Only John would have gotten the kind of reaction he did. Not just compared to Paul. Compared to anyone.
The reaction to his death had everything to do with John’s unique connection to us, and ours to him.
People gathered spontaneously by the hundreds and thousands around the world from the moment they heard the news on December 8, 1980.
On the day of his memorial, December 14, over 100,000 people came together outside his home in New York alone.
Every radio station in New York went silent for 10 minutes (not just rock stations, either: every station) as did other stations across the country.
Individuals around the world went silent, too. I certainly did, and so did many of my friends.
Here are some of the reasons that I believe that only John’s passing touched us this way, and why it still touches us.
John was OUR Beatle.
When John & Yoko moved to New York in August 1971, they never went back to England again.
More than that, John fought be here. Almost from the moment he arrived, the US government was trying to throw him out. Constant FBI surveillance, deportation hearings – it took years of battles for him just to be able to stay here at all.
The pictures of them walking to and from court (above, in March 1972) weren’t just staged for publicity. You can find hundreds of pictures of John & Yoko walking around New York, because that’s what they did.
Their address, first in Greenwich Village, then near Central Park, were public knowledge. The night of December 8, 1980, John did what he usually did. He stopped to talk to fans who had been waiting for him outside his home.
Even if you didn’t live in New York, it was very much in your mind that if you wanted to meet John, you knew you could. It was easy.
Which is also how John came to such a sudden end. John was vulnerable because he chose to live vulnerably.
The Imagine album was released 9/9/71, the single released 11/11/71
And look at the songs: “Imagine,” “Power To The People,” “Instant Karma (We All Shine On),” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Give Peace A Chance,” “All You Need Is Love” – nobody else could have written even one of these, much less all of them.
It’s easy to point to John’s hypocrisy (which John talked about as much as any of his critics did) and the fact that he was generally a blowhard with an opinion about everything and just roll your eyes, but the fact is that he genuinely aspired to a better world in a way that resonated with us.
It resonated with the people in power, too. The US government in particular was terrified of him. That’s why starting in 1971, John was constantly under FBI surveillance, and under the constant threat of being thrown out of the country.
Portions of the FBI’s files on John were kept secret until 2011 because the government said the information about John’s surveillance endangered national security!
If you’re interested, you finally can see John’s complete FBI files here, and can learn more about it in the film The US vs John Lennon.
It wasn’t until 1976 that John was granted permission to stay in the US. Below, showing off his shiny new green card.
I could go on at length about the depth and breadth of his fundraising and activism – not just anti-war, but also racial and gender equality, education (including leading a protest march for free speech for high school students!), criminal justice reforms, and much more.
The US government’s fear of John Lennon was very much rooted in reality, and we loved that about him. He was speaking for us.
The non-album single"Power to the People" was released March 22, 1971.
Remembering the way that John inspired us led to headlines like this one: “DEATH OF A HERO”
You can see the way that this still resonates when, in 2013, the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in India led 600 guitarists to gather in Darjeeling to play “Imagine” together, in both protest and hope.
John’s connection to us was also intimately personal.
Inspiration, out there, is one thing. John wanted more than that. Or you could say, he wanted less. As far as he was concerned, the world had more people wanting to be leaders than was good for us.
Instead, he wanted to touch us.
More than the other Beatles, maybe more than any musician ever, John opened himself to us.
There was the literal nakedness of theTwo Virgins album, and these famous portraits by
taken the very afternoon that John was murdered.
More important, there was also the emotional nakedness.
On Plastic Ono Band he dismantled his stardom as he howled out isolation, abandonment, and pain, side by side with songs of wounded tenderness and simplicity. It’s easily among the most personally revealing albums ever released by anyone.
Of course, he’d been doing this since the beginning, even if it wasn’t until later that he explained to us just how very desperate he felt when he wrote songs like “Help!,” “I’m A Loser,” “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” and others. While other rock stars were making drugs look cool, John was the first one I ever heard sing about the harrowing fear and and chaos they caused him, in “Cold Turkey.”
What he showed us when we got close wasn’t always pretty, including on 1971′s Imagine. The vision of the title song is right up against his confession of being a “Jealous Guy” who causes pain, and his undisguised anger at Paul in “How Do You Sleep?”
He quickly apologized to Paul, both privately and publicly, admitting that his anger ultimately had nothing to do with Paul, that it was all in John’s own head.
And that’s the thing. Some people thought of John as a saint. John didn’t.
It wasn’t (and isn’t) always easy being a fan of John’s. He could be cruel and violent, he was unfaithful to both his wives and a terrible father to his first son, he let drugs and alcohol get the better of him, and much more.
He finally figured out that he couldn’t be a rock star and be the kind of man he wanted to be, so he quit.
It’s easy to forget now, but he only headlined two concerts, both of them benefits, in 1971 and 1972. He played a few songs on stage with Elton John in 1974, but that was it for live shows. A few albums of course, but after some famous (and infamous) detours, he cleaned up, got into therapy, and became a full-time dad – the first time many of us had heard of such a thing.
Not that he’d gotten everything together by the end, not at all – but he was definitely moving in the right direction for once. He seemed happy, in some ways, for the first time in his life.
One of the final songs he recorded after his long hiatus said it was like he was starting over, and it was clear that, even more than his recording career, he was talking about his life.
And we were watching it happen, because he lived in the open, still walking the streets of New York.
So there really was that strange extra sense that you get when a friend or neighbor suddenly passes, a confusion, almost like, “But he was just here. I was just talking to him.”
It’s still almost inconceivable that any celebrity was that accessible, either emotionally or physically, in real life, but John Lennon was.
John’s passing also reminded us that The Beatles were HIS band.
On one level, this is simply, literally true. John had a band already. The others joined it.
John wasn’t the best musician in The Beatles, though. He wasn’t even the best guitarist.
Whether he was the best writer is irrelevant. He and Paul created magic together, and they also challenged each other to be better writers on their own. Paul was more driven and ambitious, but even Paul was very clear: they all looked up to John.
John’s death also meant that there would never be a Beatles reunion. Sure, we knew it was never going to happen really, but we could still talk about at least a one-off concert at some point down the line, right?
But now, no.
So there’s a sense in which, when John died, The Beatles died too.
Frankly, to many of us, it felt like the 60s had finally died too.
Mourning John Lennon
Please note that I’m not placing John’s murder above assassinations like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the Kennedys.
John himself would say that his death was no more important than any of the people of color singled out for killing by American police, “security” guards, and vigilantes, or the mass shootings taking place every day in America for no apparent reason other than that they can.
The glasses John was wearing when he was shot, photo by Yoko Ono
Again underscoring how ultimately insignificant to the world John himself would acknowledge his death to be, this is still only a small look at the scale of our response to it at the time.
We reacted more strongly to John Lennon’s death than we would have to anyone else’s, because he was more a part of our lives.
Not necessarily because he was our favorite Beatle. Ultimately, not even necessarily that he was a Beatle at all.
John Lennon wanted to connect to us, personally, intimately, deeply, and he did.
John Lennon, 1971. Below, Strawberry Fields in Central Park, NY