old sales person could straighten me out about this discrepancy. Or at least this young woman would be interested in my observations about the original album and the differences in this current version. To my chagrin she wasn’t knowledgeable, fascinated or the slight bit interested in my observations. It may have been a female thing because my wife and sister, with whom I was at the mall weren’t interested either.
In the summer of that same year after basic training, I was sent to Army Intelligence school in Baltimore, Maryland. One night while riding around the city with a friend, I heard “A Day in a Life” on the radio. As we used to say, “I was blown away”. When we returned to the barracks, one of the guys had the Sergeant Pepper album. It became the musical background of the barracks for the rest of our time in training and no one ever complained. In a few weeks or months we would all be in Vietnam.
I recently re-watched Imagine, the film created around video footage John had shot of his and Yoko’s personal life. I again remembered his openness and honesty toward the public, especially in his songs. We didn’t love him because he was perfect, but because he was real. He was one of us and we knew it because of the way he acted and from what he said. Aware of his own imperfections, he chose to use his celebrity as a spokesperson for peace. Listening to John’s music and Beatles music today, I’m struck by how positive the songs are. They reflect the growth, struggles, and aspirations of an entire generation.