In which I renew my vows
I fell in love with John Lennon a few months after turning thirteen. This might not sound like much to people who grew up in an era when everyone and their cat classified themselves by their favorite Beatle, a question that echoes through subsequent generations. But it was pivotal in my life (literally). Despite never having been in love, I knew it when I saw it.
It grew out of a birthday present to my dad: he had requested the new 40th-anniversary edition of the White Album. I wound up listening to it as often as he did, if not more so. It piqued my interest in this quartet of clearly-defined individuals who were nevertheless attuned to one another, intent on high-caliber collaboration. Right away I wanted in. There’s a reason “Back in the USSR,” track 1 side 1 disc 1, ranks among my top five Beatles songs.
My research into their oeuvre and their lives and their essence initiated a sacred tradition, a voyage across the sea of art and artists that capture my attention, many of whom did so by being adjacent to The Beatles. This practice has sustained me ever since. It’s thanks to these men that I do the analysis and appreciation for which I am (with any luck) notorious. They were my gateway to the unknown. Somewhere in the course of that research I gravitated toward John specifically; I can’t pinpoint the precise moment, but then it was all over for me. I read about teenage concertgoers in the throes of “Lennon-induced ecstasy,” a term I hereby co-opt to describe my emotional state amid the heady rush of discovery. Gone were the days of feigning interest in the contemporary pop stars of my friends’ fantasies—I had somebody now, somebody to introduce me to that part of myself.
I, like Joan Didion, do not use “love” in a colloquial sense. Not with John. It has been a deep and consuming involvement which set me on a road that I am traveling to this day. He was the alpha; he will be the omega—not to, uh, compare him to somebody else…
As I cannot trust myself to do him justice without running the risk of rambling like a fool (on the hill), allow me to simply list a few of the traits I admire in him. One for each of his years on earth.
- His face. An exquisite thing. The eyes, the nose, the jawline. It made me a believer, not sure in what, but a believer nonetheless.
- His beloved Buddy Holly glasses, which he broke out occasionally before acknowledging a true need for corrective lenses (the round specs are iconic, but these send me right into space)
- His hair, all the time, in every phase (positively incontrovertible)
- His Dylan hat
- Oh right, the psychosexual tension between him and Dylan—hey, great minds…
- A voice with the consistent power, in song and speech, to make me go weak at the knees
- Re: the above, the edge in his singing voice and the softness in his speaking voice
- His pursuit of his own writing and extra-musical creation, because he enjoyed it and wasn’t about to let a phenomenal career derail it (and the fact that one of his most recognizable contributions to the world is a self-portrait doodle)
- His rhythm guitar, the sonic glue holding the band together
- His self-deprecating humor, probably more infuriating than endearing—I too know the feeling of inadequacy, but in what extreme must you experience it to write sincere songs about being a loser, to doubt your skill at singing or playing or whatever it is you’re doing, when you are objectively one of the best of the best in your own time?
- Re: the above, the endless bewildering mystery of him and his mind
- His enthusiasm for things: records, books, films, games, people. At the end of the day he was a nerd and a fan, just like me.
- Every single thing he does in A Hard Day’s Night
- How he agreed to perform with Elton John at Madison Square Garden after losing a bet that his own song (“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”) wouldn’t go to number one
- The way he survived being torn between two tempestuous parents at the age of five
- His affection for Brian Epstein
- The look of him in photographs, both right there in the moment and far away in his own world
- The melody of “Girl”
- How he stood up for himself and his beliefs, up to and including returning his MBE
- His penchant for naming inanimate objects
- How angry he was, how incandescent with rage, in a manner that frequently went unnoticed, in a time when anger was not fashionable
- The Bed-In for Peace
- His habit of revealing his deepest self one moment and veiling it behind a stoic veneer the next
- The fact that, in spite of losing his childhood, he never lost his inner child
- His buddy-comedy friendship with Harry Nilsson
- His tolerance of a lot of other fellow musicians
- How he would forgo verbal compliments in favor of demonstrating the impact you had on him (looking at you, brothers Wilson!)
- How, every so often, he apologized in the best way he knew
- The way he was influenced by the women in his life
- How he did so many things, including things that were wrong, with flair
- His invention (or, I’ll grant, co-invention) of the modern press-conference wit
- The way he talked to people like Maureen Cleave, said whatever he thought, committed to it, and didn’t care
- How he was always thinking about something
- How he tried to learn from his mistakes, even if he wasn’t always forgiven
- His efforts to normalize therapy
- The fact that his soulmate was his songwriting partner
- The simultaneous hostility and vulnerability of “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.” The lyric might run counter to a philosophy of women having agency and stuff, but I am defenseless against that falsetto.
- The heart-rending example he made to the effect that love cannot fix you, that you cannot expect someone else’s love to fix you nor your love to fix someone else
- The way he did his best to love anyway
- The fact that my first Real Job took me to Germany, in a reprisal of his and his bandmates’ trajectory, bringing me closer to him
To think we have reached the end of an equal period of time without him…or that we will have, two months from now…that isn’t a feeling I can put into words.
He was broken, he was damaged, he often made life difficult for the people he cared about. I doubt he was ever truly happy. And yet. He is proof that, as another titanic artist said, nice is different than good.
Meanwhile, here I sit, at a loss as to how to write anything about someone who means everything. What this all amounts to is an elaborately imagined love affair that is still a constant, a comfort, a real thing. The real thing. Even if, in fact, nothing is real, of which I find new evidence daily. And he represents more besides, a larger force. To throw my lot in with him is to throw my lot in with music itself, which I’ve done without a second thought.
I’m not saying I could never love another man. I’m saying I will never love another man quite as I have loved this man. I’ve spent nearly half my life now loving him, and I would be a fraction of what I am if not for him.
Happy 80th birthday, John. It’s always you.
Image: one among my many favorite snapshots of him, 1964