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The Dakota’s Dead Hero: John Lennon Warned Us Not To Turn Him Into A Deity

December 8, 2013

Bigger Than Jesus: a shrine at Japan’s now-defunct John Lennon Museum

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot to death outside the Dakota apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side.

Lennon’s murder sparked a deluge of worldwide grief on an unprecedented scale. Sales of his music soared in the months following his death. Meanwhile, some thirty thousand fans gathered in Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool, while separate memorials were organized at various locations around the planet. (This despite the fact that no actual funeral for Lennon was ever held.) Mourning fans gathered for days outside the Dakota, chanting and singing Beatles songs until Yoko Ono complained to authorities that the noise was keeping her up at night.

When the dust finally settled, there was little doubt that Lennon’s death would instantly transform the consummate Eggman from respected artist to revered deity. In fact, no other dead musical figure, with the possible exception of Elvis Presley, has so rapidly achieved calendar-ready status in the vast pantheon of Western pop culture.

And yet, ironically, the one person who had hoped to avoid such a fate was Lennon himself, who just three days before his death criticized the idol-worshiping culture vampires who seemed so determined to turn him into a musical martyr. “What they want is dead heroes like Sid Vicious and James Dean,” Lennon griped in his final interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero. So forget ‘em.”

In that same interview, Lennon also expressed a strong desire to break free of his culturally imposed image as the former Beatle turned renegade peacenik. And at the young age of forty, he still believed he had “plenty of time” to explore new territory. Sadly, it took only the actions of one deranged fan to show him otherwise.

Every year on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, hundreds of doe-eyed fans converge on Central Park’s Strawberry Fields to celebrate his life and remember his music. In doing so, they also mythologize a man whose last request was that we not turn him into a myth. Imagine that.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2011 7:51 pm

    I’m currently diligently wading my way through Philip Norman’s epic biography on John Lennon, a hefty tome that sheds extra light on the former Beatle in the most intricate and evocative detail. The author speaks of Lennon’s complex relationship with success during the height of Beatlemania. As his fame grew, so he found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his conflicting personalities, those of the “monk” and the “performing flea” (Lennon’s own terms).

    As the Beatles’ music rapidly grew ever-more sophisticated, Lennon became weary of fans’ unwaveringly one-dimensional reactions. Their incessant shrieked response to any and every song was a major factor in the band’s disillusionment with touring, his first (non-verbal) backlash to blind idol-worship. Staunchly anti-establishment, Lennon was also arguably the most insecure Beatle, and felt like he’d sold out the minute the band were convinced by Brian Epstein to trade their leather jackets and cowboy boots for matching italianate suits, a feeling only perpetuated after meeting the Rolling Stones.

    For those of us who weren’t around in 1963 it’s sometimes hard to fathom the impact the Beatles had on that period in a very short span of time. That his most ardent fans were able to elevate him to rock sainthood despite the fact that for much of his life he was a pretty lousy friend, husband and father speaks volumes about his talent, public personality and wide-reaching impact on pop culture.

    But despite his many material (and sexual) indulgences, Lennon’s frantic desire by 1966 to “escape from the Palace” is understandable. I think all of this explains his need to leave his wife, marry her total opposite, and immerse himself in a starkly different way of life, before eventually holing up at the Dakota in a kimono and ponytail. The “performing flea” had finally become “the monk”.

    In this period Lennon became a sort of cultural chameleon, transcending music, philosophy and style until Liverpool ’58 and New York ’80 seem much further apart than their 3,000 miles (and twenty-two years).

    • December 9, 2011 3:54 am

      Very well said, James. Of all the Beatles, John was the truest artist, hence his uncomfortable relationship with success and fame.

  2. Betty O'Donnell permalink
    December 8, 2011 11:08 pm

    He broke free, all right! And he has “plenty of time” to explore new territory and new lives. I wonder if he came back as an adoring fan of John Lennon.

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