As John Lennon emerged from the Dakota building in New York’s Upper West Side on 8th December 1980, he was greeted as usual by the usual throngs of fans gleefully seeking autographs from the former Beatle turned social activist. Donned in a black leather jacket and his trademark, round-framed glasses, Lennon would stop for a photo with Mark Chapman, a troubled and schizophrenically-wrought recluse, before signing his copy of Double Fantasy. Unbeknownst, Lennon was posing with his would-be murderer who, in a matter of hours, would shoot the superstar five times in the back.
Like many students whose parents are of a certain generation, I was bought up on the Beatles. Whether it was the merry jingles of Please, Please Me or Help! or the revolutionary weirdness of the White Album, the band’s music was played to me incessantly in car journeys and at home. I would later stumble upon John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band myself, drawing inspiration from not just the anti-‘powers-that-be’ rhetoric of the artist but also the figure himself, presented as an almost Messianic figure who thrived in an era of change.
The Beatle was inevitably a controversial figure. Banned from the United States for a number of years, his ‘out-there’ opinions were hated by many who thought – in a similar vein to Russell Brand today – he should stick to what he did best. He used the growing power of celebrity to the tee. Long before Band Aid, Lennon produced the Christmas essential Happy Xmas (War is Over), a message which was consolidated with billboards in every corner of the world. He would use the hype surrounding him to perform ‘bed-ins’ to raise the message on peace as the Vietnam War raged on and was even the architect of a philisophy: ‘bagism’.
Many fans were infuriated by his split with the Beatles, the band which had made him an international star, and his relationship with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono. However, you could as easily claim that he simply grew out of the band as his vision and understanding of music as a tool for change overtook the rest of the bands.
His death was a tragedy; Lennon, like many stars who died too soon, has become an icon the younger generation will never quite understand. I sometimes think that, had he still be alive today, the caricature and goonish public persona of the surviving Beatles would have destroyed the powerful stance he took in the 1970s against war and inequality. His credibility reduced to a slightly older, more frustrated Billy Braggeque figure.
Although great solace will always be with those who survived him, I sometimes ask whether the notion of dying too soon might be matched with a similar idea of dying before it’s too late. If this is the case, maybe the latter applies to John Lennon. His legacy has survived in a way it might not have done in other circumstances: a Scouser from the wrong side of the tracks, who was pivotal in revolutionising modern music and celebrity as a weapon for challenging and/or shaping society.