Remembering the present

Forty years ago today, on December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his home in New York City. He had just turned 40 two months before.

There’s a lot of great articles to read today, pieces not only marking the event but also ruminating on the life and legacy of the man and his music. (Here’s one from the BBC and another from Rolling Stone.) There’s a current of nostalgia in remembering an icon like Lennon, and even in remembering a shocking event like the murder of a high-profile figure (I remember where I was when I heard…). That’s a natural way to remember days like this, and an appropriate one, too.

The life and death of John Lennon has been a kind of a surrogate for the baby boomer generation to remember and think about themselves. They’re not a monolithic generation (none of us is) but Lennon and The Beatles—the music they created, the culture they helped define, and the impact they made—played a disproportionate role at a critical period in the lives of this generation. Good music mixed with experiences that define us as people makes the music carry special meaning. It becomes the soundtrack of definitive times in our lives. John Lennon and The Beatles also did more than that. They were, themselves, a definitive experience. It’s only natural, then, for the people who had those emotional connections to John Lennon to think about themselves and their lives on a day like this. In a way, it’s an extension and reflection of his impact.

That nostalgia seems less pronounced today than it was ten years ago, when we marked the 30th anniversary of his murder (and I wrote this). I wonder if it’s because more and more of the people for whom this mattered are no longer with us. I have no way of knowing if the two articles I linked to above are reflective of the bulk of the work published for today but, if they were, we’d probably point out the way they provide a healthy amount of explanation and history mixed in with their nostalgia. And it wouldn’t be hard to understand why.

I was only 8 years old when John Lennon was murdered, and although I remember the news that day and the sadness of the people I saw on TV, it wasn’t as impactful an event for me as other celebrity deaths had been or would be. If my memory is accurate (and that’s asking a lot) I didn’t really feel like I had an emotional relationship with John. I knew him and I knew The Beatles but neither were mine. I don’t remember sensing anything different from the people around me, although I’m sure my memory or my ability to perceive are to blame there. Still, for me, it was sad—it was shocking—but it wasn’t an event related to the things that mattered most in my world.

In a couple of months from now (February 6, 2021 to be exact), John Lennon will have been dead longer than he was alive. Funny thing is, for me he has become more alive over the last ten years than he was for me on this day 40 years ago. My relationship with The Beatles (and their solo work) has grown (really, only emerged) over the last four decades. Whether as the music I love, the personal connection I feel to the art these men created, or my professional interest in the times they helped define, me and John, Paul, George, and Ringo have a thing. And it’s a living thing, one that keeps growing over time.

So today doesn’t bring much nostalgia for me. I don’t really remember where I was when I heard John Lennon had been killed, and the day doesn’t bring me an unavoidable reckoning with the memories of my past. But it is a day for me. Even though the day is about a man’s death, for me, it’s not defined so much by his passing but by his continuing and evolving presence in my life. It’s a relationship almost completely formed since his passing.

As each year passes, more and more of us will be these kinds of people with respect to John Lennon and The Beatles. In a way, that says more about his life and legacy than anything, even more than the impact his death had on the generation who loved him and his music while he lived. Forty years after he stopped living, he’s still creating new and deep relationships with generations of people all over the world.

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