Past and future rock ‘n’ roil stars—the Romantic heroes of the age—would burn out, lonely victims of fame and their own stupefying excesses. Narrowly but decisively John Lennon had beat those odds. He had just emerged, confident and composed, from five years of secluded devotion to his son, Sean, and his wife, Yoko Ono. At 40, he was making hopeful music again. Then on Dec. 8, 1980, as Lennon entered his New York apartment building, a pudgy fan named Mark David Chapman stepped forward and fired a pistol.
It was more than the heartbreak timing of his murder that drew weeping throngs to candlelight vigils in New York and Los Angeles and to a “silent tribute” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Beatles—the one-and-only Fab Four, who changed rock music for all time—had been reduced suddenly to a fragile survivorship of three. Yet neither did that sad fact explain why Presidents and Prime Ministers expressed sorrow. Lennon was more than a rock ‘n’ roll hero. His life and music mirrored—even foreshadowed—the bittersweet experiences of a watershed generation whose youth seemed history when his voice was silenced.
He was always hip. A clever, fearless instigator, he led the buddies of his Liverpool childhood through pranks and adventures and eventually into rock ‘n’ roll. His father had run off to sea when he was born, and his mother gave him to her older sister, Mimi, to raise. If parental authority seemed to evaporate in the ’60s, for Lennon it never existed. His voice and his songs gave the Beatles grit, balanced Paul McCartney’s buoyant sweetness. The first signal that Beatlemania was going awry came from John, who wrote Help! in 1965. His 1966 remark that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was tactless but not groundless.
If Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds epitomized the euphoria of the acidic Aquarian age, Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus first glimpsed the madness. In 1968 Revolution devastatingly put down the nihilistic radicals who had dominated youth politics. After the group dissolved at decade’s end, the other Beatles retreated and retrenched. But Lennon’s primal scream (echoed on record as well as in psychologist Arthur Janov’s office) ushered in the therapy boom.
When Yoko threw him out of the house in 1973, Lennon went on an 18-month self-destructive bender. Ultimately the man who had penned the autobiographical lines, “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved,” saw the light of women’s rights. Years before Garp ran down the road, cooking spoon in hand, Lennon had become pop culture’s first househusband, while Yoko managed the family millions. Is younger man/older woman the new trend? John and Yoko (she’s nearly eight years older) were present at the creation.
Finally, there was one transformation even Lennon could not bring off, though he tried. He remained a superstar through all the changes. And in the end that status cost him his life.