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Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010

John Lennon’s Enduring Legacy

Thirty years after his death, the former Beatle casts a long shadow

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Thirty years ago this month, John Lennon was gunned down outside his New York apartment building by a mentally ill fan with a violent misinterpretation of Catcher in the Rye. The dual anniversaries of Lennon’s murder and what would have been his 70th birthday in October have brought with them the expected retrospectives that mark all Beatles milestones. EMI has reissued Lennon’s solo catalog, along with a new greatest hits compilation, Power to the People, while PBS began airing the new “American Masters” documentary LennoNYC about the life Lennon made for himself in New York after The Beatles broke up.

Lennon’s murder triggered mass mourning on a scale never before seen, with 225,000 grieving fans gathering days later in Central Park—far more than the 80,000 mourners who had lined Elvis Presley’s funeral procession three years earlier. Where Elvis’ end had been foreshadowed by his declining health, Lennon’s death was swift and shocking. At 40 years old, Lennon was young and healthy, happily assimilated into his new life as a family man and still creatively virile. Just weeks before his murder, he released Double Fantasy, one of his strongest solo albums and also a testament to his domestic bliss, with song after song about the pleasures of marriage and child rearing. It was not the work of a man ready to die. Decades later, thoughts of the life Lennon had yet to enjoy and music he had yet to record continue to haunt the hundreds of fans who gather at his Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park every Dec. 8.

Meanwhile, each year brings new testaments to The Beatles’ unparalleled popularity. It was demonstrated last month when Apple announced it would begin selling The Beatles’ music digitally on iTunes. Though the band’s catalog had already been exhaustively reissued on CD, from where it presumably long ago already made its way onto the computers and MP3 players of fans, iTunes nonetheless sold over 450,000 Beatles albums and 2 million individual tracks in the first week alone—bringing in well over $8 million. Last year a similar fervor was directed at “The Beatles: Rock Band,” which was said to revolutionize the video game industry despite being just the latest in a long line of music simulation games.

Both of those ventures, like The Beatles’ Cirque du Soleil show or The Beatles-themed “American Idol” episode that preceded them, were greeted with promises of introducing the band to a new generation—claims that ridiculously suggest there exists a generation not already acquainted with the band. In actuality, The Beatles are as ubiquitous now as they were in the ’60s. They are a band taught not only in music classes but also history classes, a band that most Americans become familiar with in childhood.

Scott Starr, of the Milwaukee band Fever Marlene, was born a year after Lennon’s death, but typical of kids of his generation, he was introduced to The Beatles early and carried a relationship with them into adulthood.

“Two of my first albums were Revolver and Imagine,” Starr says. “My parents gave me five records that I could listen to as a kid, and those were the ones I knew by heart. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was the first song I learned on acoustic guitar.”

Like a lot of young Beatles fans who grew up to become musicians themselves, Starr identified most closely with Lennon.

“I think he’s the greatest pop writer that’s ever existed,” Starr says. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can even compare to his legacy. From a songwriting standpoint, his melodies and his lyrical content were perfect—how he put the two together, that was his genius.”

The Most Prestigious Beatle

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee music professor Martin Jack Rosenblum explains that of all of the Beatles, Lennon carries the most prestigious legacy.

“Paul McCartney had undeniable popularity as a pop songwriter and performer, George Harrison advanced guitar playing immeasurably, and Ringo Starr, not to be underestimated, was a terrific drummer with great timing, but it was John Lennon who was significant in moving pop music into the realm of art,” Rosenblum says.

“Lennon brought to a mass, pop audience the capacity for rock ’n’ roll songs to have complex narratives with substantive literary merit,” Rosenblum explains. “If we look at the quality criticism done on the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, it’s understood that John Lennon is the primary lyricist on The Beatles songs that have meta-text and complicated meanings beyond those of a simple pop song. I think John Lennon is the singular figure in pop music who gives listeners content that had heretofore previously only been known to exist on the page. Bob Dylan was the instigator for this, but Lennon brought it to a much, much larger audience. He wasn’t just rhyming lyrics to a delightful melody; his songs were actually speaking to the human condition, as was the job of literature. It’s impossible to estimate the number of not only listeners, but future singer-songwriters who were inspired by that.”

More than any of the other Beatles, Lennon’s legacy extends beyond music and into political and social activism. Lennon championed feminism and civil rights, but peace was his defining cause, and the one that most shaped how his death was perceived. As a peace activist done in by violence, he was marked not just as a victim, but a martyr. Divisive as she remains among his fans, Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, deserves credit for pushing this perception. She regularly reminded the public that “John didn't just die ... he had been murdered," and has cited his murder in campaigns against gun violence, forever linking him with the cause. In Milwaukee, Lennon is commemorated each spring with a tribute concert at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn benefiting the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE); cities including New York and Washington, D.C., have held similar tributes and benefits.

Lennon’s politics grew increasingly radical throughout his life. By the 1970s, he was a self-proclaimed “revolutionary artist,” touting views well outside the mainstream. In song, he assailed organized religion, sympathized with the Irish Republican Army and proclaimed that “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” yet such controversial stances did little to dampen his universal appeal. His reach was such that he could spin a case for socialism into an international hit: “Imagine,” a song beloved even by those at odds with its politics.

“That’s the power of John Lennon,” Rosenblum says. “It doesn’t matter if you agree with him or not, you’ve got to hum along.”

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