This was going to be about the seventh anniversary of THE SUN, but it’s about John Lennon instead, and I don’t know that there’s much difference — he had so much to do with this magazine being what it is. I didn’t know him, that’s to say I never met him in person, but he stood at the crossroads where my life branched off in two directions, and one road led here.
In 1971, I was living in London, trying to write. Mostly, I stared out the window, unsure what to say and too concerned with how to say it. Two years of travel had changed me — I had hair down to my shoulders and a full beard, I’d lost some weight, it was easy to see I’d changed — but I had no language to describe the changes that mattered: I’d discovered foreign countries within myself, landscapes of breathtaking beauty and cities where I went a little mad. (Others had been here; it dawned on me that this is what the Sixties were about, but in the Sixties I was busy trying to change the world, and didn’t understand what transforming your own consciousness had to do with that.) I’d smoked pot three or four times before coming to Europe at the age of 24, and never gotten high. Now, each new drug experience took me deeper into the rich hinterland of my mind — a territory vast and uncharted, scary, ecstatic. I knew I couldn’t go back to being a reporter in New York City, but neither had I turned into a “writer”; with no map or guide, only the excitement of tracking myself through the remotest of forests (and often getting lost), I lacked confidence. I turned to books on Eastern religion, I took up yoga, I changed my diet — and each day I faced the typewriter with unaccountable dread. I had to do something — writing was all I knew — and if I couldn’t write, who was I?
One day a friend asked if I’d heard John Lennon’s new album, Plastic Ono Band, his first since splitting up with the Beatles. No, I said. I’ll get it, said he, and in a little while returned with the record. (I thought he was going to his room for it, but he’d gone out to buy it.)
There were five or six of us, lost in private universes and joined at the senses, one ancient memory that knew all and played at discovery. The needle dropped. “Mama don’t go, Daddy come home,” Lennon screamed, his voice burning and twisting in the air — totally unexpected, hell loosed. What was this? Nothing pretty or transcendent, a knee to the balls, hardly tripping music. “Children, don’t do what I have done,” he sang. “I couldn’t walk and I tried to run.” I didn’t know that Lennon had been through Primal Therapy, reliving old, buried hurts. I didn’t know about those hurts — my emotional vocabulary was limited to “I’m sad,” and “I’m angry” — never having picked up the long, sinuous thread of sorrow in my life to see where it came from. But Lennon had. He’d relived the stunning realization all but the most fortunate of us have as children that our parents don’t love us for who we are, that we have to pretend to be “good” or “smart” to win their love, that pretending won’t work. “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small,” he sang, “by giving you no time instead of it all, till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all. . . . When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years, then they expect you to pick a career, when you can’t really function you’re so full of fear.”
The next day, I closed up my typewriter, and didn’t open it again for six months. I bought a plane ticket back to America. I cried and cried, with the realization that I too had been performing all my life, that being a writer was the way to be a star for my parents, that stardom was death, that I didn’t need to die.
This is one John Lennon story. There must be thousands, millions. He showed us his true face; eschewing conditioning, artifice, he struggled to recover his innocence. That made him dangerous. “There’s one less savage in the world,” a friend said, the morning after his death.
There was much I loved about John Lennon — his imagination, his genius, his foolishness — but what meant the most to me was his honesty. He let us see his pain, he suffered and grew before our eyes, and there’s nothing harder than that, or more important.
To me, he was a great man. We’re all great — gods upon the stage of our lives, the least of our actions resounding through time, touching all the living and the dead — but how many of us know this? The ones who know we call great. He knew.