The thing about dying is you can’t answer any more questions. And when famous people die, the questions pile up.
Last week, we marked the anniversary of the death of John Lennon, the cornerstone of the Beatles, who was murdered 25 years ago in New York City. There were countless tributes and retrospectives. New books. New CDs. New videos.
And, of course, the same old questions. Lennon was a quixotic guy, playful and cynical and mysterious. So the questions ran the gamut. Here are a few of them:
Would John and the Beatles have gotten back together? Which songs did he really write and which did Paul McCartney write? Why did he marry Yoko Ono? Was it his idea to pretend Paul was dead? Why did he claim the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? What does “I Am the Walrus” mean? Which song was he proudest of?
You can add a few dozen more and still not be finished. They’re the same questions, year after year.
But as I watched and listened to Beatles footage from 1964, screaming fans, blistering record sales, everyone wanting to meet them, play with them, record them, honor them, I found myself coming back a different question, the one I would have most liked to ask John Lennon:
Why was he so unhappy?
No fan of conformity
As a kid growing up, watching the Beatles from afar – and dreaming of being a musician myself – it was hard to imagine a better life. Who wouldn’t want every girl in the world squealing over you? To be a Beatle wasn’t a dream, it was a fantasy, impossible, akin to becoming a king.
Yet by all accounts, Lennon was often miserable. The Beatles’ latest biographer, Bob Spitz, told me Lennon’s “heart began to break” the moment McCartney and manager Brian Epstein decided to dress the Beatles in suits. And while the band played on for years after that, Spitz claims Lennon was already wangling for an exit, finally using Ono as a catalyst.
“He wanted out,” Spitz said.
Who would want out of the Beatles?
Cynthia Lennon, his first wife, told me the same thing. She claimed Lennon was unhappy with the way the band was going and was frustrated that the Beatles couldn’t play a concert without teenaged screaming drowning them out.
She said when John got into drugs, he was looking for something else. And when he fell into bed with Ono, he was looking for something else. And that he barely spoke to or saw his son, Julian, for many years, because he was looking for something else.
And all that time, as a kid, learning guitar, writing childish songs, looking at Lennon from afar, I asked myself, “Who could want anything else?”
The pursuit of material goods
There’s a lesson in all this. We spend much of our lives believing money, fame or attention will make us happy. We are so convinced of it we spend most of our days pursuing it.
But you couldn’t have more money, you couldn’t have more fame, you couldn’t have more attention than the Beatles had during the 1960s.
And it wasn’t enough to make one of them happy. In fact, it seemed the further away Lennon got from the Beatles, the more he established a smaller, more eclectic, more activist type of music career, the happier he became.
Lennon penned many songs that you probably can sing, but a lesser known was released three years after the Beatles broke up. It begins:
The years have passed so quickly
One thing I’ve understood
I am only learning
To tell the trees from wood
Ironically, that song is called “I Know (I Know).” And maybe before he died, this once-so-unhappy man did know. The rest of us can only wonder.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at noon Wednesday at Borders Express in the Renaissance Center and at 1 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Northville. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).