He gave the world Beatles. He communicated his inner world through his words, and the world saw its own reflection in them. He sketched the half-formed images of his mind, and the world found surreal art in them. He asked the world to give peace a chance, but he was murdered in cold blood.
Sometimes, words fail you. When a musician is equally revered as a peace campaigner, when his songs become an anthem for anti-war groups, when he attains a place beyond the confines of musical history, then even exhaustive efforts at finding the right adjectives for him can be futile. Thirty years have passed since he was killed Dec 8, 1980 at the age of 40, but words still fail to capture the phenomenon, John Lennon.
Early in his career, he wrote simple love songs with band member and close friend James Paul McCartney, with whom he would later fall out. Songs which don’t penetrate your marrow, never overwhelm you with the grandeur of their lyrics, but songs that are written with naked simplicity.
The band’s music invaded much of the early rock scene in Britain, and conquered hearts and charts alike. The Beatles – Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – came to define the golden age of rock music.
Lennon gave India a boy band to worship. The four Englishmen found themselves on the walls, in the audio cassette players, in the cupboards, in the dreams, in the living reality of the teenagers spanning generations, bitten by the Beatle bug.
The Indians consumed Beatles beyond music. Anyone with ears owned up to it, the young were obsessed, the old amused, the songs opened up a world of new expressions and emotions.
Lennon, who gave body to these expressions, saw the world differently. He imagined a world where everyone lived in peace, and wrote ‘Imagine’, which ranks third on the Rolling Stones list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. He played in a garden called strawberry field as a child, and grew up to sketch out a song out of those memories.
He would take a trip down the world of abstraction while riding high on LSD and pen down ‘I am the Walrus’ on the way. Even after 33 years of its release, the actual meaning of the song is still debated.
On a holiday in 1965 with his wife, his extra-marital affairs inspired him to write ‘Norwegian Wood’ — one of the first Western songs to feature the sitar — thanks to Beatles’ association with Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Twenty-two years later, the song would become the title of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s bestselling fiction.
The philosophical ‘Nowhere Man’ was released in 1966 as a single. It was one of the first songs by the band which was entirely unrelated to love. Lennon later claimed that he wrote the song about himself.
‘I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down,’ Lennon told Playboy.
The man sporting that middle-parted shoulder length hair, trademark glasses and beaky nose also gave India a poster boy. He is proudly imprinted on t-shirts, bags and sold as an exponent of peace. Though he never defined himself as a socialist, communist or capitalist, his ability to be affected by world events has branded him a socialist.
He is affectionately remembered for condemning the Vietnam war, for bluntly using the Beatles popularity for advertising peace. He even sold his honeymoon and called the world media to a Paris hotel room where he and wife Yoko Ono staged a bed-in, a non-violent way of protesting war. Sitting on bed, they talked peace – much to the disappointment of the media which had expected a lot more action after the couple’s nude appearance on an album’s cover.
His musical connections apart, many also remember him for his spiritual connections with India, his – and the band’s – much-publicised visit to Rishikesh and the founder of transcendental meditation Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an association which he would later call ‘an error in judgement’ and a ‘public mistake’.
The Beatles legacy continues in more ways than one. It recreates the magic everytime an anguished teenager plays ‘Help’ to deal with the emotional pain of growing up. Every time a guitar weeps, every time someone promises to love eight days a week, there is a Beatles moment in it.
(Mohita Nagpal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)