Tag Archive | "The Beatles"

Remembering John Lennon

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Reams and reams have been written about John Lennon, gentle activist and one-half of the world’s most famous, prolific, and successful songwriting team: the half that was brutally slain on December 8th, 1980.  Much of John Lennon’s continuing eulogies, including a PBS special airing on November 22, 2010, stem from deeply devoted fans, those who keep his music and his memory close to their hearts.  I was not one of those fans.  And yet, John found a way to touch me.


Before I reveal how he did that, I should clarify why I was not a true fan.  When you understand that, you will have a clearer view of how he did touch me — from beyond the grave.


When Ed Sullivan unveiled The Beatles and thus changed the entire face of contemporary music, I was just nine years old.  Like every other kid and weeping, fainting adolescent girl, I fell in love with four mop-topped cuties from Liverpool.  But the love affair ended with their I Wanna Hold Your Hand phase.  A few months after The Beatles burst into living rooms across the U.S., you see, Ed introduced us all to The Rolling Stones.


Sneering, pug-ugly smoking guns with a lead singer embodying the log flume to hell for innocent little Catholic girls like me, the Stones’ gritty music was 180 degrees removed from the bright, bouncy tunes of The Beatles.   One look at and one listen to Mick and Company and The Beatles were nothing but a fond memory, pleasant little ditties on the radio.  Of all the bands to grace Ed Sullivan’s stage in that most glorious musical era, The Stones were the quintessential purveyors of bluesy rock. With its roots deep in the blood-soaked cotton fields of America’s Deep South, this music spoke to me, a nine-year-old kid, like no other.


As my friends played the latest Beatles’ LP backwards to hear the message about Paul’s “death” and decipher the group’s dress code on the album cover, (inferring his “demise”), I simply shrugged and spun The Stones, Creedence, my older Animals platters, and similar, blues-soaked rockers.  When my friends ooh’d and ahh’d over Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I thought the entire concept — and the music — tres strange as I eased Joplin (Janis, not Scot!) and Led Zeppelin onto my turntable.


John Lennon, however, interested me, before and after the biggest band in the world disbanded.  He’d married a distinctly unattractive artist-cum-business mogul, when he could have had any woman in the world.  I liked that John saw beyond superficialities, put his money where his mouth was, and embraced Yoko’s quirkiness.


John was true to Yoko even though the world at large seemed to despise her, blaming her (unfairly) for the band’s breakup and unprecedented outrages such as the couple’s nude sit-in in their own bedroom, to which they’d cheerfully invited the press.  And then John broke the cardinal rule, the one established by legions of die-hard Beatles fans.  He began to make music with Yoko!  Paul, George, and Ringo he’d tossed aside, but Yoko became his new partner, and not only in music.


The daughter of a Japanese cattle rancher, she managed the couple’s businesses and finances.  John, in turn, became the stay-at-home dad “watching the wheels go round and round” as he raised his and Yoko’s only child, Sean Lennon.  John was watching those wheels not from a castle in the English countryside, but from a New York City apartment overlooking Central Park.  And while the British Tax Man that John had immortalized in song was sucking 90% of the income out of its mega-earning musicians, making expatriates out of many, John Lennon could have lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills or a beachfront in The Bahamas.  Instead, he chose an apartment in New York City – My City.


He said he’d liked Manhattan for its anonymity, and largely, he was right about that.  Those of us born and raised in New York rarely blink when we spy a celebrity, for in the city, there are nearly as many famous people as there are fish in the Hudson River.  Most native New Yorkers respect the privacy and personal space of celebrities.  But it was more than that that drew John to my city.


I think he must have loved it as I do, as every New Yorker does.  I think he loved waking up every morning to look down upon the huge oasis of Central Park, upon Cleopatra’s Needle, the lake, the zoo, the skating rink, and the rolling green miles of trees, grass, and trails (see the Park from the sky and you’ll understand how truly immense it really is).  I think he liked the museums, the Planetarium, the theater, the art galleries, the little clubs and the bigger venues, the restaurants, the street artists and musicians, the thousand dizzying cultures all melding and yet unique, the fact that life teemed and throbbed and never seemed truly quiet on such a tiny island, connected to the rest of the world by a series of bridges and underground tunnels.  And I think that, in the midst of this beautiful, cacophonous, rushing city, he found peace. For John was a man of peace.


When news of his murder at the hands of a twisted non-New Yorker broke, I was entrenched in the world of publishing.  Editors and editorial assistants, authors, the entire production department, sales and customer service reps, all laboring under terrible deadlines, came to a grinding halt.  Women burst into tears while the men were struck speechless. One editorial assistant fled the building and returned later with black armbands.


I was among the few who did not cry; neither did I wear an armband.  I wasn’t crazy about John’s post-I Wanna Hold Your Hand music.  It was just okay by me.  Perhaps it was too simple and gentle for me, for I was still steeped in hard, bluesy rock and getting my head turned by the angry young man who was Billy Joel and the nerd punk-rock god, Elvis Costello.  John Lennon did not need me to mourn him.  The world was mourning him and particularly, I think, my city — the city where he had felt so safe, the city that had loved him back.


As a strange, communal quietude hung over the city, its citizens grieved, laying armloads, truckloads of flowers at The Dakota, the building before which John had been gunned down, the building in which he’d lived with his wife and young son.  The faces on the subway and the crowded city streets were oddly subdued.  Eventually, the city stretched slowly, painfully back to life, like an arthritic too long asleep.


And still, I had not mourned John.


The week after his assassination, I found myself, at 6 AM, in the Port Authority — the old Port Authority.  This was the bus terminal where angels feared to tread, as the homeless struggled to find warm alcoves from which they would not be tossed, and muggers preyed gleefully upon commuters … including very young women, like me, sitting all alone on an empty bench at 6 AM on a weekday.


As a production vigilante in the days before desktop publishing, I was scheduled to sit shotgun on a typesetter in Connecticut, just before the book went to press.  Peter, my editor on this project, was coming along in case of disaster, but Peter was afraid to fly.  Young idiot that I was, I felt bad for him and decided to take the long bus ride up to Connecticut to keep him company.  I was an idiot because Peter and I were about as far apart in musical and artistic tastes, preferred cuisines, fashions, and personalities as Earth is from Alpha Centuri.  He was quiet to the point of being aloof; I was the Italian-American firecracker who abhorred protracted silences.


Peter was notoriously late, and I was notoriously early: another difference that separated us, another thing about him that ticked me off.  On that morning, waiting (once again!) for my editor, I bought a container of orange juice and a copy of Time magazine.  There on the cover was John Lennon.


It was just a headshot, or perhaps it was a drawing.  I cannot remember now, but I remember John’s face on that cover, still.  It was John, quintessential John. The gentle, quietly confident musician-singer-songwriter with the ubiquitous round spectacles.  The man who’d more than once turned the world on its ear, the man with the kind, knowing eyes whose wry humor telegraphed that nobody was getting one over on him.  The man who’d made gentle music and who had rallied for peace, even when half the world had jeered at him for doing so.


Inexplicably, my throat constricted and my eyes swelled.  On the cover of Time, John’s picture curdled with my salty tears.  I knew how utterly stupid it was to be crying all alone in the cavernous, pre-rush hour Port Authority; I knew that it made me a target for the muggers, the homeless, and the just plain crazed.  Still, I could not stop crying.


A shadow fell across the magazine and I looked up.  There stood Peter, his handsome face changing from sanguine to concerned the minute that he saw me.  “What’s wrong?” he demanded.  “Are you okay?”   Silently, I shook my head; the words would not come.  Again, he insisted, “What’s wrong?!?“  In answer, I held up the magazine and said only, “John,” in the voice of one who suddenly realizes she has lost something ephemeral and very precious, something irreplaceable. 


I watched as Peter’s face changed again, to complete understanding.  In that moment, I had finally achieved total, soul-level understanding with a man with whom I had worked closely for months, a man who had not previously understood one damned thing about me — and whom I had not understood.  John Lennon did that.  He made that connection.  He leveled the barriers between two hard-nosed, stubborn, diametrically opposed New Yorkers and brought us to a moment of total understanding … and afterwards, a sort of silent truce.


I think that John Lennon did that for many, many other people all around the world.  I think that somehow, he is doing that still.


Feet of Clay

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Genuine Fan

Those of us who remember the joy of reading full-length books and the satisfaction of conducting research in the library, instead of pursuing bits and pieces of knowledge online, remember the adage about idols with feet of clay.  For those of us who don’t, the proverb relates to the situation that occurs when we place individuals upon pedestals and later find them to be mere flesh and blood mortals, just like the rest of us.

 

The Idols Syndrome, if you may, occurs most readily or perhaps most obviously with artists and entertainers.  In other words, those luminaries we see on TV, in film, and if we’re really lucky and they prove themselves to be true artists, in concerts, plays, and other live performing arts venues.   These are the same people we also see at checkout lines in the grocery and convenience stores: the Angelina Jolies, the Brad Pitts, the Jennifer Anistons, the Madonnas, the A Rods, the Oprahs, the Katie Holmeses, ad infinitum.   If the fact that I’ve pluralized their names offends you in any way, and you hear yourself hollering, “There is only one Oprah! There is only one Angelina!”, then you have subscribed to the phenomena of which I speak.  You’ve placed your celebrities in a stratosphere far above the planet upon which the rest of us live.

 

Why?

 

If they struck a chord with you, what did that chord sound like?  Do their drop dead gorgeous looks stop you in your tracks and halt the heart in your chest, as if Medusa herself had given you the evil eye?   Do they make you toss out your “little blue pills” as your idols are a lot cheaper, safer, and ahem, more effective aphrodisiac?  Do their impossibly perfect bodies, designer threads, and hordes of paparazzi allow you to live vicariously?  Or is it something less definable and a lot deeper?  Of the ever-widening pool of idols, what compels you to follow yours?

 

You could, after all, have your pick; celebrities in one form or another have been with us since before recorded history.  In more recent history, worship of actors, actresses, and others in the limelight rose to its zenith in Hollywood’s Golden Era.  While our nation was plunged into a deep Depression, the price of movie ticket plucked the common man and woman out of their miserable lives, immersing them in fascinating stories and characterizations unfolding upon the Silver Screen.  Beyond the confines of the theaters, these same fans followed the gossip about their stars like foxes in hot pursuit of rabbits.  And even when the idols proved to have feet of clay in well-publicized scandals (a la the married Clark Gable and the lover he eventually wed), the general public cut them some slack and continued to patronize their art.

 

Then, there was a clearly defined line between fans and entertainers.  Hollywood versus Joe and Jane Public was a bit like India’s caste system; fans generally knew their place as well as that of their idols, with the latter being somewhere up in that rarified stratosphere.  So why are we, as the dawn of the year 2010 approaches, so quick to point out the feet of clay in our own idols, and in fact, create feet of clay when none actually exist?  Why are we not as broadminded or as patient as our elders?

 

Answer: in days of yore, the Internet and reality TV shows, cell phones and camcorders had yet to be invented.  Technology has brought us so much closer to our idols that some of us have come to feel as if we own them and have every right to dictate to them.  Twitter, Myspace, and other social networking sites along with blogs and official fan sites enable frequent and extended contact with celebrities good enough to maintain such contact.   Casual passersby and rabid fans alike capture superstars perpetrating indiscriminate acts of kindness as often as they conduct indiscretions.   Evidence in the form of videos wind up for all the world to see and gloat over on the ‘net.

 

And let us not ignore the reality shows.  When programs such as American Idol, for example, bring undiscovered talent into our living rooms week after week and month after month, when they prompt us to vote for a particular contestant, and when that contestant wins or places, we follow them like lemmings to the sea.  Some of us jump in and announce that the water is fine; the rest of us turn away and get on with our lives.

 

The water babies among us then begin dissecting every aspect of our heroes’ and heroines’ lives.   And woe betide the icons who don’t give the hungry masses the things for which they yearn, because what they yearn for can never be fulfilled.  To satisfy every fan’s whims, spanning personal mementos to how they should conduct their careers, would be the equivalent of solving the unsolvable riddle about the pregnant Mary, Mother of Jesus, her husband Joseph, and their donkey.  If you don’t know that story, suffice it to say that both Mary and Joseph walked beside a perfectly healthy donkey under a brutal sun, just to placate the masses and their conflicting whims.

 

Before the advent of current technology, before the odd sense of familiarity bred by reality shows, we were content to allow our artists to be artists.   When The Beatles broke up, we wept and then followed the Fab Four, all of them, through their individual careers.  When James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and every other solo or combined act of true quality took the normal two years “off” to create their next albums, we waited and endured.  We remained loyal.  If we loved them enough, if their music spoke to us, touched something deep inside of us that we could not live without, we supported them silently.  We spun their records, shared them with friends.  We read the liner notes again and again and the interviews in Rolling Stone, Q, and Musician magazine.

 

We didn’t hound them with letters to their record companies, demanding word from them as to where they were in their artistic journeys and what they were doing in their personal lives!  We didn’t lie in wait for them, yammering for autographs to adorn everything from the shirts on our backs to our bare skin (well, most of us didn’t).  And we didn’t kick them to the curb for engaging in outside projects that captured their interest or maybe helped them pay the bills so that they could continue crafting the work that had so touched us.

 

Have the hurry up, gimme-gimme sound bites of technology and the surreal intimacy of reality TV made our society more impatient, more demanding, more  myopic, and more inconsiderate of those we have placed upon pedestals?  Have they made us into Walter Mitty talent agents?

 

I say “No.”

 

Technology and TV have not made us so, but they have illuminated those of us in fan bases who are genuine supporters.  The difference between the hurry up, gimme-gimmes and the real fans is that the Real McCoys stick by the artists they support, allowing them breathing room to create on every level, to be the artistic equivalents of the crew of the good ship Enterprise.  The true fans remain with open minds and open hearts, rejoicing in their artists’ evolutions.  The genuine fans will be those same familiar faces in the crowd greeting their artists, performance after performance.  The genuine fans are those of us who are in it for the long haul. 

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