Missing John Lennon
I miss John Lennon.
That I’m confessing to this is both stranger and more complicated than it sounds. First, it is complicated because I’m using the word “miss” in two ways: I mistook Lennon a long time ago. Today, I think I was wrong.
I suppose it’s also a little strange because the recognition comes almost a quarter century after Lennon’s murder/assassination in 1980. Beyond that it’s privately strange because of the circumstances in which the recognition arrived, and maybe because, well, I’m not the sort of person who misses John Lennon or anything else from the sentimental past.
I was never much of a Beatles fan. From about 1964 I was more comfortable with the in-your-face middle class pissed-offness of the Rolling Stones. Skittle bands are as English as fish and chips, and the Beatles played skittle music, or would have had the global machinery not picked them up. And who really expected Mick Jagger would turn into an octogenarian aerobics instructor, a kind of parched Richard Simmons with rhythm?
I didn’t like the Beatles in the 1960s because they were soft and parent-friendly, and I never saw much reason to change my mind about them, not even during their late 1960s dalliance with Eastern religions and LSD. Since the band broke up in 1970 Sir Paul has played rock-n-roll-for-parents, and the other two, Ringo Starr and the pie-faced George Harrison, weren’t much more than media-approved teddy bears for suburban girls, safe love-objects for the one out-of-control passion they’d be allowed before they hit the donut shops, 200 lbs and three pudgy brats doomed to spend their lives watching cartoons with their parents.
But John Lennon was different from the other Beatles. He had a darker sense of play, and a sense of proportion which gave the impression that he thought life was a Samuel Beckett play produced and directed by Edward Lear, which is to say, absurd, but without a trace of arty world-weariness. When Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono, he was so over-the-top that I thought it was interesting and slightly endearing: a public Grand Passion pursued without embarrassment or second thoughts. Sure, most of the songs he wrote under Ono’s influence had a utopian naiveté that made me cringe whenever I parsed the lyrics, and the only song he wrote that truly got my number was “Working Class Hero”. The verse that went “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV/ And you think you’re so clever and classless and free/ But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see” gives me a buzz to this day.
Then Mark David Chapman shot him, and that was the end of the real John Lennon and whatever music he would have made.
I guess what I’m trying to explain is that until a few weeks ago I was pretty firmly on the “murder” side of the murder/assassination divide. I didn’t think John Lennon was a genius. He was only a very good song-writer and an interestingly neurotic human being who managed to be of his time without glad-handing the Zeitgeist.
I underestimated him. His song “Imagine” was, properly considered, the sum total of the ideas that were ascendant between the end of the Second World War and, roughly, 1975, when the North Vietnamese did the nasty to the Military Industrial Complex and the corporations began the 15 year process of doing the nasty to social democracy and the liberal humanism that provided its energy and deep thinking.
What am I saying? Well, look at these lyrics:
Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace…
Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you’ll join us,
And the world will live as one.
This is—never mind the sappy refrain—a stunningly complete and accurate recitation of what liberal humanism wanted, but rarely had the courage or grasp of its true intentions to articulate:
1.) Social, political, interpersonal immediacy, and civil constraint based on rational rather than spiritual cognition;
2.) The end of nations and their murderous chauvinisms;
3.) A global culture based on mutual cooperation and an equal distribution of wealth and physical resources;
4.) An end to militarism as a system of global interaction.
It doesn’t matter that, put into practice, this program would have created an oppressive and boring polity, or that it is contra naturam, pie in the sky, impractical, soft communist, fairies in a cloud and that its commissars, shudder, would have been the same hectoring, self-aggrandizing Stalinoids who inhabit the upper echelons of the apparatus that administers our social entitlements and crowd the committees of every humanities department within our universities.
Everyone now knows that there are just too many rifle butts out there, not enough food and land, too many mouths, and that the kleptocratic or corporate adaptations of Charles Darwin preside. But in 1980 it was still hard to see that concrete couldn’t be made beautiful or permanent enough to produce a utopia—as denizens of the Soviet empire discovered, and so have most of us since then. I don’t think we’re any better for that knowledge, somehow.
Yet at least one thing Lennon articulated in “Imagine”, in light of what we now know, was eminently practical. Or if it wasn’t, it is accurate to say this: if liberal humanists had successfully pursued those four goals more vigorously, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today, with believers homing in from every direction wanting to impose their bigoted spiritual impracticalities and their self-serving virtue, wrapping C-5 around their bodies to blow up themselves and innocent infidel children, flying airliners into large buildings to spite men who themselves read The Book of Revelations at cabinet meetings and then plan the overthrow of any government hostile to the big oil companies and actively devise ways to punish the non-believing poor with new, Disney-inspired poverties of spirit. Believers elsewhere forget everything that history taught our species 60 years ago out of a lust to purify their putrid chicken-scratches of shimmering desert with xenophobic clerical absurdities of dress and liturgy. What I’m saying here is this: if we’d gotten rid of religion, as Lennon imagined we should, we’d have gotten rid of its fundamentalists.
I’m pointing straight at the “no religion too” line, which Lennon may have stuck in the song as an afterthought or verse padding. But maybe not. Maybe it was the most important line he ever wrote. At the time, for sure, it sounded like a throwaway. If you’d asked anyone in 1968 where they thought the major religions would be in 2004, they’d have brushed you off with a curt “in sharp decline, if not gone”.
When Lennon arrived on the world scene 40 years ago, most sensible people believed that the big threat the human species faced was the Cold War, and the military madmen on both sides. We’d survived the Nazis, outlived Stalin, but our own “better dead than red” lunatics had built enough nuclear missiles to incinerate the planet a hundred times over, and there were fleets of nuke-crammed bombers in the sky 24-7, seven minutes from the point of no return. Since the Soviets appeared to be equally crazy, that was going to be the end of days. This was what supplied the fuel for the antiauthoritarian bonfires of the 1960s: People—young people, anyway—wanted to go on living. But if someone had suggested that 40 years later the chief threat to human survival would be an overabundance of religious zealots, you’d have been laughed out of whatever party you were taking drugs at.
When I first began to hear Lennon’s “Imagine”, I was pleasantly puzzled by the “and no religion, too” line. It seemed sensible to euthanize religion, if only to put it out of its antediluvian misery.
And then the years after Lennon’s death began to roll, and “Imagine” was turned into Muzak, and you were more likely to hear the song drenched in orchestral syrup in the supermarket than at a political rally.
Cut to March 2004.
I’m in a restaurant with my wife and six-year-old daughter at a “kid-friendly” five star Superclub a few metres from the Gulf of Mexico in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. Why am I there? Toronto’s winters are long, I married a woman who works hard and wants to put her daughter in safe places while we’re vacationing, and this is no longer a world in which men overrule women they love about such things. So I complain, and then go with the program. That puts me beneath a huge thatched cabana surrounded on all sides by loud oversize Americans and their loud, oversize offspring, all of them infused with the self-aggrandizing paranoia George W. Bush and 9/11 has bred in Americans, the men topped up with mild infusions of testosterone and George Bush’s greasy capitalist sense of mission, the younger singles decked out as recreational dorks out on the beach playing supervised reindeer games.
That’s where I understood that I’d missed John Lennon.
I’d missed some other things, too. In the aftermath of the Cold War, organized religion has become the prime threat to both the survival of the human and most other species, and the chief impediment to the intellectual and spiritual leap humanity needs to make if it is going to survive its obsolete instincts to dominate, murder and reproduce itself beyond the capacities of the food supply and land resources.
It isn’t just one of the religions, either. I’m non-denominationally anti-religion. They’re all bad: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. They make people crazy and murderous or they make them dangerously docile toward unearned authority. Either way, they make people morally myopic and intolerant of others.
Does religion offer people comfort? Sure, it does: religions give morons safe harbour from the complexity of the world. Do such safe harbours actually exist? No, they don’t. And the illusion of these safe harbours kills today, and will kill more murderously and violently in the future. Do I need to get specific about the Pope, or the current manipulators of Islam, Judaism and Hinduism? No, I didn’t think so. And anyway, I’m trying to describe my Mexican revelation about John Lennon, not piss in God’s ear. It/She/He has no ears to piss into, so what’s the point?
Playa Del Carmen wasn’t, by the way, a safe harbour from those realities. More like a holiday from it, or, more literally, a resort built against them—which is what you call a respite that insulates you from the human beings outside the resort’s boundaries with comfortable vulgarities, shopping and entertainment.
On this night, the insularities were all present and accounted for: the walled compound to keep the locals out; uniformed security guards to make us feel secure that the locals would remain absent; the warm air; the tourists sunburned and tamed by pleasure, exhausted from strenuously doing nothing. Beneath the domed thatch of the resort restaurant a saxophone player was wandering about, getting in the way of the waiters trying to deliver orders of food chosen from a menu that had taken all the offense and punch from Mexican/Mayan cuisine, along with the bacteria. The sax player’s job was to deliver Soft Rock melodies over a canned sound-track, make us feel sentimental and easy about the tropical torpor, as if we were in a warm-weather version of an American department store elevator.
Until the opening bars of “Imagine” began to waft through the balmy Mexican night, the sax player’s third rate covers were merely background noise. But as the first bars of “Imagine” concluded, I began to recite, silently, Lennon’s lyrics.
The lyrics were lodged in my head, and even the cultural and musical mush surrounding them couldn’t keep me from them. I was thousands of kilometers from where I normally live, and more thousands from where I came from. Both of my cities-of-origin were, at that moment, covered with filthy snow and the thin film of oil-soot from the burning towers of capitalism—oil wells sabotaged in Iraq, coal-driven dynamos of Ontario’s electric power generating stations, the nitrous oxide-loaded residue of human transport—including the steady stream of jets touching down at Cancun airport a few kilometers inland.
I’d been inside the resort fences for five days and the only thing I’d really liked was the tiny Mayan waiter who brought my daughter glasses of orange juice on the top of his head. I hadn’t once been in the resort pool because it was filled with overweight, screeching American children and their nattering, overweight parents. Even the pleasure of swimming in the Caribbean Sea had been sullied: Mexico’s eastern coast doesn’t have the agreeable softness of the Caribbean islands, though it’s the same body of salt water, and just as warm. Like the resort, the ocean here felt brassy, too much transported American air, the bathers stinking of Bushite hedonism, the local Mayans forced to live beneath the flowerpots in their own country and thus a constant rebuke to my presence. What could I do for them? Shop harder?
Well, no. The shops in Playa Del Carmen are run by Americanized Mexicans. They’re taller than the Mayans, more aggressively infused with pride-of-product, and selling the same China-manufactured junk at inflated prices available in Toronto or Prince George, B.C.
All I could do was—just after I warned off the sax player with a “screw off and don’t come near our table” look—smile at my lovely daughter, be glad that she exists, and worry about her future among the fundamentalists.
Yeah, yeah, sure. Even if we got rid of religion, we’d still have capitalism forcing product down our over-stuffed craws, making life miserable for most of the world, and without a workable alternative on the horizon. One thing at a time, eh?
In this moment I wished my daughter could have been born into a world that had John Lennon in it.
“And no religion, too”.
2284 w. December 9, 2004