John Lennon, hero o’ mine.
Took a trip down the memory hole this evening, spurred by the Lennon 70th Birthday hullabaloo.
I take John Lennon for granted; always have. The Beatles songs and his solo records have always just sort of been there, omnipresent. More often than not, my back-to-the-land era parents had Apple Records–labeled vinyl spinning on the record changer in my childhood home. The White Album and Sgt Pepper and Revolver, Let It Be and Abbey Road and Imagine — they were the ambient soundtrack. And even at 10, 11 years old I was riveted by many Lennon songs; loved McCartney’s “Blackbird,” Harrison’s “Taxman,” and many others where Lennon wasn’t the dominant presence (either in the writing or the performing), but I’d get this instant live-wire connection to John’s songs. Couldn’t have explained it to anyone; didn’t have the vocabulary and concepts at that age, hadn’t yet an inkling of how as I got older I’d build identity out of musical affinities, Nick Hornby/High Fidelity–style, how — in the way guys do — I’d more or less navigate my own interiority by laying hands on cultural artifacts (songs, books, movies, TV shows, etc) and size others up by the way they did the same. (Okay, yes, there are major drawbacks to relying on this sort of thing for bearings and connection, as opposed to learning to directly experience what’s going on within and without. But that’s another story.)
Now, at 44, I can look back and recognize that live-wire thing as spiritual energy. As I write this I can see, grounded in specific memories, how certain Lennon songs reached territories within that I’d had no idea were there. I remember, yes I do:
I was a little boy in a flimsy lifeboat, afloat in a great ocean of unknowably large rages and fears, lonelinesses and yearnings for connection … and then I’d hear “Revolution 1″ and know (not with words, not fully consciously, usually not in any way that could be captured and made use of) that I’d always been angry, no, spittle-spraying fucking enraged — there was so much change-the-world bullshit around me that I had no say-so over and the perpetrators of this bullshit were deaf/blind to the consequences of said bullshit.
I’d hear “Dear Prudence” and know my own despair, or at least fleetingly experience it, heartsickness would ripple through, an ephemeral wave — no one was going to sing me out of the place I was in….
I’d hear “Imagine” and perceive, somehow, that there was love and connection big enough to transcend the twisted brambles of the life I knew, it was nearer to hand than I ever imagined and I had within me a great welling hunger for it.
These songs and others took me to these places within, made it a little bit okay that they were in there. My soul wasn’t some Area 51. I wasn’t, after all, the only one burdened with facets of interiority that felt just unspeakable; this Lennon guy knew about this stuff — he’d been there himself.
Rolling these memories around in a way I don’t think I’ve ever done, I feel certain these preteen trips I took with Lennon weren’t just to “emotions” I otherwise wouldn’t have accessed; they were to awarenesses, truths — intellect and powers of observation were sharply engaged, even if I didn’t have words. Seeing that, I feel like I’m reclaiming something of my pre-teen self I hadn’t expected to find. Like I knew the score, in a way, when I was that young — didn’t have the tools to own that awareness or put it to any practical use, but I knew when the world I’d come into wasn’t adding up. I feel proud of that kid; he was nobody’s fool.
I was 14 years old when Lennon was killed. I think I spent at least a couple of days more or less barricaded my room, glued to the little table radio I’d take under the covers with me for Sox games and music. I remember bawling — which by that age never happened, as I was well into a glaciated emotional state I’d remain in for a couple decades. (Always had plenty of grief, anger, sadness etc refracting around inside, but any direct contact with difficult feelings would simply trigger automatic shutdown.) I remember being really disturbed, freaked out. Bewildered as to why anyone would shoot you. Imagined myself going to New York to find this Chapman asshole and beat the living shit out of him. Afflicted with a sense of loss and grief that seemed scary-big and out of proportion, even to my teenaged self. Now I look back and see myself — this unhappy, lost kid who trusted almost no one and constantly felt overmatched, without adequate maps and tools — suddenly bereft of a source of precious gravity. Yeah. No wonder that I was upset.
Anyway, thank you, John Lennon. Through some alchemy of temperament (courage, desperate need for connection, generosity of spirit) and talent in your medium, you were able to broadcast the unsayable that’s inside. Turbulence, mess, ferocity, piercing insight, stubborn hope, bitterness, joy, fearlessness (and fearfulness), all this and much more sprawls across your music. And so you helped me along the long road I’ve walked toward accepting and embracing that I’m not alone in the howling void.
Cobbled together a YouTube playlist — 20 of my favorite John Lennon songs. (The video player here in this post won’t play ‘em all — it skips over several — but you’ll be able to see them all if you go to YouTube proper.)