John Lennon was killed thirty-one years ago this month, so I asked Alison Marie Behnke to share her thoughts about writing Death of a Dreamer: The Assassination of John Lennon for TFCB’s Spring 2012 season.
When I began writing Death of a Dreamer: The Assassination of John Lennon, I considered myself a Beatles fan. (Doesn’t just about everyone?) I admired John Lennon as a wordsmith and a wit ; I respected him for his creative vision; and I certainly wasn’t immune to his intelligent cool and spiky charm. And, of course, I knew that he had died tragically, and much too young.
But I confess that, at the outset, I didn’t fully appreciate Lennon the activist, Lennon the “peacenik.” I agreed with many of the peace movement’s ideals, but—not having lived through that time in history myself (as, I know, my young readers will not have)—I was inclined to think of some of Lennon’s forms of protest, such as the bed-ins, as a little frivolous, a bit of celebrity naiveté. And I’d always found “Imagine” to be a skosh too sweet for my taste.
While I worked on the book, however, my perspective began to shift. (Writing nonfiction has many rewards, but this sort of shift is one of the best.) As I always try to do when I write and research a book, I immersed myself in the era. I studied weighty histories and biographies, read old Rolling Stone interviews, watched documentaries and news footage, splashed pictures of John across my computer desktop, followed Yoko Ono on Twitter, and played a Beatles/Lennon soundtrack on a loop. And as I learned more about the textures of Lennon’s time and place, I gained a great new understanding of—and respect for—the way John (and Yoko) chose to share the message of peace. As I watched footage of the Amsterdam bed-in, I now saw it as quietly, touchingly brave. The “War Is Over” billboards, which in today’s age of “viral marketing” could have seemed like cleverly calculated self-promotion, now struck me as refreshingly earnest and forthright.
Learning, too, of John’s private sorrows—the absence of his itinerate father, the sudden death of his beloved (but also often absent) mother, the similarly sudden death of his close friend Stuart Sutcliffe at the age of twenty-one—I saw how justified he’d have been in embracing only bitterness and cynicism. So if some of John’s songs tended toward the sentimental, hadn’t he earned it? The wit was still intact, I realized; it had simply been seasoned, as John himself said, “with a little honey.”
And so, throughout the course of the book’s creation—writing inexorably as I was toward the grisly conclusion to John’s life story—I found myself more and more moved by many of the same songs, statements, and protests that I’d once suspected must either be disingenuous or overly innocent.
Thirty-one years after John was killed, our fascination with this brilliant, flawed, and contradictory man remains as strong as ever. His enduring hold over us is surely due, in part, to the questions his death left us to ask. Who would John Lennon be at seventy-one? What messages would he share and what movements would he be part of? How would our world be different for still having his voice in it?
We can only imagine.
Note: TFCB will not be posting on 27 December 2011 but will be back on Tuesday 3 January 2012!
[Photo credit: John Lennon NYC T-Shirt NYC, top, ©1974 Bob Gruen www.bobgruen.com]