Author’s note. I originally published this post on December 8th, 2012 in remembrance of
one of the most tragic losses in modern memory to the music world and humanity as a whole. The day we lost John Lennon.
I’ve decided to repost it every year, adding a new insight each time about the man who conjures a seemingly inexhaustable stream of inspiration and reflection from artists and every day people alike with every passing generation. I hope you’ll chime in with any new insights you care to share about John Lennon in the comments below.
December 7th, 2013: Two Days That Will Live in Infamy
I’m travelling downtown to New York’s Upper West side on a Saturday night. The same neighborhood as The Dakota where John and Yoko resided. I’m with my wife and two kids. I’d like to tell you we were out to revel in one of the world’s truly awesome spectacles: New York City at Christmas time. But unfortunately, we’re headed to City MD to take care of a mild emergency with my 4-year old: a painful ear infection that just couldn’t wait for Monday to be looked at by his doctor. We pass a wonderful sampling of Christmas lights hung in apartment windows, storefronts and trees decorated along the center divider on Broadway. It is beautiful.
Now one of my huge New York pet peeves are those ridicuous TV monitors embedded in the back of NYC taxis (who’s brilliant idea was that??). They come on automatically and are getting harder and harder to turn off. If you’re a tourist and you’ve just arrived in the greatest city in the world, do you really need to be watching TV in the back of a cab??? New York freakin’ City is going on outside for God’s sake! Sorry, I digress.
So we’re driving along and all of the sudden, black and white scenes of Pearl Harbor are playing on the blasted TV monitor. My 9-year old daughter is asking me how many people died and why they keep showing these pictures from so long ago.
Meanwhile, as I’m trying to explain it all to her, I realize that Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is playing on the radio. The irony of this moment is so heavy on so many levels (at least to me) Here it is Christmas time in New York and this horrific scene of the most tragic day in American history (prior to 9/11) is playing out on TV while one of the greatest Chistmas songs ever written is playing on the radio and the artist who wrote it would be senselessly murdered on the following day 33 years ago.
And it wasn’t even the original version! It was Sarah McLachlan’s rendition, which is basically the exact arrangement as the original. Hats off to Sarah for not trying to change something that basically can’t be improved upon. It was just one more reminder of the genius of John Lennon. Who else could write this amazing Christmas song and build into it an anti-war protest using a choir of children? Absolutely brilliant.
So Happy Xmas John and Yoko and Sean and Julian.
I still miss you every day, John.
(what follows is the original post)
December 8th, 1980
It was a day no one could ever have imagined.
I was in my first semester of college when the news of John Lennon’s death arrived on campus all those years ago. In that moment, everything just stopped. I never saw so many people crying for someone they had never met before.
The candlelight vigils began almost immediately all across campus. You couldn’t walk anywhere without hearing Imagine drifting out into the night air. We held one another, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
When we turned on the TV, we realized this same scene was playing out all over the world.
We were swept up in the gravity of the moment. We hadn’t just lost some big time celebrity. We had grown up with The Beatles. But we came of age with the music of John Lennon in the years that followed their break up. It felt like we had just lost the sky.
That’s how big John Lennon’s impact was.
And it harkens a question.
How does one’s work become so important that it spreads around the world and resonates across generations?
Dream Bigger Dreams
John Lennon was a dreamer.
Maybe you are too.
Maybe you dream about creating a platform large enough to spread your ideas across the world and put a dent in the universe. To create real impact.
Imagine founding the most famous band in the world with more #1 hits (20) than anyone else in history and selling more than…(wait for it) TWO BILLION records worldwide. BEFORE there was an Internet or YouTube.
Then imagine all that fame and fortune was just a stepping stone to finding your greater purpose in life.
John Lennon was just foolish enough to think he could change the world with his music.
And guess what? He did.
In a world built of brick and mortar.
Imagine No Connections
What if you woke up tomorrow morning and there was no Internet?
No computers. No email. No cell phones. No texts. No Tweets, no status updates, No birds to anger. No virtual farm animals to procure. Nothing to Google. Nowhere to shout Yahoo! Nothing that goes Bing.
In its place are but a few gigantic engines of mass communication, through which all content must pass and be filtered before it’s decided what will get consumed by the public. Only the gatekeepers of these channels will decide what shall pass.
Welcome to John Lennon’s world. The analog world.
Where messages spread the old fashioned way. You either got it word of mouth from a friend, saw it on TV, read about it in the newspaper or heard it on the radio.
So what did it take to get past those gatekeepers?
You Need A Unique Selling Proposition
They say necessity is the mother of invention.
(and hit songwriting too, sometimes)
Paul MacCartney was asked in an interview how The Beatles came up with all those incredibly infectious hit songs. He explained that when he and John first got together as teenagers, playing skiffle music as The Quarrymen, all the bands were essentially playing the same songs.
So it was really hard to differentiate one band from the next (think everyone has a blog today and it’s really hard to get anyone to pay attention to me).
To distinguish themselves from the competition and get gigs, they decided they needed to write their own original music (Aha! the unique selling proposition).
Back then there were no portable devices to take a memo or capture your ideas. So the only way The Beatles could play a whole live set of their original music was to write songs so simple and so memorable that they wouldn’t forget them on the bandstand.
Think Seth Godin and how he distills grandiose ideas down to a few sentences that hit you square between the eyes and make you say, Yes, exactly!
So now The Beatles had identified their unique platform. They had the raw materials. But they knew they still had to put in the time to polish their act if they were ever going to have a shot at the big time.
10,000 Hours and A Lot Of Stimulants
How did John Lennon become so remarkable? He worked his ass off! Night after hard day’s night!
Early in their career, while still teenagers The Beatles scored a gig playing in Hamburg, Germany. Over a three year period they played multiple sets of music seven nights a week in various clubs. The most famous venue being The Cavern club.
It was the graduate school of hard knocks. Playing in front of the toughest crowds you could find in the middle of Hamburg’s notorious Red Light District.
Talk about trial by fire!
Now imagine yourself a hungry young writer just looking to break into the business. You would take anything just to prove yourself.
So you score a gig where you have to craft 20 original blog posts a day, seven days a week for several major porn sites. And you only get paid if people click through your copy and subscribe.
Think you’d learn very quickly how to become an incredibly pursuasive copywriter with that kind of practice and incentive so you could move on to something better?
This is how The Beatles learned to win over a crowd.
Another little known fact. The Beatles threw out some 200 songs before the world ever heard their first hit single, Love Me Do.
So before we ever heard a recorded note from them, The Beatles were already seasoned pros.
By the time they had their day in the sun and became an “overnight sensation” on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles had already put in their 10,000 hours. They had honed their craft to mastery.
How about you? How far do you go in your creative process before you hit that Publish button? Is it far enough? Are you that committed that you wouldn’t ship until it was undeniable?
You Write Well But Are You Saying Anything Meaningful?
Maybe you’re a really smart content creator. You stay up on trending topics so your work always gets noticed and your work is consistently excellent. You’re in demand (for now).
But does your work have any depth? Is it the ‘Oh My God I’ve got to share this with my friends!’ life changing kind of stuff? Or will you be passed over for the next smart content creator who jumps on tomorrow’s new trend?
John Lennon had to reckon with this.
The Beatles quickly dominated the pop charts with a long string of sugar sweet hits. Beatlemania was in full swing and they were dealing with the chaos of pop superstardom.
But the question was were they anything more than just a passing fad? For John Lennon, his day of reckoning came when he met his own American Idol.
So Bob Dylan arrives in London to play what would become a legendary concert for him in 1965. Well, pop stars can have heros too and John Lennon was a huge Dylan fan.
At one point, they rode in a limo together around London and John asked Dylan what he thought of The Beatles. Dylan told him he liked their music but they weren’t really saying anything very meaningful.
This totally floored Lennon.
But it was also an epiphany.
The Beatles followed up soon after with the Rubber Soul and Revolver albums, which contained some of Lennon’s more in depth songs to date like In My Life and Tomorrow Never Knows.
There’s No Such Thing As Bad Publicity (well, almost never)
You have to take a stand with your work if you want to be respected. Even if some or many don’t agree with your position. If you’re not pissing someone off with your work than you’re probably not going far enough with it.
John Lennon may have minced plenty of words in his songs. But in person he was never shy about shooting straight from the hip and telling it like it is. Regardless of who he was speaking to.
On one such occasion, he made a statement that created one of the most celebrated shit storms in show business history. And he pissed more than a few people off.
That was the famous line where he told the British press The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, which led to everything from radio station bans on Beatles music to record burning rallies and even KKK marches.
This drew worldwide attention.
Some say the media pressure got so intense that The Beatles quit touring because of that incident. But that turned out not to be such a bad thing.
They would change popular music forever in the creative period that followed with the release of Sgt. Peppers. And then they would cement their place in pop music history when they followed up with Abbey Road.
So now you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career.
You have a worldwide audience, money and fame. Once you’ve changed popular music forever where else could you go from there but out?
Find Your Greater Purpose
The world was in a state of upheaval by the time The Beatles were breaking up at the end of the Sixties.
Vietnam, civil rights, the race to the moon, the cold war, flower power. These were uncertain times.
John Lennon became a staunch advocate for world peace. He wanted to end the Vietnam War and all fighting in the world. He wanted to end world hunger. He wanted to expose the unfair treatment of women around the world.
So he wrote songs like Power To The People, Give Peace A Chance and Woman Is The Nigger Of The World to make his point.
It wasn’t about pop stardom anymore. These weren’t obvious hit singles. They were big ideas wrapped in simple but powerful songs penned by a master.
But he had the media channels wrapped around his finger so he could get his message to the masses. But it’s the way he used media that made people sit up and take notice.
Using Conventional Media in a Totally Unconventional Way
Most people would consider a marriage to be a sacred and private affair to be shared only with their closest family and friends.
But not John & Yoko.
Knowing their marriage in 1969 would be a highly publicized media event, they invited the press to hang out with them on their honeymoon to protest the war in Vietnam and promote world peace.
They called it the Bed In For Peace. It was all filmed and eventually turned into a doumentary.
Then they went a step further that Christmas and took out advertisements on billboards in eleven major cities. Not to promote a new album or some big concert event.
There was no product to sell.
The billboards simply read, WAR IS OVER If You Want It. Happy Christmas, From John & Yoko.
I don’t know if this is quite as blasphemous as Lennon’s Jesus statement. But I would venture to say that Seth Godin is more important in the digital era than The Beatles (there I said it…checking for hate mail now).
Now imagine today if Seth Godin set his sights on the Occupy Wall Street movement.
How might he use conventional media today in an unconventional way to get his point across?
How might you?
Are You Unforgettable?
It’s one of the most recognizable songs in the history of popular music. Known in every corner of the world.
Rolling Stone put it at #3 on their Top 500 Songs Of All Time.
Some critics said the song was a bit utopian. That lyrics like “Imagine no possessions” were a bit of a contradiction, coming from a pop star who had amassed a small fortune and lived like royalty.
But then what do critics know?
Imagine is one of those songs that defies any meaningful written description. Like all messages that speak universal truth, the music transcends words.
It was the message behind the words that ultimately touched people’s hearts. And the message spread around the world.
We will always remember John Lennon for this inforgettable song.
Be Totally Authentic
Record mogul, Clive Davis, once asked Lennon what music he was listening to and was stunned by his response,
“Nothing,” Lennon replied.
“Don’t you want to know what’s being played?” Davis responded.
“Absolutely not! Did Picasso go to the galleries to see what was being painted?”
John Lennon was a total original. Authentic in his art. And authentic with his cause of creating world peace.
In a documentary film about Imagine there’s a chilling scene where we see John and Yoko returning from vacation to their home in England.
As they reach the front door, a homeless man jumps from the hedges and approaches them quickly. He’s dirty and has been sleeping there overnight. You can feel the tension of the moment in the footage as we don’t know what this guy is going to do next.
The man starts rattling on to John asking about the divine message behind his songs. Lennon tries to assure him that he’s just man who writes songs. And if his words have meaning for this man than great but they’re just songs.
Eventually, John asks if the man is hungry and invites him into his home for a sandwich.
Could you be that authentic in your work? That honest with your desire to help others?
The Real Secret To Why Messages Spread
These are the things that resonate beyond fame, beyond wealth or public image. These are the things that define who you are and what you stand for.
When you can truly see the world through the eyes and hearts of your followers then you have empathy with them.
When they can pictures themselves as the focus of your message and it eases their suffering or creates a solution to a problem or points a way forward for them, then your message spreads.
John Lennon was a creative genius.
But he never took himself so seriously. He could be funny. He had a razor sharp wit. At times he could be scathing in his commentary.
But John Lennon’s secret weapon was that he cared.
He cared about people. He knew that the secret to life was love. That’s all we are. That’s all we need. He cared about helping us to see that.
This is why he could imagine the world as he did in the song. This is why he asked if you could too.
This is why his message spread throughout the world.
This is why we remember John Lennon on this day.
What will you imagine today?
Back to you.
What does John Lennon mean to you?