BASE, COMMON & POPULAR
I’m Lyonel, and I disapprove of this election season.
I also disapprove of: twenty-four-hour-news-and-paparazzi cycles; the gain of technology at the expense of manners; the dumbing down of the already dumbed down; the inability of society to reach civility; politicians who tell people only what they want to hear and people who only listen to what they want to hear; and most of all that stupid and scared sense that things are only as good as they are, and can never be better than before, let alone still better in days to come.
It is times like these I reach for the idealists, the artists and the dreamers, who envision things far better than many around them imagine, and who know it can be so–and eventually is.
This past Saturday I took my battered spirit with my sister to Central Park to celebrate such a fellow, the late still great John Lennon. It was indeed the anniversary of his seventieth birthday, and the makers of a new documentary, LENNONYC, held a screening of it at Rumsey Playfield.
The first thing that surprised me was the crowd. I was early, but hundreds of people were already waiting in line. The other surprise was the range of age groups there. Though the Beatles have long been a Boomer favorite, and Lennon has been dead since 1980, there were large numbers of teenagers and young adults. True, PBS which is airing the documentary on November 22nd, promoted this screening, but this turnout was impressive.
Before the screening some key people spoke, like Michael Epstein the film’s director, and Susan Lacy, creator of the American Masters series and one of the producers. But it was fellow rock ‘n roller, Lou Reed, who stole the moment. He started by quoting the startling remark, “New York is a country that lies off the coast of America.” He then went on to make the connection of John’s artistry with his living in New York, and by noting that some of his greatest solo songs like “Mother’ and “Jealous Guy” were coproduced by Phil Spector, who is now serving a life sentence for murder. Lou Reed has that edginess that just isn’t common today.
The film itself was great, if overlong. The best part was the beginning, which really captured the sweep of events as John transitions from being a Beatle to a separate artist and activist. John’s life then has to be seen against the frenzied backdrop of late sixties and early seventies. It also has to be seen in light of his marriage to Yoko Ono, who was very much his collaborator. I’m under the impression that leaving the Beatles was not easy, so John’s collaboration with Yoko, though organic, was also the means wherewith he could break away from the world’s most popular musical group.
Even though I pride myself on being a Beatles fan, the film was still an eye opener. I had thought that John and Yoko left England for New York because Yoko had lived there, and because they were trying to avoid high taxes, but apparently the main motivation was to get away from the savage British press. Some of the things they said about them went beyond the pale, like openly calling Yoko ugly (and some very unPC racial epithets).
Another discovery was that when John and Yoko got involved in the antiwar movement, it was losing momentum. After years of protesting the Vietnam War, the activists were frustrated with their failure to end it. John and Yoko’s presence seemed to lend it badly-needed support. I also learned that the attempt to deport John from the U. S. was a deliberate reaction by the Nixon Administration to his antiwar activities.
But the biggest revelation was what a charismatic John was. Even in the context of his time, even in the context of his collaborative work, John Lennon was a bona fide original. Charisma is a hard thing to define. Some people just have it, and John was one of them. He was brilliant, witty, spontaneous, outrageous, and moving all at the same time. If John Lennon had not started the Beatles and wrote some of the most famous songs in music, he would have still earned some kind of fame. Every person has an interesting personality, but the charismatic individual is more in touch with that irresistible side. And the reason that for John Lennon it was due more to his charisma than a good press agent is proven by the often improvised and chaotic manner he conducted his affairs.
As I said before, the film was worth it, but a little long. Sometimes John’s idealism and activism descended into naiveté and narcissism. I don’t think even he believed everything which came out his high-powered mouth. But today, when pop stars are so vapid or opportunistic, it’s refreshing to see someone commit himself to ideals such a peace and good rockin’.
Yes John, you were a dreamer, but you’re not alone out there. The crowds which assembled in your memory testify to something we just can’t let go.
New York October 14, 2010