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The Death and Life of John Lennon

What John Lennon wanted to do was leave Liverpool, make music, get rich and famous, and he did them all. After 1964, his name was known all over the world, and his life was increasingly lived on a public stage. “You see,” he said later, “we wanted to be bigger than Elvis.” They were, but part of John Lennon wanted something else: a purer vision, a harder art, the solitude of the creator. He could never do that as a Beatle, and as their lives careened along, as the touring stopped with the last concert (San Francisco, August 29, 1966), as first John and then the others tripped on LSD, dabbled in mysticism, made elaborate acid music in the studio, and tried to adjust to incredible wealth and fame, Lennon seemed to drift away. He met Yoko Ono, seven years older, a conceptual artist, a challenge, and eventually they all drifted away. After 1970 the Beatles were finished. And John Lennon, of course, continued to make music on his own.

“Everybody wants to blame someone for the Beatles’ breaking up,” he said to me once. “They want to blame Yoko most of all. But it was already over musically before I met her.”

Lennon worked on alone, making some good music, making some bad music, dropping out for five years, becoming a father, coming back. In some of the records with Yoko, he seemed to be pushing against the limits of the pop-music form itself. But now, writing these fragments, I somehow most clearly remember him at the One to One concert at Madison Square Garden on August 30, 1972. He came onstage with Yoko, wearing a helmet, striking a guerrilla pose. And most of the music was an attack, Yoko’s shrieks piercing the crowded arena, and John standing back, allowing her room, and then singing “Come Together” and later “Give Peace a Chance.” He was all tangled up then in radical politics, a court case, hounded by the Nixon crowd and the immigration people. But there was a moment when he did what he had always wanted to do, and I wanted him to do it all night long. He stepped forward, a small smile on his face, and he started to sing “Hound Dog.”


Imagine there’s no countries
it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too . . . .

—John Lennon

In the crowd outside the Dakota on the third day after the murder, someone held up a small sign. JOHN LIVES, the sign declared.

There was, of course, nothing else to say.

*“New York City” (John Lennon)© 1972 Northern Songs, Ltd. All rights for the USA, Mexico, and the Philippines controlled by Maclen Music, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Contributing to this article were David Rosenthal, Peter Hellman, Michael Schrage, Rinker Buck, Stu Glauberman, and Hillel Levin.


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