John Lennon: The Man
October 9th marked the fiftieth anniversary of John Lennon’s birth. December 8th will mark the tenth anniversary of his death. It is somehow fitting that the two dates will proceed forever down the ages, each inspiring commemoration as they simultaneously reach round numbers, the sad reminder of a death following hard upon the celebration of a life. Lennon’s death still reverberates with stunning force; it has lost none of its impact over the past decade. For anyone who cared about the Beatles and Lennon’s individual vision and political activism, his impulse to experiment and his willingness to speak the unwelcome truth, the world is simply a less enjoyable, less engaging place without him. For those inclined to speculate, it is easy to imagine that his presence could have blunted the hard edges of the Eighties, that his humor, intelligence and sense of integrity could have proven a strong tonic for the spirit in those cynical times.
With Double Fantasy, the album he and Yoko Ono released in 1980, Lennon was clearly ready to return to public action after a five-year immersion in family life. How would his music have evolved in the Eighties? Interested in film all his life, how would he have responded to the rise of video? Lennon’s uncompromising voice has been sorely missed during the censorship controversy of the past five years. Wouldn’t it have been amazing to see John Lennon walk onstage during Live Aid? And in the decade of comebacks and reconciliations, could the Beatles really have resisted a reunion if Lennon had been alive? Would he have wanted such a thing? The loss of one life can change the course of a whole world.
On October 9th, Lennon’s life was celebrated in a brief ceremony, called Imagine All the People, at the United Nations. After being welcomed to the UN – “this House of Peace” – by Marcella Pérez de Cuéllar, the wife of UN secretary general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Yoko Ono read a prepared statement, played a tape recording of Lennon, in which he urged the world to recognize “the choice we have in front of us: war or peace” and then broadcast the song “Imagine” over more than 1000 radio stations in 130 countries to an audience of approximately a billion listeners. Several hundred UN diplomats and delegates, journalists, friends of John and Yoko’s and other guests gathered in an auditorium at the UN for the ceremony. “The dream we dream alone is only a dream,” Yoko said during her introduction, invoking the more mystical aspect of her and Lennon’s shared sensibility. “But the dream we dream together is reality.”
Indeed, like Martin Luther King, John and Yoko had a dream. In both its scale and its simplicity, the event was an eminently appropriate tribute to Lennon, a man who never hesitated to exploit the platform he enjoyed in the media to try to change the world. His blunt messages – “All You Need Is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Power to the People,” “War Is Over If You Want It” – were essentially advertising slogans in the service of social betterment. Even the tape of Lennon that Yoko played was moving in the directness, the plain-spokenness, even the naiveté, of its appeal. “You have the power, you know, you have the vote,” Lennon said, speaking in his characteristically natural, unforced cadences. “Just show your neighbors that you’re trying to be peaceful, however hard it is. It’s hard for us all. Just pass the word around…. Just have one word, Peace, in the window. And even if you don’t exactly know why you’re putting it in the window, it can’t harm you. And then you’d come across other people that have put Peace in the window. They’re all hoping for peace. We’re all together on this thing. We all want peace, whatever sort of job we have.”
We may all want peace, but ten years after Lennon’s death, peace has proven as elusive as ever. Looking ahead, it is difficult to be optimistic, and it is difficult to assess the true quality of Lennon’s impact on the world he fought so incessantly to improve. Sitting in the living room of the apartment she shared with Lennon for many years in the Dakota, in New York, Yoko Ono discussed the legacy of John Lennon on the day after the ceremony at the United Nations. Even Yoko had to admit that, at least in the years immediately following her husband’s death, it seemed as if much of their work had come to naught – though, in her view, that work bore fruit eventually and will continue to. “John was saying in 1980, ‘The Eighties are going to be a great, great decade, a fantastic decade,’ ” Yoko said. “Mainly to project positiveness – and I was saying that, too. But fans would write to me, saying, ‘Well, John said the Eighties were going to be great, but what’s this?’ For one thing, to start the decade, John died. Then what happened was – I think it started with Band Aid and Live Aid. We had “We Are the World,” Hands Across America, Amnesty International – all of these big things started to happen.
“Those things were the results of the grass-roots movements of the Sixties,” she continued. “The memory of that must have been there and started to blossom. Then there was a peace conference in Moscow. Then Gorbachev and Reagan shook hands. Then at the end of the Eighties – as if somebody was making a point to do it within the Eighties – suddenly the Berlin Wall disappeared, Eastern Europe was freed. I mean, it’s incredible!”
The UN event grew out of Yoko’s desire to commemorate Lennon’s fiftieth birthday in a public, yet dignified, way. “Even before the year started, I thought that somehow I wanted to direct the celebration into a positive direction,” Yoko said. “Already last year, people started to say, ‘What about this, what about that?’ The suggestions were made mainly from a business point of view. I didn’t want the year to become a pandemonium of trying to sell Lennon out on the market. I wanted something that was more positive and in the spirit of ‘Imagine.’ ” One idea was holding tribute concerts in various cities, including Liverpool, Tokyo and Moscow. Plans for the Moscow show eventually fell through because of the deteriorating political situation in the Soviet Union, but the Tokyo concert, featuring a bill consisting of both Japanese and Western artists, will take place this December. The Liverpool show, which was staged this past May, received a mixed response – an assessment Yoko regards as unfair. “It was nothing like the press reported,” she said. “It was really a very positive, beautiful concert.” A two-hour television special, originally planned for airing in October, will be broadcast in the U.S. this December, and a four-CD collection of Lennon’s songs from his solo career was recently released by Capitol.
Still, the notion of one symbolic gesture that everyone everywhere could participate in held an allure for Yoko. “A lot of business ventures were suggested to me, but what I was looking for was one special event that would really unite Lennon fans throughout the world,” she said. She explained her ideas to Los Angeles media consultant Jeff Pollack, who came up with the idea of a worldwide broadcast of “Imagine” after hearing the song on the radio while riding in a car in New York. Pollack also suggested the United Nations as the site for the broadcast and arranged for the event to be broadcast entirely without commercial sponsorship. “He said, ‘Do you think you could get the United Nations?’ I thought that was a bit much,” Yoko said. “And also a bit much in terms of ‘Well, could I?’ There’s a long-standing grass-roots feeling in me that made me think, ‘Why not Strawberry Fields? That stands for peace.’ But then I thought, ‘It would be a very good thing if I did it in the United Nations. It would be a symbol,’ And Mrs. Pérez de Cuéllar just told me yes.”
Though the decision to stage the ceremony at the UN was made well before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the event gained political resonance because of the UN’s peace-keeping role at a time when war sometimes seems just a shot away. “Even the way that both sides in the Middle East crisis are dealing with the situation now is very sensible,” Yoko said cautiously, aware of the day-to-day shifts the problem takes. “So, hopefully, it will not go toward a violent situation but through discussion can come to some kind of good result. In that sense, it shows the wisdom of people now, even in a crisis.” Yoko’s introductory statement at the United Nations was characterized by a strong, if politely expressed, environmental stance, a position she clearly perceives to be an essential component of shaping a legacy for Lennon. “In celebration of John’s life,” she said, “let’s use the power of dreaming. Let’s dream of trees growing in abundance, birds flying in clear air, fish swimming in clear water and our children living in joy.”
Yoko has taken pragmatic steps to attempt to transform that dream into reality. Last fall in Japan, she announced her desire to establish, in cooperation with the Japanese government, Greening of the World scholarships in Lennon’s honor. The concert in Tokyo and the television special in the U.S. are both designed to raise money for the scholarship fund. “The scholarships are for the children of the world, not just the Japanese,” Yoko explained. “It would be given to Third World exchange students. It doesn’t specify what subject they should study, because the greening of the world, I feel, is not just the physical greening of the world, but it has to start with the mind, and education is very important. And if there’s enough money, I would like to give it to institutions that do scientific research to make our lives easier in terms of pollution and cleaning up the world. But it’s mainly for children. Of course, I believe in exchange programs, because it’s one world, one people.”
In her large, airy apartment, with its spare, white décor and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park, overlooking Strawberry Fields, Yoko seemed delicate and slight. Now fifty-seven years old, smoking incessantly, she wore faded jeans and a dark blue shirt; she was slender, barefoot and, without her almost omnipresent sunglasses, she looked vulnerable, even girlish, far less imposing than she can sometimes appear in the media. She spoke softly and steadily. She is an intensely private person and takes comfort in the organizational aspects of ensuring the ongoing significance of her and John’s work. It is a way of giving public expression to deeply personal emotions. When Yoko, in the course of enumerating some of the most pressing issues facing the world today, suddenly said, “And violence in the streets is a very serious issue, as well – not just in New York, but in all cities, really,” it was difficult not to feel a chill to the bone while remembering what took place just outside this very building one night ten years ago.
That memory seemed just beneath the surface of her consciousness at every point, a presence hauntingly defined by its overt absence in her conversation. “Well, I wasn’t going to stand in front of the mike at the United Nations and start primal-screaming,” Yoko said when asked about how she was personally feeling in the midst of the two anniversaries being commemorated this year. “I think that my feelings are probably obvious to a lot of people, especially the widows of the world, and I think they should remain private. Once I start to explain how I feel, it would probably be wrong, because my feelings are very complex, at this time especially. It’s not like the initial shock at the initial loss. I pushed a lot of my emotions deeper inside, so it’s more complex, and whatever I say about them does not sound right. It can’t quite describe how I feel.”
Nor did she feel comfortable discussing any of the myriad versions of “what might have been,” the scenarios that the rest of us can’t seem to refrain from spinning out. “I don’t want to guess how he would have felt about it,” Yoko said when asked how John Lennon might have perceived the culture of greed and materialism that coalesced in the early Eighties. “My guess is just as good as yours. We all know what he said and what he stood for and what sort of person he was. I think that it’s very interesting that even in the Eighties his influence was felt, and also his songs were encouraging to a lot of people. So it’s not like he stopped working.” She stopped and laughed. “It seemed like he was still working on the situation,” she said. “So instead of thinking of ‘What John would have felt,’ or ‘What John would have done,’ I like to think of how we have felt his influence and how we have done.”
She had struck a similar note during her press conference following the UN ceremony. “I think John’s spirit is alive today,” Yoko answered when she was asked what sort of things Lennon might be doing on this day if he were still alive. “And I think this celebration is a proof of that. I think that his music is still affecting people, affecting the world and encouraging people to make a better world.” She emphasized in particular Lennon’s continuing importance to people who were only children when he was killed. “It seems like [young people] have their own way of being in touch with John’s spirit,” she said. “I have a teenage son, so I know that that generation seems to be very interested in, not John’s only, but Sixties music.” Of course, Yoko, like everyone else, has her own favorite aspect of the legacy left by her husband. “The exchange of roles,” she said that day in the Dakota, with evident fondness. “John’s awareness about the roles of women and men and how to cope with each other and with a relationship. I think that affected a lot of couples and a lot of couples with children, too.”
She still holds to the brand of personal politics that she and Lennon made a hallmark of all their activism in the Sixties and Seventies. Speaking about what ordinary people can do to help realize the ideals extolled by John and Yoko in their own lives, Yoko articulated a vision that inextricably linked the late Sixties with the early Nineties. “I always get letters from people saying, ‘I’m not famous, I’m not rich, and I’m just an ordinary housewife. What could I do?’ ” Yoko began. “I think this is an age when the issues are so big that, of course, one hero cannot take care of it. All of us have to be heroes in some ways. But we don’t really have to be that much of a hero. What I learned from what we did in the Sixties – maybe we were young, too, but we were always in so much of a hurry. When I wrote the song, ‘Now or Never,’ I thought, ‘Oh, well, with this song, everything is going to be all right by next year’ – I was that naive, you know? And when I saw that nothing happened after writing a song or something, it was like ‘Oh, it didn’t work.’ I think a lot of us were like that. We were very idealistic, and we wanted a result now. If we demonstrated, the war was supposed to end tomorrow. That’s how it was.”
“What I learned was, it’s true that bettering the world to the point that the world is extremely healthy, clean and all of us can live fairly comfortably – I mean, that’s a very ambitious thing to do. And for that, it takes a long time. And so each of us should not feel that we have to do it now, that we have to do a hundred percent now, because then we’ll be out of breath. The way to do it is just relax about it a little and keep a good balance going, not put our energies too much on just the cause, but always remember about the people around you: your family, your friends. Keep having love for them and caring about them as well.”
“And by the way,” she continued, “maybe do one good thing a day, one especially good thing. And it could be a very small thing – it depends on the person. That’s good enough. If all of us were to do that, the world would be pretty good, pretty soon.” Like Lennon himself in even his bitterest moments, Yoko maintains an essential optimism. “In the midst of the Reagan age,” Yoko said, “When the Star Wars idea and all that was very prominent, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do?’ And so, when Strawberry Fields opened, I tried to plant a little seed about the fact that we’re entering the age of wisdom. Friends said, ‘Entering the age of wisdom? Are you crazy? We’re not wise at all.’ “And I thought, ‘But we have to be,’ ” she continued. “And I think that we could be. The age of wisdom is an age where we can change things by discussion, rather than fists, and by understanding each other, rather than trying to buy and control things. It’s that kind of world. And I think that the Nineties will be that. I think that the Establishment and the people are going to use the maximum human wisdom to make a beautiful world. This is our mission of this decade: to greet the twenty-first century in peace and with a feeling of satisfaction.”
It’s a lovely vision, and one that John Lennon surely would have shared. Whether it becomes a reality or not, all of us can affirm the feelings Yoko expressed at the end of her speech at the United Nations, though none of us can feel it as profoundly as she does. “Happy birthday, John,” she said, speaking slowly to prevent her voice from breaking. “The world is better today for having shared a time with you.”