Turns out John Lennon was not the only dreamer


Turns out John Lennon was not the only dreamer

In December 2020, 40 years after John Lennon was murdered in New York, MAX DU PREEZ wrote about the impact the Beatle had on his life.


IN my mid-20s, I wore round-framed glasses and had long hair. I loved wearing a hat and sometimes had a cigarette hanging from my lips.

What can I say, I was slow to awaken. Mimicking role models from popular culture is something you typically do in your teenage years. But openly rebelling in a strict Afrikaner-Christian-National environment like mine was difficult. It took a few years to free myself from the influence of Kroonstad.

The round-framed glasses and hair belonged to John Lennon, while the hat and cigarette were from Hunter S Thompson, the king of Gonzo, the self-proclaimed “doctor of journalism". These were the only two heroes I ever had — forgive me, Gen Christiaan de Wet. (Read more about Thompson here.)

Here in my later decades, I find it interesting that the catalysts for my political awakening and liberation from narrow-minded Afrikaner nationalism and Boer Calvinism came from outside my own community.

I barely knew who Nelson Mandela was, but the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, when I was in matric, was one of the first triggers that made me aware of prevailing injustices in the world. The cruelty of apartheid had mostly eluded me at that time, but I was deeply disturbed as a first-year student at Stellenbosch when four protesting students at Kent State University were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard on May 4 1970.

Maybe it was easier for me to formulate a sense of justice without confronting my own white, privileged situation as a young, male Afrikaner in apartheid South Africa. It was easier and safer — as I would discover a few years later when I managed to escape from the clutches of the system.

As I found my journalistic footing, my fascination with Hunter S Thompson faded. However, John Lennon is still a part of my consciousness after five decades.

In the house where I grew up, rock music was not considered a healthy influence, to put it mildly. We were a classical music and musicals household. LM Radio, the only station playing rock (on shortwave from Mozambique) in the 1960s, was forbidden.

Nevertheless, Lennon registered in my awareness, especially after his statement in 1966 that sent the whole of (white) South Africa into horror: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. We're more popular than Jesus now — I don't know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity."

I wondered who this guy was that could shake up my whole world like that. And that's when I started reading about Lennon and, whenever possible, listening to The Beatles.

The humble working-class background of the guys who later became “more popular than Jesus" impressed me. Lennon started his first band, the Quarrymen (named after his school in Liverpool, Quarry Bank High), in 1956, with Paul McCartney and George Harrison joining shortly after. They were renamed The Beatles in 1960. (The bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, Lennon's schoolmate, was part of the group for a few years, as well as the drummer Pete Best, who was replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962.)

Their early music was skiffle, a British genre of the 1950s that used guitars and sometimes household items and was influenced by early black American jazz and blues. British singer and music historian Billy Bragg explains that skiffle originated when British teenagers began using the guitar “to express how they're different from their parents. The guitar becomes the way they make the future happen."

Between 1960 and 1962, The Beatles mainly performed in Germany and made catchy pop songs, such as Love Me Do.

Lennon and McCartney were a songwriting combination made in heaven. But if there'd been no John Lennon, The Beatles would never have existed.

In 1963, The Beatles hit Britain like a hurricane, and the following year, the same happened in America. There had never been a phenomenon like The Beatles before.

I was crazy about The Beatles' earliest, lighter songs, and for years I joyfully sang and danced along with tracks like Can’t Buy Me Love, Twist and Shout and I Want to Hold Your Hand.

But for me, the true gold was the later Beatles songs, such as Hey Jude, Come Together, Strawberry Fields Forever, Lady Madonna, Across the Universe and Paperback Writer.

(I visited the area of Central Park in New York, which was named Strawberry Fields in Lennon's memory, in 1992.)

Lennon's personal life became more interesting after he left The Beatles in 1969. He returned his Member of the British Empire award to the Queen because Britain supported America in Vietnam, and his relationship with Yoko Ono (in New York) led him down different paths than his Beatle mates. He became increasingly involved in politics, and President Richard Nixon tried for four years to deport him.

In 1971, he released his album Imagine. The title track has been a symbol of the anti-war movement worldwide for decades and is just as poignant 50 years later as it was back then:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
sharing all the world, you

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

On the afternoon of December 8 1980, Lennon signed an album cover for a fan, Mark David Chapman, just outside his apartment building, The Dakota, in New York. At ten minutes to eleven that evening, he and Yoko returned from the recording studio. Just after they got out of the car, Chapman put four bullets in Lennon's back. Chapman, a longtime Beatles follower, decided Lennon needed to be punished for his statement over four years earlier that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Lennon was only 40 years old. 

John Lennon's chronic irreverence, rebelliousness, wit, sense of irony and anti-war activism appealed to me. To me, he wasn't just a musical genius; he was a symbol of free thinking, individuality and creativity, of resistance against suburban narrow-mindedness and prejudice.

Despite all the celebrity nonsense and the fact that he was one of the most famous people on the planet, he remained an authentic voice until the day of his death.

To me, Lennon was always a reminder that I don't have to lead an ordinary life or be like other people. You can be yourself and explore your own path without fear of breaking convention or being seen as strange.

And you can dream. You'll find out you're not the only one.

♦ VWB ♦

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