Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. Aside from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., no other single death in memory has stirred such passions and feelings of loss. That's because, when we think about John Lennon, we mourn not only what was, but the enormity of what might have been.
Lennon, still young at 40, was enjoying a comeback in the fall of 1980, with his and Yoko Ono's new album Double Fantasy on the charts, and the single "Just Like Starting Over" receiving heavy airplay. This revival made Lennon's death all the more painful. What could he have achieved had he lived? It's impossible to think that John and Yoko wouldn't have left a mark on the music scene of the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention culture and politics. What would Lennon have had to say about all the events that have taken place since December 8, 1980? How would he have leveraged new technology such as video and the Internet? How would he have influenced and inspired a new generation of fans?
That last question segues into what might be the sole silver lining in Lennon's death. I was 16 years old on the day he was shot. It was a genuine "where were you?" moment that affected people the way only a handful of profound events leave their mark over our lifetimes. At my high school the following day, the murder was on everybody's minds, with my classmates falling into two camps: those who were devastated and shocked, and those who were asking "Who's John Lennon?" Most of us, of course, were barely old enough to remember the Beatles breaking up in the early '70s, if that. However, the media interest in Lennon in the months to follow helped those of us who missed Beatlemania learn about -- and appreciate -- what we had missed. John Lennon would soon become a stranger to no one, not even those who were born after his death.
For me, December 8, 1980 marked the beginning of a quest for knowledge about this man that continues to this day. I started buying Beatles and Lennon albums with my meager allowance, and read every Beatle- and Lennon-related book and magazine article I could find. I studied the Beatles and Lennon with the earnestness of an historian. I found John Lennon endlessly fascinating, learning something new about the man in every piece I read. When A Hard Day's Night was re-released in 1982, the theater was packed with kids my age and younger. When I began surfing the Web for the first time in the mid-90's, some of the first sites I visited were unofficial Beatles fan sites.
Part of this fascination has stemmed from the lack of an equivalent visionary for my own generation. We (late baby Boomers/early Gen X'ers) were too young to remember JFK, RFK, MLK as well as Lennon as a Beatle and in his early solo period, but were old enough to remember Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and other fiascoes. Sure, there have been inspiring leaders since then, as well as uplifting moments such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. And perhaps it's because those men were killed at a young age that we remember them so heroically (though no one will argue that Lennon was flawless). As an artist who transcended his medium, Lennon had few peers among the pop musicians of his era (Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and perhaps Jim Morrison if he had lived longer and cleaned up his act), and certainly no one in entertainment today can hold a candle next to Lennon's legacy (though Bono of U2 comes closest). But why is that?
In all my studies, I detected a single, overarching theme about Lennon's life -- a theme that would ultimately influence my own perspective, and the perspectives of many others. And it's why I'm writing about him here. With few exceptions, John Lennon was always focused on the future, with big, profound visions. He dared to dream that his little nothing band from Liverpool would one day become the greatest force in rock history. He believed that rock and roll could be Art for the Ages, and in so doing produced enduring work that permanently changed the way we think about pop music, and that music lovers 100 years hence will enjoy. He followed his conscience to work for peace, arguing not just for an end to the Vietnam War, but all wars, and trying to show us a better way to get along. He showed how anybody could be an artist, how anybody can create, how anybody could speak their mind and protest injustice, how anybody could communicate and lead with just a little foresight.
You may say I'm a dreamer... but I'm not the only one.
That's why millions still feel pain and loss 25 years after one tragic December evening. John Lennon was a rarity, and we need his approach to the world today more than ever. We need minds like John Lennon to do the hardest yet most rewarding thing a human can possibly do -- to imagine.