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Lennon remembered: A voice for peace

Posted: December 2, 2005 6:00 a.m.
Updated: December 2, 2005 6:00 a.m.

The entrance to the Dakota apartment building at 1 West 72nd Street in Manhattan is where John Lennon was murdered Dec. 8, 1980. He was 40.

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Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Signal Dec. 2, 2005.

John Lennon would have turned 65 Oct. 9. He was murdered at the entrance to the Dakota, his Manhattan apartment building on West 72nd Street, 25 years ago next Thursday.

Several new books were released to mark the occasions, including "John," a new first-person account by his first wife, Cynthia, of their lives before and during the height of Beatlemania, and a Beatles biography by John Spitz that's received mixed reviews (thanks, but I'll wait for the definitive bio, forthcoming in the next few years from preeminent Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn).

Second wife Yoko Ono and his original label, Capitol, put together "Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon," an outstanding new two-CD anthology spanning the ex-Beatle's solo career from 1969 to 1980, including the major hits and choice overlooked rarities (though the track info in the accompanying booklet is hardly definitive).

They've also just reissued the Lennons' 1972 "Sometime in New York City" album and his 1974 solo LP "Walls and Bridges," freshly remastered with related bonus tracks.

Amidst all this, rock pundits and counterculture observers have been weighing the impact of Lennon's murder, then and now. As the original writer/producer of "The Lost Lennon Tapes" radio series from 1988-1990 (the first 128 hour-long shows), heard worldwide via Westwood One, I figure I'm at least somewhat qualified to add my voice to the chorus.

Like many fellow Boomers, I vividly recall the moment I heard about John F. Kennedy's assassination. And Martin Luther King's. And Bobby Kennedy's. Their deaths were defining moments that ripped gaping holes in the already-fraying fabric of our society. Imagine. What if....?

Then came The Beatles' acrimonious breakup in 1970, and the tragic, stupid deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison in '70 and '71. It seemed half the counterculture's heroes had died violent deaths years too early.

Dylan had sought shelter from the storm after his 1966 motorcycle accident, and when he returned with "John Wesley Harding" in 1968, he was telling those who thought he was "The Voice" of their generation that they were mistaken, and that they should latch onto someone else. It ain't me, babe.

Musically, Lennon had emerged from The Beatles first, in July 1969 with "Give Peace a Chance," recorded with Yoko and a hotel room full of fans, acolytes and peaceniks at the couple's Montreal bed-in for peace, and released by Apple as the first Plastic Ono Band single.

If Dylan was no longer comfortable taking on the masters of war, Lennon had no problem with it. It was no Don Quixote complex; he genuinely thought he could help mobilize public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and did.

In late 1970 with his first solo studio album, "Plastic Ono Band," Lennon angrily reflected a lifetime of dreams shattered, a host of discontent rubbed raw through his unhappy experiences as a child, as a Beatle, with fans' overwhelming objection to Yoko Ono entering the mix, heroin addiction, and Primal Scream therapy.

The album - and the "Lennon Remembers" interview with Jann Wenner first published in January and February '71 by Rolling Stone - scared the living crap out of all but the hardest-core fans. Lennon's pain was real, and through that album, we felt it.

By summer 1971, Lennon had recovered his sense of humor and sense of humanity somewhat, and recorded his "Imagine" album with the Plastic Ono Band (can't forget the Flux Fiddlers, too), to these ears his most fully realized solo work.

He and Yoko moved to New York at the end of summer '71 and quickly hooked up with the radical left counterculture percolating there, which may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but was ultimately a big mistake.

Lennon's single "Power to the People" had been a call to arms that year. By early 1972, after the couple appeared as guest hosts for a week on "The Mike Douglas Show" and aides to Sen. Strom Thurmond got wind Lennon planned to get involved with the political conventions later that year, the Feds had begun their campaign to silence Lennon (as detailed in Jon Wiener's excellent books, "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time" and "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files").

By grinding the native Brit about his immigration status for the next couple of years, the Feds did effectively shut Lennon up. Those of us who'd thought of him as a "Voice" were also disheartened by his personal and creative meltdown in the mid-1970s.

Nixon resigned and left the White House in disgrace Aug. 8, 1974, as Lennon was estranged from Yoko and "lost weekending" in L.A., but it wasn't until February 1976 that he was officially granted the right to stay in the States.

Vietnam was over by then. The world had flipped mode once again. Our society was trying to recover, looking inward, and/or medicating itself heavily. Lennon was back with Yoko, a father again, and done fighting. He just wanted to be left alone with his wife to raise his second son, Sean, since he'd totally blown it with the first, Julian, being a Beatle and all.

Finally, in summer 1980, chatter on the Lennon grapevine said he was writing new songs. (Actually, he'd never stopped writing, never "hung up his guitar." As I found out seven years later going through his personal tape library looking for unreleased gems for the "Lost Lennon Tapes" series, he'd laid down his first home demos for some of these "new" songs during his "house-husband" years.)

By late summer that year, fans around the world knew he was going public again. We couldn't wait. Lennon had grown up and had a family; we could relate. He and Yoko started producing sessions in New York for a new album at the end of August, abetted by producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick).

"(Just Like) Starting Over" was released as an advance single and took off straight-away. Then came the "Double Fantasy" album and a media blitz, Lennon's first in more than five years. He and Yoko were deliriously happy with the initial response, and kept recording songs for a second album. One of the tracks was "Living on Borrowed Time."

The evening of Dec. 8, as the Lennons returned to the Dakota and started walking up the driveway entrance, there was a flash, and for John, everything went dark.

He never woke up. I heard the news when I turned on the radio and several stations were playing his music wall-to-wall. Only my mother's death from cancer at 44 in 1974 - which at least we saw coming - was more devastating to me. I threw a blank cassette into my tape deck and kept rolling for more than 12 hours, until I ran out of blanks. Rock stations played Lennon for days. My then-girlfriend, now my wife of 24 years, joined me in anger, pain, tears, and mourning.

We felt for Yoko. Fans might have demonized her for her role in The Beatles' breakup, but the woman lost her friend, husband and soul mate. Violently. Right in front of her. That's not something you'd wish on your worst enemy. We joined the worldwide vigil she called, lighting up candles with thousands of others gathered in Century City.

Seven years later, as a Westwood One radio producer and in-house Beatlemaniac, I gained new appreciation for Lennon as an artist through the creative process revealed by his demos and early studio takes, and as a man through his numerous radio and TV interviews and the priceless spoken-word tapes he made with Yoko and Sean as a toddler.

He still had so much to offer, to so many people. My mission with the radio series was to remind listeners once a week, to give them some truth, for an hour.

Yoko and I finally met face-to-face in July 1989, when she graciously welcomed me to the Dakota for a visit. She said she'd heard nothing but good things about my work on "The Lost Lennon Tapes," which aired on WNEW-FM in New York. "Keep up the good work," she said. Only John's imprimatur could have topped it.

Now, 25 years on, with everything that's happened since, one wonders if the rest of us ever recovered.

Just as one might project what the world might be like if JFK, MLK and RFK had lived out their lives, one can imagine a world where Lennon did indeed grow old with Yoko.

I did this often in the two and a half-plus years working "The Lost Lennon Tapes," totally immersed in Lennonia. Every time I did, I wound up in a better place. That's still true.

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Yoko Ono released this note along with the press material accompanying the "Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon" CD:

"Everyone has been asking me recently if this year will be extra special for me since it's John's 65th birthday year and the 25th anniversary of that awful day. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think about John. But still, it is very special for me too to think of John at 65, and to think what he would be doing if he was here now.

"I can immediately see that he would be very, very angry at what's going on in the world today. Oh, yes. Violence, accelerated corporate manipulations and lies. He wanted the world to be a beautiful place for all of us. But it seems we have a long way to go yet for that.

"Once he was honored as ';The Man Of The Decade.' That was 35 years ago. Now he is a man of the century and the future. His work inspires all people, and his voice reaches the whole planet.

"I miss him a lot. We all miss him. His songs are now our songs, our love, and our life.

"John made some great songs with beautiful music and daring words. He laid his life on the line to speak out the truth for all of us.

"Enjoy this incredible selection of songs of wisdom and power, and know that John is now in the heart of each of us, helping to heal ourselves and our planet.

"I love you, John. You are the one and only."

- Yoko

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