John Lennon: 40 for 40 Years, and Still a Voice for Peace

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono Lennon, New York City. | Photo: Jack Mitchell (Wikimedia Commons 4.0).

If it seems like a lifetime since musician and peace activist John Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980, that’s because it has been. His.

Lennon was 40 when time stopped for him. To his first-generation fans, people like me, he’ll always be 40. And now, in December 2020, he’s been 40 for 40 years.

Amidst the flurry of reissues, remixes, books, and documentaries released from October to December this year, marking what would have been his 80th birthday on October 9 and that horrible Monday night in 1980, rock pundits and counterculture observers have been weighing the impact of Lennon’s life, music and legacy.

As the original writer/producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series from 1988-1990 (the first 128 hour-long shows), heard worldwide via the Westwood One Radio Network, I figure I’m at least somewhat qualified to add my voice to the chorus, and I’ll try not to sing out of key.

Of course, Yoko and Sean and Julian’s voices are the most important, and we’ll share posts from all.

Another whose voice is far more qualified than mine is the series’ on-air host, Elliot Mintz, the Los Angeles-based broadcaster who became friends with Yoko Ono and then John in the early 1970s, as well as their longtime media rep. In addition to voicing my scripts for “The Lost Lennon Tapes,” Elliot also was the liaison between Yoko and the Lennon Estate archives at the Dakota in New York City and the Westwood One production studios in L.A.-adjacent Culver City.

It was a great pleasure to catch up with him in October as we shared our thoughts about John’s birth and death, so we’ll hear Elliot’s voice as well a bit later.

* * * * *

john lennon
The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” 1964.

Like many fellow Boomers, I vividly recall the moment I heard about John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. I was 12. And Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s in spring and summer 1968 when I was 16, and already firmly in the pro-Civil Rights, antiwar counterculture.

Their deaths were defining moments that ripped gaping holes in the already-fraying fabric of our society. Imagine. What if…? It’s a torrent of images and thoughts and emotions about promise and despair.

The Beatles’ invasion in early 1964 helped a grieving nation find joy again. But then came 1970, and their acrimonious breakup, and the tragic, stupid deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin later in the year, and The Doors’ Jim Morrison the following summer.

It seemed half the counterculture’s heroes had died violent deaths years too early, and what innocence that remained after the political violence and racial upheaval of the ’60s had vanished in the haze.

Dylan had sought shelter from the storm after his 1966 motorcycle crash, and when he returned with “John Wesley Harding” in 1968, he was still telling those who thought he was “The Voice” of their generation that they were mistaken, and that they should latch onto someone else. “It ain’t me, babe.”

Musically, Lennon had emerged from The Beatles first, in July 1969 with “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded with Yoko and a hotel room full of fans, acolytes and peaceniks at the couple’s Montreal bed-in for peace that May, and rush-released by Apple as the first Plastic Ono Band single. If Dylan was no longer comfortable taking on the masters of war, Lennon had no problem with it. It was no Don Quixote complex; he genuinely thought he could help mobilize public opinion against the war in Vietnam, and did.

In late 1970, with his first solo studio album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” recorded with Klaus Voorman on bass and Ringo Starr on drums, Lennon angrily and powerfully reflected a lifetime of dreams shattered, a host of discontent rubbed raw through his unhappy experiences as a child, as a Beatle, with fans’ overwhelming objection to Yoko Ono entering the mix, heroin addiction, and Primal Scream therapy with Arthur Janov.

john lennon

The album – and the December 8, 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview with Jann Wenner first published in January and February ’71 by Rolling Stone – scared the living crap out of all but the hardest-core fans. Lennon’s pain was real, and through that album, we felt it, and shared it with him.

By summer 1971, Lennon had recovered his sense of humor and sense of humanity somewhat, and recorded his “Imagine” album with the Plastic Ono Band (can’t forget the Flux Fiddlers, too), to these ears his most fully realized solo work. He and Yoko moved to New York at the end of that summer and quickly hooked up with the radical left counterculture percolating there. That may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was ultimately a big mistake.

Lennon’s single “Power to the People” had been a call to arms that year. By early 1972, after the couple appeared as guest hosts for a week on “The Mike Douglas Show” and aides to Sen. Strom Thurmond got wind that John Lennon planned to get involved with the political conventions later that year, the Feds had begun their campaign to silence Lennon (as detailed in Jon Wiener’s excellent books, “Come Together: John Lennon in His Time” and “Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files”).

By grinding the native Brit about his immigration status for the next couple of years, the Feds did effectively shut Lennon up. Those of us who’d thought of him as a “Voice” were also disheartened by his personal and creative meltdown in the mid-1970s. Nixon resigned and left the White House in disgrace on August 8, 1974, as Lennon was still estranged from Yoko and “lost weekending” in L.A., but it wasn’t until February 1976 that he was officially granted the right to stay in the States.

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Leon Wildes, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, New York City, July 27, 1976.

Vietnam was over by then. The world had flipped mode once again. Our society was trying to recover, looking inward, and/or medicating itself heavily. Lennon was back with Yoko, a father again, and done fighting. He just wanted to be left alone with his wife to raise his second son, Sean, since he’d totally blown it with the first, Julian, being a Beatle and all.

Finally, in summer 1980, chatter on the Lennon grapevine said John was writing new songs. (Actually, he’d never stopped writing, never “hung up his guitar.” As I found out seven years later going through his personal tape library looking for unreleased gems for the “Lost Lennon Tapes” series, he’d laid down his first home demos for many of these “new” songs during his “househusband” years.)

‘If life begins at 40, I’ve been dead for 39…’ – John Lennon, “Life Begins at 40,” 1980 demo

By late summer that year, fans around the world knew he was going public again. We couldn’t wait. John Lennon had grown up and had a family; we could relate. He and Yoko started producing sessions at the Hit Factory in New York for a new album at the end of August, abetted by producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick).

“(Just Like) Starting Over” was released October 24 as an advance single and took off straight-away. Then came the “Double Fantasy” album on November 17 and a media blitz, Lennon’s first in more than five years.

He and Yoko were deliriously happy with the initial response and kept recording songs for a second album. One of the tracks was “Living on Borrowed Time.”

Late on the evening of Monday, December 8, as the Lennons returned to the Dakota from a mixing session at Record Plant and started walking up the driveway entrance, there was a flash, and for John, everything went dark.

For eternity.

Meanwhile, on the Left Coast, I heard the news in the morning, oh, boy, when I turned on the radio and heard KMET-FM and just about every L.A. station playing his music wall-to-wall – except the news stations, which were covering the murder wall-to-wall.

I threw a blank cassette into my tape deck and kept rolling for more than 12 hours until I ran out of blanks. I don’t recall going to work (at Elektra/Asylum). My then-girlfriend, now my wife of 39 years, and my sister, who’d watched The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” with me on February 9, 1964, and got just as excited, joined me in anger, pain, tears, and mourning.

Only my mother’s death from cancer at 44 in 1974 – which at least we saw coming – was more devastating to me.

Our family felt for Yoko. Fans might have demonized her for her role in The Beatles’ breakup, but the woman lost her friend, husband, the father of her son. Violently. Right in front of her. That’s unfathomable pain. Not something you’d wish on your worst enemy.

And thinking of John’s sons: Julian, who basically lost his dad twice, maybe three times, the last one forever; and Sean, who idolized his father as only a 5-year-old could, and would now have to grow up without him. Anyone who had a heart, or a kid, or both, couldn’t help just losing it.

john lennon photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Driveway entrance to the Dakota on W. 72nd St. in New York City, summer 1989. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

We joined the worldwide vigil Yoko called, lighting up candles with thousands of others gathered in Century City. It seemed like rock stations played Lennon for days.

“When John died, I was so shocked that I couldn’t move,” Yoko said in 1982. “There is nothing of you left. I could barely stand. But by the time I came back from the hospital, there was someone asking, ‘What do you want to do with his body?’ Then people told me about all the suicides out there because of grief over John’s murder and they asked me, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ One side of me was saying, ‘How do you expect me to deal with something like that?’ But the other side of me just starts to deal with it. I felt so guilty towards Sean, like, ‘What did we do to him?’ Well, we didn’t do it, but somehow we had brought him into the world hoping that he would have a happy life. And then this terrible, cruel thing happens. How can a 5-year-old face that?”
In late 1987, as a Westwood One radio producer and in-house Beatlemaniac, I gained a new appreciation for Lennon as an artist through the creative process revealed by his demos and early studio takes, and as a man through his numerous radio and TV interviews and the priceless spoken-word tapes he made with Yoko and Sean as a toddler. He still had so much to offer, to so many people. My mission with the radio series was to remind listeners once a week, to give them some truth, for an hour.

Yoko and I finally met face-to-face in July 1989, when she graciously welcomed me to the Dakota for a visit. We spent almost two hours in the kitchen, talking about family, mostly. She also said she’d heard nothing but good things about my work on “The Lost Lennon Tapes,” which aired weekly on WNEW-FM in New York.

“Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” she said.

Only John’s imprimatur could have topped it.

Now, 40 years after his murder, with everything that’s happened since, one wonders if the rest of us ever recovered. Yoko has done her best to keep his message of peace alive, politically, and personally. And if ever we needed a voice for peace between us, it’s now.

Just as one might project what the world might be like if JFK, MLK, and RFK had lived out their lives, one would like to imagine a world where Lennon did indeed grow old with Yoko, without any fear.

I did this often in my two and a half-plus years working “The Lost Lennon Tapes,” totally immersed in Lennonia. Every time, I found inspiration and wound up in a better place. That’s still true every time I’ve returned to “the zone” over the last 30-plus years – including now. That’s the Lennon legacy.

* * * * *

Julian Lennon Marks the Time…

Sean Ono Lennon on His Dad and Current Events

A lot of people ask or wonder or try to imagine what he would have said about current events. I think it’s unfair to speak for him. I think it’s unrealistic to imagine that any of us know because I always say this; look, I have no idea what he would think. I could guess, but I really don’t know. But the only thing I know is that what he thought today wouldn’t be the exact same thing he thought yesterday or 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Because if there’s one thing that’s consistent about my dad, from record to record, from year to year, from song to song, from moment to moment – he was always evolving and changing his world view. He didn’t think the same way in 1975 as he did in 1965. That was not how he was. He was always updating and reviewing his world view and his thinking was always evolving – whether it was going from transcendental meditation to primal screaming to whatever else it was – he was a seeker, and he was evolving and he was never complacent intellectually. So I don’t want to speak for him, and I don’t think anyone should try. He said enough, you know, in his career and in his lyrics to speak for himself. So there’s that. There’s Gimme Some Truth and the fact that that speaks perfectly well for him today.
But there’s also the idea that we should try to reframe or guess what his ideas would be specifically about world events today. I don’t think that’s fair – it’s not fair to him. He wouldn’t have liked it. He’s not the kind of person who wanted other people speaking for him. So if I can come close to answer people’s desire for me to say about what he would have thought I would say, well, listen to Gimme Some Truth. There it is.
– To Strombo, October 9, 2020
* * * * *

Elliot Mintz Remembers John Lennon

In an October 2020 conversation, my “Lost Lennon Tapes” colleague Elliot Mintz and I spoke at length about his friend’s birthday, househusband years, senseless murder, and remarkable legacy.

Stephen K. Peeples: It’s coming up on 40 years since his death, and we’re still talking about John and his music and what he meant to us and to the world at large. What do you think about that?

Elliot Mintz: I think, for people of a certain age that were around when John and Yoko first appeared on the scene after the Beatle breakup, till the day that he fell, it was like a death in the family.

I frequently said that he was the one who took off the makeup first. He was the one who, if he thought and he felt it, he expressed it, and in his expression, he was speaking for millions of us.

I guess you would call us Baby Boomer generation people now, and although, yes, there were younger people who were just discovering The Beatles and some who are in fact [now] discovering the John and Yoko experience, the majority of people who remember 1980 as if it were yesterday are now in their ’60s, ’70s, and beyond.

It was like somebody walking into the room and saying, “Your best friend was just killed.” It was the kind of loss that, to some degree, cast doubt upon the sanctity of the belief systems that he advanced.

How could somebody who basically just stood for peace and love reach such an unspeakable ending? Does it shake our faith in the values that he expressed? What was missed? Why did God blink?

We know everything about him. I mean, one of the most well-documented people on planet Earth. We know exactly where it began, and for those who have chosen to follow the odyssey, including through ‘The Lost Lennon Tapes,’ we know where it ended, but in terms of putting a punctuation mark as to why it had to stop, we still don’t have a clue.

I try these days to celebrate the day of his birth as opposed to the day of his passing, but I’m not impervious of course to the circumstances surrounding that dark day, and you had mentioned earlier your visit to the Dakota and walking through that driveway and up those few steps. I’ve done that more than a hundred times since 1980, and they are never just a few steps in a driveway. His loss is immeasurable, and I wish there was a way that I could punctuate why so many of us, on this day, are still looking back with affection, sadness, and in some cases, anger. I just miss him.

Peeples: And his legacy: I think – I might be biased, but my observation is that of all the four Beatles, John was the one that spoke to the subsequent generations just as loudly, I think.

Mintz: I would go even wider, Stephen, not only among the four Beatles but among almost anyone I can think of in the world of entertainment.

Musicians. We on a daily basis now lament the passing of all the artists that we see having reached the end of their road now, and we certainly owe them enormous debts of gratitude; we miss them dearly.

But there is something particularly endearing about John. there is a reason why every New Year’s begins with the playing of [“Imagine”] in Times Square that’s televised around the world.

There are many artists who have sung many iconic songs. That one we can’t let go of because that song encapsulates pretty much those things that he advanced and believed in, and it speaks to the best in each of us, and even during this impossible period that we are living through right now, we seek redemption in his visions.

It, to me, is always a source of optimism that he was not the only one – I’m not the only one, nor are you, nor are just the people who listened to ‘The Lost Lennon Tapes,’ but in some mercurial way, he impacted the planet. He’ll never be forgotten.

Peeples: I’ll second that emotion for sure. Now, we’re of a certain age, though, Elliot. Do you think this kind of touches on what I was speaking to before, about later generations relating to him as well? Where do you think his music and his legacy are going to be 40 years from now?

Mintz: It’s difficult to speculate because I’m aware of the shortened attention span of the generations that have followed us. I know our generation will be long gone 40 years from now. People who are 13, 14, 15, who are just studying music or being involved with music, presumably if there is a Google and you can touch it and tap in his name, a plethora of material will emerge, including all the music he left behind.

I think [Lennon’s legacy] will be intact, but it will be material off of a screen on a computer. It will not have the impact it did for those who lived through it.

It would be like, tonight, me tapping in Mozart or Chopin or Shakespeare. I would get what they created, I would be able to read the books, I’d be able to listen to the sonatas and the concertos, etc. But it’s not like having been there, so yes, he will always be remembered, the music will always have value, but it’ll be thinner. It won’t have the substance…

Peeples: The context.

Mintz: The context; that’s the word. And maybe, just maybe, if 40 years from now, they Googled ‘The Lost Lennon Tapes,’ that might resuscitate, that might revive a more in-depth perception, because that we can’t do with Chopin and Mozart and Shakespeare. We can’t hear them speak beyond their artistry.

We’ll always be able to do that with John.

Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. john lennon • He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992). • Peeples was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). • Moving online, he was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • Based in the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • The Santa Clarita journalist most recently was a News Editor at SCVTV’s and SVP/New Media for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. He retired from his 46-year media career in 2021. • For more info and original stories, visit exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to Peeples’ YouTube channel.

Article: John Lennon: 40 for 40 Years, and Still a Voice for Peace
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
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