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Far From Flatbush

The Unfinished Life of John Lennon

Here's the original English of La vida inconclusa de John Lennon, that ran in Proceso magazine.

So there we were 30 years later, onstage at Purchase College, just north of New York City, a panel of rock ’n’ roll experts and assorted journalists who’d all lived through the events of that ancient day: December 8, 1980. We’d been invited to share our wisdom with a group of journalism students who were exploring “The Myth vs. the Reality of John Lennon.” The students were full of questions. They wanted to know about Lennon’s heroin use, and about his sons, Julian and Sean. But mostly they wanted to hear our stories about what we were doing the night we heard the news that John Lennon was dead.

Donna Cornachio, a professor at the college, told about being an intern working on the news desk of a local TV station at that time. Just before 11 p.m., she took a call on the “tip” line from a man who said that somebody had shot a Beatle—but she was always getting crank phone calls, and she didn’t believe it until she heard ten clanging bells signaling that an urgent news flash had come over the wire. Robert Christgau, the so-called “Dean of American Rock Critics,” read from the Lennon obituary he wrote the night of the murder, which ran on the front page of The Village Voice. “Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon?” he said, quoting his “despondent” wife, an hour after they heard the news. “Why isn’t it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?” Because, Christgau explained, they didn’t offer hope, like Lennon did. Because, as I might have added, in America, madmen without hope murder madmen who hold out hope. Thirty years later Christgau’s words still had the power to shock.

As photos of Lennon’s face were projected on a screen behind me, I told my own tale about smoking Lennon’s Thai weed that my then good friend Fred Seaman, Lennon’s personal assistant, had given to me, as he always did after copping mota for his boss. I was in my bedroom, high on the best marihuana money could buy, listening to a Doors special on the radio—December 8 is Jim Morrison’s birthday—when the show was interrupted around 11 o’clock by a news bulletin: John Lennon had been shot.

Ten minutes later the DJ said he was dead, and I knew immediately that my life was going to change.

It was in the middle of telling this story that I felt the spirit come upon me—the spirit that I’ve come to recognize as the energy of John Lennon. It was the same energy I felt 30 years ago when I was transcribing and memorizing his diaries, and later re-creating those diaries fragment by fragment after Seaman stole them from me and I began to write my book Nowhere Man: Los últimos días de John Lennon. There onstage in 2010, I felt as if I were again channeling that energy, tuning into Lennon’s frequency as if tuning in to the radio station I was listening to the night he was murdered.

That’s Lennon’s magic—the magic he and Yoko Ono believed in so deeply. But that energy (and that magic), as I’ve also come to learn, is accessible to anyone. All you have to do is Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream… Just like the song says.

And that energy—driven by a worldwide hunger to know everything about a profoundly flawed creative genius whose music gave so much pleasure to so many people, whose quest for peace indeed helped bring an end to the holocaust of Vietnam, and whose explorations of consciousness, religion, lifestyle, the occult, and even fashion opened peoples’ minds to realities they hadn’t known existed—is as strong now as it was 30 years ago.

Another reason for this, of course, is Ono herself, who’s spent the past three decades feeding the fire with her relentless efforts to keep the media focused on a scientifically-calculated-to-sell-more-product “Disneyfied” image of her “sainted” husband, and one of her recent endeavors is a good demonstration of the increasing shrewdness of this operation. Unlike with so many of her previous projects, like the disastrous and heavy-handed Broadway musical Lennon, Ono’s fingerprints are almost undetectable on Mi nombre es John Lennon, the latest authorized film designed to counter the long line of unauthorized “fictional” films about Lennon and the Beatles that include Birth of the Beatles (1979), The Hours and the Times (1991), Backbeat (1994), The Two Of Us (2000), The Killing of John Lennon (2006), Chapter 27 (2007), and Lennon Naked (2010).

Nowhere Boy (as it’s called in English) stars Aaron Johnson as a teenage Lennon in Liverpool, when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen, and it’s compelling from beginning to end because you know Lennon’s mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), is going to die and that her death is going to wound Lennon so severely, he’ll never fully recover. But you don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen, and as director Sam Taylor-Wood skillfully develops these very real characters, she creates an almost unbearable tension that propels the film. So well done is Mi nombre es John Lennon, you might not even notice that Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, isn’t in the movie, and you might even accept at face value the statement flashed onscreen just before the closing credits: John called his Aunt Mimi (brilliantly played by Kristen Scott Thomas) every week for the rest of his life.

Though the great Lennon-Ono branding venture can be traced back to their honeymoon–bed-in in 1969, Double Fantasy, the last album Lennon released when he was alive (and which Ono just re-released in an improved and “stripped-down” version) is also significant for taking their venture to a new level of sophistication. If you were around in 1980, and all you knew of the LP was what you heard on the record—the mostly sweet and sometimes sappy family and relationship songs that the Lennons had recorded to “send a message”—you might have thought (as did most people) that there were two great tracks on the album, “Watching the Wheels” and “I’m Losing You,” but, overall, it was a little boring.

There was, however, more to it than met the ear, as I found out on Saturday, December 13, 1980, the day before the Lennon vigil in Central Park. Fred Seaman played for me the Double Fantasy demo tape, which Lennon had recorded in Bermuda that summer. He didn’t tell me what it was; he just put it on. And that’s the first time I heard “Serve Yourself” in all its raw, outraged, and outrageous splendor. Here was Lennon raving about Mohammed, Krishna, Buddah, and Jesus, and screaming at his son Julian: “You fuckin’ kids are all the fuckin’ same! You want a fuckin’ car now! Lucky you’ve got a pair of shoes!”

I couldn’t understand why Lennon had left off the album not only this mind-blowing counterpoint to the warm and fuzzy “Before you cross the street/Take my hand” lyrics of “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” but also the prophetic “Borrowed Time.”

Lennon, as it turned out, knew that he’d made a mistake by not including these extraordinary tracks on the LP because they were “off message.” In his diaries he called Double Fantasy mediocre. He knew he’d blown it; he knew that when you’re making a comeback after a five-year silence, you can’t withhold your best material: Because you never know what’s going to happen next. Because “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans,” just like it says in “Beautiful Boy.”

Of course he’d planned to release both these songs on his next album, Milk & Honey, which was released posthumously but included only an unfinished version of “Borrowed Time”—unfinished, just like his life, the life that shines as brightly today as it did on that magical day in 1964, when we first met the young Walrus and his three talented friends; the life that journalists and others will continue to explore as long as there is music.
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