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‘We Are Better People Because of John Lennon’

Scott Spencer’s moving tribute from Rolling Stone’s January 22nd, 1981 issue

Former Beatle John Lennon poses for a photo with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean Lennon in 1977 in New York City.

Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Scott Spencer was a regular contributor to Rolling Stone. This essay was originally published in the January 22, 1981 issue of the magazine.

It doesn’t work. If I were writing a story about a man of his magnitude, and all I could come up with was a horrid little ending like that, I would have to say I didn’t deserve to write it at all. How would it read? Once upon a time there was a man who heard music and poetry, and he told us what he heard and people everywhere in all the kingdoms of earth fell in love with what he made of himself and he lived in a castle with his wife and child and had untold riches laid at his feet, and then one day a little man hid in the dark and with four jerks of the finger killed the man who made the music. What a pathetic conclusion. How utterly unworthy of the complexities, the possibilities. No one would publish such a thing. No one would represent it. You should throw it away. Quickly. Before someone reads it.

This is so difficult to write about. So dispiriting. I have a cigarette in my hand and another one is smoking in the ashtray. There’s loose change on my desk, a lucky stone from Massachusetts, a coffee cup, unopened mail, a bank deposit slip. Everything I want to say is receding from me. Everything these past twenty-four hours reminds me of death. It seems, whether we know it or not, we are in constant rehearsal for death: by forgetting, by sleeping, by looking away, by failing to hold the precious warm bodies we are meant to hold.

As a child, I would wait for my mother to come home. I’d peer out the window and see her walking down the street. And then I’d overturn a table, scatter magazines over the floor, and fall in some dexterous approximation of a murdered corpse, waiting happily for her to discover me. Rehearsing, rehearsing. Half the games we played as children were about killing each other, choking each other, clobbering each other, shooting each other, lunging out from hiding places to frighten each other: we were trying to learn the art of dying while we were still rightfully stupid enough to bear it.

Because he allowed us to know him, to love him, John Lennon gave us the chance to share his death, to resume the preparations for our own. Because we were so used to the way he thought, the habits, the turns, the surprises of his mind, we can enter him as we remember his last moments, to let it be us in the car, pulling up to the curb, opening the door, stepping out, breathing the night. Someone said he was happy that night, and we somehow know what his happiness felt like, and we can imagine ourselves resurgent, electric with energy.

Most of those who pass for heroes are not real heroes at all. They are hidden from us, uncommunicative, of no final use. But because he was an artist, and a brave one, we knew him. We felt the rhythm of his thoughts. We knew what he meant, no matter what he said, no matter if we disagreed. He had the great moral transparency of genius, and so we could enter him at will. (This power he gave us surely must have terrified him.) And so we are there, feeling what he felt, having this sordid education in death forced upon us, rubbed in our faces. As far as I can tell from the daily papers, his last word was “Yeah.” In the police car that took him to the emergency room, someone asked him if he was John Lennon, and he said “Yeah.” There are compilations of the last words of the great and the famous, and some of them are real rousers. Yet John Lennon’s simple syllable allows me to lean closer to the true and absolute reality of life running out, death hurtling forward, because with John Lennon, we somehow knew everything he meant, everything he implied: the sudden thrusts of meaning, the cast of his eye, the silences.

His death is everywhere. Like his life and his art, it is a unifying force. The astonishing — and, for me, unduplicated — characteristic of his art was that it brought together people who may have had no other single thing in common. It was the only true mass phenomenon that’s ever touched me. Through the Beatles — and, I think, primarily through John — I was able to share with millions my thoughts and their thoughts — our thoughts — about growing old, falling in love, seizing happiness, transcendence. A genius is a connector of theretofore disparate elements. A genius can take an orange and a chunk of coal and create a unity. A genius like John Lennon can create a community of hearts and minds from 10 million separate appetites. Part of the grief we feel about his murder is our longing to once more belong to something larger than ourselves, to feel our heart beat in absolute synchrony with hearts everywhere. Passionate love can lift us out of our skin, can join us with another in a realm outside of time. Art can do the same, and when millions are lifted by an artist, he allows us to see one another in that moment as we never have before, never will again.

It was, of course, like the Sixties again, waking up, hearing of his death. There’s no use injecting paranoia into something already so terrible, but it felt like the beginning of our new reactionary decade: history, as it fingers us in the chest, somehow able to reach back into the Sixties and renew the cycle of hideous assassinations. It’s like a hurricane suddenly returning after it was supposedly spent at sea.

I am consoling myself now: he had a magnificent life. He fell deeply in love and knew enough about the heart and its lazy habits to never allow his essential connections to go stale. Like other great artists, he was a teacher. He taught us something about integrity. And risk. He taught us about speaking up against injustice. And he is an integral part of my most extravagant, far-flung dreams about the potential power of art. It is no inspiring feat to capture the attention of millions — Dallas can do that. But to capture the imagination of millions is an accomplishment on a wholly different scale. It is mythic. His life and our view of him were of course mucked up by all the byproducts of success, image making, celebrity and high finance. But his achievements always rose above the cheapness of publicity, the empty craziness of stardom. He proved that you can follow your vision, explore your talents, speak your mind — take any leap you dare. In a cautious age, John Lennon was uninterested in existing on any but his own terms. He sang and wrote what he believed, and he trusted us to listen. And he was right: we listened. Taking his lesson to heart, embracing his radiant example, ennobles the work we do. John’s success, his awesome ability to communicate with millions — to say difficult things to people whom others felt were fit only to hear the emptiest words, to say emotionally vulnerable things to the most cynical and say them so well they could not be denied — remains a towering standard. He teaches us faith in oneself, and confidence in and affection for the human community.

I am left with the one thing I wanted not to say, because it’s so old and so flicking funereal: we are better people because of John Lennon. And now, when we need to be better still, and braver, with a deeper, more encompassing vision, losing him is terrifying. It just cuts so deeply. It’s hard to believe our luck has gotten this bad.

From Rolling Stone US