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Rearview: Lester Bangs on the death of John Lennon

September 1, 2009 |  7:45 am

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Rock critic Lester Bangs, considered by some to be the best at writing with a spirit and brilliance equaling the music he chronicled, wrote for the L.A. Times only once, in a piece that ran on Dec. 14, 1980, and was reprinted in his anthology "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung." It had been six days since Lennon was slain in the lobby of the Dakota in New York. Bangs died two years later of an accidental overdose.

Thinking the Unthinkable about John Lennon - by Lester Bangs

You always wonder how you will react to these things, but I can't say I was all that surprised when NBC broke into the tonight show to say that John Lennon was dead. I always though that he would be the first of the Beatles to die, because he was always the one who lived the most on the existential edge, whether by diving knees-first into left-wing adventurism or by just shutting up for five years when he decided he really didn't have anything much to say, but I had always figured it would be by his own hand. That he was merely gunned down by a probable psychotic only underscores the banality surrounding his death.

Look: I don't think I'm insensitive or a curmudgeon. In 1965 John Lennon was one of the most important people in the world. It's just that today I feel deeply alienated from rock-n-roll and what it has meant or could mean, alienated from my fellow men and women and their dreams or aspirations.

I don't know which is more pathetic, the people of my generation who refuse to let their 1960s adolescence die a natural death, or the younger ones who will snatch and gobble and shred, any scrap of a dream that someone declared over 10 years ago. Perhaps the younger ones are sadder, because at least my peers may have some nostalgic memory of the long-cold embers they're kneeling to blow upon, whereas the kids who have to make do with things like Beatlemania are being sold a bill of goods.

I can't mourn John Lennon. I didn't know the guy. But I do know that when all is said and done, that's all he was -- a guy. The refusal of his fans to ever let him just be that was finally almost as lethal as his "assassin" (and please, let's have no more talk of this being a "political" killing, and don't call him a "rock-n-roll martyr"). Did you watch the TV specials on Tuesday night? Did you see all those people standing in the street in front of the Dakota apartment where Lennon lived singing "Hey Jude"? What do you think the real -- cynical, sneeringly sarcastic, witheringly witty and iconoclastic -- John Lennon would have said about that?

John Lennon at his best despised cheap sentiment and had to learn the hard way that once you've made your mark on history those who can't will be so grateful they'll turn it into a cage for you. Those who choose to falsify their memories -- to pine for a neverland 1960s that never really happened that way in the first place -- insult the retroactive Eden they enshrine.

So in this time of gut-curdling sanctimonies about ultimate icons, I hope you will bear with my own pontifications long enough to let me say that the Beatles were certainly far more than a group of four talented musicians who might even have been the best of their generation. The Beatles were most of all a moment. But their generation was not the only generation in history, and to keep turning the gutted lantern of those dreams this way and that in hopes the flame will somehow flicker up again in the '80s is as futile a pursuit as trying to turn Lennon's lyrics into poetry. It is for that moment -- not for John Lennon the man -- that you are mourning, if you are mourning. Ultimately you are mourning for yourself.

Remember that other guy, the old friend of theirs, who once said, "Don't follow leaders?" Well, he was right. But the very people who took those words and made them into banners were violating the slogan they carried. And they're still doing it today. The Beatles did lead but they led with a wink. They may have been more popular than Jesus, but I don't think they wanted to be the world's religion. That would have cheapened and rendered tawdry what was special and wonderful about them. John Lennon didn't want that, or he wouldn't have retired for the last half of the '70s. What happened Monday night was only the most extreme extension of all the forces that led him to do so in the first place.

In some of his last interviews before he died, he said, "What I realized during the five years away was that when I said the dream is over, I had made the physical break from the Beatles but, mentally there is still this big thing on my back about what people expected of me." And: "We were the hip ones of the '60s. But the world is not like the '60s. The whole world has changed." And: "Produce your own dream. It's quite possible to do anything... the unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions."

Goodbye, baby and amen.

-- Lester Bangs

Photo:  Lester Bangs, center, with Bruce Springsteen, left, after a Patti Smith show in 1975. Credit: Chuck Pulin / Los Angeles Times

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