Lennon, of course, was not the Beatles. If he had been, they might as well have remained Johnny and the Moondogs. Rather, Lennon was the group’s muscle and wit – those street fights and books again. And in one of the few rock ‘n’ roll truisms that is actually true, he and McCartney provided the group’s yin and yang: the sarcasm and the light touch, the sneer and the ingenuous grin, the hard look and the twinkle in the eye, the moral and the story. I doubt that the differences were so pronounced at the beginning. After all, when they started out writing together, they continued to preserve the idea, though not the reality, of their collaboration by continuing to put both their names on songs that only one had written. It’s as if Lennon and McCartney, while their differences grew sharper and their recriminations dug deeper, could not give up the one quality (or, at least, the illusion of that quality) the Beatles had always embodied: their sense of unity. So for no other reason, except for an oral agreement made as teenagers, Lennon gave McCartney half the credit for “Give Peace a Chance,” the first single released by a Beatle under his own name.
Robert Palmer has said that without McCartney the Beatles wouldn’t have been half as popular, and without Lennon they wouldn’t have been half as important – as accurate and succinct a formulation as you’ll find. Inevitably, the complements eventually became polarities: pop vs. rock, surface vs. substance, craftsmanship vs. myth. Before the polarization, it was Lennon’s grasp of modern myth-making that transformed the Beatles and us – that uncanny ability to absorb everything, from the latest fads to the most lasting contribution, and project it all back bigger than life. Lennon was the Beatles’ intuition – he not only represented the culture, but anticipated its next move. (Dylan was Lennon’s only peer at this, and he never had the Beatles’ mass audience.) It was Lennon’s shrewdness, toughness, and openness that gave so many of us so much to share. All the wires were connected. All the wires: like Presley, the Beatles weren’t about music so much as they were about the moment.
That moment, of course, was the ‘60s. It’s difficult to talk about the period without sounding hopelessly nostalgic or dreadfully melodramatic. And Lennon, who could babble about “surviving the ‘60s” with the worst of them, was no exception. But if we have created a myth around the ‘60s, it is because that myth is needed to say something we know is true – the culture was at a fever pitch, everything was more intense and more fun, everything was taken more seriously, whether it was the length of your hair or the release of a Beatles album or the love affair down the hall. It was also, Lennon realized more quickly than most (certainly more quickly than the other Beatles), a more dangerous time.