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Imagine how life might be different with John Lennon alive today

Lennon's musical rebirth had barely begun before he was murdered on December 8, 1980
LENNON and Ono’s activism would reach its peak in 1972. Photo courtesy of Laurens Van Houten/Frank White Photo Agency

LENNON and Ono’s activism would reach its peak in 1972. Photo courtesy of Laurens Van Houten/Frank White Photo Agency

By Gillian G. Gaar

In October 1974, as John Lennon was finishing up work on Rock ’N’ Roll, his album of early rock covers, he had an epiphany. He’d been overdubbing a new lead vocal on Lloyd Price’s “Just Because,” and during the song’s instrumental break he began ad-libbing: “This is Dr. Winston O’Boogie saying goodnight, from the Record Plant East, New York. We hope you had a swell time. Everybody here says hi. Goodbye.” “And something flashed through my mind as I said it,” he later told DJ Andy Peebles. “Am I really saying farewell to the business?…And I looked at the [record] cover which I’d chosen, which was a picture of me in Hamburg the first time [The Beatles] got there…I thought, is this some sort of cosmic thing — here I am with this old picture of me in Hamburg in ’61 and I’m saying farewell from Record Plant, and I’m ending as I started, singing this straight rock ‘n’ roll stuff.”

In a sense, Lennon was right about his leaving the business. For though Rock ’N’ Roll wasn’t his final album — he would go on to release Double Fantasy five years later — his musical rebirth had barely begun before he was murdered on December 8, 1980.

Lennon’s death was most tragic to those closest to him: his sons, Julian and Sean; his wife, Yoko Ono; and his other family members and friends. But music fans around the world who’d never even come close to meeting him felt a great sense of loss, as well. And not only because of the senseless way John Lennon’s life had been brought to an end; his death meant the world had also been deprived of any future work he would have created.

And there would certainly have been future work. In the interviews he did at the time of Double Fantasy’s release, Lennon proudly stated that he and Ono not only had much of the next album ready, he was also thinking about the album after that. Touring was a likely possibility. He might even have worked again with his former partner Paul McCartney; if not in a full-scale Beatles reunion, perhaps as a songwriting collaborator, something he’d considered in the past.

Though we can never know for certain what kind of music Lennon would have gone on to write, it’s clear that in the fall of 1980 he was looking ahead to many more years of creative life. Contrary to his own interviews at the time, in which he claimed to have not made music at all during his “house husband” period of the past five years, instead looking after Sean, he’d never stopped making music entirely. And now that the floodgates had been fully opened, it seemed as if he didn’t want to stop working.

In the interviews Lennon did promoting Double Fantasy, he made it seem as if the songs for the album had all tumbled forth as the result of a sailing trip he’d taken to Bermuda the previous June; the boat had sailed into a fierce storm, and the experience of sailing through had “centered” him, Lennon explained, and freed him up to write. In fact some of the songs, like “Watching the Wheels” and “Beautiful Boy,” had been in various stages of development over the previous years. Lennon did indeed write new songs while in Bermuda, most notably “Woman,” but also drew on the bits of songs he’d been making homemade demos of, something that helped to keep his creative spark alive.

Lennon’s Double Fantasy songs struck some as being atypically mellow; indeed, New Musical Express reviewer Charles Shaar Murray wrote: “Let’s waste no more time on John Lennon. On this showing he can get back to the kitchen and mind the kid and the cows, because all the most interesting material on Double Fantasy is Yoko’s … her music sounds vastly more modern and considerably more interesting than Lennon’s.” But Lennon was not unaware of punk and new wave. Bob Gruen, a photographer and friend of the couple, regularly informed Lennon about what was happening in New York clubs, and an assistant to the couple made him cassettes with songs by groups like the B-52’s, Lene Lovich, the Pretenders, and Madness (Lennon told Andy Peebles he was particularly fond of their hit “One Step Beyond”).

He also credited the B-52’s in particular with inspiring his return to music. On hearing “Rock Lobster” at a club in Bermuda, “I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and the wife up!’” he told journalist Jonathan Cott. And he still regarded the early records he’d done with Ono as being just as progressive as what the new bands were now turning out, telling Peebles, “So for anybody who thinks we ain’t hip, you know, when you catch up, then we can talk about it ... We could have come back and tried to be freakier than the freaks.”

And Double Fantasy was merely the first step in what sounded like a major return to making music on a more regular basis. Lennon and Ono planned to start working on a new album after the 1980 Christmas holidays; instead, the demos for the proposed album because the posthumously-released Milk and Honey. While Lennon’s Double Fantasy songs had been seen as paeans to domesticity, a careful reading of the lyrics reveals an underlying tension nearly all of them, chiefly a fear of separation or isolation (even the upbeat musical spirits of “[Just Like] Starting Over” are at odds with the lyrical wish for a togetherness that obviously hasn’t happened yet). The songs on “Milk and Honey” were in a similar vein; “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” “Nobody Told Me,” and “(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess” all contain a measure of anxiety. Though by the time Lennon and Ono had returned to the studio, they might have written new songs, and Milk and Honey could have turned out to be quite a different album.

And if Lennon had followed up the album with a world a tour, he would have continued to be exposed to new musical influences, inspiring his work to go in new and exciting directions. With Ono’s music being positively received in rock/dance clubs, the couple might have recorded more tracks along the lines of the last track the two worked on together, “Walking On Thin Ice,” and perhaps remixing Ono’s earlier Plastic Ono Band-era tracks into extended mixes — as later happened with her work, eventually leading to her regularly occupying the upper reaches of the Dance/Club charts.

During the ’70s, Lennon professed some ambivalence about live performance, but in his last interviews, he stressed how he was looking forward to touring again. If the experience had been a good one, touring might have become a regular part of his career, as it became for McCartney and Ringo Starr. In his lengthy interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon spoke of both the pride he had in his songs, and his desire to rework his Beatles hits, meaning he’d have been a very likely candidate for an Unplugged or VH1 Storytellers type of program; instead of faithfully recreating the songs as they sounded on record, as McCartney does, he might have revamped his material, as Bob Dylan has done in concert.

There would also have been new collaborations with other artists. “When I first got away from The Beatles, the feeling was: to be able to have the whole album to myself,” he told Newsweek journalist Barbara Graustark. “But then it became a chore. It became boring and you start padding it out … with instrumentals and stupid ditties … that have to fill up the space.” He was already planning to work on Starr’s new album in early 1981 (then titled Can’t Fight Lightning, it was eventually re-named Stop And Smell The Roses), and perhaps would have collaborated again with Elton John and David Bowie, both of whom he worked with briefly in the ’70s.

And there was a new generation of musicians he might have worked with as well. In the early ’80s, New York noise bands formed a “No Wave” movement, and Lennon’s guitar work on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and “Walking On Thin Ice” would’ve fit right in with the sounds Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore was drawing from his guitars (indeed, Moore, who included a track called “Ono Soul” on his 1995 Psychic Hearts album, re-mixed a track from Ono’s Rising album, released the same year, for a special promo EP).

Not to mention the budding musicians in Lennon’s own family. Both Julian and Sean later became musicians, and Julian had already made a brief appearance on “Ya Ya” on Lennon’s 1974 Walls and Bridges album. In his final interviews, Lennon spoke about wanting to further develop his relationship with his oldest son, and as Sean grew older and learned to play instruments himself, family jam sessions may well have led to something more.

Of course, the big question for music fans would be if Lennon would ever consider working with Paul McCartney again. Linda McCartney noted that her husband was “desperate” to write with Lennon, and it came close to happening in early 1975, when Wings settled in New Orleans to work on their Venus and Mars album. Lennon planned to join them in February, but his sudden reconciliation with Ono (the couple had split in the fall of 1973) curtailed those plans.

Though Lennon tended to dismiss the idea of a Beatles reunion as akin to “going back to high school” — something he had no interest in doing — he declined to say it would never happen. “Nobody wanted to be the one to say ‘Never,’” he explained to Graustark. “And nobody wanted to be the one to say ‘Maybe,’ because every time you said ‘Maybe’ somebody took an ad out in the paper saying ‘I’m the one who’s bringing them back together’ … It came to a point where you couldn’t say a damn thing — whatever you said was something wrong.”

After Lennon’s death, it was learned that as part of a court case Apple Corp. was bringing against the producers of the impersonator show Beatlemania, Lennon had sworn out an affidavit saying that he and the other Beatles “have plans to stage a reunion concert, to be recorded, filmed and marketed around the world.” In his book You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After The Breakup, Peter Doggett speculates that the affidavit was “little less than perjury,” as there were no plans for such a concert, Lennon’s statement being more to shore up the case against the show.

But Apple’s CEO, and The Beatles’ longtime friend Neil Aspinall, was in the process of preparing a feature-length documentary on the group, then entitled The Long And Winding Road; had it come out in the ’80s, it’s not unthinkable that the group would have done some kind of reunion as part of the promotion. Instead, the film morphed into the TV show (and later video set) The Beatles Anthology — which did have an “audio” reunion of sorts, with the remaining Beatles creating two songs using Lennon’s demos of “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love.”

Or perhaps a reunion might have taken place at a charity event, though Lennon was more outspoken about not participating in such shows again. “I don’t want to have anything to do with benefits,” he told Playboy journalist David Sheff. “Because they’re always rip-offs … There’s always this terrible atmosphere … It’s an absolute rip-off, but it makes the artist look good. ‘Isn’t he a good boy!’”

But if Lennon wouldn’t have played a Live Aid (or a Live 8), he would certainly have continued his involvement with various causes. The week after he was murdered, Lennon and Ono were planning to take time out from promoting Double Fantasy to fly to San Francisco and join a protest organized by the Japanese employees of various local food importers, who were striking for higher pay. The couple had already sent the group a note of support, which read in part: “We are with you in spirit. Both of us are subjected to prejudice and abuse as an Oriental family in the Western world.”

Lennon’s concern about the food Sean was eating as a child would have fit in neatly with the growing environmental movement. He’d consistently spoken out in favor of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, and would no doubt have continued to do so. And changes in technology were about to make that easier to do. The rise of the Internet would have been perfect for someone like Lennon, who dabbled in writing, but invariably put his efforts aside when he grew bored. But blog entries don’t have to be long or in-depth. On his own personal Web site — perhaps? — Lennon could have commented on the news of the day, posted links to stories that caught his eye, and rallied supporters to whatever cause he was currently involved with. Virtual billboards could be launched on the anniversary of Lennon and Ono’s “War Is Over (If You Want It)” event. Webcams would have expanded the audience of any live events, with viewers invited to post comments as the event was going on; Lennon always encouraged dialogues, and audience participation of some sort was a regular feature of Ono’s work.

Though the couple might not have gone so far as to have their own reality TV show, they’d been documenting their own lives on camera for so long they could easily have set up a channel on YouTube showcasing excerpts from their impressive archives. Lennon was also an avid collector of bootlegs. As streaming and digital downloads became more of a part of music distribution, Lennon may well have become interested in making rarities available through his own Web site, as countless musicians do today.

Lennon also spoke about getting involved in other creative endeavors. There was the idea for a musical based on their lives, entitled (what else?) The Ballad of John and Yoko. Or perhaps a non-autobiographical story could have been created using Lennon’s songs, a la “Mamma Mia,” which draws on ABBA’s songs. He spoke to David Sheff about doing a series of books about his mother and her four sisters, along the lines of The Forsyte Saga series of novels that chronicled the lives of a well-off British family. Lennon had continued to draw and write poems during his “house husband” years, works sometimes left uncompleted because of a lack of direction and focus. With his creativity now newly recharged, he could have continued work along these lines, perhaps hosting exhibitions of his work. The advent of digital photography would also have excited a man always interested in “instant” results.

Would he have been knighted? McCartney managed to become Sir Paul despite being a convicted drug user, and a songwriter who’d once blithely sung about the Queen, “Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl/but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” Lennon’s having returned his M.B.E. in 1969 might have scuppered his chances, but had he gone on to do good works that might have changed.

Especially if he had returned to live in England. Toward the end of his life, he’d become increasingly nostalgic about the land of his birth, asking his aunt Mimi to send over his old school tie, among other possessions. Though he loved the energy of New York City, he also felt the world was open to him. On his 40th birthday, Bob Gruen asked Lennon if he’d consider becoming an American citizen. “I’m British,” Lennon had replied. “It’s an Englishman’s right to live wherever he pleases.” He did plan on visiting Britain in 1981, and perhaps would have been inspired to buy a home there. As he grew older, and Sean left school, he might have returned to his native land while maintaining homes in America (as the other Beatles did). He’d already imagined retiring there, telling Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner he hoped he and Ono would be “a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that, looking at our scrapbook of madness.”

“Life Begins At 40” was one of the last songs Lennon wrote. It was intended for Ringo Starr, who also turned 40 in 1980. And Lennon fully believed in the sentiment; turning 40 at the dawn of a new decade meant the chance to make a fresh start. “God willing, there are another 40 years of productivity to go,” he optimistically told David Sheff. But fate, sadly, had other plans.