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The day John Lennon was assassinated, the world stood still. As one journalist remembered:
The news arrived like fragment of some forgotten ritual. First a flash on television, interrupting the tail end of a football game. Then the telephones ringing, back and forth across the city, and then another bulletin, with more details, and then more phone calls from around the country, from friends, from kids with stunned voices, and then the dials being flipped from channel to channel while WINS played on the radio. And yes: It was true. Yes: Somebody had murdered John Lennon. (Source)
It made no sense, seemed like a cruel trick. This was the guy who sang "Give Peace a Chance," shot down in cold blood. As the reporter continued:
Except... this time there was a difference. Somebody murdered John Lennon. Not a politician. Not a man whose abstract ideas could send people to wars, or bring them home; not someone who could marshal millions of human beings in the name of justice; not some actor on the stage of history. This time, someone had crawled out of a dark place, lifted a gun, and killed an artist. This was something new. The ritual was the same, the liturgy as stale as ever, but the object of attack was a man who had made art. This time the ruined body belonged to someone who had made us laugh, who had taught young people how to feel, who had helped change and shape an entire generation, from inside out. This time someone had murdered a song. (Source)
Of all the songs that were murdered along with John Lennon, none was more relevant at this moment than his anthem that changed the world, "Imagine."
Ask just about anyone, from any country around the world, if they have heard "Imagine," and the answer is probably "yes." Considered the international peace ballad, "Imagine" transcends age, culture, religion, race, and everything else that keeps people apart, asking instead for "a brotherhood of man." So, how did John Lennon go from being one of four famous Beatles to become a solo artist and crusader for peace? To start, we need to look at the three-year period between 1968 and 1971 that changed everything.
By the time Lennon sat down to write "Imagine" in 1971, he'd been with Yoko Ono—his last wife and greatest muse—for a few years, had mentally moved beyond Paul, Ringo, and George, and was trying to enter a new era of his life. According to his biographer, he said of the transition:
When I met Yoko [it was like] when you meet your first woman and you leave the guys at the bar and you don't go play football any more, and you don't go play snooker and billiards. Once I found the woman, the boys became of no interest whatever other than that they were old friends… That was it. That old gang of mine was over the moment I met her. As soon as I met her, that was the end of the boys. But it so happened the boys were well known and weren't just the local guys at the bar. (Source)
Over the next few years, John and the rest of the Beatles endured some of the most profound changes of their careers and lives. However, the part of John's life most crucial to the genesis of "Imagine" was the peace crusade that he and Yoko embarked upon during and after the breakup of the band.
After John and Yoko's deliberately small and secret wedding in Gibraltar, the news leaked to the press and everyone was dying to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds. Instead of going into hiding, the couple did something unexpected. They invited the media into their bedroom at the Hilton in Amsterdam to see the newlyweds on their honeymoon. In a famous 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John describes the "bed-in," saying:
They all came charging through the door, thinking we were going to be screwing in bed. Of course, we were just sitting there with peace signs. Our life is our art. That's what the bed-ins were. When we got married, we knew our honeymoon was going to be public, anyway, so we decided to use it to make a statement. We sat in bed and talked to reporters for seven days. It was hilarious. In effect, we were doing a commercial for peace on the front page of the papers instead of a commercial for war. (Source)
The series of "bed-ins" (the most famous of which lasted for seven days at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in 1969) were then followed by "bag-ins," in which John and Yoko conducted interviews from inside of large bags. Once again, reporters thought they were having sex, but it wasn't the case:
It was like a hotel press conference. We kept [the media] out of the room. We came down the elevator in the bag and we went in and we got comfortable and they were all ushered in… And we wouldn't let 'em see us. They all stood back saying, "Is it really John and Yoko?" and "What are you wearing and why are you doing this?" We said, "this is total communications with no prejudice… We're showing how all of us are exposed and under pressure in the contemporary world." (Source)
Along with beds and bags, the couple also sent pairs of acorns to as many world leaders as possible with the instructions to plant them for peace. When anti-Vietnam War riots erupted at UC Berkeley in California, John sent the students a message from Canada saying, "Sing Hare Krishna or something, but don't move around if it aggravates the pigs. Don't get hassled by the cops and don't play their games." (Source)
Around this time, he also summed up his and Yoko's mission in a simple sentence that became their first peace anthem as well as later being transformed into John's first official solo effort: "All we are saying, is give peace a chance."
The song was released by the Plastic Ono Band, John and Yoko's conceptual group. The band featured robots (sound equipment), as well as a rotating lineup of backing musicians including Klaus Voorman, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, and others. The summer of 1969 culminated in Woodstock, the concert that will go down in history as one of the largest peaceful gatherings in rock and roll history.
Soon afterwards, the Plastic Ono Band's performance at the Toronto rock and roll revival concert was released as an album, Live Peace in Toronto, grabbing headlines worldwide. The couple's culminating act of the year was just before Christmas, when they bought out enormous billboard spaces in several major cities around the world including New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Berlin, and Tokyo. On December 16th, 1969, those billboards across the globe lit up with a simple message in huge letters:
WAR IS OVER!
IF YOU WANT IT
Happy Christmas from John and Yoko
During this time period, Lennon and Ono also became involved in a new psychological method developed by Arthur Janov. It was called "primal scream therapy" and proved more effective and curative to John than his years spent fruitlessly trying to fill a void with religion, sex, drugs, and fame.
Janov's assertion was that all adult neuroses were the result of childhood traumas. Primal scream therapy consisted of an intensive, invasive, and painful stripping away of past issues and getting his patients to let out their anger, rage, guilt, and sorrow as if they were infants, usually through crying. John and Yoko immediately signed up for treatment and flew Janov to London to begin sessions.
As Janov later recalled, "the level of his pain was enormous…as much as I've ever seen. He was almost completely nonfunctional. He couldn't leave the house, he could hardly leave his room. He had no defenses, he was decompensating, he was just one big ball of pain. This was someone the whole world adored, and it didn't change a thing. At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid." (Source)
After a few months of sessions, working through all his issues—from his mother giving him up, to his father leaving the family at a young age, to his slightly Oedipal complexes about his mother, to his possible sexual affair with his gay manager (Brian Epstein), to his track record of cheating on women, to his dabbling in drugs (LSD, cocaine, and heroin), to his realization that God is just a "concept by which we measure our pain"—Lennon decided that primal scream was the answer he'd been searching for. Along with Yoko, of course.
Together, those two elements were working to cure his suffering. He and Yoko even moved to Los Angeles to continue the therapy. Unfortunately, the Immigration and Nationalization services in America had other plans for Lennon and tried to have him deported long before he was done with his sessions. Janov feared that the therapy ended prematurely, saying, "We had opened him up, but we hadn't had time to put him back together again. A lot more work needed to be done to get right down to the root of his anger."
After his therapy was cut short, Lennon turned to the only other effective consolation he knew: songwriting. Soon after moving back to London, he produced one of the most raw, bitter, vulnerable, emotional, and rage-filled albums to ever come out of pop music. It was John Lennon's first solo album, titled John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band recorded late in 1970 at the famous Abbey Road studios.
The album is basically a blueprint of his sessions with Janov and explores all of his complex neurological issues and lingering hurt. After working through his pain in that album, the stage was set for what was to become one of Lennon's lasting solo successes, the Imagine album and film of the same name, made in 1971. As Philip Norman states of John's state of mind at the recording of this next album, "he seemed happy and relaxed and, like everyone emerging from therapy, anxious to make public what a mess he used to be" (source).
Imagine was certainly a mashup of very different emotions. One track, "How Do You Sleep?" was a vitriolic rant-response to a much more subtle insult that Paul had made in one of his own solo songs post-breakup. In "Too Many People," Paul sang, "That was your first mistake / You took your lucky break and broke it in two." That might seem pretty mild, but Lennon couldn't handle the perceived putdown and gave McCartney the single greatest dose of verbal abuse he's probably ever received, what Norman called "a nuclear missile answering a pinprick."
Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,
The one mistake you made was in your head,
How do you sleep?
Ah how do you sleep at night?
However, as Norman continues, "it is part of the unending paradox of John that he could indulge in such puerile yah-boo stuff at one moment and at the next create the song regarded ever afterward as his solo masterpiece."
Partially inspired by Yoko Ono's "Instructional Poems," a series of simple verb-driven verses intended to inspire her readers with things like "bleed," "paint until you drop dead," "give birth to a child," "dance in pitch dark," etc. "Imagine" was the dénouement that followed Lennon's build-up of suffering, his climactic first solo album, and finally a cathartic release. The man who had been campaigning for the end of violence for years had finally found some peace within himself and wanted to spread the message everywhere.
"Imagine" succeeds partly due to its pure simplicity. Certainly no "Norweigan Wood" or "I Am the Walrus," "Imagine" instead speaks directly to the humanity within each of us. It is a plea for justice, morality, and brotherhood with our fellow human beings.
"With 'Imagine,'" Lennon explained in a 1980 interview:
We're saying, "Can you Imagine a world without countries or religions?" It's the same message over and over. And it's positive. It's very sad. Anyway, we're not saying anything new. A, we have already said it and, B, 100,000,000 other people have said it, too. All we are saying is, "This is what is happening to us." We are sending postcards. I don't let it become "I am the awakened; you are sheep that will be shown the way." That is the danger of saying anything, you know. (Source)
It's a basic message, asking for freedom from hunger, religion, and suffering, and perhaps it comes off as a little too sugary-sweet. However, there is no denying how that song makes you feel when you hear it. As it turns out, its lyrical plainness is perhaps its most powerful asset. As Norman puts it:
"Imagine" would touch millions while he was alive, and billions after he had gone, with its wistful passion and optimism and utter lack of pretension, conceit, or preachiness. As, equally, would the film clip of John performing it at his white grand piano—the burbling chords, his star-spangled seventies jacket and yellow-tinted glasses, those thin lips carefully shaping "Imagine all the pee-pul" while Yoko draws back one after another set of floor-length curtains and the room slowly floods with daylight. As the song ends, she sits beside him, they exchange a quizzical smile and, in the last moment, a bashful little kiss. Rock has never been more powerful, simple, or sad.
Just take a look at the Imagine Tower in Iceland or the John Lennon Wall in Prague to see the lasting impact this song has had worldwide and across generations. It is gorgeous, profound, and transcendent, and will remain many people's fondest memory of John Lennon.
In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, though not speaking directly about "Imagine," Lennon foreshadows the enormous success of the song when asked to explain why he thinks rock n' roll means so much to people:
Because the best stuff is primitive enough and has no bull---t. It gets through to you, it's beat, go to the jungle and they have the rhythm. It goes throughout the world and it's as simple as that, you get the rhythm going because everybody goes into it… It gets through; it got through to me, the only thing to get through to me of all the things that were happening when I was 15. Rock and roll then was real, everything else was unreal. The thing about rock and roll, good rock and roll—whatever good means and all that s--t—is that it's real and realism gets through to you despite yourself. You recognize something in it which is true, like all true art. Whatever art is, readers. OK. If it's real, it's simple usually, and if it's simple, it's true. Something like that.