Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Sat on a Dark Bench Like Bookends...

The 35th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon has just passed. 

Thinking about this, it struck me that Lennon has been dead for more than twice as long as he was alive and world-famous. Thus, while the Beatles were an almost an immediate smash in their native Britain in 1963, Beatlemania really became a global thing the next year. 

Lennon was shot down outside his New York City apartment in 1980, about sixteen years after that. 

Years ago, reflecting on the murder of another major public figure, I had the idea that the 1960s’ counterculture in America was a `chaotic’ side-effect of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. 

Kennedy image: (c) All About History
Lennon image: (c) Sachs Media Group

It could be just coincidence that something recognizable as the counterculture began to emerge in ’64, less than a year after the killing of the President in Dallas. 

It is entirely coincidental that the Beatles’ second album was released in the U.K. on the very day that Kennedy was killed. It is more than coincidental though, that the group was received with such hysteric joy when landing in the U.S. (at New York’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy airport) less than three months following the President’s slaying, in February 1964. 

They probably would have been very successful anyway, but many have commented as to how the appearance of these four young, cheery, cheeky and charming lads from England, served to lift the spirits of Americans mere weeks after their (relatively) young President was so publicly and brutally struck down by assassin’s bullets. 

The Kennedy assassination, meanwhile, was what caused so many young Americans to turn away from mainstream politics and culture as a whole, toward hippiedom on the one hand, and New-Left radicalism on the other. 

It was, as I indicated, a situation of non-linear dynamics. 

That is, the youth of America did not wake up on Nov. 23, 1963, and suddenly decide to become hippies or radicals (or both). 

But Marshall McLuhan described in his 1964 book Understanding Media, the electric circuitry that made television possible, as an “extended nervous system.” In order to overcome this shock to the collective system, as precipitated by the live coverage of the Kennedy assassination, I think many young Americans essentially rejected their own culture, or at least the mainstream part of it. 

Certainly, the counterculture didn’t arrive willy-nilly. But in the years after 1964, many youth in the U.S. (never even close to a majority, but still a significant number anyhow) felt more and more compelled to create their own culture, especially as it appeared that Kennedy’s death had delivered the political system into the hands of the crude (Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson), the crazy (the ultra-conservative Republican challenger to Johnson in ’64, Barry Goldwater) or the criminal (Richard Nixon, who had run for the Presidency against John Kennedy in 1960). 

It is no wonder then, the conspiracy theories about the President’s assassination first gained credence within the counterculture. 

The site of the Kennedy assassination: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, TX.
Photo: RB Glennie

The Beatles were, of course, heroes to the counterculture, no matter their fabulous wealth and mainstream success. They were avant-garde already upon their arrival in 1964, sporting hair quite long according to the prevailing male fashion, and playing brash and noisy music that was abhorrent to much of the older generation (regardless of political orientation: leftist folkies hated them as much as conservative choirmasters). 

Throughout their career, the Beatles remained in the vanguard as to music-style and hair-length, as well. Their records seemed to anticipate and popularize countercultural themes of love, sex and, drugs, as well. They had many peers in the British Invasion (and ultimately, coming from the U.S. as well), but the reason the latter played rock music and not blues, folk, country or jazz, was due to the success of the “Fab Four.” 

Having lost one charismatic, youthful political leader, many young and educated Americans turned toward cultural leaders for inspiration – and of all the Beatles, John Lennon was the most charismatic and political. 

It is a simplistic analysis, I understand. 

And I'm going to follow through on this simplicity by asserting that the murder of John Lennon, about seventeen years after the Kennedy assassination, was what brought a decisive end to the counterculture. 

Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, said as much when he asserted in police interviews (aired on a documentary in the 1990s) that the murder “was the last nail of the coffin of the 1960s.” 

Site of the murder of John Lennon: Dakota apartments, NYC.
Photo: RB Glennie.

The most conspicuous aspects of the counterculture died out in about 1971, I think. They were partially absorbed into the mainstream culture, however, which during the ‘70s adopted not only the long hair and floral fashions characteristic of the hippies. 

More favourable (or at least laissez-faire) attitudes toward recreational drug use, premarital and gay sex, as well as race-mixing in friendship and marriage, came to prevail amongst many of the bourgeoisie (the working classes remained mostly unconvinced). 

It was a coincidence that Lennon was killed just a month after the election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Presidency, the Republican who “said with a smile what Goldwater said with a sneer.” 

As California Governor during the 1960s, Reagan had bumped up against the counterculture in its American homeland. His Presidency marked the rejection by much of the mainstream of countercultural styles and values. 

Thus, men cut their hair short and doffed the flares and flowers for the “Preppie” styles more reminiscent of the years immediately before 1964, while women’s dress became more conservative, as well. The First Lady, Nancy Reagan, pursued a successful campaign to “Just Say No” even to soft drugs, while militarism became cool again. 

The charisma of the two former film-actors who headed the First Family, was instrumental in this. 

But I would argue that the murder of John Lennon in 1980 was the shock to the extended nervous system, that made conservative Reaganism all the more powerful than it would have been without it. 

President Reagan drafts Mr. Roper to teach those punks a lesson.

It occurred, crucially, just as the age cohort that established the counterculture, were finally leaving their youth behind, starting families, getting serious about careers, buying homes – the very things that, in and of themselves, encourage more conservative attitudes. 

The death of their beloved cultural hero by gun violence, must have hardened the worldview of the Sixties Generation all the more, at this decisive point in their lives. 

John Lennon was not a political leader, after all, whatever his outspoken views on various subjects. The motive for his shooting was, thus, nonsensical. And indeed, it emerged right away that Chapman was a huge Beatle fan – the last photograph of Lennon while alive has him signing an autograph on Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy, just hours before Chapman gunned the musician down. 

Whatever his personal foibles, Lennon’s most significant contribution to the culture was to give millions of people joy, including, it appeared, the man who killed him. It was indeed entirely senseless, yet it happened anyway. 

It seemed to mock the very humanitarian ideals of the counterculture – something accepted if only implicitly, half-consciously, embarrassedly even. 

It was as though veterans of the counterculture, after the murder of John Lennon, retreated from the culture wars, shocked, dispirited, disheartened, too busy and tired to fight any more, leaving the field to the Reaganites for a decade or so. I concede again, that I have simplified things for narrative purposes. 

Yet, there is almost literary parallels between Kennedy and Lennon, whatever the different lives they lived. They shared the same first name (which was, however, a very common one in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century). 

The President was a generation older than the Beatle – born in 1917, Kennedy was a year younger than Lennon’s father, Alf. 

But they were both of Irish Catholic background: Kennedy’s religious ethnicity is well known, but relatively few people are aware that Lennon’s grandfather (apparently named “McLennon”) came from Dublin sometime in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  
To paraphrase Paul McCartney in A Hard Day’s Night, Kennedy’s ancestors went west and he became a Boston Brahmin, while Lennon’s went east, and he became an Angry Young Man from Liverpool. 

Pursuing very different careers, both the Beatle and the President became world famous; indeed, it is difficult to know just which one has greater celebrity, or who is admired the more so not only by Americans, but people around the world. 

And, of course, they were both murdered while right beside their wives.

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