Imagine there’s no Heaven, it’s easy if you try, No hell below us, above us only sky, Imagine all the people, living for today.
Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too, Imagine all the people, living life in peace.
—John Lennon, Imagine, 1971
As this post goes live, I’m doing museum work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whenever I travel to New York City, there are certain places on the Upper West Side (where I lived for 6 years completing all my graduate degrees at Columbia University) that I always return to, just see how the city has changed, and relive memories. One of these is the Dakota Apartment Building, on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. It has a long and famous history, from its origin as a unique building for the rich in the 1880s, to its use as a movie exterior (especially in Rosemary’s Baby and Cruel Intentions), to the many legends who have lived there: Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Connie Chung, Rosemary Clooney, Roberta Flack, Jose Ferrer, Judy Garland, Lilian Gish, Boris Karloff, Rudolf Nureyev, Jack Palance, Gilda Radner, Rex Reed, Jason Robards, and Robert Ryan, among many others. Not every star can live there; some, like Billy Joel, Gene Simmons, Melanie Griffith, and Antonio Banderas, were denied residency by the governing board. But one resident of that building is more famous than the others, especially because he died on its doorstep.
Tomorrow, Dec. 8, 2011, will be the 31st anniversary of the day that Mark David Chapman gunned down John Lennon in the doorway of the Dakota (the doorway is shown to the right of Yoko Ono in the picture at the top) just as he and Yoko Ono were returning from a late recording session. I remember that event vividly, because I was just five blocks away at the time it happened. I was working very late that night, finishing research on my dissertation at the American Museum of Natural History at the time, and even had an office on the southeast corner of the building (near the corner of Central Park West and 77th St). If it hadn’t been winter and my windows had not been closed, I might have even heard the gunshots. Back then, there was no internet or 24-hour news on your iPhone, so I went home about midnight not knowing he’d been shot around 10:50. The news was still reported by TV newscasts and the newspapers—but I didn’t have a TV when I was a poor grad student in New York, and the papers didn’t have the news until next morning so I didn’t hear about it until I woke up and hit the streets and saw the news on every newsstand.
I immediately rushed to the Dakota, where a huge crowd of mourners had gathered, and flowers, candles, and tributes were stuffed into every part of the fence around the building. I couldn’t stay with the mourners all day, but it was amazing to see how deeply John had reached so many people. The vigil outside the Dakota lasted for days, until eventually it was called off at Yoko Ono’s request. In 1985, Mayor Ed Koch renamed the adjacent part of Central Park (which John and Yoko could see from their windows) “Strawberry Fields” and there is a mosaic memorial plaza there with the word “Imagine” that is nearly always decorated with flowers, guitars, candles, and other tributes, even 30 years later.
Readers of this blog who are not Boomers like me may not appreciate what the Beatles, and especially John meant to my generation. It may seem odd to them that so many people still hold Lennon tributes on the anniversary of his death. But the Beatles were more than the most popular and influential musicians of our generation, or (judging from how often their music is still played) many generations. The Beatles, and especially John Lennon, were also the voice of the younger generation, not just the “hippies” (I was a bit too young to be a hippie then) but for nearly everyone under 30 back then. We faced a criminal Nixon Administration which was secretly and illegally escalating the war in Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos, all the while hundreds of our classmates were being drafted and shipped off to die there. (I just missed being drafted myself). Nixon (and also Reagan) demonized our generation in their quest for power, reaching out to the “Silent Majority” of older, more conservative white people. Nixon also used his “Southern Strategy” to transform the solidly Democratic Deep South into a Republican bastion, largely by playing to racist fears. All of these divisive practices are still influential today, especially in the way politics has been polarized, and the racism of the some southern whites has turned the South solidly red. In college, we reveled at every minute of the Watergate hearings, and the entire campus of my alma mater, U.C. Riverside, burst into celebration the day that Nixon finally stepped down.
But John Lennon spoke out against Nixon and the Vietnam War in way that no other rock musician, and indeed no other public figure, did. While lots of people were turned off by the hippies and the protesters (I just missed being part of the Columbia riots by a few years), the Beatles were so influential that John’s protests and songs reached people who were otherwise turned off by the youth movement. Naturally, John was on Nixon’s “enemies list”, and Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI did all they could to deport John and Yoko in retaliation.
Even more importantly to skeptics, John was the first hugely popular public figure to “imagine no religion”. Few people today realize how controversial that song was at the time because of those lyrics, but they spoke to an idea that was starting to grow among the younger generation, even though it was taboo in most polite circles. I remember when I first heard “Imagine” and how it spoke to my budding agnosticism. I remember how liberating that song was to so many of my peers, when we became disenchanted not only with a corrupt, criminal U.S. government, but also began to drop the religious shackles of our childhood as well. For many of my generation, this was the beginning of the loss of religion and the rise of skepticism in our time. Certainly, John was not the only religious skeptic or prominent atheist of his time, but in contrast to people like Madalyn Murray O’Hair, John’s message reached so many of us through his music, and make it acceptable to question the religion we had been raised with. If you doubt his influence, just note how many times in recent years that the Religious Right attack Lennon and his music, or play “Imagine” as proof that the culture in under attacks by atheistic public figures. Even Ben Stein ripped off a few lines from the song in his crummy propaganda film “Expelled” while playing shots of protests and street violence.
Today, we see an entire younger generation with casual attitudes, indifference, and a certain cynicism about religion, and who will not tolerate racism, homophobia, sexism, and many other societal ills, but this wasn’t true of kids in the 1950s. Back then, even early rock’n'roll, Elvis Presley and James Dean were considered dangerous and controversial just for showing the slightest rebellion against conformity and the powers that be. That all changed with my generation, and for that I’m proud to say I’m a Boomer. We still have a long way to go to erase the racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious dogmatism that we inherited, but we’re never going back to the bad old days of the 1950s, and I’m glad of it.