It was an unseasonably bright Saturday morning when I disembarked the tube at St John’s Wood and wandered down the road reading the Guardian magazine as I went. I ambled along, chuckling at reading about Blake Morrison’s, experiences of fatherhood, zipping my way in-between the elderly men in long black gowns exiting the synagogue and feeling oddly comfortable in West London.
I glanced up from the page as the road curved into Abbey Road and discovered I was centimetres away from tipping a tripod, with a rather expensive video camera atop it, over. The pristinely blonde American woman with overstated make-up standing on a crate on the other side looked even more surprised than I felt.
‘What the-?’ I muttered and evading the obstacle with a deft hip twist. The road was more packed that usual by bodies of all ages congregating around the graffiti mauled white walls outside the famous recording studio. A tall woman, dressed all in black with an amply displayed cleavage, appeared to by trying to capture both her breasts and the peace rocket symbol etched into the wooden gate in the same photo with her mobile phone. Numerous middle-aged men in colourful smocks, fake moustaches and thin round spectacles pretending to be with Sgt Pepper posed, in front of the paint fraying white scraped walls, for pictures with people far too young to remember.
One of the play-actors rather spoiled the illusion by fiddling with his Blackberry.
It was Saturday the 9th of October, 2010. John Lennon, had he survived the four bullets Mark Chapman put in his back, would have been seventy.
A young man, with a fashionable woollen t-shirt, undone to his breastbone, said: ‘Let’s do the crossing.’
‘It’s the wrong crossing,’ I thought. He meant the zebra crossing from the cover of the Beatles penultimate/final (depending on whether you’re going with recording or release dates) is a couple of hundred metres further up the road. The crossing directly outside the recording studio had to be added to accommodate the volume of tourists swooping down the hill from the tube station and straight across the road.
All these people, the thousands of them crossing Abbey Road in a stern faced line, are living a fiction. I doubt John would mind. He spent most of his life doing the same thing; being made-up.
On the cover of Abbey Road he is at the front of group, in a white suit and sandals, his hair flowing wildly out of control, his beard nestling its way down his chin and neck. He was in his heroin withdrawal, bed-in peace activist stage and his then shocking get-up was designed to provoke as much as anything else. He’d come a long way from the slightly chubby faced young man looking down the central stair-case on the cover of Please, Please Me.
That cover was reprinted for the so-called Red Album, the first collection of their singles, and replicated for its companion the Blue Album when the older band posed in the same positions. These were the first Beatles records I encountered as a small boy in amongst my parent’s collection. I didn’t understand until years later that they were the same people. It seemed impossible. And I was right. The Lennon on the cover of the Red Album is real; the older one is made-up.
He’s invented by John Lennon.
Curiously, in the final picture of John, the one snapped on the street with the sweatily fat Chapman in the background, he looked like he did when he was young. His hair is short and curly; he wears a black leather jacket over a black shirt and dark glasses. He could be back in Hamburg. He looks like he fleetingly recognised himself.
In 2010, despite having been dead for thirty years, John Lennon is an omnipresent piece of Western culture. He’s been taken far beyond Lennon the man, and become something more. He’s been pulled into the limits of fiction. His whole life has been applied to screen: his childhood in Nowhere Boy; his late teens, early twenties in Backbeat; lord knows how much film footage of his band; his early middle age in The Two Of Us; even his death. He crops up as a supporting character in numerous books, although possibly my favourite is in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles where he appears as the God of LSD.
Had he lived, I wonder which way would his career have gone? Would he have continued to plod out dross in the way the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney or would he have had a difficult couple of decades before finally releasing acclaimed albums that speculate on death and age in the way Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and, to a lesser extent, David Bowie have done?
It’s impossible to know for sure and we’re not helped by the fact that Lennon’s output was already so confusing. He veered from the oblique lyrics of Happiness is a Warm Gun or Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (except me and my monkey) to the simplistically flawed philosophies of Imagine and Working Class Hero. He was the same writer who somehow managed to dredge up on the most mournfully nostalgic trawls with In My Life and also the gibberish of Revolution Number Nine; the sickly smush of Darling Boy and the startling self-aware confessionals of Mother and Jealous Guy.
He was the peace activist who bullied his band mates and was an utter shit to his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe, and then tore himself to shreds with recriminations when Sutcliffe died. He beat up women journalists and yet wailed about injustices in Vietnam. He doted on Sean Lennon to exception; he ignored Julian Lennon to such an extent that McCartney wrote Hey Jude to cheer him up. He was the man who preached love as a way to be free and serially cheated on his first wife in meaningless affairs. Even Yoko, the so-called love of his life, he humiliated by loudly fucking another woman at a party whilst she made small talk with the guests. His notorious eighteen month lost weekend was spent with May Pang, Ono’s assistant.
He took pot to cut down his drinking, acid to cut down his anger, heroin to pull back from melting his brain and then drank himself into oblivion. He really couldn’t do anything by halves.
And all these contradictions are the differences between Lennon the man and Lennon the cultural icon. He was an angry young man; a womaniser with guilt who was morally shredded by his own urge to be famous and the subsequent impotency that bought. These are flaws, but they make him more real. You can’t imagine an X-Factor winner having such cracked and cavernous depths.
Indeed, I suspect that, despite the humongous piles of words written about him, no-one really knew John Lennon. Not even himself.
When the Beatles Rock Band playstation game (or whatever the heck it is) Yoko said that John would have loved it. Would he? Or would he have just been confused by it? Or would it just be another case of him being reinvented as someone else once again?
There are a staggering number of memorials all over the world to John Lennon. There are those that just about make sense like John Lennon airport and then there are those that are weird: The Imagine towers in Reykjavik; a statue in Palermo, in Havana, several in Spain, a bust in Sopron music school in Hungary. But they’re not to Lennon then man; they’re to the Lennon whose trendy counter-culturisms and made young men envious. They’re monuments to the flawed emotions his music helped us to see inside ourselves.
And was that what Mark Chapman realised? That the forty-year old who’d just signed the copy of Double Fantasy wasn’t the near revolutionary of ten years previously, but rather a middle-aged man who’d spent half a decade raising his son and nothing else? Was it that failure to live up to the myth that drove Chapman to return to the Dakota Building, call out “Mr Lennon,” and draw his pistol?
Or, was he just jealous of all the bands that only existed because of Lennon; the Catcher in the Rye accusations of fakery nothing but a cover for the realisation that he could never define culture in the same way?
The death of John Lennon the man is a tragedy. The death of John Lennon the icon was a blessing – as he fell to the ground, he became immortal. He never got to let us down again. As time rolled on our vision of him became like we were looking through his broken and smeared spectacles and his failings fell to the wayside. His story remained finite, except in our imaginations.
Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t miss him, though.