On December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt referred to December 7th as “a date that will live in infamy.” But to millions born after World War II, December 8th is the date that lives in infamy¬—that was the day, in 1980, that John Lennon was assassinated.
Baby boomers, myself included, continue to mourn this man they never met, a man who aspired only to play rock and roll but who, between 1964 and 1970, unwittingly became the de facto leader of a worldwide youth movement. He inspired us to successfully challenge the stifling conformity and perceived hypocrisies of the Greatest Generation, and, to the ongoing dismay of social conservatives who “want their country back,” ushered in a new era.
When we met the Beatles—seventy-nine days after the assassination of JFK—baby boomers of all ages saw immediately that these four androgynous young men represented a new New Frontier. Amused older observers dismissed the Beatles as a passing fad, but we were enthralled— not only by the band’s new sound and appearance, but by their casual rebelliousness, and promise of fun and freedom. Early Beatles factoids told us that John was the leader, and that always seemed true.
With “I’m A Loser” in the fall of ’64 and “Help!” the following summer, John showed us vulnerabilities beneath his cheeky exterior. We related to these pop confessionals and used them, along with other increasingly sophisticated lyrics, to make sense of our own lives.
For six years, the Beatles engaged millions of children and adolescents with a nonstop flow of sounds, images, and ideas; a constant flow of new. Indeed, growing up with the Beatles was like following a dazzling alternative curriculum, more interesting and more relevant than what we were learning in school. And more empowering.
Fans and critics alike began “close listening” in December ’65 with Rubber Soul, the album that elevated the Beatles from pop stars to artists. We had come to trust and rely on the Beatles as a source of something much more than entertainment, and those feelings deepened. On “The Word,” Lennon tells us he is the leader of the emerging counterculture and exhorts us to embrace love as a guiding principle in our lives—something he would do repeatedly over the years.
John challenged us again two months later with “Nowhere Man,” a political song with a call to action. The takeaway message was “pay attention,” “be engaged in the world,” and “have opinions.” About one minute into the song, you can hear the mobilizing tone, a signal to millions of young people, increasingly frustrated by the hypocrisy of their elders. Three months after that, in “Rain,” Lennon presents us with the case for nonconformity and critical awareness as he points out the foolishness of how “they” behave.
By the summer of 1966—after Lennon’s Jesus comment and Dylan’s motorcycle accident—the “voice of a generation” baton passed to the Beatles. They were now widely acknowledged, by young people and the “establishment,” as leaders of the counterculture. Lennon’s disdain for intellectuals, authorities, and ideologues, combined with his intermittent self-loathing, made him uncomfortable in the role. But he was also an impassioned communicator with deeply held views, well aware of the power he wielded over a very large and very impatient generation. With Yoko’s support, he found purpose in his celebrity.
Lennon continued to challenge us with his unique blend of art and peace activism. And though many disliked Yoko, or didn’t appreciate the bed-ins and the War Is Over campaign, we watched and listened. And we knew John—outspoken, playful, and authentic—was on our side. We were inspired by his willingness to speak up for what he believed, even when his ideas, methods, and wife were ridiculed.
Our historically-unique relationship with the Beatles—made possible by the demographics, technology, and the politics of the moment—still defies description: Not quite like older brothers or friends, not quite like dads or uncles, and not quite like teachers or ministers. And definitely not like relationships with any pop stars before or since. And while Lennon wasn’t everyone’s favorite Beatle, he was the one who most often brought the “weirdness” that was so compelling.
Our relationship with Lennon was new and modern, unlike any that existed before. And so our reaction to the loss, even after more than three decades, is a new, modern kind of grief—but no less real than what we’d feel for a dear friend or family member. We continue to miss his wit and his intellect. We’re sad for his wife and sons. We wonder what he’d think about the internet, climate change, the Middle East, and digital downloads.
Lennon was larger than life during his life, and has grown even larger in death. He remains a cherished figure to the global siblinghood of Beatle fans who grew up with him, as well as to younger admirers who bemoan the fact that they “never walked the planet at the same time as John Lennon.” Some deify him. Yes, he was just a guy who wanted to play rock and roll, and he was by no means a perfect human being, but he’s become a worldwide symbol of humanity’s highest aspirations—and you know that can’t be bad.
Candy Leonard’s experience as a young Beatle fan, witnessing the transformative events of the 1960s, ignited her sociological imagination. After receiving a BA in Communications, a Master’s degree in Human Development and a doctorate in Sociology, Leonard began a career in academic research on the effects of media and popular culture on child development, gender relations and family life. A lifelong Beatle fan, Candy is intimately familiar with their entire body of work, biography, commentary and fan culture, and has written and lectured on the group from her unique social science vantage point. She currently resides in Cambridge, MA.
Beatleness is available in hard copy, ebook, and audiobook from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
By Candy Leonard