Today marks 30 years since John Lennon was shot and killed. I remember hearing the news as an eight-year-old kid back in 1980. More vividly, though, I remember six and a half years later, when my family, while on a vacation to San Francisco, went to a wax museum that included a figure of Lennon. In a response that I didn't realize I would see, my mom cried when she saw the wax figure of Lennon, and she said, "I can't believe he's dead."
I suppose I didn't realize my mom would respond like this for two reasons. First, I didn't realize how much my mom identified with Lennon and the Beatles. Growing up, I heard the Beatles a lot at home. My parents had a number of their albums. I loved the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band film made with Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. We sang things like "Yellow Submarine" in my family often. My dad had a Beatles songbook from which he would play songs on his guitar. I associated much of this with my dad, though. Rock music was much more of my dad's thing, and so I hadn't realized that John Lennon might be so important to my mom as well.
Second, I didn't realize how significant Lennon was in general. I certainly knew that it had been big news when he was shot, and I certainly knew that the Beatles were typically considered the biggest pop music act ever. I didn't, though, realize how deep of a connection many people like my mom felt to Lennon and the Beatles until I saw my mom tearfully mourning Lennon six and a half years after he died.
Today, as I read stories and see headlines commemorating John Lennon on the 30th anniversary of his death, I'm brought back time and again to that image of my mom in the wax museum. I imagine my mom's death earlier this year plays a part in this. I also believe, though, that that memory would not have stayed with me for more than two decades had it not been something I associated with John Lennon and his death anyway. It's something I've thought of in connection with Lennon since it happened.
Though I was alive for eight years at the same time as Lennon, just as I was not fully aware of his significance then, I also was not aware of the many things outside of music that Lennon did, particularly the many political and social movements with which he aligned himself. I would learn that stuff very soon after the experience in the wax museum. It was, after all, that very summer that my interest in pop music blossomed, as I began following the pop charts diligently. By the next summer I was practicing on a bass guitar, reading and collecting books on popular music, and even occasionally buying Billboard magazine. I was quickly learning much more about not just Lennon and the Beatles, but also Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and so on, discovering more and more about both their musical contributions and their social and political significance. While I would eventually give up the dream of becoming a pop star (well, maybe not entirely ...), this interest became foundational for what would become my career studying and teaching about popular culture. My involvement with Tunesmate, built out of the bonding that my college roommate, who founded the site, and I developed through a mutual interest in pop music, is a clear manifestation of this (and, of note, I've posted about Lennon there today as well). I am, at least in part, who I am today because of the influence of Lennon and the Beatles, among many other music and popular culture artists, just as I am who I am today because of my mom, my dad, teachers, nuns and priests, relatives, and other specific individuals who have influenced my life and my interests.
And I think a continuing effort to become more aware through self-reflection has helped me understand these influences and interests much more fully. That self-reflective awareness rests at the heart of my understanding of knowledge and education. It also rests at the heart of my understanding of democracy. I think we grow closer to a vibrant, functioning democracy the more we willingly examine ourselves; seek out nuanced and complex understandings of things; admit the limitations of our own "faiths," "truths," and "knowledge"; and emphasize more what we don't know rather than what we think we do. My mom's reaction to the John Lennon figure allowed me to do some of that reflection. Remembering that experience today while reading and thinking about John Lennon is allowing me to do even more.
And that seems to be consistent with what John Lennon stood for. While I tend to hear about "Imagine" most in discussions of favorite songs by the Beatles and/or John Lennon, my favorite Beatles song is "Strawberry Fields Forever." One of the lines says, "Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. It's gets hard to be someone, but it all works out. It doesn't matter much to me." I've always read the line as a critique of that kind of living, as if we are not supposed to live with eyes closed, misunderstanding everyone and everything else. My sense is that Lennon stands for quite the opposite of that kind of life. His was a life of seeking awareness, understanding, hope, and acceptance, not blindess, misunderstanding, and the oppressions toward which these can lead. And it's by keeping that in mind, in conjunction with my memory of my mom in the wax museum, that I choose to remember John Lennon today.