I was sitting in a Starbucks recently and a track from John Lennon’s Double Fantasy came over the restaurant’s sound system. I was 15 years old when that album came out, and had already been a Beatles/Lennon fan for a decade. I remember how that album, from the first three bell tones of its first hit single Just Like Starting Over seemed to herald a new age for this brilliant songwriter. Clean and sober, ready to literally start over, ready to share his remarkable talents with the world once again.
Lennon seemed to possess a triple threat as a songwriter: brilliant wordplay combined with enormous tenderness, as well as the ability to create memorable hooks or riffs that guaranteed permanent implant into a listener’s ears and heart.
His death happened long before the age of social media or even cellphones. In an era when newspapers and television reigned, expressions of regret over his death came from all corners of the globe, even from the dark interiors of the Soviet Union, an unheard-of connection with the West which presaged the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet system itself. It showed just how pervasive beautiful music actually was; to penetrate the darkest, most oppressive areas of the world, to flourish among its people.
Obviously the songwriting team of Lennon & McCartney produced a dizzying collection of monster hits, any one of which most bands would trade their souls to claim as their own. And Sir Paul has continued to thrive, creating beautiful pop tunes, and entertaining well into his seventh decarde.
But Lennon had a deeper, more introspective style. He seemed able to touch people with his poetry, cynicism, and his message of peace in a way that went beyond music itself. Dare I say that his approach was on par with the peaceful “non-action” actions of people such as Gandhi and Mandela. Yes, these men suffered much more, but all three changed the world through non-violence and sheer charisma.
Others have come along to attempt to fill the Lennon shoes: Bono comes to mind. Yet for all of Bono’s star power, there seems to be something essentially corporate about him. He has the power to flirt with world leaders, he speaks at Davos, and can look the Pope in the eye, but he seems, at least to this observer, to still be one of them. Lennon was never one of them. How would the various leaders of the world’s countries and multinationals have responded to his political fearlessness?
How different would the world be if Lennon had not been taken from us?
Take 9/11, for example. For such a tragedy to unfold right in the middle of Lennon’s beloved adopted hometown. What tune could he have written? What call for global peace could have been wrung from his soul to match and exceed the magnitude of this carnage? I believe the world would by now have a new and universal anthem for peace, had he had the chance to write it; a magnum opus from a man dedicated to non violence.
And what of any additional work with McCartney? There is no doubt they would have come back together. The world would have demanded it.
Of course I could be totally wrong. Maybe he would have turned into a parody of himself, botoxed, facelifted, and unwilling to let go of his youth, like Steven Tyler. Maybe he would have matured into a genteel older version of himself, like Sting or Peter Gabriel. Or maybe he would have died anyway, from something natural or unnatural. But had he been able to have stayed with us, his words and art would still have to come out. He would have been a force to be reckoned with, creatively, socially, politically and musically.
He left behind both towering achievements and an indefinable void, with the rest of us just wondering what might have been.