(The assassination of John Lennon, 8 December 1980)
There are few modern songs to rival it, and very few to achieve its anthemic quality. In just the first 24 words, written on a hotel bill and then harmonised on an all-white piano in an all-white room, John Lennon has already made it possible to imagine that religion is a principal cause of the world’s pain. Was he right?
The resonance of the words of ‘Imagine’ stand comparison with the Sermon on the Mount, with no contest as to which could be recited from memory by more people. The song asks us to imagine no heaven, no hell, no countries, no religion and no possessions, with the dreamt-for result that everyone lives in peace, for today and as one.
Yet Lennon ushered the song into the world as a fantasy, not a creed. No possessions was not meant to suggest that he or Yoko Ono would give up any of their five apartments in the Dakota building in New York. Consider the word ‘sincerity’ when Ray Coleman writes in his biography of Lennon (p 580):
‘Such was the intrinsic beauty of the song and the sincerity with which Lennon sang it that it will stand forever as an international anthem. All Lennon was asking was that we should imagine a world without possessions or religion.’
Coleman means us to understand by ‘sincerity’ something beautiful – the unforcedness of a beautiful dream – but something quite different from the sincerity (or otherwise) of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Jesus Christ. The Sermon on the Mount did not say imaginehow nice it would be if peacemakers were blessed. Indeed preserving a roguishness, a lack of seriousness, was important to Lennon:
‘So I refuse to lead, and I’ll always show my genitals or something which prevents me from being Martin Luther King or Gandhi, and getting killed’ (quoted by Jack Jones in ‘Let Me Take You Down’, p 261).
It did not work. Sometime after 5 pm on 8 December 1980 on the pavement of West 72nd Street outside the Dakota building, beneath dim incandescent street lamps and the all-white room where ‘Imagine’ was born, a fan who had travelled from Hawaii to kill Lennon got his hero’s autograph on the new Double Fantasy album. ‘Is that all you want?’ Lennon asked. Unfortunately it was not. At 10.50 pm that evening, clutching the album and a copy of J D Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, Mark Chapman shot Lennon in the back five times and killed him. Chapman then waited to be caught.
The psychiatric determination on Chapman was that he was fit to stand trial. Jack Jones’ book traced Chapman’s story with care.
The web of connection between Chapman and Lennon has many strands – including religion, drugs (the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ introduced Chapman to them) and the plot of Salinger’s book. But the thickest strand was rage at betrayal: betrayal of a faith that Chapman had invested in Lennon, notwithstanding Lennon’s perception of his own trade as fantasy, not faith. Chapman recalls finding a book on Lennon in the Honolulu public library (Jones, pp 219-220):
‘I remember thinking that there was a successful man who had the world on a chain. And there I was not even a link of that chain. Just a person who had no personality. A walking void who had given a great deal of my time and thoughts and energy into what John Lennon had said and had sung about and had done – and had told all of us to do – in the sixties and early seventies, when I was growing up, when I was first trying to make sense out of a world that was so painful and hurtful and sad.
‘I checked out the book and brought it home to my wife and pointed out the pictures to her, pictures of him smiling on the roof of the sumptuous Dakota building: the decadent bastard, the phony bastard, who had lied to children, who had used his music to mislead a generation of people who desperately needed to believe in love and a world at war that desperately needed to believe in peace.
‘He told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of our lives around his music.’
Lennon said ‘Imagine’, and Chapman did – he dreamt the dream. The dream of the song is a universal dream, found even within religion – for example in Revelation 21, where the Christian vision of the new Jerusalem is of a city beyond possessions and national strife and without a temple, for religion will have passed away.
The ending of religion and the abolition of violence are both holy dreams. But we will sail to neither place on the sea of fantasy.
Lord Jesus Christ
You spent your time with visionaries and criminals alike.
Like visionaries and criminals we try in our own ways
to make sense of a world which can be so painful and hurtful and sad.
Heal us and forgive us, especially when the world makes no sense.
Into that world make us channels of your grace.
Give us, not the dream of peace, but the reality of forgiveness;
Not fantasy, but commitment to others;
Not imagination, but hope.
In your name we ask.
The lyrics of ‘Imagine’ can be found at many websites, for example here.