In December, it will be 38 years since John Lennon was felled by bullets from Mark David Chapman’s gun outside his New York City apartment.
Thirty-eight years is long enough for revisionism to creep in concerning the life of the man who formed the Beatles and led them through the early stages of their career (before a combination of drugs, ennui and sheer exasperation about how mind-numbingly awful Beatlemania had become caused him to lose interest). And there’s been plenty of revisionism.
Tribute bands have tried to capture the essence of what the Beatles meant to our music, our culture, and our national psyche. They may have been from England, but their role in helping the United States heal after John F. Kennedy’s assassination cannot be overlooked. Even among adults to whom rock ‘n’ roll was truly the devil’s music, the Beatles put a smile on faces and elicited a chuckle or two, thanks to their cheekiness and charm. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1960s, when they developed a little more confidence and had a little less fear of what would happen if they spoke out, that their true personalities really began to emerge.
Paul McCartney was the schmoozer. George Harrison was the introvert. Ringo Starr was the happy-go-lucky clown.
And John Lennon? What was John Lennon? The easy answer is that he was the group’s iconoclast — the one who could be counted on to raise an eyebrow or two with his irreverence. He’s the one who said in an interview that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus. He was the one who wrote the mind-bending songs, such as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “A Day in the Life,” and “I Am the Walrus.”
Friday night, singer/guitarist Tim Piper will bring his Lennon retrospective, “Just Imagine,” to Lynn Auditorium. Piper, like most tribute artists, bears enough of a resemblance to Lennon that with some props and some makeup, and if you squint just right, you can think you’re seeing Lennon up on stage.
I’m sure Piper approaches the challenge of capturing Lennon’s complex and contradictory personality with the reverence it deserves. It’s a given that Lennon wasn’t an easy guy to know, or to figure out. He had a hornet’s nest of issues and resentments that manifested themselves at the most confounding of times. Knowing he was such a complex person goes a long way toward tracing the ebbs and flows of the band itself, as he was such a large part of making it what it was … and then tearing it down when he got tired of it.
However, because there’s never been a time in American culture where the Beatles haven’t been objects of everybody’s fascination, there has never been a time for us to take a broader view of this legend. Not only does the revisionism creep in, but the old, long-debunked, theories about how evil Yoko Ono ruined everything have never really gone away either.
What we’re left with is a dichotomy that’s as fresh in our minds now as it was then. This represents kind of a departure from the usual one-dimensional tribute, where all that matters is if you get the look down, or you get all the arcane elements of the songs right. With Lennon, everything about it is going to have to be on point to begin with, and Piper will have to convey, in some manner, the various aspects of Lennon’s moods and his personality that prompted some of those songs.
And this should be interesting. Will he — in Lennon character — give some perspective into his battles with McCartney that resulted in “How Do You Sleep?” Will he delve into Lennon’s primal scream period that spilled over into his intensely personal and uber-raw “Plastic Ono Band” album?
Will he, as Lennon himself once said, confess that “Imagine” was “just a bloody song, you know.”
What made Lennon great — I mean, really great — was his willingness to allow his public to see these different sides of his personality work against each other. In the days when there were deep divisions between the “McCartney people” and the “Lennon people” (confession: I was a Lennon guy), we’d say things like “well, John doesn’t write silly love songs. He provides a glimpse right into his soul.” Looking back on it, that’s only slightly less pompous than the critic who claimed there were Aeolian cadences in “Not a Second Time.”
I hope this retrospective carries with it the gravitas that the subject matter deserves. This isn’t just another rock ‘n’ roll legend to be merchandised like a Beatle doll. It’s John Lennon. Let’s hope everyone connected with this show remembers that.