When a rock star dies in a plane crash or from an overdose of drugs and alcohol, the accident may seem tragic or repulsive, but it is still comprehensible. When one of the finest artists and bravest men of our generation is shot down on his doorstep by a fan with a gun, the mind reels in disbelief. Such an act is, at first, senseless and incomprehensible, but it is a mistake to think it is meaningless. Unless we are prepared to probe beneath the ugly surface of John Lennon’s murder, and to face the more grotesque ugliness underneath, his death will have been worse than senseless. It will have been futile.
This has nothing to do with the bogus interpretations that some TV commentators and media scavengers are pushing. They would have us believe that what happened represents the end of the Sixties, the conclusion of the Beatles dream, the beginning of the Eighties. Those are nothing more than platitudes, designed to console but not to challenge or illuminate. Lennon would have hated them.
John Lennon’s murder does not symbolize the irrevocable ending of the Sixties: the blood he spilled was real. And that decade ended just when the calendar says it did. Nor is his death the end of the Beatles. Lennon painstakingly laid out the facts of that situation in his “Working Class Hero” interview (RS 74 and 75) a decade ago, and one of the frustrations of his life was that so few people paid him any heed. Finally, he was most certainly killed not by fame but by four highly unmetaphoric bullets.
The morning after the murder, director Richard Lester, who had worked with Lennon on three films, spoke on NBC’s Today Show. The producers wanted tributes and easy answers. Lester gave them questions. “It seems appalling to me,” he said, “that all this time no one has spoken about the problem of people having guns in America, the problem that people can shoot a man on the street….”
Tom Brokaw of Today replied that Mark David Chapman had a permit for his gun, as though that refuted Lester’s point. In fact, it confirmed it. And so did Ronald Reagan’s cynical remark that curbing crime in the street was more important than gun control. Reagan apparently believes that crackpots like Chapman will always be able to find the weapons with which to carry out their deranged wills. If that’s true, and many people less senile than Reagan apparently believe it is, then handgun control wouldn’t have saved John Lennon’s life. But it is still infuriating that in the present political environment we’ll probably never get the chance to find out what effect such laws might have.
In equating Lennon’s murder with street crime, Reagan is saying that John Lennon died a random death. That’s a lie. Lennon’s murder is of a piece with the shootings not only of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King but with those of the most recent sickening cycle, which began in Guyana and grew to include Vernon Jordan, Allard Lowenstein, Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
Unless it is placed alongside those deaths, Lennon’s murder doesn’t make much sense. But once you place it in this context, it becomes even more terrifying. For then the message of the past two years is clear: Human life has never been cheaper. John Lennon was fighting against that idea. He represented a spirit of indomitable optimism, and even if, as Richard Lester claimed, that optimism was the product of a false vision, what we’re mourning now is the end of a time when all of us held human life dear.
John Lennon broke up the Beatles and withdrew from public life for half a decade to escape the thousand little daily murders that all of us help commit. We resented him for leaving us; it is remarkable that our resentment never destroyed his spirit. But in the end we were accomplices in something worse: we established a situation that led to the destruction of the man himself. Chapman thought he was eliminating a symbol, not murdering a man. Where did he get such an idea?
Three years ago, I wrote “An Open Letter to John Lennon” in these pages, beseeching him to come out of retirement and help make sense of events. I felt pretty smart. Word of John’s reaction got back to me through friends: “I don’t fucking owe anybody anything. I’ve done my part. It’s everybody else’s turn now.” I felt pretty small. Like most rock fans, I took it for granted that John Lennon existed to pump out entertainment, inspiration and insight. It never occurred to me, until then, that my attitude reduced someone I thought I loved and admired to the status of a vending machine.
The morning after the killing, promoter Sid Bernstein went on TV to suggest that the most fitting memorial to Lennon would be an annual superstar benefit concert. It was the same proposal Bernstein had been making for more than a year in his attempt to reunite the Beatles. When I heard about this, I was outraged. Didn’t Bernstein understand that by promoting the myth of John the Savior Beatle, a man who was only one-quarter whole, he helped perpetuate the conditions in which Lennon was murdered? Didn’t Bernstein know that the ultimate extension of such ghoulish Beatlemania was Mark Chapman in a combat crouch? He should have hung his head in shame, I thought, and then I remembered my “Open Letter.”
When Sid Bernstein, myself or any other fan made nagging demands of John Lennon, insisting that he explain the world or reconstruct it for us, we were different from Chapman only in degree. We thought we were asking Lennon to do only what was required of a symbol. We forgot that we were dehumanizing a man.
Of course, there’s a gulf of difference between Chapman and ourselves, but it is a meaningful difference only if we learn our lesson. The horror, the part of this sad story that fills me with rage more than grief, is that we will probably not learn. Unless we do, it will happen again.