It was december 8 1980 and i was a ten year old watching monday night football with my father when late in the fourth quarter Howard Cosell broke the news that Icon John Lennon had been shot to death outside his new york city apartment building. i watched my parents react to the news with a horror i had rarely seen. as a child i watched the Beatles cartoons on channel 44 sunday mornings (long before Nickelodeon) my parents had Beatler records that my brother and i would play on the stereo. we would pretend to be musicians and sing ” A Hard Days Night” at the top of our lungs only to be told to be quiet by our mother. i knew who John Lennon was and i understood death a little bit, but what i did not know on that evening that my life was changing forever.
As i grew older and i developed musical tastes, The Beatles and John Lennon were a focal point of my development as a person. its has been said that the music we love and identify tends to assist in molding our identities and the music that we often cling to speaks to us in ways that often times an artist never even intends. The music that i was hearing at such a young age has been carried with me to this day and i find even deeper meanings in songs that i didnt understand when i was that 10 year old boy the Lennon died.
John Lennon had just released a comeback record shortly before his death called Double Fantasy, it featured songs like ” just like starting over”, “Woman”, ” Watching the Wheels” they were the same type of great melodic rock songs that i had loved throughout his career. But now at age 43 those songs mean even more to me than ever. When he recorded the recorded he was celebrating his 40th birthday, it was the start of a brand new decade and he was embarking on a new journey because he had largely been out of the lime light since 1975. It was as if an old friend was back after being gone a while and then suddenly ripped away from us. My life has caught up to John Lennon and i am hearing songs in ways that i never even realized before. As i embark on life changes, career changes, struggling with raising a family, i embrace these songs in a much more intimate way than ever before. i have been listening to them for 30 years and its like a light bulb went off in my head, now i understand. One of the tracks on Double Fantasy that i didnt like before has become my favorite John Lennon song of all time. “Beautiful Boy” is a song that i sing to soothe my own son, when my son Bryan was born one month premature he spent almost 3 weeks in the NIC unit and i would only get to hold him for short periods of time, it was scary and i was dying inside. One day i was driving to the hospital for my 30 minutes to spend with my son and i heard this song, and when i sat in the nursery rocking chair and the nurse brought him to me with tubes in his nose i sat there and rocked this fussy little man and sang this song to him quietly “…the monsters gone he’s on the run and your daddy’s here” Bryan is six now and we still sing the song together now and we will always have that bond, and it only took me 27 years to get it.
So that is my tribute song to John, but im not a songwriter and many artists have written songs about him over the years in rememberence. it takes a certain kind of profound influence to inspire someone to write a song about something as personal as death and i have heard six songs in my lifetime that encapsulate John Lennon. three of which were made by close personal friends of his and one was done by a band that was inspired to be great because of him and two were songs of his that were finished by his band mates many years after the fact so we set forth to identify these great tribute songs and find out why they say so much about the man he was and legacy he left behind that is relevant as much today as it was on that cold december evening 33 years ago
the first song is “Here Today” a song written by friend and band mate Paul McCartney. it was released in 1981 on Paul’s album Tug of War which was produced by Beatle producer George Martin. it was a stark acoustic ballad in which Paul emotionally paid homage to his friend. There was a lot of controversy in 1980 right after the murder, when reporters crowded around McCartney in London to get his reaction to the news he was quoted as saying ” it was a real drag” that angered mourners, and was misunderstood as Paul and John were still at odds in the late 70’s over the dissolutuon of their Beatles song writing partnership. Later on Paul revealed that John’s passing affected him deeply and took him years to recover. McCartney still plays Here Today as part of his live shows to this day in tribute
Fellow Beatle George Harrison also penned a tribute song to John that became a top ten hit in 1981 called “all those years ago” off his Somewhere in England album. the song was more uptempo and upbeat than the mccartney song and it featured Paul on keyboards, bass and backing vocals, it also feature Ringo Starr on drums and backing vocals, it was the first and only time the surviving Beatles work together untill the Anthology project reunited them in 1996. the song sounds like it could have been taken from a Beatle session and featured some of George’s most personal lyrics to date.
A good friend of John Lennon’s throughout his crazy journey through the 1970’s was Elton John. they worked together, played together and drank brandy alexanders together throughout the decade. Elton John was the biggest rock star on the planet at the time and John’s career was a bit erratic due to his relationship with wife yoko ono and the constant specter of the Beatles hanging over his head, his creativity was very angry and aserbic and not terribly well recieved by the masses. He hadnt had a solo #1 hit when he was invited into an Elton John recording seesion to play guitar and do backing vocals on a cover of his Beatle classic” Lucy in the sky with Diamonds” Elton loved the experience and begged John to play a live show with him. Lennon resoundingly refused, but the two began working on a song that they co-wrote called Whatever gets you through the night” Elton guaranteed it would be a number one hit, John wasnt fond of it and did not agree so the wager was made that if the song went #1 John would have to play live with Elton when his tour rolled through Mdison Square Garden, the rest as they say is history. Elton took John’s passing very hard and penned one of the most touching songs of his career entitled “Empty Garden” a fitting tribute as only the Rocket Man himself could create.
in 1989 the irish rock quartet U2 release an album called Rattle and Hum and on this record Bono and the Edge penned a song called “GOD PT 2” which was a very angry and aggressive response to John Lennon’s song “GOD” in which they attack the an author who wrote an inflamatory book about John, while taking concepts from the song and bringing Lennon’s concepts into the here and now. U2 routinely covers John’s music in concert and Bono has led a lifestyle of activism based on many of the examples that John had left behind
in 1996 the Beatles came together to create the Anthology series, a full retrospective of the beatles career. but what made this project so unique was the fact that Yoko Ono gave Paul McCartney two unfinished unreleased songs that John had written shortly before his death. along with ELO front man and producer Jeff Lynne the surviving Beatles set out to do the impossible, create new Beatle music with John singing lead vocals. both songs “free as a bird” and “real love” both were #1 singles but were met by mixed reviews by critics and fans alike. some thought this should never had happened, some thought the production quality was poor, some called the songs sappy trash that Lennon would never had written (absolutely asinine). To me they represented the ultimate tribute to a man gone too soon, both songs were reflective and melancholy but maintained a very Beatle like quality answering what would they sound like if they reunited as best as they could with one member missing. those that shunned these songs missed the point, they were never meant to rival existing Beatle music but as a fitting tribute to their fallen brother making it feel as if John himself was actually physically participating in the Anthology project.
ive had a long journey myself since that cold december night as a ten year old to the man i am now, i remember John through his songs of course but i find that these tributes tell a tale of a man that was more than just a musician, icon, activist, legend they tell the story of a friend, a brother , a human being. there are very few celebrity deaths that transcend generations, JFK, MLK, Marilyn Monroe, deaths that are talked about, conspiracized about, and celebrated with anniversaries and moments of silence…we just lost Nelson Mandela he will most surely fall into that category, but i shared my moment of silence at noon on December 8th when my favorite rock station played “Imagine” i never knew the man but as i sat in that NIC unit cradling my very sick newborn and i sang” Beautiful boy” softly into his little ear, i am pretty sure John Lennon knew me>
- Today in history: John Lennon killed in NYC (pbs.org)
- Fans Share Wishes, Tributes For John Lennon 33 Years After Assassination (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- A Day to Celebrate Lennon: His Best Works, and Thoughts from Yoko (wnyc.org)
- John Lennon – Imagine! (netnewsledger.com)