"How terribly strange to be seventy," sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968, when they were 27 (Simon will turn 69 on the 13th of this month, and Garfunkel in November) and John Lennon was 28. It's hard to imagine John Lennon at 70. But that's what he would be today--October 9-- had he not been shot and killed in 1980, a couple of months past his 40th birthday.
But maybe it's not so hard to imagine the writer of "Imagine" at 70. If he continued to master his demons as he seemed to be in the last years of his life, the decades since might have been quite different. Apart from the flash of the 60s and the tumult of the 70s, John Lennon was that rare combination of an inspiring idealist and an inspired ironist, who wrote lines like this: "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun/If the sun don't come you get a tan from standing in the English rain." In the middle of the surreal "I Am the Walrus," those are lines they could be teaching in poetry courses.
It's tempting to think of him as the spokesperson and lightning rod for causes, the role he sought at times, and which got him shadowed and harassed by the Nixon police. That's a role that's difficult if not nearly impossible to sustain, especially with the increasingly low boredom threshold and the ageist attitudes that survive virtually unchallenged. But he was able to break so many rules, so who knows? He might have been the champion for Climate Crisis awareness say, and Lennon Saves would be a legacy instead of a fondly recalled button from the 60s. Although Lennon, first among equals, saved many a rainy day, English and otherwise in those years.
We would undoubtedly have more Beatles music, and now that we know that you can still rock when you're supposed to be in your rocking chair, we might still be hearing from Lennon. His absence did create room for his former band mates to shine in their own light--Paul McCartney is a global figure, Ringo Starr has found peace on the road, and it took George Harrison's death to reveal so clearly that his talent and accomplishments were major and lasting, and that at his best his song-writing was equal to Lennon and McCartney.
But I have to say that in the last Paul McCartney tour video I saw, the lack of any reference to the other Beatles, particularly Lennon, began to stand out ever more prominently as it went on. And the lack of any Lennon representative at the wonderful memorial concert for George Harrison (which featured McCartney and Starr) was eerie and sad.
It would have been very interesting to observe Lennon as he aged. The anger that seemed to have fueled that incredible energy--and together with his wit and high spirits, made him the model of charming insolence-- seemed almost to destroy him, but in his late 30s he seemed to have come to a different place. The energy was different, but it was there in those last songs. What would have come next? There's only 30 empty years to contemplate.
But in those 40 years he left us music to express almost everything, from the vision of "Imagine" and "All You Need is Love," and the social vision of "Working Class Hero," to the bitter ironies of his version of "Nobody Loves You"; the involvement of "Give Peace a Chance," and the detachment of "Watching the Wheels"; the surrealism of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" to the raw pain of "I'm So Tired." He wrote and sang about being a son and a father, and all the emotions of relationship from young passions to Starting Over.
For those of us who were just a few years behind him, our aging was unaccompanied by new tunes and insights from him, and this absence, this void, was felt, though as one among others. But we always had what we still have, the songs, the images, the words he produced in what amounts to less than 20 years. That's more than some get, but it's a lot less than we wanted, or that we could have used.