John Lennon in Four Songs

Taken away from us forty years ago today, John Lennon remains the most complex of Beatles. With this anniversary of his murder, he’s been dead for as many years as he was alive, which is a surreal indicator of how large his presence has been well after he’s been gone. I wonder what he might have said about the world of the last four decades had he lived long enough to see it. He may have some pointed words for this world of ours.

Summing up John Lennon’s prolific career in four songs seems folly. I mean, what do you leave out? A freakin’ lot, that’s what you leave out. But there are four that stand out for me as core standards of the Lennon catalog. Forgive me if you’ve heard them before. If there’s a common theme in John Lennon songs it’s love and unity. Today’s a good day to listen to the entire body of work and remember the man. Personally, I’m starting with these four:

Stawberry Fields Forever
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me

Go ahead: pick only one John Lennon Beatles song. Not at all easy. It really comes down to Help! or Give Peace A Chance or Strawberry Fields Forever. Sure, I went to Strawberry Fields and can post a cool photo of me there, but I think it may have been the top choice anyway. I’m one of those music geeks that adds it to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because it belonged on that damned album and was taken off to meet demand for a single. Even the Beatles had to compromise with their art. Anyway, Ringo Starr asked everyone to play SFF today to honor John, so it seems that endorsement is enough to put this one on top.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

I’ve had moments of ambivalence with this song. Not the message, mind you, but the sheer number of times I’ve heard it played made it numbing in a way. When you overplay anything it gets old after a while. Imagine should never get old… As I’ve gotten older the song resonates once again in new ways.

Instant Karma!
Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Ev’ryone you meet
Why in the world are we here
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there
When you’re ev’rywhere
Come and get your share

John Lennon was a Rock & Roll guy molded in smoky clubs in the gritty cities of Liverpool and Berlin. If the other three songs on this list are ballads or trippy narratives, Instant Karma! is a rock song. The relentless drum beat from Alan White drives the song. Instant Karma! was recorded in one day and rushed out in 1970 before the Beatles had announced they’d split up. It was John Lennon telling the world, here I am! Solo artist. And maybe I should resent the song for that reason, but it’s too good to dismiss. And as fellow Beatle (and collaborator on this song) George Harrison would soon remind the world, all good things must pass.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fights

As Christmas songs go, this was always my favorite. Happy Xmas was released two months after Imagine in 1971. The two songs pair well together. It’s another song that pointed out the absurdity of wars and racial divide. More relevant than ever. And that’s why John Lennon never really died, he’s still on the airwaves pointing out the folly of being human and showing the way towards peace and love. That he died violently is one of the tragic ironies of popular culture.

This being 2020 and all, I think about the final lyrics of this song, and how the meaning has changed for me as I’ve grown weary of all the negativity and strife and isolation and life struggles that this year has represented. I view it, somehow, with a bit of optimism and hope:

And so this is Christmas
And what have we done
Another year over
A new one just begun

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