I’ve never thought much of John Lennon’s music – until now

Plus: the extraordinary life of Eleanor Roosevelt and the pain of a son’s disappearance

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

It’s probably blasphemous to admit that I’ve never thought very much of John Lennon’s music. Common sense tells me it must be good but it’s never made much of an impact on me no matter how hard I’ve tried to appreciate it. If I like a Beatles song, I usually discover it’s by George. But the discovery from a radio trailer (reluctantly, I’ll have to admit they do sometimes work) that Lennon would have been 75 this week was shocking enough (how could he ever be that old?) to make me tune in on Thursday night to John Lennon’s Last Day.

Stephen Kennedy’s docudrama for Radio 2 (produced by James Robinson) took us through the events of 8 December 1980, from the moment Lennon woke up in his seventh-floor apartment in the Dakota building on West 72nd Street in New York to the fatal shots that killed him, delivered by Mark Chapman from a .38 revolver hidden under his coat. No attempt was made to explain Chapman’s actions. We were simply taken through Lennon’s day, as if walking side-by-side with him. The effect was startlingly vivid, making real how brutal that ending was.

Lennon got up early that day, we were told by the narrator (played deadpan by Ian Hart), before going for a haircut at his favourite barber’s, ready for a photo shoot later that morning with Annie Leibovitz (the result was that extraordinary picture of a naked John curled up against a fully clothed Yoko). Then he gave a radio interview with RKO to promote his first album in five years, Double Fantasy, in which he says, poignantly, ‘My work is not finished until I’m dead and buried and I hope that’s a long, long time.’

At four o’clock John walked out of the Dakota building on his way to a recording studio on West 44th Street. He had to wait for a few minutes for his car to arrive, by which time a small group of fans had gathered round him asking for autographs, one of whom was Chapman. A photograph exists of Chapman with Lennon, taken by an amateur photographer (long before selfies). Chapman failed to carry out his plan at that time (offbalanced by Lennon’s chatty friendliness) but he was still there, lurking in the shadows, when Lennon returned at 10.50 p.m., and this time he accomplished his deadly mission, shooting Lennon in the back four times at close range. His fifth shot missed.

This was all very different from a Radio 4 drama, which would probably have filled in the back story, amplified the details, given us more of the history. Here, instead, we had long clips from Lennon’s songs, carefully spliced in to add to the spooky sense that Lennon had no idea what was ahead of him.

Another hugely influential, if troubled, figure from the last century was celebrated on the World Service on Tuesday. Naomi Grimley’s profile of Eleanor Roosevelt took us to the upper Hudson valley where the former First Lady retired after the death of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. From there she would often broadcast to the nation, one of the first to realise the potential of radio to reach into people’s homes and get your message across by speaking in the most direct way possible to voters. She began with a most terrible high-pitched screech but after training became a powerful voice on air.

It was Eleanor who broadcast to the nation on the evening of 7 December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, encouraging Americans to get behind the war effort: ‘We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it.’ She held her own press conferences, which only women were allowed to attend, wrote a weekly newspaper column for years entitled ‘My Day’, blogging about her life as First Lady, and later was chair of the committee that drafted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet in spite of all her efforts in forging a life for women beyond housework and children (she was criticised for not playing the wife and not overseeing the housekeeping at the White House) she ended up doing adverts for margarine on TV, as if all her achievements were as nothing.

‘It makes me cringe,’ Allida Black, editor of Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers, told us. We heard a clip. Back comes the high-pitched, whiny voice, the housewifely dialogue, the phoney humility. So different from the poised earlier broadcasts in which she rallied young women to demand the vote and told them, ‘I have faith in you.’

On The Conversation this week (Monday, World Service) Kim Chakanetsa talked with two women who were dealing with missing family members. Visaka Dharmadasa’s son disappeared 15 years ago while serving with the Sri Lankan army against the Tamil Tigers separatist movement. She still believes he is alive somewhere, and now campaigns for peace and for other families who are searching for family members who have gone missing. It’s not like when someone dies, she said. ‘Normally, we say, the time heals. But this, no, the time doesn’t heal.’ Her pain was tangible. She still keeps the chocolates she had ready for her son when he was next on leave in her freezer.

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  • FrankS2

    Nothing blasphemous about not thinking much of Lennon’s music – what little merit there may been in his tedious post Beatles output is nullified by the driveling vanity of his inexplicably revered dirge Imagine.

    • Nicholas_Keen

      With you there.

    • PaD

      You know you could just as easily have kept your opinion to yourself…but I suppose some people just HAVE to say

      • FrankS2

        So could you – in fact, I strongly recommend it! If you have an opinion, of course.

        • PaD

          Heres my opinion if you simply must have it….is music really that important that you feel the need to call John Lennon out.. from his grave..?on what YOU think about him and his music..cmon was Imagine really THAT awful..?I thought at the time(being a mere 22 and idealistic) that it was a reasonable/good’message song’..but your disdain has overtaken your respect for the theres my opinion..apology offered as I should have written that instead of my jibe..

          • GB

            Being 22 and thinking it was a good ‘message song’ doesn’t make it less trivial and naïve. In fact it probably proves its infantilism. You don’t need to call Lennon out of his grave to discuss his music – its just his music not Lennon himself that is being discussed.

          • PaD

            Re-reading my comments have to admit to a certain unecessary surliness.
            In reality Im not a big Solo Lennon fan ..and indeed there was naivete there because I think he wanted too much to be partof the art establishment forgetting I imagine that he’d already helped create plenty of real art i.e Revolver…should have left blatant anti-establishment songs alone..not least because they dont have longevity..but there you go ‘it was the times’ Strawberry Fields on its own would have sufficed..

    • Innit Bruv

      Plenty of good stuff in his post-Beatles output….

    • Observer1951

      Lennon never thought much about Imagine either. When asked he said it’s only a song. To him it was just another pay and royalties cheque

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Glad to hear that – always mystified and depressed at the apparent popularity of “Imagine”, a mawkish & absurd piece of tat. But I like much of his other material. He was talented.

        • Stevie Mac

          Imagine was never going to be popular with spectator readers with its utopian anti-nationalist anti-religious message. Its not as good as woman or jealous guy but its got a pretty good tune and I like the lines ‘you may say that I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one’.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Nothing to do with being a Spectator reader or not, more like rejecting the crass and the banal. Taking “Imagine” too seriously to award it a “utopian anti-nationalist anti-religious message”.

          • Stevie Mac

            Not really, just stating what the message is. And it would be received differently by people with different political views. I bet that song would go down better with atheistic liberal true believers than with Christian conservatives. Atheist kids summer camps were singing imagine as their anthem.

      • go simile

        He would. Far too instinctively self-effacing – was the interview after his 35th year? – to not lock out the adulation.
        Apparently a crime these days.

    • Ron Todd

      A multi millionaire singing about how nice it would be if everybody else gave up all their possessions.

    • Stevie Mac

      I wouldn’t say little merit. He did several very good songs post Beatles: woman, jealous guy, instant karma, working class hero. I think his post Beatles work was the best

    • bengeo

      You’re just a jealous guy 🙂

  • Mick Jones

    “the spooky sense that Lennon had no idea what was ahead of him.”

    Should he have had? What a stupid comment.

    • entonces_99

      Well, predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

  • Gilbert White

    Truth consciousness, like some of the greatest anti Americans are Americans, probably Lennon was own greatest critic?

  • carl jacobs

    What were the Beatles besides the voice of a narcissistic spoiled self-important generation? Drugs, promiscuity, bad haircuts, and trivial music.

    Was there ever a decade as bad as the 60s?

    • Bring back the 50s, that’s what I say!

    • PaD

      Lighten was only music

    • Tom

      Well if you can name another decade better and point out the for’s and against of that decade i might consider it but i doubt it.

    • pocketfrog

      “Drugs, promiscuity, bad haircuts, and trivial music.”
      But enough about the 80s.

    • pocketfrog

      “Drugs, promiscuity, bad haircuts, and trivial music.”
      But enough about the 80s.

  • Tom Sykes

    Try listening “Just give me truth” — still applies

  • Patrick_Heren

    Don’t worry too much Kate. Lennon’s post-Beatle musical output was pretty poor. His self-obsessed post-Beatle politico-philosophical posturing, with or without Yoko, was largely drivel.

    • PaD

      Which makes your contribution to the world of words a tad negligible

  • Sean L

    Some good songs on the Imagine LP, however dire one finds the title track.

  • Bob C

    “She still keeps the chocolates she had ready for her son when he was next on leave in her freezer.” What an odd place in which to spend one’s leave.

  • Paul Carolan

    If PAD really thinks ‘respect for the dead’ requires the non expression of negative opinion on such a broad category of humanity then we would have restricted freedom of speech more than any tyranny could.

  • Roger Hudson

    Interesting photo- high class cottaging?

  • Dick Size

    Lennon was a degeneratie.

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  • RAj Curry

    Just give me some truth..