John Lennon died 37 years ago this month. December 8, 1980. I am twice as old now as I was when he was shot down. I've been sober for most of the years since he died but on the night I learned he was gone I got very drunk, sitting in a chair, a bottle of Scotch at my side, headphones on, feeding grief with the sound of his voice singing songs that had become anthems for an international tribe of mockers and rockers, rebels and saints, dreamers and dads, seekers and soulmates.
I shed more tears that night than I would when my father died a couple decades farther down the line, and even more than when my mom died some eight years ago. The death of John Lennon tapped a different channel of grief, apparently. Nonetheless, I still feel a measure of guilt over that long ago night of boozy blubbering when I was so avaricious for my own tears, grieving the death of youthful dreams of a better world, prompting and re-prompting my sadness by revisiting particular songs, moving the needle on the spinning vinyl, seeking an emotional purgative for all that seemed to have been lost when Lennon was lost.
His first solo album after the Beatles broke up opens with a song called "God." It ends with the line "the dream is over," and few of us heard that line without the mournful recognition that the dream that seemed to have ended was much more significant than the loss of a rock group.
By the time John Lennon died, my generation should have been accustomed to epoch-ending, dream-shattering losses.
By the time John died, my generation should have been accustomed to such epoch-ending, dream-shattering losses. Light after light had been extinguished—when JFK died in Dallas, when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in Memphis, when Bobby Kennedy was taken from us in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen corridor. And then there had been that bloody war in Vietnam, with its daily losses, daily horrors, daily betrayals of what we had been told as kids about our nation's exceptional goodness.
When John Lennon and his Liverpudlian mates first showed up we were still mourning the loss of our young president. The Beatles reminded us all that though one dream had died, we were still brimming over with youth, the capacity for joy, hope, and even fun.
But, as the war in Vietnam ramped up and as more and more of us were drafted to die there and others of us rose to stand in opposition to it, John Lennon became one of the more visible living symbols of that opposition. That drew the attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and a concerted effort to get Lennon deported after he'd made New York his home.
Had John Lennon not chosen to live in the gun-addled United States, he would, in all likelihood, still be alive today. He died as he returned home from the studio where he had been putting final touches on that "Starting Over" album. It contains a song to his son Sean that can still break your heart if you stop long enough to absorb the paternal love in words like these: "I can hardly wait/To see you come of age/But I guess we'll both just have to be patient." That song ends with the line "life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."
Death, too, John.
The "peace and love," beads-and-bell bottoms dream of brother and sisterhood hasn't aged well. It was already moribund by the time John died. The '70s pretty much did in those "let the sun shine in" visions as the '60s dream darkened, fostering a global drug trade to satisfy the hunger for cocaine and wretched excess. The music didn't die, exactly, but it soured.
When we lost John Lennon, we lost a needed voice, but John lost everything; most poignantly, he lost the chance to know his adored little boy grown to adulthood.
What would Sean and John be talking about in this era of Donald Trump? How many songs might John have written since he died so much too soon? How much additional good might he have done in bringing change or solace to a world even more in need of it now than it was all those years ago. You could say he was a dreamer, and not the only one, but there is never an oversupply of dreamers like John Lennon.
He asked us to "Imagine," and so we should. Imagine a world in which so many of the best of us are not struck down by the darker side of human nature. Imagine a world in which John and Bobby lived to ripe old ages, and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, too. Imagine a world in which Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were not sitting atop a murderous worldwide kleptocracy in which a few hundred people have more wealth than billions of their fellow men, women, and children.
Then let a tear slide down your face for John, and the whole suffering planet.
And then try to imagine a better world in 2018. It won't be easy.