The first pass at telling this tale appeared in SLANT
in 1987. The version below is an update.
in 1987. The version below is an update.
Illustration by Mike Lormand (1984)
On the occasion of the anniversary of his death, on Dec. 8, 1980, I can’t help but wonder what the founder of the Beatles — John Lennon, a master of word-play and sarcasm — would have to say about today's music, art and politics.
It would be anybody's guess. After all, in his nearly 20 years as a public figure Lennon’s knack for changing before our eyes was dazzling. There's no reason to think such a restless soul wouldn't have kept on changing.
In November, 2008, on the occasion of what was the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ White Album, the Vatican newspaper praised the groundbreaking British band for its body of work and forgave Lennon for his flippant 1966 quip about sudden success, “[We’re] more popular than Jesus.”
Even the bloody Vatican has changed but it seems peace, itself, is still waiting off-stage for its chance.
In February of 1964 the Beatles made their initial appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. At the time most people probably didn’t connect the events, but those two appearances were less than three months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the numbness that followed. Surely, the somber mood of the nation had something to do with why the harmony of those crisp Beatles songs cut through the airwaves with such verve.
Clearly, there's been no explosion in the American pop music scene since 1964 with anything like the impact of Liverpool’s Fab Four. Nothing since has equaled Beatlemania.
Then, in 1980, the murder of moody John Lennon had an impact on the public most of us wouldn't have predicted. It was as if a world leader had been gunned down on the street in Manhattan. Lennon’s obvious contributions as a songwriter and musician were huge. But it was his startling sincerity, together with his quick sense of humor that set him apart from some of his pop star counterparts who dabbled with social causes like they were hairdos.
With the Vietnam War still underway in the early ‘70s, President Richard Nixon looked at Lennon and saw the raw power to galvanize a generation’s anti-establishment sentiments. Fearful of that potential, the Nixon administration did everything it could to hound Lennon out of the country. The details of that nasty little campaign are just as bewildering as some of the better known abuses that flowed from the Dirty Tricks Department in the White House during those scandal-ridden days.
With so many years of perspective on Lennon’s death, I have to say that even if that particular nut-case (a man I choose not to name because I refuse to add in any way to his celebrity) hadn’t pulled the trigger, it could easily have been another one; there were other bullets out there with John Lennon’s name on them.
Like the comets of each generation tend to do, sometimes Lennon burned too bright for his own good. And, speaking of assassinations, at this time I’m also reminded of an item that ran in the Nashville Banner on Feb. 24, 1987. The article began with this:
Two Nashville musicians remained free on $500 bond today after they went on a magazine-shredding tear …to protest People magazine’s current cover story.The two musicians were Gregg Wetzel, and Mike McAdam. As members of the Good Humor Band they were fixtures in Richmond’s rock ‘n’ roll scene in the early ‘80s. By the time the story mentioned above was published, the pair had established themselves as respected sidemen in Nashville — Wetzel on piano and McAdam on guitar.
In a nutshell, Gregg and Mike became incensed at seeing the magazine with a cover story about John Lennon’s murderer. They felt spotlighting the killer in that way might encourage another deranged wannabe to take gun in hand to go after whoever. So they fortified themselves with an adequate dose of what-it-takes — legend has it they were drinking out of an Elvis decanter — and set out on a mission to destroy the cover of every copy of the offensive publication they could find.
As the reader may know, this sort of endeavor is frequently best undertaken in the wee hours. In the course of their fifth stop, at a Nashville convenience store, the avenging angels were stopped by the cops and charged with “malicious mischief.”
Shortly afterwards, in a interview about the incident, McAdam said at the time, “If another guy like [name withheld again] sees that, he might think he can get on the cover of People magazine by killing a politician or artist.”
Chief among the reasons John Lennon was selected for the kill by his stalking murderer was he had a rare ability to move people. In that sense, Lennon was slain for the same reason as political figures such as Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Two thousand years ago Jesus H. Christ was taken out of the game for much the same reason. All of them challenged people to change, to take a chance on a life based on something better than might making right.
Although Nixon miscalculated Lennon’s intentions, the soon-to-be-disgraced president was probably right about the former Beatle’s potential to focus the anti-establishment sentiments in the air. What Nixon didn’t grasp was that Lennon — in spite of his mischievous streak — was really more interested in promoting peace than fomenting revolution.
“The cops looked at me and McAdam,” said Wetzel, to flesh out the 25-year-old tale, “decided we weren’t exactly flight risks and entrusted our transport to the pokey with an attractive female officer, all by her lonesome. On the way to the hoosegow, Mickey hit on the cop. True story.”
Thirty-four years after Lennon's shocking death we're left to imagine, as best we can, what the 74-year-old working man's wiseass would have to say now.
-- 30 --