This past week was the 30th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, legendary member of the Beatles rock group, and an emblem of the fragmented value that comes with celebrity status in western society. Lennon is an unfortunate member of a small group of public figures who were assassinated for the notoriety it would bring the assassin rather than any other identified specific cause or perceived societal effect. On the night of December 8th, 1980, Lennon and his wife were returning to their mid town West Central Park condominium from an outing, when they were approached by Mark David Chapman, who wordlessly shot Lennon four times in the back as he passed. Chapman had stalked the entrance to the Dakota complex awaiting Lennon’s return, assured of Lennon’s presence as several hours before as Lennon had left the Dakota, Chapman had asked Lennon to autograph a Lennon album and Lennon had complied. In the vein of Arthur Bremer’s attempted assassination of politician George Wallace in 1972, or later, John Hinckley, Jr’s. attempt on President Ronald Reagan in early 1981, the crime victim themselves bared very little impulse for the disturbed stalker assassin who simply reveled in their ability to achieve their own personal celebrity through their act. Lennon was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, but was unable to be re-susitated and died that night. Chapman subsequently was arrested and convicted of murder, and has been in jail since his conviction.
John Lennon was a difficult human being with multiple run-ins with family, friends, band mates and governments. His status in western culture, however, will always be secure due his exalted role as leader of the revolutionary musical force known as the Beatles, and his combative but spectacularly prodigious membership in the song writing duo of Lennon and McCartney. The duo,with minimal formal training, produced a song catalogue that ranks with the great song writers and songwriter teams of the 20th century. For the 5 year period from 1964 to 1969, Lennon and McCartney changed forever the role of the musical group, who to that time had been performers rather than creators of original music; after their spectacular run no quality act could proceed to be seen as elite without producing original material. Lennon was the stronger wordsmith who often corrected McCartney’s tendency toward saccharinelyrics and brought depth, wisdom and at times angst to the simplest expressions. He was personally not a revolutionary but formulated a revolutionary style that created new sound motifs, visual poetry, and a competitive personality to always try to top the band’s last creative impulse with each successive effort. By 1969, the pressure of continuous originality and brilliance exhausted all the members, but particularly Lennon, and he sought and succeeded to gain a way out of the group, and the madness. Like all creative but unstable personalities, he continued to occasionally produce epic music thereafter, but missed the steadying influence of his musical partners. It appeared at age 40, he was finally seeing the gentle stabilizing influences of adulthood when his life was cut short by Chapman’s bullets.
We struggle in western society to accept celebrity as an indicator of achievement, rather than artificial status. The reimbursement for creativity is often dis-proportunate, the public exposure, claustrophobic, and need to maintain status inevitably self-destructive. Peculiar to the western societal model, is the desire of certain people to achieve the illumination of celebrity without the hard work and talent that often is required. The effect is the disturbing glow that is cast on those who succeed at destroying a celebrated person, and through denying the society access to the individual’s further contributions, disturbingly cementing in their own influence on events in a memorable way. Our continuing weakness for elevating people to impossible heights often contributes to their destruction. The price of a free society unfortunately will always be the danger of free will to those in society who wish to effect their influence beyond their capacity, for the sheer thrill, and “fifteen minutes” of recognition.
Whatever John Lennon was, or would have been, was focused on the night of December 8th, 1980, in the hands of an individual who cared about neither.