John Lennon (01/81)

As if in fulfillment of a prophecy heard only in a dream, the audience that gathered around the Beatles seemed somehow to have been ready for them. Watching The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, the audience reacted with a shock of novelty and a shock of recognition, and before long people had begun to take the Beatles as a metaphor for their lives: for their personal lives, and for the lives they shared with other people—their public lives. It was a marvelously lucky thing to be alive then, to be able to do that: to play one’s fears, desires and hopes, petty and profound, off a symbol that was at the same time four real people who, day by day, surprised one with their music. One lived in a culture of surprise, and that made it possible to respond to things one might otherwise never have seen, and to respond more deeply—and so it is altogether fitting that a legacy of that vanished culture of surprise is the ability to respond, more deeply than most might have thought possible, to the killing of John Lennon, who more than anyone else created that culture. You have your stories and I have mine: It is both beautiful and horrible that they are the same.

They are the same because John Lennon was shot by a Beatle fan: because he was shot not over a private affair of love or money, not in a mugging, not in an act of random viciousness, but because of who and what he was, because of the public life he had lived and what that life had meant to people to whom that life—its music, words and acts—was addressed. His killing was not a murder but, in the truest sense, an assassination—not a murder, in which the particulars of a man’s fate are, in the end, none of our business, as the murder of a famous person over private matters is, in the end, none of our business; and not a murder in which we may have an affectionate or citizen’s interest but in which we play no part, as we play no part in an act of random crime or viciousness. This was an assassination in which the public life of an individual, which is our business and in which we do play a part, became the particulars of a man’s fate. As an assassination, John Lennon’s killing was an annihilation not only of a man but, in an old meaning of the word “assassinate,” an act meant to “‘stab’ reputation,” an annihilation of that part in every person that existed because that reputation had been his or hers to help make, to share. That is why it hurts so much.

Mark Chapman, like me, perhaps like you, became obsessed with John Lennon. Unlike the rest of us, this fan went too far, until finally he was signing John Lennon’s name as his own. Did he shoot John Lennon because he thought that by doing so he could become him; or because John Lennon had taken his identity—devoured him—and thus deserved to be punished? One can think of many versions; the point is, the fact that one’s private obsession is shared by millions nurtures that obsession, gives it significance and reality—just as when private obsession becomes madness, public crime and public speech can sanction it.

What I mean is that it is not an accident that John Lennon was assassinated, now. John Lennon’s killing was, in our time at the very least, a unique event, and unique events do not take place simply because of a haphazard confluence of private motives and publicity: because Mark Chapman went over the edge and John Lennon was back in the news.

As far as I have been able to determine, nothing like John Lennon’s killing has ever happened before. No public figure whose relationship to the public was not a matter of politics as we conventionally understand the word has ever been killed the manner in which John Lennon was killed: by a fan with whom he had no personal connection at all. John Lennon was killed because he was a pop hero—because of what he meant, as a pop hero, to the man who killed him. He was killed because that man’s life was John Lennon’s fault. If this were a common event, we could write it off to private motives; because it has appeared for the first time, we have to confront the field of action on which, for the first time, this private motive turned into public life, into politics.

I say this is a unique event; I doubt if it will remain so very long. The times in which this unique event took place are beginning to come into focus: The country is beginning to shake with vengeance and retribution. The racist murders in Atlanta, Buffalo and Greensboro and the outbreak of racist terror in Contra Costa County in Northern California are part of this; so is the message delivered by hate groups, today speaking with new respectability, that only those who think as they do are fit to call themselves Americans or to receive God’s grace; and so is the little-noticed announcement by the American Library Association that, immediately after the election of November 4, demands that certain books be removed from libraries increased by 500 percent. I think that for some people the election has legitimized and sanctioned the impulse to seek out scapegoats, has legitimized and sanctioned the idea that other people are to blame, that people are going to get what they deserve. I think this spirit is loose in the country. It will take forms that cannot be controlled by those who are propagating it or by those who will profit from it, and I think the process has begun.

New West, January 1981

2 thoughts on “John Lennon (01/81)

  1. Revisiting this January 1981 New West column today, I am reminded that the shocked-but-resilient UC Berkeley sophomore who read it then is no more, replaced by a quietly cynical father of two who does not find much to celebrate in the current climate. The dark events of late 1980, which preceded a signal shift in policy, have continued to echo in the three decades since.

  2. It’s chilling to read this now because I wasn’t alive then, and the context detailed in the final paragraphs suggest the times we’re living in now. I imagine the vacuum that is felt in the wake of Bowie and Prince’s death at a time when we need symbols like them may be comparable – not quite the same since the way they died wasn’t as traumatic as Lennon’s violent death, but the sense of loss is comparable.

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