When I first moved to New York’s Upper West Side in 1992, one of my top priorities was to visit Strawberry Fields in Central Park on the anniversary of John Lennon’s 1980 murder, which took place across the street, at the Dakota apartment building. The shared sorrow was important to me, and I went there again on many a December 8 that followed.
A few years ago, I stopped going: a Sensitive Guy with Guitar was playing “The Ballad of John and Yoko” twelve feet away from another Sensitive Guy with Guitar who was playing “Come Together” 15 feet away from another Sensitive Guy with Guitar who was playing “Jealous Guy” nine feet away from another Sensitive Guy with Guitar who was playing “Power to the People.” The young honeys were crowding around each one. Remembrance became meat market.
Visiting Strawberry Fields, a 2.5-acre niche in the park that was landscaped in Lennon’s honor and opened on what would have been his 45th birthday in 1985, was in part an act of penance for not having appreciated Lennon while he was alive. I remember my reaction when I heard the news of his murder, which was: nothing. Famous people were getting shot all the time back then: Just five years earlier, one president, Gerald Ford, had nearly been shot, and four months later, another president, Ronald Reagan, would catch a bullet with his ribs. Besides, Lennon lived in New York. What did he expect? To a kid from Massachusetts, New York was the place you moved to if you wanted to get shot. What I had seen of it — the Mordor-like bits of the South Bronx visible from the Cross Bronx Expressway on the way to my grandparents’ in New Jersey — was not attractive. When you heard “New York City” on the TV news, it was always a crime story.
There was this one oddball in school, John Simonich, who was into the Beatles for some reason, and we directed our condolences at him. Sorry, John. Hey, you have the same name as him. (He knew.) But from my point of view, as a smart-ass 14-year-old, Lennon was old and washed-up. He was 40. What more did he have left in the tank? He had an album out. No one was playing it.
A year is a long time when you’re a kid. Lennon hadn’t released an album in five years — more than a third of my life. He hadn’t released an album of new material in six years. The entire decade, he had delivered only one song that I ever heard on the radio, “Imagine.” Forty? He might as well have been 80.
Then the images started coming across the TV — immense crowds, holding candles, in that wicked city to the south. And then the music hit the car radio. How could I not have heard “(Just Like) Starting Over” before? “We have grown, ooh, we have grown.” It was not just a beautiful song, it was ruefully ironic as a good-bye to the world. It was the best solo Lennon song I’d ever heard. Responding to demand, the radio started playing other songs from the same album. “Woman,” an apology to Yoko Ono for his philandering, was even more glorious than “Starting Over.” “Please let me explain, I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain.” Occasionally the deejays would sneak in a third track, and it was even better than the first two: the wise and contented “Watching the Wheels.” “When I say that I’m okay, they look at me kind of strange. Surely you’re not happy you no longer play the game.” Lennon was telling us what he’d been up to for the last five years: He’d taken time to reassemble his gifts. He’d had a son he told us about in “Beautiful Boy” (whose Calypso style always struck me as off and which I didn’t fully appreciate until 15 years later, thanks to its lovely use in “Mr. Holland’s Opus”). He felt free to write Paul McCartney–style lines like, “Every day, in every way, it’s getting better, and better.” This track, too, contained sentiment turned inside out by his death: “I can hardly wait to see you come of age,” he sang to then-five-year-old Sean Lennon. “But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient.”
He’d dropped the hippie political shtick, the rabble-rousing. Now that he no longer had to save the world, he could save himself.
Lennon hadn’t been washed up at all, he was as good as new, starting over. He’d dropped the hippie political shtick, the rabble-rousing, the competition with McCartney. He’d even shaved that mangy beard and ditched the Jesus-length hair for a cool rockabilly look that was both Eighties and Fifties. He’d shed his baggage, he was lean and clean. Now that he no longer had to save the world, he could save himself.
It was only 17 days before Christmas when Lennon died, and as the holiday drew near, yet another knockout appeared on the radio: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” I’d never heard it before and assumed it was also from the new album. Actually it was from 1971, but it had never gotten much airplay. Now it was everywhere. Unlike some of his early-Seventies songs, this one didn’t sound ragged or thrown-together: It was sublime. It was a breakthrough. It defined what a rock Christmas song could be — hopeful but not sentimental, melodic but not syrupy, a very Lennonish route to an appreciation of the season that didn’t go through religion or Santa. Who but Lennon could have opened with such a matter-of-fact line as, “And so this is Christmas”? He knew the word did all the work. No need for roasting chestnuts, no need for mangers.
Lennon was among the first celebrities publicly to bristle at the job — to reject the imperative to be pleasant for the cameras, to be querulous and honest and profane, to be political and sexual and weird — to not be McCartney, who he couldn’t be anyway. It’s his example that, today, every strenuously “tortured” actor or “rebellious” ex-Disney channel star is aping. Lennon’s journey was more tortured than most: At 17 he lost his mother and at 21, his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe. He punished himself with heroin. He rummaged through quack therapies such as primal screaming.
Yet on that final album, he had reached what was for him an unprecedented state: peace. That’s why “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” sounded so fresh, why it made for yet another heartbreaking unintended farewell on the radio. The Vietnam War angle had fallen away; now and forever it would be the declaration of a truce by a man who had ceased fighting himself. “War is over, if you want it.” When he was cut down at 40, John Lennon’s most serene days had just begun.