| Friday, December 09, 2005
| THE AFTERLIFE OF JOHN LENNON
|Twenty five years ago this week, the ex-Beatle's tragic death launched on endless season of grief and remembrance.
Even 25 years later, the details of his death come rushing back, like a flock of dark birds.
It is December in Manhattan, shortly before 11pm. He's just turned 40, and recording albums for the first time in five years. He and his wife are returning from the studio. He steps out of the limousine, and someone calls out to him. Suddenly he is stumbling through the Gothic Dakota building's entranceway, and struggling up the steps to the doorman's desk. He is trailing blood, gasping, "I'm shot!" The doorman rushed out, sees that the killer dropped his gun and kicks it away. The doorman starts cryng.
He turns to the killer. "Do you know what you did?" Of course he does: "I just shot John Lenon".
In the surreal moments before the police arrive, Yoko Ono cradles her husband's head while the killer, Mark David Chapman, thumbs through "The Catcher in the Rye". The police pull up. They turn Lennon over and, at the sight of all the blood, a rookie officer retches. There's no time to wait for an ambulance, so they carry Lennon to the back of a squad car. A policeman bends over him and, trying to establish if he's concious, asks a question that has taken the singer 40 years to answer: "Do you know who you are?" He groans. He seems to. At Roosevelt Hospital, however, Lennon is pronounced dead. Seven surgeons attempt to revive him, but he has already lost 80 percent of the blood in his body. The director of the ER steels himself to tell Ono that her husband has passed away. He finds her sobbing, hysterical, unable to process what he's telling her: "Are you saying he is sleeping?"
As of this Thursday, Ono will have spent a quarter of a century trying to do what the surgeons could not: keep John Lennon alive. His murder was so shattering and so universally felt, because it was brutal and incongrous -- the man was a singer, a pacifist, a househusband-- but also because ther's always been a generation of baby boomer fans whose feelings for Lennon's legacy has been a fraught proposition. That's partly because he left behind a fairly small body of solo work; partly because the biographer Albert Goldman, having feasted on Elvis Presley's corpse, was thrilled to have a new legend to stick his fork into; and partly because Lennon and Ono had, in their love struck desire to shut out the world, torched so many bridges. Among the estranged? There's Lenon's first wife Cynthia, who details severe emotional and financial wounds on behalf of herself and her son, Julian, and her new memoir,"John" And, of course, there's Paul McCartney, who had competed quite nakedly with Lennon's ghost.
"You know, this is like a Shakespearean drama almost," says Ono. "Each person has something to be totally misearble about because of the way they were put into this place. I have incredible symphathy for each of them, really"
This is the story of how the Shakespearean drama has unfolded sicne Dec. 8, 1980. This is the story -- if it's not too strange a thing to say about the man who sang "Imagine there's no heaven "-- of John Lennon's afterlife.
Despite the turmoil, two things have remained fairly constant. One is the universal appeal of the music that Lenon made with the Beatles, though Lennon himelf was weary of it by the time he died. The Beatles greatest hits collection "I" has sold 10 million copies since its release in 2000. Even 2003's anti-climatic new version of "Let it Be" managed to sell 1.1 million.
The second constant is how much Lennon the man -- with all his failings -- still resonates with fans. "I loved the Beatles and everything", says Sinead O'Connor, "but we all loved John Lennon better for all the mad things he did -- the way he was interested in just tearing opne the sky. He was definitely the sexiest of the Beatles because he was angry and edgy. And look at what he did with his fame. He did'nt use it to suck (up) and get more money and be liked by everybody. In fact, that's the power of John Lennon to me; he was real".
Mourning the man
In person, Ono talks about her late husband's music and message ecstatically, and about the Beatles a bit joylessly. One fall afternnon at the Dakota, she sits down for an interview in her kitchen, a bright space overlooking a couryard. Ono is 72, but looks 15 years younger. She knows that, for this particular article, she will be asked more about life after Lenon's death than before.
By midnight on Dec 9, 1980 -- barely an hour after Lennon's murder -- 5,000 people began to gather outside the Dakota. Ono sat in her apartment, watching news coverage, dubmstruck, while the sound of the crowd singing and playing tapes of "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" drifted up. "Hearing his song in the street was very difficult for me", she says, "I was sitting alone in the bedroom, and John was singing all night".
The next day flowers, gifts and cards flooded in -- as did death threats and crank calls. A morgue attendant sold photos of Lennon's corpse to the tabloids for $10,000. The first of three devastated fans killed herself. Ono begged publicly for the suicides to stop, called for a silent vigil in Central Park and took her 5-year old son Sean to see where his dad had been shot.
In the years later that followed, fans united and mourned on a globa; scale, while back at the Dakota everything seemes to be imploding. David Sheff chronicled the period in "The Betrayal of John Lennon", a devastating article published by Playboy in 1984. A security guard whom Sean had grown close to quit abruptly, insisting he was owed back pay and taking a pair of Lennon's glasses, some electronic equipment and other items collateral. A Tarot- card reader whom Ono let live free for charge in a loft fille with Lennon's artwork and original tapes began charging admission to the public. An assistant named Frederic Seaman made off with clothing, more love letters, amphlifiers and priceless diaries. Sheff reported all of the above, and noted that Ono too lost in grief to notice that anything was missing -- until someone offered to seel her Lennon's diaries.
Seaman pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny. Years later he published a memoir. He offered it up as follows: "This book is dedicated to the meomory of John Lennon. May his music live on forever."
The music lives on
The music lives on, in fact, flourish. The Beatles had been receding in the collective consciousness, partly, no doubt, because both Lennon's and McCartney's solo work had been in decline. "The Beatles seemed to be in the process of being forgotten", says Glenn Glass, a music professor at Indiana University. "There was that horrible Sgt. Pepper movie, and then Johns' death shocked everybody and reminded them how much the Beatles meant."
Lenon and Ono's album "Double Fantasy" had been released a month before his death to mised reviews, and debuted at No. 24. After Lennon's death, "(Just Like) Starting Over" became the most successful single of his solo career, "Doube Fantasy" flew to No. 1 and won the Grammt for Album of the Year.
The mother-son reltionship flourished too. Sean Lennon declined to be interviewed for this article. (Cynthia Lennon also said her son, Julian, would prefer not to talk) But 10 years agom when he was 20, Sean gave this reporter a rare interview at the Dakota. Ge tlaked about his childhood, specially about fear and the struggle not to succumb to it. His father's death flotated between the lines. "Yeah, that's a biggie," he said. "That's a big one, I mean, I grew up being scared that someone would shoot my mom -- or me. You know what I mean? And I was justified."
Sean and his mother had always wanted him to be famous, though for an unexpected reason. "She made certain to expose me to the press," he said. "She was worried that if she might ever die or something, I would be an orphan. She thought that at least if the world, or Lennon fans, loved me, I would'nt just disappear." When "Double Fantasy" won the Grammy, Ono broguth Sean onstage -- and cried when the crowd rose to its feet.
Failings as a father
Lennon's legacy took a blow in 1988 when Albert Goldman published his poisonouse book " The Lives of John Lennon". Even if the conventional image of the singer's final years -- said to have been spent baking bread, romping in Central Park with Sean and in bed with Yoko --- always seemed a bit sanitized, the picture that Goldman's Lennon was a gay,schizoid, anorexic heroin addict. Ono he liked less. "Every single person was annihilated", says Cynthia Lennon.
Goldman's book was a bestseller, but Ono championed the infintiely more humane and convincing "Imagine" documentary as an antidote. Lennon's reputation survived the sliming. There's no way around the fact that he had flashes of unusual cruelty throughout his life and a history of drug use. He acknowledged both himself. But by and large Lennon is not remembered as a tormented junkie. He's remebered either as a moptop or as the man at the white painao -- the man who wrote "Imagine", "Give Peace a Chance" and "All You Need Is LOve".
If Lennon had a great failing, it was his inability to be a father to Julian. When Cynthia and Lennon divorced in 1968 -- she'd walked in on him and Yoko -- he gave her a one-time payment of about $180,000 and set up a $100,000 trust fund for Julian. Cynthia called him, against the advice of her lawyers. He told her she wasn't worth more. When Julian became a pop star in the middle '80's, he was shaken by the endless comparisons to a father he'd hardly known. Years later, he was infuriated by Ono's reluctance to part with keepsakes to remember him by. He lacerated her publicly, and bought what he could at auction, even paying $60,000 for the notes to the tune that McCartney wrote for him when his folks split up, "Hey Jude".
In 1996, Julian reportedly won a multimillion dollar settlement from his father's estate, but a rapproachment with Ono is not on the horizon. In 1998, Julian released an album he'd worked on for seven years, only to find that Sean's first album was debuting the same day. He remains convinced, says his mother, that it was a pulicity stunt made to order by Ono-- who vigorously denies it.
'As if he were here'
Yet, over the years, Ono's most persistent adversary has been Paul McCartney.
"There have been moments of closeness, and they've hugged on camera", says Mark Lewison, an authority on the Beatles who's now at work on a three volume biography."But clearly there were difficult times. What surprised me is that it became public, which it did around the time of Linda's death." In 1998, when Linda McCartney died, Paul talked at length about the fact that Ono had not been invited to the memorial service. But Ono saand McCartney had been going at each other for years. She loves to poke at his insecurities -- in 1997, she compared Lennon to Mozart and McCartney to Salieri, and she reprised that theme just recently at a Britishm awards show-- and he reliably takes the bait and flinches.
The result has been the unseemly sight of McCartney's jousting with the dead. He led a PR campaing to convince people he was every inch the rocker that Lennon was, and famously wqnted to reverse the legendary Lennon & McCartney songwriting credit on a few key songs, such as "Yesterday", which he wrote himself. Then, he backed off. "I've given up", McCartney told Newsweek in 2003. "I'm not going to bother with it. It's very unseemly for me to care, because John's not here and it's like walking on a dead man's grave. I was talking about him as if he were here, and he's not."
The last line is key; "I was talking about him as if he were here, and he's not". After 25 years, McCartney still seems shocked to look across the conference room table and see Ono's face where the face of his mate, John, should be. "I don't think he's competitive with John", says Cynthia Lennon, "as much as he is with Yoko". It's as if they've battled for the pre-eminent right to grieve. But when you think about what was lost on Dec 8,1980, you realize that there's enough grief to go around.
(Source: abstracted from DAILY HERALD/SUBURBAN LIVING SECTION by Jeff Giles)
|posted by infraternam meam @ 1:53 AM