So just as he had tried to create the moment and the myth, he set out to destroy it. Few rockers have ever tried to re-create themselves the way Lennon did in the early ‘70s – certainly not with the same harsh willfulness. Now, it is a paradox that in dismembering the myth of the Beatles – the shared dream that he announced was over – Lennon only created a new myth, of the “I’ll say anything I damn well please” truth teller (so bugger off). Lennon had been a rock ‘n’ roller long enough to know that honesty was not only the best policy, but potentially the best product. The records Lennon made in the first half of the ‘70s are so erratic that it’s often not a matter of song to song, but line to line (his most consistent records of the period are also his worst: Some Time in New York City and Rock ‘n’ Roll). Those albums contain some of the most brutal pre-punk rock ‘n’ roll ever made (“Working Class Hero,” “God”), some of the most stunning songs Lennon ever wrote (“Imagine”) and some of the most foolish (“Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” to name just one). But then, one reason Lennon has always meant as much as he did – and you don’t have to go back to his songs, just read some of his recent interviews – is that he was always willing to be as foolish in public as most of us are in private. You could be annoyed with him for the foolishness, but you had to be impressed that he still thought some things were worth testing. He still expected our response, and eh was still worth arguing with.
Like most great rock ‘n’ rollers, Lennon found his model, his inspiration, in Elvis Presley. As a young rocker, Lennon could see in Presley everything he wanted to be – the coolest, the best, the biggest. “I came out of the sticks to conquer the world,” Lennon once said, and Liverpool might as well have been Tupelo Mississippi. As an older rocker, the world already conquered, Lennon could see in Presley everything he didn’t want to be – overweight, drugged up, cut off. In deciding to raise his son, to hand over any active involvement in his career (overseeing investments, staff, etc.) to Yoko, Lennon at the age of 36 was making the private resolution that he no longer had to be – and, more important, didn’t want to be – Elvis Presley. Rock glorifies youth, and we still don’t know whether anyone 40 or 50 years old can make rock ‘n’ roll that matters; we don’t know whether a music born of adolescence can address adulthood. I suspect that Lennon, who always wanted to go Presley one better, wanted to try. He was concerned with how a rocker ages not just with grace but with value. He spoke of having 30, 40 years of fruitful, important work before him. We’ll never know if he did -- Double Fantasy, a terribly misconceived record, gives us no answers. I don’t know about you, but I was looking forward to aging along with him, because if anybody had the potential to be rock’s brilliant, crotchety, grand old man, it was John Lennon. I assumed I’d be arguing with him for the rest of my life.