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Note: During 2004 I was asked by a magazine to write an article on John Lennon. Below is one of the longer versions of the resulting article. -Ed
Examining the peace-promoting legacy of John Lennon, Dan Byrnes can only see the slogan “Give Peace a Chance” as realistic. But is this optimistic or pessimistic realism? Stroll through the mixed feelings here and decide for yourself.
“Give Peace A Chance”. Given humanity's histories of chronic warfare, it's a realistic way to put a hopeful idea. But is the Peace Glass half-full or half-empty? Are you basically optimistic or pessimistic?
Imagine, warmongers having to hold a protest rally and chanting, “Give War A Chance”. Does this sound silly? It is deeply silly. But it's a silliness that, like any good joke, suddenly provides its own fresh perspectives on the way through.
And of course, as soon as I write down “Imagine”, I'm inevitably caught in the context of John Lennon's famous song, Imagine. Lennon with this one song more or less hijacked the future of this word, “imagine”. Very clever, and very successful. Famous sayings? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”. Worthy words from Jesus. Now, imagine that Lennon adhered to no specific faith – he was a kind of angry agnostic.
Imagine, that The National Council of Churches in Australia, a consortium of Christians, distributes a business card detailing its ideals – along with a picture of the Lennon Memorial in New York which displays the word “Imagine” - Lennon's definition. Here we have Christians promoting the views of a famous agnostic. Why this paradox? It's interesting.
In a recent TV documentary, Yoko Ono spoke of the 1969 “bed-ins for peace” she and John famously conducted in Montreal, Canada. It was “naive”, as many said at the time... It was “an artistic decision”... and they persisted despite the ridicule they received. They wanted to make statements on behalf of ideals of peace – and I think they succeeded enduringly. But how and why? What was it, with “an artistic decision”? Can art be separated from politics? Evidently not. And aesthetically? All soldiers tend to say that war is ugly, and who could know better than them?
This was in days when worldwide, our TV news was regularly shot through with ugly footage from the Vietnam War, which would proceed till April 1975, and feeling against that war was rampant.
Rereading, I suddenly wondered, forget The Beatles: why would hysteria spread because someone famous held an antic-ridden bed-in and repeated just nine simple words, “All We Are Saying, Is Give Peace A Chance“? And then do something as dangerous as put them to music! Just nine short words. It was an hysterical situation, too, which is part of bed-in fame, or, notoriety. What is the problem? I keep wondering – why hysteria? Was this all just a media beat-up?
I recalled a whimsical book from years ago on human evolution, by a former professional problem-solver for NASA, Glenn Strickland. He proposes, pessimistically, that what has sharpened human intelligence since our primate origins has been the necessity to avoid the results of the aggressions of our neighbours. (And our neighbours, likewise.)
It's a brutal proposition, and Strickland's entertaining theory, overall, is off-beat to say the least. But it is anyway historically true that across millennia, wars have inspired a great deal of extra human creativity – inventions, improved engineering, improved weaponry, new tactics and military trickery and so on. The longer-term history of PEACE tends not to be written. And Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, who likes to turn ideas on their head and see what falls out for fresh inspection, has asked in his book on the causes of war: why do we not speak of outbreaks of peace? Well, we don't, and why not?
Maybe, because for any given population, and as with war, peace is actually an unstable condition? Socially and ideologically, I mean, unstable. And we don't want to think about peace this way? (And after all, even in times of blessed peace, we always have criminals moving about creating various sorts of smaller-scale but very painful mayhem.)
Back to Lennon and the 1969 bed-ins... I wonder if behind-the-scenes, it was George Harrison, a life-long idealist, and not Lennon, who introduced The Beatles to the peace theme? In 1967, The Beatles sang All You Need Is Love, performing it before the world's largest TV audience ever gathered by that time. The future publicity opportunities were obvious – for any message at all any Beatle ever wanted to spread. Somewhat later, Lennon received a fan letter which suggested he use his fame and resulting access to the media to promote something useful – such as an idea on peace. This letter seemed to spark the John-and-Yoko team to do, as they put it, something rather than nothing. And the bed-in result was...? Hysteria.
Still, out of this mix of hysteria, pop hero worship, misunderstanding, something rather than nothing, outlandishly-commented and reportedly naïve idealism came something more - a clutch of unforgettable songs. All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. (I've always loved that peculiar, rhythmic, thumping percussion behind this song, it is one of the quaintest sounds in all pop music.) Plus Happy Christmas (War is Over). Most of all, Imagine, which has become an international anthem for the peace movement.
If we tinker here with Blainey's tongue-in-cheek question - why do we not speak of outbreaks of peace? - the words, Give Peace a Chance, ring a bit more realistically. Almost enough to inspire someone later to invent a term like, “the peace process”, just to give peace an extra chance. Is the Peace Glass half-full or half-empty? Certainly, peace should not be forgotten or ignored. What Lennon did was give us a simple touchstone and assurance – at least you can imagine and dream.
Much earlier, Lennon had written Revolution. From when I first heard it, I've felt it's an enigmatic song. It recognizes impulses to revolution, and accompanying violence, it fears and worries about the violence, and it discusses Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution, which can now easily be regarded as a set of crimes against humanity, the worse for being so pretentious.
Revolution though doesn't quite suggest what to think next. Revolution has great guitar work, but the song is a bundle of highly-charged and mixed emotions. As songs go, Revolution stuck in my mind as a serious, continued caution. I'm sure a great many people took this song this way.
John Lennon's less-public days were the ones he found the more satisfying. He invented the term, “house husband”, when he took a long time out from what had been a punishingly successful career. Few if any have produced his tally of #1 hits. He once said (words to effect), he'd gotten sick of living and writing songs at a 100 miles an hour all the time.(Check his song, Steppin' Out.)
We should not forget the pains of success – Lennon when at the top of the tree of pop music fame once wrote about how to (metaphorically) “kill with a smile” Anyone famous in pop music will meet a lot of idiots, and Lennon unfortunately was destined to be shot and killed by one, the deranged Mark Chapman, on 8 December 1980. Lennon once said, (Sheff, p. viii), “Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King are great examples of fantastic non-violents who died violently. I can never work it out.” He did not have exactly the same destiny, but one just as sad, maybe less explicable.
Lennon when he wrote Imagine was a migrant from the UK to New York, USA (imagine there's no country). He was world-famous, world-travelled, world-jaded, and one reason he left the UK was due to his fame. He could not walk about unmolested or live normally. Fame kept Elvis Presley a prisoner-for-life, and it killed Lennon. When he promoted world peace, Lennon however didn't do it from a poor immigrant's perspective. Imagine was written on a white grand piano at a very expensive address. Though he didn't know it, Lennon by when he wrote it was living on borrowed time, one of his song titles now to be read as tragic, sadly ironic.
Amid the general biography and emotionalism of much of Lennon's song lyrics, there is also an interesting warning for everyone in his song to his son by Yoko, Sean (born 1975). In Beautiful Boy, are words to the effect, “Life is what happens [to you] while you're planning other things.” Importantly, we find that for ideologues, of the left or the right, the ambiguity of this finding from life can seem unbearable. Ideology must seem firm, convinced, righteous, able to carry the day, and it should always lead to always-effective action. (Just ask Donald Rumsfeld anytime around now!) And why might this be?
Partly because it's an excellent way to induce young men to risk their lives en masse, maybe the only way to begin to build soldiers' morale. Life of course is never as simple as ideologues wish to believe, and we all have our self-contradictions. Morally and otherwise, we can all trip over our own shoelaces, and we often do. Nevertheless, Lennon after he wrote “imagine there's no heaven”, became a secular saint; a very human angel to the peace movement.
What did Lennon really give us? Food for thought? A smidgeon of an ability to face ridicule for being idealistic, or something more? How many wars have erupted since Lennon's days of protests? And if you mildly mention the idea of giving peace a little extra chance, what does this do for soldier morale? Probably, no one wants to do a survey on this. It's interesting in the psychological dimension, isn't it? The busy-work of pumping up new-recruit soldier morale, versus a few songs by John Lennon. Is it worth asking: who wins that little battle?
I do keep wondering, how today's warmongers in Australia feel about so many of our old Anzacs, now all gone. Since in recent years, so many of the old Anzacs repeatedly told us in TV interview about their experience of World War One – war is futile, and horrifying. If we can't believe old soldiers, who can we believe? Not, I think, the warmongers. What to do about self-contradiction? As with many legacies, Lennon's is fraught with a major frailty of human nature – self-contradiction. Maybe the lives of many peace activists are so fretted? (There were aspects of the personal life of India's apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Ghandi, that are still worth gossiping about.)
[Advice from an old soldier: Australian World War I veteran, Ted Smout, aged 104 in 2002, (also an Australian republican), is against Australia contributing to a war effort against Iraq. In his view, it would be preposterous to send Australian troops to fight in Iraq. "Australians shouldn't go overseas to fight again. The only fighting should be done here, to defend Australia, " he said. (Reported 10 August 2002)]
Yet out of his self-contradictions, John Lennon managed to give the peace-protest movement some anthems to carry on with – “spreading the word, like butter”. Happy Christmas (War is Over) tends to be brought out each Christmas by radio stations, almost automatically. And why not? It's no bad thing, to give peace another little chance, just by mentioning it.
"Give Peace A Chance" by now is an internationally-known slogan. Everyone knows where it comes from. On balance, it's an ambiguous-but-realistic thought, albeit, one impossible to disentangle from our views of Lennon's career. Of course, the work of any serious artist projects layers of ambiguity into the future. Works of art without ambiguity tend to die off in the public imagination. Lennon knew this well. That is why it didn't matter if anyone thought he was a dreamer; many other people are similar dreamers.
Dreaming in the spirit of what, though? The spirit of... this is all a circular thought pattern, it returns to its own wellsprings.
Really, why should hysteria break out if someone says, “maybe just give some peace an extra chance?”. Really, what does it say about human nature? Why so many lives cut short?
I think the pressure of such questions must be why Australian Christians finally feel comfortable promoting Lennon's legacy – the questions are finally unanswerable. Idealism is better than its opposites. If you think about all this long enough, Beatles folklore included, you have to return to some set of basics. You have to make your choices.
It's no mean achievement, to use music and relatively simple lyrics to point freshly to unanswerable questions living deep in the mystery of life.
John Lennon's legacy to the peace movement is enduring, but one strewn with much ambiguity. I think, may his legacy, and the diverse thoughts it provokes, never die.
Compilation, Chant And Be Happy: The Power Of Mantra Meditation. (Based on the teachings of His Divine Grace, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, with views of John Lennon and George Harrison.) Sydney, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2002.
Geoffrey Giuliano, The Beatles: A Celebration. London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986.
Michael Heatley, The Immortal John Lennon, 1940-1980. London, Viscount, 1992.
Jerry Hopkins, Yoko Ono. London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987.
David Sheff, Last Interview: All We Are Saying: John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Playboy/Pan Books, 1981, 2000, 2001.
Glenn G. Strickland, Genesis Revisited: A Revolutionary New Solution to the Mystery of Man's Origins. New York, Dial Press, 1979.
(And most of a lifetime of listening to Beatles' records!)
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