Within hours of the news of John Lennon’s murder last December it became clear that an event was in the making that was something more than still another display of the kind of collective mourning that followed the assassinations of the 1960’s. There was, to be sure, no lack of those features which are now the standard accompaniment of such occasions: the army of television reporters who would provide virtually unbroken coverage of the Lennon story for the next four days; the throngs of weeping mourners in black arm bands outside the Dakota, Lennon’s apartment building, whose activities were to provide that coverage with its sole theme and content. They had come, young and not so young, from far and wide, to stand in the streets and bear public testimony to their mourning for Lennon. In the days and the cold nights that followed, the crowd in front of the Dakota grew ever larger and more emotional while remaining miraculously clear—under the circumstances—about the reasons that had summoned them here. They had come, the mourners explained, to pay homage to a symbol of their youth and idealism. A twenty-eight-year-old mother, arriving with her small daughter, pointed out, “We lost more than John Lennon, we lost our adolescence. So everyone is here more or less to mourn.” Another woman testified, in a letter written to a magazine immediately after the Lennon murder, that, despite being robbed of every one of its heroes, hers was a generation which passionately cared about freedom and the essential values of human life. She felt, wrote the woman, “proud and lucky to have grown up in the 60’s . . . and grateful that we had John Lennon and the Beatles to express our impatience, our resilience, and our vision of a better world.”
It was a response which found an echo in the journalistic outpouring of commentary on Lennon, one which further confirmed what was clear from the outset: that the spectacle of public mourning triggered by John Lennon’s death had a function altogether different from the by now institutionalized phenomenon of collective grieving to which recent history has accustomed us. The difference, simply put, was that the principal subject of the tributes and of the eulogizing occasioned by this particular assassination was none other than the mourners themselves.
Nowhere was this phenomenon more in evidence than on the occasion which crowned the week, the two o’clock prayer vigil for John Lennon. A full-blown media event, the vigil, as most of the world by now knows, consisted of ten full minutes of silent prayer, the major observance of which was held in Central Park, in New York, Lennon’s adopted city, with observances on a small scale elsewhere.
The Sunday of the vigil dawned with evidence of those massive public preparations that themselves help to secure the status of occasions of this sort. Three hundred policemen and a horde of paramedics and ambulances stood by, with another large deployment of both stationed outside the Dakota. (Even longer-range plans for ministering to the well-being of the mourners had been effected some days before, with the announcement that emergency encounter groups were being set up by a cooperative of social workers and psychologists to help people ages fourteen to forty-one to “cope with their grief about Lennon in a peer-group situation.”)
The mourners themselves had begun to gather for the vigil the night before, showing up wrapped in blankets and goose-down and otherwise giving evidence of having made detailed preparations for the coming event; they were, after all, representatives of a generation that, like no other, had an appreciation of equipment, not least for occasions, such as this one, of self-testing. They listened intently to the detailed instructions of the master of ceremonies for insuring comfort through the ordeal ahead; then, with the sober air of those who are discharging an important obligation, they attended to the relaxing of their bodies. Finally, at two P.M. the vigil began. Against a background, remarkable in itself, of ten full minutes of air silence unprecedented in television history, the network cameras began focusing on the hordes of mourners. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the events the cameras were to record that day was the nearly uniform look on the faces of those in the crowd, expressions bespeaking self-approbation to a degree that neither the ostentatiousness of grief nor the prayerfulness attendant on this occasion, could in the slightest mask. (Self-approval is, anyway, one of the least easily concealed of human feelings partly because, like any other form of love, it tends to bring a sheen to the eye.)
As the silence continued unbroken, it became clear that the particular requirements of the occasion themselves contributed to the atmosphere of collective self-approbation already abundantly in evidence. For the peaceful coming together of huge numbers of people to unite in silence for ten minutes could not help but call to mind similar assemblages in the 60’s (including what was once known as the “miracle of Woodstock”). Like those others, this particular assemblage was clearly intended to testify to the spiritual discipline, strength, and unity of an extraordinary generation. It was not surprising therefore that the ten minutes of silent vigil concluded with an outburst of applause—rightly interpreted by one New York Times reporter who wrote, obviously without the slightest ironic intention, that, when the silence was over, the crowd had “applauded themselves.”
Along with the demeanor of the participants, the other most remarkable aspect of the vigil was the status bestowed on it as a historic occasion: one of the major television networks interspersed its coverage of the vigil with film clips of the 1963 March on Washington. Elsewhere, notably in the press, the association most frequently made was that between John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, and not merely on the grounds that they had both met their deaths at the hands of an assassin. The theme, as it was expressed generally, and exemplified in the column of the Times’s theater critic, Frank Rich, was that John Kennedy’s “youthful iconoclastic style” had begun to “change the tenor of American life” and it was the Beatles “who picked up the Kennedy torch” and ran with it. There were, Rich pointed out, additional reasons to view the impact of the Beatles as historical, one being the Sgt. Pepper album which “solidified the growing suspicion that rock music could be most fully appreciated when stoned.”
For John Leonard, another Times critic, the Beatles had symbolized, through their music, the move from a “self in isolation to an ideal community,” and had become a “self-ratifying” and perfect community. And Eliot Fremont-Smith in an equally elegiac piece in the Village Voice paid tribute to the hope and dimension the Beatles had given his life in the 60’s, and to “our survival and energy and pain and anger and irreverent adoring.”
From these and many other similar journalistic tributes to Lennon there emerged a single theme: the extraordinary sensitivity, uniqueness, courage, and style of the generation identifying itself with the music and social values of the 60’s.
Thus the spectacle attending Lennon’s memorializing served primarily as the occasion—the first event in years to provide one—for a collective self-portrait of a generation whose faith in its own special stature may well be its principal distinction and sole enduring accomplishment. The trouble with the portrait, though, was a certain vagueness. In the absence of those political certainties which had once defined them and served as their chief moral credentials—certainties which had been discredited by subsequent events—all that remained to distinguish this particular generation were the ineffable qualities of “feeling,” “sensitivity,” “openness,” “awareness,” and so forth.
Still, those in the forefront of the public mourning for Lennon were determined to make do with what they had. The person who spoke best for them all, perhaps, was the young woman fired from her cashier’s job at a department store for having closed her eyes for ten minutes at the appointed time of the worldwide Lennon vigil, while serenely ignoring the clamor of enraged customers at her counter. “I’m proud to have stood up for what I believe in,” she observed.
Ironically, the object of these observances, John Lennon himself, had told Playboy with some annoyance, just a few weeks before his death, that he could not understand why people wanted to attach themselves to the 60’s forever, or what made them think they could all be twenty again; nor could he comprehend the hostility engendered by his decision to become first of all a family man, entirely devoted to his wife and small son. On reflection, Lennon had further told the Playboy interviewer, he could recall only sterility and boredom when he thought about the eternally juvenile grouping represented by life with the boys, the Beatles’ “perfect commune.” “It’s all right when you’re sixteen, seventeen, eighteen,” Lennon had told the interviewer. “But when it continues and you’re still doing it and you’re forty, that means you’re still sixteen in the head.”
Still, neither comments like these, nor Lennon’s disavowal just a week or so before he died of art born of the drug culture, nor even his latest album—a celebration of married life—seemed to have any effect on the public image of Lennon called into service at the various official tributes to him, the reason being, again, that it was chiefly themselves the mourners had come to pay tribute to.
Lennon had been, one heard time and again, anti-establishment, irreverent, spiritual, peace-loving; he had changed the course of history, if not the world itself. He had brought the world a message of love and peace. The New Yorker, ever alert to the presence of a fresh idea, pointed out “how rare is such a message.” It was even claimed by some that Lennon had been a man of surpassing modesty, at heart untouched by his wealth and fame. Each time they met, one music critic pointed out at the vigil, Lennon seemed to be puzzled about his fame and about “all that fuss” being made over him.
The Lennon thus described is the same Lennon, it should be noted, who, irritated by a Newsweek reporter who had asked him whether he’d visited any rock clubs lately, snapped, “It’s like asking Picasso has he been to the museum lately.”
Nor did Lennon appear to subscribe, in his personal life, to that image of selfless spirituality evoked by his mourners and exemplified in one of the anthems most favored by the crowds mourning him: “All you need is love.” For this redoubtable business couple, Lennon and Yoko Ono, clearly needed a good deal more than love and set about husbanding it with scrupulous care. The couple’s views on this matter were rather succinctly summed up not long ago by Yoko Ono, who said, “You have to see to your own needs first”; afterward one might, presumably, be free to set about changing the world.
So far as their own needs went, the couple had seen to them with extraordinary success and with a degree of caution that included the use of astrological charts to determine which journalists should and which should not be granted publicity interviews. (Before permission was granted to the Playboy interviewer to appear, he had received a phone call from Yoko Ono’s assistant asking what his astrological sign was.) In the event, at the time of his death, Lennon was worth close to $200 million. One large room of his Dakota cooperative had been set aside exclusively for the storage of his and Yoko Ono’s fur coats, as well as for the exquisitely designed and tailored working-class regalia to which they were partial. Lennon owned no fewer than five cooperative apartments in the Dakota, estates in Florida, Delaware, and New York, and dairy farms whose very livestock seemed to testify to the couple’s golden touch: a single cow from Lennon’s dairy farm brought in, recently, the unprecedented sum of more than a quarter of a million dollars.
“Yes we’re rich, so what?” Lennon said to the Playboy interviewer. The always candid Lennon pointed out further that he had turned out all those Beatles albums for the money, among other things. Small wonder, given these unapologetic testimonials to the acquisitive impulse, that the Playboy interview was distressing to some. As John Leonard observed in his memorial essay on Lennon, “We didn’t need [it].”
If there was, in the goings-on about Lennon’s death, another quality besides the mass self-adulation on display which was quintessentially of the era and the politics being represented, it was the nearly uniform obeisance to those goings-on. There was something remarkable in the spate of unabashedly reverent reflections on their own youthfulness expressed by the mourners, reflections broadcast with a confidence suggesting that the world at large was no less preoccupied with the subject than they were themselves. At no time during the week in question (with the exception of a lone New York City councilman) did there appear to be any public awareness that there might be something amiss, or at least doubtful, about so indulgent and brazenly narcissistic an extravaganza: that there might be something distinctly bizarre in the notion, prominently put about, that John Lennon had taken up and run with the torch of a fallen President of the United States, or that the Lennon vigil was in magnitude and political significance on the order of the civil-rights March on Washington. In eliciting this acquiescent response, the mourning rituals for Lennon reevoked for a moment the atmosphere of the 60’s: the cowed silence that once prevailed in the face of the ludicrous claims and pretensions of the 60’s activists, not to mention their assaults, violent and otherwise, on free speech, mounted in the name of idealism.
There is no better testimony to the persistence of that climate than that provided by Newsweek commentator Meg Greenfield. Her analysis of the Lennon memorials and their participants did, to be sure, express a moment’s hesitation about certain excesses of the generation they represented, but the main point was clear: the 60’s generation deserved to be respected. With the archness which is itself an eloquent signal of the social terrors of taking on the young, Miss Greenfield, noting first that she belonged to “regressive” and “hypocritical elements,” confessed that she had found, in the self-absorption of the 60’s activists, an aspect that was “almost comic.” Yet she was nervous, Miss Greenfield further confessed, about using a word like comic to describe the 60’s idealists; it was “a measure of the power that time still has to intimidate us.”
It is in the columnist’s final remarks, however, and not in this volunteered confession that the real extent of that intimidation, masquerading—just as it did throughout the 60’s, as tolerance and understanding—stands revealed. (Trust the tale, not the teller, was D.H. Lawrence’s eternally useful advice.) Her kind, Miss Greenfield observes, were “panicked by” the moral self-certainty of the 60’s generation, envied their moral energy, and were, “relative to these people, paralyzed.” Whatever doubts Meg Greenfield may have about the political consequences of 60’s activism, she stifles them in a final, respectful tribute to the 60’s generation’s “achievements, its follies, its sweep.”
Perhaps it is only fitting, then, given what the real sum of those achievements comes down to—the enduring myth of specialness—that the political generation which has been celebrating itself these many years for its activism and for the mark it left on the world should today be offering up, as the chief vehicle for the display of its idealism and valor, its allegiance to the Beatles.