If John Lennon had only been one of the four members of the Beatles, his artistic immortality would already have been assured. The so-called “smart Beatle,” he brought a penetrating intelligence and a stinging wit both to the band’s music and its self-presentation. But in such songs as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Rain” and “In My Life,” he also marshaled gorgeous melodies to evoke a sophisticated, dreamlike world-weariness well beyond his years. Such work suggested not merely a profound musical and literary sensibility – a genius, in short — but a vision of life that was simultaneously reflective, utopian and poignantly realistic.
While in the Beatles, Lennon displayed an outspokenness that immersed the band in controversy and helped redefine the rules of acceptable behavior for rock stars. He famously remarked in 1965 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” – a statement that was more an observation than a boast, but that resulted in the band’s records being burned and removed from radio station playlists in the U.S. He criticized America’s involvement in Vietnam, and, as the
Sixties progressed, he became an increasingly important symbol of the burgeoning counterculture.
But it was only after the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 that the figure the world now recognizes as “John Lennon” truly came into being. Whether he was engaging in social activism; giving long, passionate interviews that, once again, broadened the nature of public discourse for artists; defining a new life as a self-described “househusband;” or writing and recording songs, Lennon came to view his life as a work of art in which every act shimmered with potential meaning for the world at large. It was a Messianic attitude, to be sure, but one that was tempered by an innate inclusiveness and generosity. If he saw himself as larger than life, he also yearned for a world in which his ego managed at once to absorb everyone else and dissolve all differences among people, leaving a Zen-like tranquility and calm. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” he sang in “Imagine,” which has become his best-known song and an international anthem of peace. “I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”