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Here I Am... There You Are: "Imagine No John Lennon"

by Terry Scott Taylor

HM Magazine March/April 2002

Contributing Editor Terry Scott Taylor is a veteran musician and songwriter, renowned for his gigs with Daniel Amos, Swirling Eddies, and the Lost Dogs, as well as for Production and solo work. More info at www.TerryScottTaylor.com

"John Lennon was shot... He's dead." Our recording engineer's face was an ashen mask of shock and grief, and his pronouncement was in effect a kind of gasp, as if someone had just punched him in the stomach. He had to repeat it twice. The ebullient mood and hubbub of joyful creative activity inside the control room at Whitefield Studios (where Daniel Amos was recording it's latest album) halted with an abruptness only a sudden and stunning kick to the heart could have produced. We were shell-shocked into a brief moment of utter silence in which the wind seemed to be both sucked out of the room and out of our souls at the same stunning instant. This was immediately followed by a sudden rushing squall of tearful protests and turbulent flurry of demands for details, as if filling in the blanks would somehow bring comfort.

I vividly recall Tom Roy's somber heart-rending news, and other various details of that dark night, in the same way I can specifically recollect where I was the moment I learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated, heard the O.J. Simpson verdict, or pieced together the initially incomprehensible words of the unusually somber radio host whose job on an unfamous day in in September of 2001 was to inform his shocked and incredulous listeners that America had been essentially changed forever. As promised and predicted, terrorism had come to her shores.

On the day of the Twin Towers collapse there was a young construction worker seated head in hand at a curbside just down the street from my house. The sound of a passing car caused him to raise his head up just in time to see his own look of mind numbing incomprehension, of horror, fear, and the shock of incalculable loss - all mirrored there in the hollow-eyed visage of the vehicle's driver. I think it likely he will always remember me as well. Two strangers, one youngm the other more than twice his age, were suddenly and inexorably bound to each other and to an entire nation by an incomprehensible tragedy, the likes of which the nation had essentially never known before.

Prior to this, if the young man and I had noticed each other at all, we likely only registered as fairly minor blips on our crowded thought-screens of everyday minutia. Soon after I passed by, I remember wondering if the young man had caught the slight, almost involuntary wag of the head I'd offered him, and if he had understood this gesture as being an embrace... my trembling hands around his sagging shoulders. He made no mutual overture, but never-the-less, there was the shock of recognition in his haunted eyes that seemed to say he knew me very well, and that despite any differences in religious affiliation, age, race, class, or gender, we are all of us, this day, initiates in, and slack-jawed members of, the fraternal order of the truly broken hearted. It had taken a stark tragedy to lead us back to the reality of our shared humanity. Darkness, it seemed, was now our light.

While John Lennon's death cannot compare in depth and scope with the attack on America (the latter's deeper implications have yet to be, if ever, fully fathomed), the tragic loss of one of the world's greatest musicians and passionate social/political activists - who, like Kennedy, was murdered by an assassin, and who, like the Twin Towers, was cut down in New York - still resonates with millions of people worldwide. I remember the song "Beautiful Boy" (John's tribute to his son, Sean), being played on the radio the day following John's death. Our own beautiful boy was in the car with us, as my wife and I both struggled with our emotions to the point that I finally pulled the car of the road and allowed the tears to flow, and the pain and sadness to fully wash over us. To this day, this song never fails to fill me with sad, sweet melancholy, and at certain times bring me again to tears.

Yet, of all the wonderful songs that John composed, none seem to encapsulate the man and his legacy more than the song that many consider Lennon's greatest composition, a song written well after he had left the Beatles. If asked to name the song we would most closeley associate with Paul McCartney, the calssic "Yesterday" would probably take pre-eminence. With John Lennon, it is "Imagine," which is most popularly regarded as the flagship of his musical legacy. I must admit that I am divided in my feelings about the song, and that there remains a certain degree of uncomfortableness I experience in listening to it. On one hand the artfulness of the performance, the beauty of the melody, and much of the sentiment of the lyrics continue to strike a resonant chord within me. On the other hand, the utopian vision of the world John paints (a world with "no religion," "no heaven," etc.) seems both wrong-headed and, yes, I'm sorry to say, hypocritical.

I remember a review at the time of the song's release, in which the skeptical critic wrote "Imagine John Lennon with no possessions." Neil Young, performing "Imagine" during the NY John Lennon tribute, possessed enough insight and humility to make a small but significant adjustment in Lennon's lyric, perhaps unnoticed by most of us watching. "Imagine no possessions / I wonder if I can," he sang. Despite these things, I maintain that "Imagine" is still an incredibly moving and haunting song, and that John's passionate sincerity, his longing for a better world, for brotherhood and transcendent love, manages to move me still.

John was a firm believer in the potency of love to change hearts and lives and ultimately the world... but... John's philosophy as expressed in "Imagine," while simple, child-like, and whimsically attractive, is - in my opinion - quite flawed. The problem is this: While "Imagine" is driven by an undeniably charming idealism and passionate emotionalism, in the end it leaves us and John in a logical quagmire. I'm no theologian, but if the dawn of man began with an amoeba crawling up out of the primordial soupm then it can be argued that without a Divine Source, in reality love itself is only an illusion. In other words, we "made it up." To "Imagine there's no heaven" is to essentially imagine there is no God.

As Christians, we are convinced that love is Truebecause it has a True Source (a "First cause"), and that the eternal, triune God is not only the wellspring from which love flows, but in fact (as, ironically, another John tells us), God is love. It is His very nature. John Lennon had the exceptional gift of expressing through his art our collective longing for the redemption of love, and as full of stumblings and stutterings as his expressions may have been, Lennon, like all of us, bore the divine image. Because he did so, his work is not (like many of our more, let's say, "theologically terse brethren" would vehemently maintain) without worth.

On the night I learned he was gone, I could not "Imagine" no John Lennon, because as a man and an artists John had been such an integral part of my life. My teenage years were basically spent under the whimsical "spell" of the "Fab Four," and the magic dust the Beatles had sprinkled over the world partially broke the evil incantation cast by the death of the nation's king, John F. Kennedy, and helped to bring us out of our deep mourning. The trumpets of the realm announcing "great tidings" were in fact the screams of millions of hysterical girls, and the formerly Cursed Kingdom was now vibrantly alive with the hopes and dreams of it's long-haired young princes who asked not for swords, but for electric guitars, with which to take on the dragon of lost innocence. We were under the enchantment of new hope, and the world was a pumpkin coach whisked away by four enchanted "Beatles" whose destination was a new and better tomorrow.

Sadly, our happy ending still eludes us. Vietnam and September 11, 2001 were the strokes of midnight, and we find ourselves living in the middle hours somewhere between the broken spell and the triumphant arrival of the Prince of Peace.

All of our gifts and talents are marred by our fallenness, yet in the work and life of a man like John Lennon, we hear an essentially angst-ridden cry for inner peace and redemptive love, a love he believed could save the world. In Lennon we are able to perceive the tell-tale signs of a loving creator whose sun shines, and whose rain falls on the just and unjust, the saint and the sinner alike.

Seemingly senseless and outrageous tragedies like John Lennon's death and the brutal attack on America confuses us, cause us fear and dread, break our hearts. Yet it is in this brokenness that the Prince of Peace may be found. To follow Jesus is to bear a cross. We do not seek suffering, but in embracing whatever suffering comes our way, and in whatever form it may come - wthough the "why" of it all may essentially remain a mystery - we are assured by a gracious, merciful, just and loving God that we are slowly but surely being transformed into the image of His only begotten Son.