On the 10th anniversary of his murder by Mark David Chapman, on December 8, 1980, it’s time to remember why so many people loved John Lennon so much. Lennon wasn’t the plaster saint Yoko Ono has tried to make him, nor the half- mad dope fiend palmed off by debunking biographer Albert Goldman, but someone far more lively and complex. He was funny, angry, smart, crazy, loving, grouchy, a sweet-voiced pop singer, a heroic inspiration, an avant- gardist with the common touch, and, at the same time, the bad boy down the block.
He was also the first of a new breed of rock stars: He seized the opportunity offered by the Beatles’ unprecedented fame and refashioned stardom in his own image. We take it for granted today that rock stars have long careers, dabble in art as well as commerce, and get involved with social and political issues as well as messy divorces. When they do, they’re operating within the large space between Big Beat and Big Ideas that John Lennon originally carved out.
He began whittling at that space in childhood. Born in 1940 — he would have turned 50 this year — and abandoned by his parents in infancy, Lennon grew up rebellious in the comfortable home of his aunt and uncle in lower-middle-class Liverpool. In the mid-’50s, he was sent off to art school, the English education system’s dumping ground for talented misfit adolescents. But even in such unconventional company, Lennon didn’t really fit in. He hung around with slightly younger, working-class louts and — after meeting Paul McCartney at a church fair — even played in a band later called the Beatles. Both rockers and art students initially found his mixture of interests unfathomable.
Lennon didn’t resolve the conflict — in his characteristic fashion, he managed to have it both ways. He found links between the art of Picasso and the rock & roll of Elvis, reveling in their mixture of manic energy, pure whimsy, personal expression, and social satire. And he didn’t just demonstrate that these connections existed; he demonstrated them in a way that, as soon as his band got into a recording studio, proved seductive to an entire generation. From the minute the Beatles turned up, shaking their long hair, sporting their collarless jackets, snickering their way through press conferences, and generally goofing around — until wham! they slammed into a song that told you this brand of fun was serious business — they united art and entertainment, and joined the irresponsible with the visionary.