Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Quartet Practiced in the Park

If I need more than a dozen words to explain the importance of John Lennon and the music he helped create, and the other music he made possible, I'm too old and you're too young to be having this conversation. And since, chronologically, I got here first, you'll have to leave.

I was born the year Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath as President. Rock and roll was either very rhythm and blues oriented (and called 'race music') or was so white it glowed in the dark with melodies from the Brill Building professionals as sung by any fresh face who showed up at the auditions. Little Richard's originals such as Good Golly, Miss Molly were covered and eclipsed by a variety of white artists and never enjoyed the success on pop radio station airwaves they should have, but the UK rockers had no way of knowing that.

People like Sam Phillips and Sun Records helped change all that with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and (of course) Elvis Presley. The seismic shock Elvis set off echoed half way across the world where tub thumpers, literally, who were part of something the British called skiffle, attempted to emulate the American records they were hearing in the coffee bars and teen clubs.

The perspiring and aspiring musicians who spent hours trying to copy every chord change of every R&B song they heard had no idea that in the USA, the music to which they were so devoted had been co opted and to a large extent castrated by safe-as-houses imitators. Their world then was so different from our world now that words fail, which is why (perhaps) so many of us who came of age in The Sixties turned to music in the first place as a replacement for language.

If all you know of John Lennon is what you've read, you cannot imagine the electricity late night American Top 40 radio had when The Beatles were on. They built a bridge from the UK for every disaffected rocker to cross, and it mattered not if they could sing, Noel Harrison certainly couldn't, as long as they looked the part. The Liverpool lads stuck and stayed when so many others had faded away because they had talent and the ear of a generation who sought a voice while they, themselves, searched for the sound they had heard years earlier. They may have never realized they had become the object for which they searched-we on other hand never cared and embraced them as the Soundtrack of the World to Be.

The Beatles 'broke big in America' in the aftermath of the murder of John F. Kennedy and I've never believed that was coincidence. They were the standard by which all other pop music was measured. It felt, for someone in his teens for much of their public career, that The Beatles had been around forever but when they went dark in 1970, they had been a chart presence for far less than a decade.

Where there were four, only two are alive today. All of them spent, and continue to spend, their solo careers battling unreal expectations, measured by critics and fans alike against an impossible standard no one could match. With Lennon's murder thirty years ago, the death of the public John overshadowed the personal tragedy his two sons, Julian and Sean, as well as the pain and grief his wife, Yoko Ono, and his first spouse, Cynthia, felt and feel every day of their lives, but most especially today.

It's tempting when revisiting history to forget it can just as easily be written as his story because in this case, the band mate, the father, the husband were all walk-ons in the Beatlemania movie Mark David Chapman so abruptly and completely ended exactly three decades ago. For many who never knew the man, except through his music, today is a long day. There's little we can do except enjoy what he gave us while watching the wheels go round and round and wonder what might have been.
-bill kenny

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