I’ve been reading rock critic Robert Hilburn’s book Corn Flakes with John Lennon, his nostalgic account of some poignant moments spent with
rock n’ roll’s greatest legends.
Whenever I read about the old musicians, the one story that revolves itself most often in my head – like a catchy refrain you can’t get rid of even after endless bathtub recitals – has to do with the Beatles. From the time I was a kid, right about when I started to recognize Ringo Starr as more than just “the Conductor” on that PBS kids’ show, but as the drummer of one of the most significant bands in music history, I became fascinated with John Lennon. I would look through my parents’ Beatles memorabilia, just after listening to one of their records, and stare at the mysterious figure behind the round glasses. I convinced myself that there was something about this man that was profoundly weird. (I don’t mean to use the term derogatorily, but in its original sense: an outcast in tune with the ‘magic’ hidden under the surface of everyday life.) I felt that, if only we could talk, he would have understood all the turmoil that childhood brings to those who stand out. I wanted more than anything to meet him.
Of course, then followed conversations with my parents, when I first heard about Ed Sullivan and Beatlemania. Trips to the library came shortly afterwards. I still remember the day, while reading my first Lennon biography, when I learned that this man – the first person I could truly refer to as my hero – was dead. Had been dead, in fact, for several years before I’d been born. Only nine years old at the time, I shut myself up in my room and cried as if I’d lost my dearest friend.
Flash forward seven years later, to my junior year of high school: I remember sitting with a friend at someone’s sixteenth birthday party, discussing our newly-discovered mutual love for the Beatles. When I told her my favorite was John, she immediately wanted to know if we had the same opinion of Yoko Ono.
“She broke up the Beatles,” I said excitedly.
“And…?” my friend waited expectantly for the follow-up.
“Killed John Lennon,” I answered. I was repeating the formula I had learned from parents and peers over the years. My friend nodded her head emphatically. Apparently, she’d heard the same stories I had.
During my senior year, I had the option of writing a final paper on the impact of John Lennon’s murder. It was the first time I’d enjoyed doing a homework assignment. Of course, the research involved had the added effect of entirely changing my opinion of the central person in John’s life: Yoko Ono.
The more I read, the more I found myself confronted with a woman both strong and fragile, intelligent and artistic, spiritual and practical. She did not seem to be the domineering manipulator I had come to expect, but rather the primary source of personal growth for a troubled man spiraling out of control under the influence of drugs and the pressures of fame.
I learned that the Beatles, like so many other bands before them, had in fact split up in part because of the build-up of personal resentment among the members. Thanks to the death of manager Brian Epstein, along with Paul’s rather inept attempts at handling the business end of things, disagreements over creative control became too great to keep the group together.
As John points out in Hilburn’s book, the Beatles left at the perfect moment, right when they were on top. By doing so, they avoided the fate of burn-out groups who perform long after talent (and dignity) have forsaken them. (Dare I say it’s kind of like the Obi-Wan Kenobi philosophy: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”)
It seems that the only change Yoko brought about in John’s life was for the better. In her own quiet way, she chipped away at the layers of cynicism covering his heart to give new life to the sensitive poet within. Even further, she managed to awake within John a profound sense of respect for the equality of women. Without having to champion the cause of feminism, just by uncompromisingly living life the way she chose to, she achieved what few women today seem able to accomplish: being seen as an equal partner instead of just a good wife.
So I learned that, sometimes, it’s better to look into the “established facts” before forming judgements. I can’t help but think that, if only everyone could learn to look at love with a little less cynicism, and a little more understanding, we might find ourselves one step closer to a better tomorrow.