Lennon could have taught us how to grow old gracefully

Steven Stark

December 07, 1990|By Steven Stark

WHAT if John Lennon had never been assassinated 10 years ago tomorrow? The news this week might have looked like this:

NEW YORK -- Lennon is back.

Singing only a few dozen blocks from the place he narrowly escaped a shooting attempt a decade ago, John Lennon launched a triumphant tour here tonight, capping a tumultuous decade that saw the former Beatle reclaim his position as rock music's leading figure.

From the moment he appeared on stage at Madison Square Garden with his son Julian, to the chords of "Come Together," the concert was a love fest between Lennon and 20,000 adoring fans who packed the Garden to witness the start of Lennon's first concert tour in 24 years. He last toured with the Beatles in 1966.

The concert marked the end of a decade that began with Lennon's re-emergence from seclusion in 1980 with two albums -- "Double Fantasy" and "Milk and Honey" -- that redefined the rock star's attempt to merge the political and the personal. "Your way of life is a political statement," he said then.

"I was visualizing all the people of my age group from the '60s being in their 30s and 40s now, just like me, and having wives and children and having gone through everything together."

Throughout the rest of the decade, that attempt to link the personal and the political was the defining mark of Lennon's music, as he largely explored such unconventional themes in his five albums on feminism, child abuse and violence toward women.

His third album, "Running Through Time," was a nonconformist attempt to define the meaning and value of long-term relationships.

His political activity changed as well, as Lennon focused his energy and fund-raising around such causes as aiding the homeless and alternative schooling for troubled youth.

Periodically throughout the 1980s, Lennon made concert appearances. Last year, of course, his set in Berlin, as the Wall came down, attracted the largest worldwide television audience in history. During "Live Aid" in 1985, he joined fellow ex-Beatle Paul McCartney for a rendition of "Help" on stage, and he later reunited with his three former mates for a 1986 one-shot, closed-circuit concert that grossed over $1 billion for the homeless.

It was the Beatles' reunion that convinced such groups as the Who and the Rolling Stones to do the same and donate the proceeds of their 1988 and 1989 concert tours to charity.

Not all of Lennon's work, naturally, was in music. For five years he has been well-known to a new generation of television viewers as the host of MTV's "Lennon Speaks," an unusual weekly show that highlights "the Lennon agenda of Zen Marxism," as he calls it.

And, for two years, Lennon served as a creative consultant to the network show, "thirtysomething." Lennon is credited with the shows that dealt with child abuse and the plot twist last season that saw Michael Steadman quit his job at a yuppie advertising agency so he and his wife, Hope, could start a shelter for battered women.

Of course, the decade was not without controversy for the 50-year-old Lennon and wife Yoko Ono. In 1987, when Albert Goldman's biography of former Beatle Ringo Starr appeared, charging, among other things, that Lennon had once been a heavy drug user, the ex-Beatle responded with a celebrated news conference in which he admitted some of the charges.

"I don't think the point is what we've done," he said. "It's how we've changed. It's what kind of fathers and mothers we are. It's what we can pass on to our children."

And then, he turned to the startled press corps and sang his ballad "Imagine."

In the end, Lennon's influence on the past decade may be incalculable. "Who knows how things might have been different if Lennon had remained in seclusion again during the last 10 years?" speculated critic Dave Marsh in a retrospective piece in Entertainment Weekly. "This is a man who has continually

defined an agenda for an entire generation. He rehabilitated the legacy of an era, the '60s, at a time when it was under attack by Ronald Reagan."

Critic Tim Riley agreed. "He taught us again, if nothing else, that the past is only prologue, that it's OK to risk making mistakes. I know it sounds crazy, but who's to say? If Lennon hadn't been around, we might never have seen things like the National Homelessness Act. Maybe someone like Bruce Babbitt wouldn't even be president."

Or, the legacy of the last 10 years may be as one fan described it. "What John Lennon has really taught us," she said, "is how to grow old gracefully."

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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