In February of 1964 the Beatles made their initial appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time most of us Baby Boomers probably didn’t connect the events, but those two appearances were only three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Surely, the somber mood of the nation following the jolts -- Bang! Kennedy. Bang! Oswald. -- had something to do with why those early Beatles recordings cut through the heavy airwaves with such verve. There has been no explosion in the American pop music scene since with anything near the equivalent impact of Liverpool’s Fab Four.
Then, in 1980, the murder of moody John Lennon had an impact on the public few would have predicted. It was as if a world leader had been gunned down on the street in Manhattan.
Lennon’s obvious contributions as a songwriter and musician were huge. However, it was the working class hero’s tart integrity and delight in taking risks that set him apart from his teen idol counterparts, many of whom toyed with politics and social causes as if they were merely hairdos or dance crazes.
With the Vietnam War still underway in the early ‘70s, President Richard Nixon looked at Lennon and saw the raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that potential, the Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country. The details of that nasty little campaign are just as bewildering as some of the better known abuses that flowed from the Dirty Tricks Department in the White House during those scandal-ridden days.
With two-and-a-half decades of perspective on Lennon’s death, it’s possible to see that even if that particular nut-case (a man I choose not to name because I refuse to add in any way to his celebrity) hadn’t pulled the trigger, it could easily have been another one; there were bullets out there with John Lennon’s name on them. Like the comets of each generation are bound to do, sometimes Lennon burned too bright for his own good.
And speaking of assassins, at this time I’m also reminded of an item that ran in the Nashville Banner on Feb. 24, 1987. The article began with this: “Two Nashville musicians remained free on $500 bond today after they went on a magazine-shredding tear …to protest People magazine’s current cover story.”
The two musicians were Gregg Wetzel, and Mike McAdam. As members of the Good Humor Band they were fixtures in Richmond’s Rock ‘n’ Roll scene in the early ‘80s. By the time the story mentioned above was published, the pair had established themselves as respected sidemen in Nashville -- Wetzel on piano and McAdam on guitar.
In a nutshell, Gregg and Mike became incensed at seeing the magazine with a cover story about John Lennon’s murderer. They felt spotlighting the killer in that way might encourage another deranged wannabe to take gun in hand to go after whoever. So they fortified themselves with an adequate dose of what-it-takes -- legend has it they were drinking out of an Elvis decanter -- and set out on a mission to destroy the cover of every copy of the offensive publication they could find on the strip. As the reader may know, this sort of endeavor is best done in the wee hours.
In the course of their fifth stop, at a Nashville convenience store, the avenging angels were stopped by the cops and charged with “malicious mischief.” Shortly afterwards, in a interview about the incident, McAdam said, “If another guy like [name withheld again] sees that, he might think he can get on the cover of People magazine by killing a politician or artist.”
Primary among the reasons John Lennon was selected for the kill by his stalking murderer was he had a rare ability to move people. In that sense, Lennon was slain for the same reason as political figures such as Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Two thousand years ago Jesus H. Christ was taken out of the game for much the same reason: He challenged people to change; to take a chance on a life based on something better than might making right.
Although Nixon miscalculated Lennon’s intentions, the soon-to-be-disgraced president was probably right about the former Beatle’s potential to focus the anti-establishment sentiments in the air. What Nixon didn’t grasp was that Lennon -- in spite of his mischievous streak -- was really more interested in promoting peace than fomenting revolution.
Among other memorable song lyrics John Lennon penned, this familiar line seems particularly appropriate in 2005, a year limping to the finish line: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
During the upcoming holiday season, with its short days and extra splash of bright lights, the birth of the world’s best-known martyr -- a working class hero himself -- is celebrated by Christians. But to escape the wall of corny Christmas music on the radio, I’m going to put a cd of Lennon’s greatest hits on the Bose (courtesy of my brother) and listen to No. 9 Dream.
Some of those post-Beatles cuts still seem fresh, experimental. Now, well into stranger days, indeed, chance we wonder what Lennon might have dreamed and written if he had lived to be 65? Imagine...