Richardson: Imagine we still had John Lennon to guide us

This April 18, 1972, file photo shows John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, in New York City.

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On Dec. 9, 1980, my mother was driving me to school along St. Paul’s Street in downtown St. Catharines when I noticed a hand-written sign taped to the door of a rundown second-hand record store. It said simply: JOHN LENNON IS DEAD.

It can be difficult to remember a time when it was possible to become aware of a major news story via a hastily posted sheet of paper. But I knew instinctively that it was true.

I was 14 years old and a big-time Beatles fan. Although I grew up long after Beatlemania, I discovered the Fab Four’s albums on forays to Sam The Record Man in the Pen Centre, our local mall. There was no Internet to provide an instant, encyclopedic description of the band. My journey of discovery was episodic, private and thrilling.

Our teenage years are a time of intensive exploration and identity work. We fall in love and have our hearts broken for the first time. We begin to see ourselves as individuals separate from parents. We start to think about having our own adult relationships with the people around us and the world at large.

Pop music helps to prepare us for the emotional intricacies of adult life. In a survey of 169 pop songs spanning 14 records, sociologists Phillip Vannini and Scott M. Myers found that all of the albums followed “a clear and distinct template-like menu of a song or two about a breakup, one or two about a first encounter, one about jealousy and betrayal.” The formula works because young people hunger for examples of what to think, do and feel.

For many people, Lennon’s murder was profoundly unsettling because his voice, wit, music and activism had shaped who we were.

Listening to his seminal 1971 album Imagine in 2018 makes me wish my old idol was still around to help us navigate the current political picture and the issues such as climate change that many leaders are unwilling to address. His songs are as urgently prescient as ever.

For many people, Lennon’s murder was profoundly unsettling because his voice, wit, music and activism had shaped who we were.

On the title track, Lennon invites us to “imagine no possessions” and coyly asks “I wonder if you can.” Since he wrote the song, globalization has caused the price of consumer goods to tumble and many of us have more stuff than ever. It’s difficult to imagine life without cellphones and laptops.

Crippled Inside looks beneath the surface veneer of public figures to query their moral state. “You can hide your face behind a smile,” he sings in a sardonically upbeat tone. “One thing you can’t hide/Is when you’re crippled inside.” The explosive growth of visual culture and sound bite politics makes the words newly resonant.

Gimme Some Truth, powered by George Harrison’s acerbically-grating lead guitar, is perhaps most relevant of all. “I’m sick and tired of hearing things/From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocrites,” Lennon declares in a rhythmic, spoken-word style that anticipates the emergence of hip hop later in the decade. “All I want is the truth/Just give me some truth.”

The former mop top was singing about Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War but his words resonate at a time when media outlets struggle over how to handle the torrent of lies and falsehoods emanating from the Trump White House — over 6,400 according to the Washington Post’s latest count — as well as vicious attacks on those who dare to point out the truth.

I’m going to raise a glass to John Lennon today. I miss him. Thirty-eight years on, his emotional honesty, political engagement and belief in music as a means of driving positive change continue to inspire.

Dr. John M. Richardson is an author, high school teacher and adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education.