John Lennon would be 72 today if he were still celebrating birthdays. I was 6 when he died. I don’t have any great story or specific memory about where I was when I heard that he died. I’m not sure I knew. My family isn’t big on talking about death.
I do know that I was already familiar with Lennon’s music by the time I was 6. I don’t carry around many childhood memories, but one of my earliest and most specific memories is driving through Cincinnati with Rocky Raccoon playing on the radio. That and Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”.
I would have heard the Beatles more often because my dad listened to them some, but he wasn’t a heavy fan. My lifelong fascination with the Fab Four didn’t officially begin until I was 14. That’s when my friend, Chris Larson, gave me a cassette dub he had made of the White Album. This was my first chance to really obsess over the Beatles and listen to the songs over and over and over again. I listened to White Album maybe a thousand times that year and it changed me. It made me better.
Everything I came to discover about the Beatles, music and art in general started with that cassette tape. The White Album is a weird mix of songs that don’t quite hang together, a quilt of 30 oddly made pieces that are perfectly complete and individual in their own way yet which somehow belong together in a way that can be felt but not explained. The White Album offers some of the best and worst the Beatles had to give. The best of the best came from John: “Dear Prudence”, “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Yer Blues”, “Helter Skelter”, and “Revolution 1”. All of these songs had heavy mix from the other Beatles, but they each felt like direct gifts from John.
I should also note that the White Album gave me two of my most favorite songs of all time: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Long, Long, Long”. Both of these are George Harrison tracks and deserve their own post.
So here’s what I love about the Beatles. John, Paul and George were each geniuses in their own right. Each had a latent gift that the world needed. The thing is, the world would have never gotten the gift of that genius without the presence of the other Beatles. John had a brilliant, keen mind, an acerbic wit and and poet’s heart. Those gifts would not have been expressed if he hadn’t met Paul and George at the right time and started playing around. He would have been in jail or a baker or a sailor like his dad.
A hundred unlikely events occurred to allow the Beatles to happen. John Lennon was open to those events. He was ready for them. Before John Lennon made history, history made John Lennon. He always moved toward the unexpected and never stopped inventing himself up to the day he died. I admire that: brave, relentless, restless, a bit of pain in the ass and always ready to become something new. The Beatles never grew stale. They tore themselves apart, but they never grew stale. That was John’s energy that kept them moving forward, always exploring, never resting, never getting comfortable until the machine wore itself out and it was time to do something else.
John was 40 when he died. I’m 38. Hard to fathom how quick and deep his mark went. I am grateful.