Friday, December 09, 2005

Like the Moon, the Stars and the Sun

Certain days are frozen in time. November 22, 1963. April 4, 1968. June 6, 1968. Once every year, the shadow of Now falls on these special dates. Reflexively, those of us who experienced them are transported back to these moments in history. We relive and reflect on them and on how the events linked to these dates changed the world we live in today. December 8, 1980 is one of those days.

For music fans age 30 and over, December 8, 1980 is a no-brainer. I don’t even have to mention the name of the gifted musician whose life was stolen from him on that date. I refuse to mention the name of the soulless, cowardly thief who took it. There’s no sense in giving that rat-bastard any more attention than he’s already had. One senseless act by one lunatic left a hole in our culture that will never be filled.

Of course, tragic occasions such as this one should be commemorated. The rare individuals who died on the above-listed dates deserve to be remembered. How else will we, collectively, learn from these horrible events if we don’t make time to reflect on them? In doing so, generations who were either too young or unborn when these events occurred will learn from them, as well. At least, you hope so.

So it goes, year after year. In the early part of December, you can set your watch by the fact that at least one national magazine or newspaper will run a story on John Lennon. Inevitably, they will ask one question. Is Lennon’s influence still felt today? Until recently, the answer was just as inevitable: yes, of course. The answer would usually be followed by a list of testimonials by fans or notable musicians confirming it. The list, most likely, would be designed to appeal to Lennon’s fan base—the typical rock demographic of Boomers and Gen-Xer’s who would recognize their generational reflections there. The implied messages were clear. Hey man, it told the Boomers, Lennon was yours and if he’s still fab, you are too! Hey dude, it told the Xer’s, Lennon’s the Shit and if you ‘get’ him, you’re the Shit too! Those of us in the demographic would smile as we turned the page, knowing that Beatle John’s legacy would survive.

Anyone recently watching those marmalade skies, however, may have noticed some gray clouds gathering. The Yoko Ono-authorized Lennon, a 2005 “musical biography” that contained many of the rocker’s solo standards, as well as two previously unreleased songs, tanked on Broadway after a handful of performances. Most of the reviews I read of John, the memoir recently published by the ex-Beatle’s first wife, Cynthia, emitted a distinct “here we go again” odor. Then there’s Rolling Stone. The December 15th edition of this magazine, which featured Lennon on the cover of its first issue, includes “Lennon Lives Forever”. This by-the-numbers remembrance, penned by Mikal Gilmore, smells exactly like Cynthia Lennon’s book. What is going on?

It’s only the changing of the Guard. I didn’t recognize this until I read Gilmore’s article. It’s a Lennon primer. Every aspect of the oft-told tale is recycled yet again: his motherless boyhood, the Beatles, Yoko, his peace activist years, his “Lost Weekend” and house husband periods and his assassination. Surely, an artist of Lennon’s stature is entitled to a grade-A effort. Why did Gilmore, a skilled journalist, aim so low and slant it so basically? The answer lies in the “what’s” accompanying each “who” dropped into the text. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman are identified as “radical activists”. Harry Nilsson, Gilmore explains, was a “favorite songwriter of Lennon’s”. Did you know that Keith Moon, the drummer for some band called the Who, died of a drug overdose in 1978? Back in the 1970’s, Gilmore reveals that Lennon’s favorite TV program was The Tonight Show, which was then hosted by someone named “Johnny Carson”. Does Mikal Gilmore think we’ve all gone senile? No, aging hippies and grungies—he’s simply filling in the blanks for (and perhaps preaching the Gospel to) the rock demographic, Rolling Stone’s target audience. That’s right, we’re no longer it. The rock demographic, circa 2005, knows as much about John Lennon as it does about Millard Fillmore. And apparently, on its scale of hipness, the Bard of Liverpool and America’s Thirteenth President are tied, as well.

It’s an unavoidable process. Each generation’s idols and “Where were you when. . .?” moments eventually fade into history. Today’s icons will become tomorrow’s homework, which some kid will get stuck memorizing for an end-of-the-chapter history test. “The imagery used by musician John Lennon in his song, ‘I Am the Walrus’, is an example of this literary movement: A.) Naturalism. B.) Surrealism. C.) Acidism. D.) Transcendentalism.” This will happen. “No,” you argue, “their parents will teach them, play them the music, keep the flames burning!” Maybe. But how closely did you listen when your parents raved about Rosemary Clooney or the Hi-Lo’s? Me, neither and there you have it. In spite of your, my, Gilmore’s or anyone’s best efforts, this will happen. It is happening, because it has to.

As obvious as this process is, it’s a difficult one to accept. Each generation, and its accompanying folklore, must at some point give way to the next one. That’s not to say that we automatically become fossils on our 26th birthday. I don’t, after all, work on Madison Avenue. But popular culture is a library that has only so much space on its “shelves” at one time. New “books” keep arriving every year and they are the top priority. When the shelves fill up, the older titles are gradually weeded out and moved to the back stacks, thus creating space for the fresh arrivals in front. Some of us dog-eared copies take offense at this. Readers almost always turn to the newest titles first. No book wants to languish unread, but what are you going to do? Father Time is the strictest librarian of all. Sass him and he’ll dump you on the “Withdrawn” table, where you’ll be sold, for 50 cents, to a drooler with sweaty palms.

This process must be especially challenging to the Baby Boomers. I pity the fool who’s assigned the task of moving them to the back stacks. Most members of this group, who once cautioned themselves against trusting anyone over 30, are now within spitting distance of 60. Still, evidence suggests that they will not go gentle into that good night. They, in their minds if nowhere else, remain evergreen. Woe unto any and all naysayers who’d suggest otherwise. Jay-Z graces the cover of the December 15th Rolling Stone and an overview of hip-hop is its main story. Mikal Gilmore’s Lennon tribute appears on page 57. That’s how it should be. Jay-Z is an icon of youth culture. Ten or twenty years ago, though, Beatle John would’ve been the lead article. If I wasn’t broke, I’d bet that R.S. editor Jann Wenner will soon find himself ass-deep in caustic Christmas cards, and every one will accuse him of “selling out”.

Boomers, please save your stamps. While you might struggle with this hard truth, your late contemporary, John Lennon, did not. Lennon made these remarks in a Playboy interview conducted shortly before his death: “I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean. . .No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.” I think it’s fair to say that Lennon didn’t just recognize this process, he embraced it as a part of life.

The back stacks might not be so bad. That’s where the eclectic readers hang out, the ones who hunger for more substantial fare than soup du jour. Back there, a quieter, equally unavoidable process happens. On a rainy afternoon, decades from now, it will happen. A twenty-something will wander through those stacks. She will stumble across a copy of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. An adventurous sort, she’ll give the album a casual listen. The contrast between its muted cover art and its raw, confessional music will shock her—pleasantly. “What,” she’ll ask with a wide smile, “was this guy about?” When the album ends, she’ll play it again and focus on its lyrics, which will sound like letters from an old friend. And light from a long-gone star, reflected off of eyes of the future, will shine on.


Blogger Doggie Extraordinaire's Mom said...

That was really beautiful, poignant, moving.

Nicely done!

1:00 AM  
Blogger Le chameau insatiable said...

Oh i didn't read this one on my last visit, what a mistake. It's so well written. I don't even care about Lennon (even though I have the right age...) but I love that post. Thanks !!

8:05 PM  
Blogger Le chameau insatiable said...

where are you ? a mont, i'm worried...

4:27 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home