At Strawberry Fields in Central Park, November 20, 2017. Photo: Dave Addey, via flickr
Asking “what if” is a risky, ultimately empty exercise. But we all do it now and then, when the weight of the moment threatens to overwhelm our normal sensibilities. That’s how I feel every Dec. 8, the date marking John Lennon’s death.
What if Lennon hadn’t been killed, by a lunatic’s handgun outside his home on the Upper West Side, on the unseasonably warm Monday evening in Dece 1980? What might he have gone on to do? What would he be singing, writing and talking about today? How much more would our lives have been enriched by his influence? Would The Beatles have gotten back together? And, of course, the elephant in the room in 2017: What would John make of his fellow New Yorker, President Donald Trump?
Since Lennon died nearly two generations ago, some historical background is necessary. Born in Liverpool, England in 1940, he met Paul McCartney and George Harrison when he was still in his teens and they formed The Beatles (Ringo Starr joined later, in 1962). The Beatles went on to become the greatest, most dynamic and most popular rock and roll band of all time — and many of us brilliant fossils feel that that is still true today.
But Lennon was more than a great singer and songwriter — and he was very great, at both jobs. He, like his peer and rival Bob Dylan, stood for something. Lennon couldn’t abide nostalgia for the good old days. He always wanted to grow and change, and he brought both his band and his generation with him for a glorious ride. He became a devoted, if quirky, peacenik at the end of the Sixties. By the time of his death, he had created and/or popularized some of the great catch phrases of modern popular culture: I’d love to turn you on, all you need is love, give peace a chance, come together, instant karma, imagine, gimme some truth, power to the people and mind games. He also sang: living is easy with eyes closed, I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. And one of my sneaky favorites: que pasa, New York.
Que pasa, Trump?
Lennon would have likely found Trump fascinating, horrifying and perplexing. He would have written a great song or two and invented a new buzz phrase. Close your eyes. You can practically glimpse Lennon grinning slyly, over his blue-rimmed granny glasses, as he imagines the mischief he can get into. You can almost imagine Trump asking if the government can reopen the deportation case against Lennon, four-decades-plus on.
I miss Lennon’s brilliance with words at those daydreaming moments. I ponder all of the good he might have done for our society as I recall how fittingly we could use some of his anthems today. “Across the Universe” might have served as a rallying cry against Trump’s sins against the environment. “How Do You Sleep” would have worked just fine with Trump, not Paul McCartney, as its target. Do I even have to paint you a picture for “Nowhere Man” (and McCartney’s apt “Fool on the Hill” would have been the appropriate B-side)?
Lennon may be gone, but plenty remains — his wit, his humor, his caustic observations, his notorious impatience with people who wasted his time, his penchant for waving a one-finger peace sign at the establishment with a brilliant turn of phrase and his strength of purpose and character. He could accomplish more with an unforgettable song lyric than an army could, even with all of its bullets. The Eighties would not have seemed so fake and futile. The Nineties would have been burnished by his ebullience at the end of the Republican dominance. The Obama years would have gleamed. Lennon would have loved that blissful eight-year run, which now seems like it happened in another century.
In my utopian foolishness, I imagine him challenging Ronald Reagan’s destructive policies, rocking out at Live Aid (with Paul, George and Ringo?), electrifying Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball (with Paul, George and Ringo?), castigating W’s stolen presidential victory (“I read the news today/Oh boy/About a lucky man who made the grade”), and getting numerous awards and citations from Barack Obama.
We are all together.