Like most people my age, I suppose, I remember precisely what I was doing on December 8, 1980, when I received word that John Lennon had been killed.
Just eleven months before, I had started seminary, after graduating from Ohio State five years earlier.
That evening, a classmate spent part of the afternoon and the early evening with my wife and me. We lived off campus and I think that he enjoyed escaping to the "real world" that we inhabited for a while. I had taken him back to his apartment, returned to our house, and mindlessly turned on the Monday Night Football game when I heard Howard Cosell say that John Lennon was dead.
At first, I was sure that there must be some mistake and flipped through the channels on our Warner Qube cable box to learn more. But nothing I did could change the fact that Lennon really was gone.
Throughout my teens and into my twenties, there were really only two musical choices to be made. One either listened to the Beatles or other people. The Beatles were in a category all their own. Their sound and their words got to me in ways nobody else ever had. Almost everybody else sounded like Muzak.
This feeling continued even as I listened to their sometimes unexceptional solo work. The imprints of their personhood, or at least hints of their personhood--or perhaps, their adopted public personas--were in their music. Unlike the dehumanized warbling of homogenized pop (or of compromised rock), you had the sense that there were real human beings on the other sides of those Abbey Road microphones.
That sense went way beyond the eerie countdown and cough at the beginning of George Harrison's Taxman or Ringo Starr's weary protest of "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the end of McCartney's Helter Skelter. In spite of the screaming girls who made them almost inaudible, when I saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show on that February Sunday in 1964, they looked and sounded like real people. Real people with extraordinary talent.
It was no doubt in part to recover his personhood that Lennon grew tired of the Beatles and at first, didn't lament the band's passing. "The dream is over," he sang in a song called God on his first post-Beatles LP. (By the way, U2 later produced a composition called God, Part 3, in response to Lennon's song.)
When I listen to God today, its litany of things in which Lennon claimed not to believe--a list that included Jesus, Buddha, Zimmerman, Elvis, and Beatles--sounds like the defiant confession of a man being deprogrammed after time spent in the clutches of a cult. Talk to anyone who has been held hostage by some legalistic religion, even legalistic Christian belief--though in any genuine expression of Christianity, that's an oxymoron--and you hear an unwillingness to believe or trust in almost anything. Recovering cultsters don't want to get burned again and so they tend, initially at least, to dismiss all belief, all faith, all trust. In the song, Lennon moves from nihilism to narcissism. "I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that's reality," he says.
Lennon had been doused in the flames of Beatlemania, something which he himself had rightly seen as being akin to religion back when he had proclaimed in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He probably was right at that singular moment in time. But more to the point, the adulation the band received then was very much like religious worship. In God, Lennon was saying that he was having none of it. (Although he was now worshiping himself and Yoko, surely as tenuous as objects of worship as the Beatles had been. That's another story.)
But once you willingly take on the mantle of deity and once you seem to show your true self to the world, it isn't easy to run away. People keep insisting on putting you back on their altars and placing you in tabernacles of their choosing.
Even after five years as a househusband, an ordinary guy who took his baby on stroller rides through Central Park, Lennon couldn't escape others' expectations of him. There's a scene in Imagine, in which an obviously disturbed young man shows up on Lennon's doorstep, convinced that on an old Beatles cut, Lennon had sent a personal message to him. "How could I?" Lennon asks him, seeming to attempt to both kindly and firmly give the kid a bracing slap of reality, "I don't even know you."
We probably all thought we did, though. Mark David Chapman, Lennon's killer, apparently thought he knew Lennon. Psychologists have said that Chapman had come to so identify with Lennon that he thought he was Lennon. The real Lennon's existence therefore, became an unacceptable reality, which he eliminated on that December night a quarter of a century ago. (I've always thought that the chilling link song on McCartney's first LP after Lennon's death was about Chapman: "The one you wanted to be, is now the one you see.")
Even in people unlike Chapman, people who aren't mentally or emotionally disturbed, there is a subtle and disrespectful objectification that happens to those we choose to worship. When they don't act or say the things we want from them, we can become angry or disillusioned.
Several years before Lennon died, I had transferred out of the First Church of Beatlemania and surrendered to a different deity. The God revealed in Jesus Christ turns out for me to be the only God worthy of worship or able to bear the weight of glory. Today, I can enjoy the extraordinary body of work of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starkey as great human achievements, no matter who they may have been as people.
Since his death, Lennon has been eulogized and beatified with rock and roll sainthood. Though he would have loved the attention, he would have ultimately felt imprisoned by the worship, especially that offered by the rock and roll intelligentsia.
The dream is over, folks. Lennon would like us all to know that. But if you're looking for a different deity, I know One Who, even after he was murdered, wouldn't stay dead...and He promises to be with us always.