John Lennon would have been 80 today. Elvis would have been 85, this year. John Lennon was only 40 when he died; Elvis 42. Princess Diana was only 36 – as was Marilyn Monroe – and Audrey Hepburn a mere 63. Wish I hadn’t started that! Not only does it make me feel ancient but it is a stark reminder of how young they all were; here for such a short time. In the words of Laurence Binyon, ‘They shall not grow old’. So it is that John Lennon will never be remembered as old; rather, in my mind’s eye, he is intrinsically attached to his three bandmates, suit on, guitar in hand with that iconic mop-top haircut. Forever young. The same can be said of Elvis, once one has, successfully, blotted from one’s mind that final image of the bloated 42-year-old on the loo with his trousers round his ankles! I, for one, never believed that he choked on a hamburger …
Princess Diana shall never grow old, nor Marilyn Monroe. Slightly eerie that, both, were only 36 when they died. Both blond, both vibrant and both possessing of a magical allure which charmed camera and people, alike; both slaves to the public persona while, behind the mask, both were equally damaged, ravaged by self-doubt – and desperately lonely. Once again, all that glitters is not gold.
What defines true fame? That one’s death is etched in the memories of people, the world over? Or, perhaps, the cruel nature of it? That of John Lennon was tragic and untimely – and I remember it as though it were yesterday. Just twenty-one, I had received two copies of his acclaimed comeback album, Double Fantasy, among the presents for my Birthday and, having been silent for many years in America, he was back. Starting Over was the single and it still echoes as the soundtrack to that time. Living in a ‘cupboard’ in Spottiswoode Street, I was doing a year’s Graduate Secretarial course at Napier. It was the 8th December and I had a Law exam the next day, for which I had done nothing. However, a few of us had tickets to go and see Dire Straits at the Playhouse, that evening, and these were gold dust with the recent release of their album, Making Movies. Nothing for it. Revision would have to wait. Why change the habit of a lifetime?
It was a superb concert and, unknowingly, it would serve to earmark the impending world event forever more. Not in the mood to open the books when I got back, I climbed into bed – well, not literally, bed being the narrowest of singles in a boxroom. Come to think of it, I probably did have to all but climb into it being that there was no floor space! I digress. Be assured, one can get used to anything … It was snowing that night, if I remember correctly, and dark when my alarm shook me from far too little slumber, the following morning, at 6am. Dark? There were no windows in that box room so what did I expect? There must have been a light perched somewhere (perhaps I had to rely on a torch!) because I do recall opening a book to start my revision for the exam at 9. I read a whole chapter on Employment Law before turning on the radio to listen to the news at 7am. John Lennon was dead, shot in the back, outside his home, by the ‘fan’ for whom he had autographed his new album just hours before. End of revision.
I had never really liked John Lennon. Never really been a fan of The Beatles – although In My Life and If I Fell are two of my favourite songs. However, they had just always been there. Immortal, surely? The Beatles? John Lennon’s ‘return’, however, was big news, as was the release of his new album and Starting Over was being played non-stop on the radio. Full of optimism, the lyric said it all. It was snowing, Christmas was round the corner, the holidays … and, then, bang! Gone in an instant. The cruel irony of the song lost on no-one. In a way, the world had changed forever and the shock had reminded each one of us of the fragility of life. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of Elvis’ death, too, but this was different. John Lennon was starting over and now he was gone.
I made it to my Law exam. The one chapter I had read in bed in my tiny, dark boxroom proved invaluable and, miraculously, I passed! Meanwhile, Woman could be heard everywhere, the most beautiful song written in tribute to Yoko who had been by his side as he was so cruelly shot in the back by a deranged fan craving notoriety. Mark Chapman secured just that and a prison cell for life. John Lennon, meanwhile, gained wings …
‘Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.’
A. E. Housman, To an Athlete Dying Young.
I have read a lot about John Lennon over the past few days. He wasn’t a very nice guy but, then, his childhood was cold and littered with tragedy. Anger and bitterness were his friends and he was known for his scathing sense of humour. Often cruel – and sometimes violent – he was neither a good husband nor father. He was, however, a genius when it came to words and music, penning the most beautiful songs which could only come from the heart; the lyrics, a window to a damaged soul. It is for these he is remembered and loved – and forgiven.
‘There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain.
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all.’
In My Life, John Lennon/Paul McCartney.
Revealing the man behind the mask … Happy Birthday, wherever you are.
This is Trish, signing off.