Ironically, the day after I arrived in Korea in 1990 was also the tenth anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Ten years later, when I was writing for The Korea Times I wrote an Op-ed piece about the death of John Lennon and what it meant for my generation.
Thoughts of the Times: Remembering John Lennon
This past week, people around the world took time out to remember the 20th anniversary of the death of John Lennon.
“Where were you when John Lennon was shot” became just as poignant a question as the one posed by another generation when people asked, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” 17 years earlier.
For myself, I was a student at Southern Illinois University when I heard the news that fateful night in December. I had been studying for finals in my dorm room and didn’t think much of the block of Beatles’ songs being played by the local college radio station I had tuned in. Only when I walked upstairs to the TV room to check the score on the Monday Night Football game when I learned of the news. Howard Cosell broke away from his usual play-by-play of the game to announce to the millions of viewers that Lennon had been shot.
I ran back downstairs and burst into my friend Paul Collin’s room to tell him the news. “Now I know the world is coming to an end,” Paul said as he sunk down in the beanbag chair he had been sitting on, “someone shot a Beatle.” We tuned in the college radio station and listened to one Beatle song after another, too stunned to say anything.
And it did seem like the world had, at least for the moment, stopped. For the next few days, it seemed that the whole world was in mourning. It didn’t make any difference where you were, there was bound to be someone who had either grown up with the Beatles or who had been touched by Lennon’s music. Even if you hadn’t been into his music or a fan of the Beatles, the fact that an entertainer, a musician—a person who tried to advocate peace through his music had been gunned down was tragic enough to make one stop and take stock of their own life.
What was it that brought so many different people together, then—when they gathered at Lennon’s Dakota apartment or other places to leave messages, flowers, album covers, candles and the like in memorial—and now, when people again gather around the world to remember? What was it about Lennon’s life and his subsequent death that affected so many people around the world? Why did his death in 1980 fill so many people with such an incomprehensible sense of loss? Without question, Lennon’s death was the loss of an icon for a generation.
We always feel robbed and cheated when one of our icons, one of our generation’s spokespersons is taken away from us. Although one can argue that it’s unbefitting that he has been elevated to some cultural sainthood status, his contributions to modern pop culture, not to mention history as a Beatle and as a solo artist cannot be ignored.
Above all, Lennon’s life and the music he created represented not only this whole idea of rock and roll rebellion, but also to a much larger extent, the social and cultural consciousness that touched a sensitive chord in us all. Whether it was one of his and Yoko’s “Bed Peace” events or one of their “War is Over” posters, Lennon was dedicated to raising our social consciousness. His music became a medium to address these issues and perhaps explain our own social consciousness through his songs. Just listen to “Imagine.”
His death touched us all, and perhaps reminded us of our own mortality.
On the other hand, would we still be gathering and remembering Lennon, though, if he hadn’t been gunned down, if he had, say, died of a drug overdose or committed suicide, or even died of natural causes? Would such a death have had that much more significance? Would he have been just another rock and roll casualty?
The fact that Lennon was murdered in the prime of his life made his life and death that more significant. Likewise, he had just re-emerged from this self-imposed exile with a new album at age 40—proof that even forty-year-olds could still rock and roll. One more reason, which made a generation, feel robbed. Lennon was different. He broke the rules and we forgave him. Whether you agreed with his politics, his self-righteous cant, understood his avant-garde leanings or not, Lennon influenced our collective cultural consciousness and raised our social awareness. Of course, there was always the music, too.
Twenty years after his death, his legacy, not to mention his music still resonates. He wasn’t a Mother Theresa, a Princess Diana, or a Martin Luther King. He wasn’t a doctor who devoted a lifetime finding a cure for cancer or AIDS. He was just a musician, an artist who gave us all something just as important: the hope and the dream of a better world.
What do we really remember in the end? Is it just the passing of one our icons? Or, is it something more? I think the answer lies in our need for some connection with are own permanence, are own mortality. Remembering Lennon is our own memorial for our permanence and humankind, and our hope for a better world.
This originally appeared in The Korea Times on December 11, 2000