The Rip Post


LOOKING FOR JOHN LENNON

by Rip Rense
(Originally published in The Rense Retort, 2002.)

"It's Johnny's birthday
It's Johnny's birthday,
And it's so nice to have you back with us again. . .
"
---George Harrison.

Imagine John Lennon at sixty-one.

Lots of people seem to be doing this lately, I've noticed. A New York Times article a couple of weeks ago, "Looking For Our John Lennon" lamented the absence of Lennon comments---not just on the occasion of his Oct. 9 birthday, but in view of the atrocities of Sept. 11.

What would Lennon have said about the New World Horror? We'll never know. We are left only with the thoughts he left behind, in interview and music. There are plenty of them.

For Lennon---whether foolishly, courageously, trustingly, daringly, angrily, gently---put his ideas out there. Always. He was admirably blunt, joyfully pithy, achingly pointed, unabashedly philosophical. He was chastised, attacked, investigated, misunderstood, hounded by the U.S. government, bedeviled by foibles (as all the best people are!) Yet he kept coming back with song and word, showing nothing if not dogged optimism. It took a gun to stop him.

Yet were his feelings about Sept. 11 really so absent? There was, after all, a tribute organized by Yoko Ono---to both Lennon and New York City---where many sang in his stead, including son Sean. Earlier, at the telethon for the families of terrorism victims, Neil Young offered a lilting "Imagine" very close in arrangement to the original.

No work better captures Lennon the provocateur and Lennon the idealist than this slight, graceful anthem---impressing listeners and critics as variously gullible, visionary, arrogant, irreverent, challenging, even insulting. Maybe it is a little bit of all those things. It is also misinterpreted.

Is it necessary to think that Lennon was being an absolutist in "Imagine" (which was largely inspired by Ono, not incidentally.) Or was he, rather, just. . .suggesting? Here's something to think about. . .imagine this. Was he claiming to own answers, or was he entertaining notions? Either way, the song offers a sort of answer, anyway. The mere act of imagining is one of humanity's more useful impulses.

"<I>Imagine there's no heaven/ It's easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky. . ."</I>

Yes, imagine that. Imagine religions that would not threaten hell for bad behavior, or promise after-life Disneyland for obey-the-rules piety. Would that be a good thing? Would the lack of the heaven-hell carrot-and-stick free people to live more in the moment? To concentrate on the here and now? Freed from worry about predictions of apocalypse? Freed from promise of 100 virgins from Allah? Freed from Biblical doomsday prophecy? Freed from being let off the hook for the problems of this world? Or religious belief notwithstanding, isn't it just a sensible idea. . .to focus on the here and now, anyway? Lennon thought so, and the next line bears it out: "Imagine all the people living for today."

Not a bad idea. Tomorrow isn't exactly a lock.

"Imagine there's no countries," goes the second verse. "It isn't hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too. . ." Well, the same people who burned Beatles records over the "more popular than Jesus" remark likely go nuts every time they hear this line. But was Lennon passing judgement here? The verse begins with. . .imagine. Think about. No countries? Well, you'd save money on flags. On the other hand, you wouldn't have nations at war---hence the next line: "nothing to kill or die for." Well, maybe less to kill or die for. Humans just seem to really like to murder one another. But the point to take away from this, I suspect, is to think more in terms of being part of one planet, one people---to borrow the Bahais' phrase---than disparate, competing nations. This place is tinier by the minute.

"And no religion, too?" Well, imagine, for the sake of argument, the reduction in war, subjugation of humans, and environmental pillaging if there were no religions---or, at least, no competing monolithic religious institutions. No Christian crusades, no Protestant vs. Catholic, no genocide of Jew, no communism (a non-religion religion), no Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. On the other hand, imagine the attendant lack of comfort and guidance for those who need religious institutions. These dichotomous thoughts lead somewhere; was Lennon suggesting looking at some root causes of hate, conflict, war? It would seem so, considering the line that follows: "Imagine all the people living life in peace..."

Seems I've heard that particular sentiment expressed in a lot of churches, synagogues, and temples.

This final verse's target is hard to contest: materialism and gratuitous wealth. "Imagine no possessions/ I wonder if you can/ No need for greed or hunger/ A brotherhood of man/ Imagine all the people sharing all the world..." The plethora of McMansions and SUVs and designer underpants in a world where the starving are driven to eat dirt is ugly beyond description. The Sept. 11 assault threw this shame into sharp relief. To a man, people in this country were smitten  with the delicate nature of the only thing one truly owns---or at least, rents---life. Imagine all the people sharing all the world? Well, at least imagine well-to-do people not exploiting child-slave labor in Indonesia for a pair of $200 tennis shoes. . .imagine a world without privatization of water. . .imagine a world where wars are not fought over oil. . .That would be a good start.

The song ends with Lennon the plain-spoken poet:

"You may say I'm a dreamer,

but I'm not the only one,

I hope some day you'll join us,

And the world will live as one."

Thirty years after "Imagine" was written, and twenty-one after John Lennon died, it's pretty hard to think of the world living "as one." Maybe harder than ever.

All the more reason to be thankful for a song that exhorts us to try.

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