Think of John Lennon, and a flood of images comes to mind: Beatle John, standing on stage with a sly smile or dropping sly non sequiturs at an airport press conference; Hippie John,in long hair and granny glasses; Anti-War John, holed up in bed with Yoko Ono and several dozen members of the press, singing "Give Peace a Chance"; House-Husband John, baking bread and playing with his infant son, Sean.
Still, the one image that refuses to materialize is that of John Lennon at 50.
Granted, it's not something any of us will ever see. Mark David Chapman saw to that, one cold December night 10 years ago in the shadows outside New York's Dakota Apartments.
But time marches on, even if Lennon does not, and what would have been his 50th birthday on Tuesday will mark a celebration of sorts for millions of Beatle fans across the globe. There have already been a host of commemorative concerts, including a hometown show in Liverpool which featured a performance of Lennon songs by fellow Beatle Paul McCartney. And for you stay-at-homes, there's "Lennon," an extravagant 74-song, four-CD boxed set including live recordings, studio rarities and a lavish, 96-page booklet.
Moreover, at 10 a.m. Tuesday Lennon confidant Elliot Mintz -- host of the long-running radio program "The Lost Lennon Tapes" -- has organized a worldwide simulcast of "Imagine." Broadcast by satellite to some 50 nations around world -- WGRX-FM (100.7 MHz) will pick up the transmission locally -- the song will be preceded by a speech to the United Nations by Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. As Mintz imagines it, people will be able to walk down "any sidewalk in the world and hear the song."
Imagine all the people, listening in harmony while somewhere, up in heaven, John Lennon looks down and chuckles, "Well, that ought to sell a few records!"
Out of character? Hardly. After all, he was a man who gauged his JTC whole life in the terms of pop stardom, a man who once returned his M.B.E. (an honor awarded to notable Britons) in protest over England's involvement in Biafra, America's involvement in Vietnam "and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts." John Lennon understood all too well that fame was a joke that cut both ways.
We might see him as a hero, a martyr, an icon, a Beatle. But to himself, he was, as he once told an interviewer, "just Lennon." Not "Lennon-and-McCartney."
"Lennon and McCartney and the Beatles don't exist," he told Playboy's David Sheff in 1980, "and can never exist again. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard Starkey [Ringo Starr] could put on a concert, but it can never be the Beatles singing 'Strawberry Fields' and 'I Am the Walrus' again. We can not be that again. . . ."
That was the sound of a working musician, one with little use for nostalgia because he had (he thought) a whole life ahead of him. Death, though, has changed that, and not just in the most obvious way, either. Robbed of his future, Lennon has become a creation of his past, a figure whose impact, meaning and importance have been shaped, over the last decade, by wish-fulfillment and selective memory.
Hence, St. John, that curiously un-Lennonesque character whose life appears to have been a cross between clever clowning (a la "A Hard Day's Night") and earnest proselytizing (a la "Gandhi").
Forget the acrid sarcasm of "Working Class Hero," the morbid self-pity of "Jealous Guy" or the snarling vituperation of "How Do You Sleep"; that's not how we want to remember him. What St. John of the Beatles brought us were lovely, uplifting numbers, songs like "Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance," "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and, of course, "I Am the Walrus," "Nowhere Man" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Naturally, trailing along behind St. John were the doubters and disbelievers, the professional cynics who complained that Lennon was a louse, a fraud, a wife-beater and lush. Albert Goldman, something of an old hand at sullying the reputations of the dead, even went so far as to question Lennon's sexual preferences. Strangely enough, though, the louder they cavilled, the brighter the legend shone.
In fact, such was the weight of the myth that eventually even Paul McCartney cracked under the strain, snapping to an interviewer that, in real life, Lennon could be "a maneuvering swine." Quoth Paul, "Now since his death he's become Martin Luther Lennon. . . . He wasn't some sort of holy saint!"
True enough. Then again, neither was he Paul McCartney, happily churning out album after album of tuneful piffle. In some respects, McCartney was the more successful of the team; "Yesterday," for instance, is the most-played song of the postwar era, and very definitely a Paul tune. But it's also the Beatle song most likely to crop up on the elevator-music stations, and that's the problem.