This article originally appeared in the December 16, 1980 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
As every tough-guy novelist will tell you, the thing about death is that it’s ironic. And as every nickel-plated commentator has been telling us since Monday night, and undoubtedly will keep on telling us, irony surrounded John Lennon’s death. Just last year he and Yoko had donated $1000 so New York City police could buy bullet-proof vests. Just three weeks ago, he and Yoko had released Double Fantasy, their first album in five years; the first cut and hit single announced that they were “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and the last cut declared that “Hard Times Are Over.” Just six hours before he was killed, Lennon had signed an autograph for Mark David Chapman, the man arrested for his murder and an ardent Beatles fan since high school. Those are just the small ironies. They get bigger.
John Lennon, who at one point really believed that love could change the world, who came to represent the best intentions (and, it should be said, the worst idiocies) of the counterculture, died when a stranger; acting for reasons none of us will ever comprehend, shot him four times. John Lennon, who spent most of his last five years regaining control of a life that had been out of his hands since he was 22 – in short, someone who was doing all he could not to turn into another rock ‘n’ roll martyr – became the victim of rock ‘n’ roll’s first assassination. John Lennon, who spent most of the last 10 years trying to strip away the myth of the Beatles, trying to trash the temple that he once so skillfully created, permanently entered the region of myth as soon as officials at Roosevelt Hospital announced his death.
And there was at least one more irony. John Lennon, who in life was as brilliant a media artist as rock has ever produced (Bob Christgau’s words: “He enjoys a creative relationship with his own celebrity, plying it not merely out of ambition or self-protection but because the process piques him aesthetically”), was in death the subject of a media blitz of such speed and magnitude that it continues unabated. I don’t mean simply that the Gail Harrises and the Geraldo Riveras – people who five, 10, 15, years ago ignored or trivialized or pooh-poohed Lennon – were now sentimentalizing him. In a culture as instantaneous as ours, you have to expect that yesterday’s scruffy contradiction will become tomorrow’s gauzy greeting card. No, I mean that the media reaction was so extensive – and most of it so pro forma – that within hours of Lennon’s murder it had become difficult to respond directly to his death. Instead, we had surrogates – the long-haired adolescent, scrunched into his too-big Army coat, eyes red with tears – feeling for us in print and on the air. This is a fundamental betrayal. Because if Lennon was more than a great rocker; if he was more than his songs, his concerts, his books, his press conferences and interviews, his happenings; if he was more than an icon of a bygone age – in other words, if he was all these things, it is because he untangled and then reconnected the wires of mass communication more effectively and with more sophistication than any pop star before him – more than Dylan, more than Presley. When John Lennon sang “Please Please Me” (1962) or said “I don’t believe in Beatles” (1970), he wasn’t talking to rock critics or obituary writers or TV commentators or newspaper columnists. He was talking to you.