How well I remember that horrible cold morning in early December 1980 when I turned on the radio to hear that John Lennon had been shot the night before.
Lennon was my hero. His musical contributions to the Beatles were among my favorites. Whether he was commenting on the apathy of the masses (“Day in the life”), the latest religious cult (“Sexy Sadie”), the proliferation of guns (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”) or the counterculture (“Revolution”), Lennon spoke to my own dissatisfaction with the status quo or the “establishment,” as we called it back then.
I didn’t like the Beatles when I first saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. They were too teeny bopper-ish. There was little depth to their lyrics. I was a hard-core Bob Dylan fan. I wanted something more than “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Where was the poetry and social commentary of “Blowing in the Wind,” or “Desolation Row?”
Two years later, I gained an entirely different view of the Fab Four. During an interview with “Datebook,” a teen magazine, John Lennon boasted that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” He also wondered which would go first--rock’n’roll or Christianity. In England, his words had little impact.
In America, land of looney Christian fundamentalists, they exploded like an atomic bomb. Overnight, “wholesome” teens were destroying Beatle products, including albums. Christian ministers were calling on the young to boycott their concerts. The KKK burned Beatles paraphernalia in huge bonfires.
I suddenly fell in love with John Lennon, then the Beatles as they plunged into new musical depths with “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” and finally the rock masterpiece of all time, “Sgt. Pepper.”
Now, 42 years after Lennon’s Jesus comment, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has decided to forgive him for his alleged blasphemy. The paper, which is a mouthpiece for the Catholic rock star known as the pope, now believes that Lennon’s remarks were merely “showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success.”
Lennon doesn’t need to be forgiven.
He was a man of peace. His work to end the war in Vietnam, his passionate political activism and his outspokenness on social injustice and sexism all point to a man who tried to leave the world a better place than he found it. Those who grew up in my generation are all a little better off for his efforts and his songs.
Especially his atheist compositions, “Imagine,” and “God.” I’m sure L’Osservatore Romano is not thinking of them when it lauds what it calls the Beatles “unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words.”
As Lennon might have said: Christianity will one day fade away, but rock’n’roll is here to stay.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published next year by City Lights Books. His website: www.avicollimecca.com