I fell in love for the first time when I was eleven years old … not that it was love at first sight. I well remember that Monday morning in February 1964 when I arrived at school to find my sixth grade class all abuzz about what had occurred on the Ed Sullivan show the previous night. Everyone had seen it, and no one could talk about anything else, even the teacher. We’d never experienced anything like the Beatles. Young as we were, most of us knew that a musical and cultural revolution was in progress.
Still, there was plenty of disagreement about whether it was a good thing or not, and how long it would last. We seemed to divide into camps. At first I was on the side of the teacher, who sniffed that “They have absolutely no talent.” Their music seemed loud and unsophisticated, and they looked plain weird. I scoffed at the girlish haircuts and the indecipherable North of England accents. I figured they’d be a passing fad at best.
But I was on the cusp of that time of life when pre-adolescent hormones begin to awaken. Gradually, one of the quartet began to affect me more than the others. He was the most acerbic, rebellious, and outspoken of the group. I became obsessed with John Lennon, a feeling that has never entirely departed, all these years later. He was the main inspiration for the rock stars in my music-centered novels.
As time passed, Lennon became more controversial. When he mused to a reporter in 1966 that “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus,” his opinion didn’t exactly go over well in the American Bible belt, where the group was scheduled to tour later that year. Under the circumstances, with threats of violence and ritual record burnings breaking out, it was brave of them to go through with those shows.
A few years later, Lennon turned to politics. His song “Revolution” came out in 1968. It was not exactly a call to action, but more of a thought process, and a somewhat confused one at that. It seemed the rock star had been pondering the explosion of student demonstrations in both the U.S. and Europe. There was no end in sight to the Vietnam war, and it was causing a near-war on the home fronts. He wasn’t altogether comfortable with the violent nature of some protests. Beatles fans were asking the group to take up the antiwar cause in a more direct way. He seemed to be responding, “I get it, we all want to change the world. But if you want money for people with minds that hate … count me out … you better free your mind instead.” In subsequent interviews, he admitted that he wouldn’t have been so circumspect when he was a kid. He’d suffered through a turbulent childhood, and had come out of it an angry young man. At one time, he admitted, he would gladly have blown up everything in sight. But in the meantime, he had become a rich man. Capitalism was still evil, he conceded, but there was no use in blowing up Wall Street if you had no idea what would take its place.
How relevant is the Revolution message today? At this writing, Donald Trump has clearly lost the American election, and still insists that he won. He and his toady in the Justice Department will do everything possible to get the ballots they don’t like thrown out, even if it means tearing up the Constitution and the rule of law. They’ll file as many lawsuits as they can. Their refusal to cooperate with President-elect Biden’s transition team is endangering all of us.
Maybe it’s all hot air to salve Trump’s ego, but somehow, it feels scarier than that. What if a legal movement to overturn the election gets real legs? That seems dubious at this point, but Trump has plenty of followers who are perfectly willing to start a war in his name. Even if he leaves the White House without being forcibly removed, I suspect that Trump will continue fighting this lost war for years, like some latter-day Jefferson Davis.
Is it possible that a legitimate election in the United States could be overturned by a determined enough despot? Then we would have ourselves a bona-fide dictator, ripe to be overthrown. The preamble to the Constitution declares the right to sever ties with a tyrant, which is exactly what our founding fathers were doing in the late eighteenth century. What kind of revolution would be required? Could it be the peaceful movement envisioned in that 1968 song?
The facts of Lennon’s violent death are horribly ironic. He was shot down in the city that he had embraced as his new home, New York City. For this and many other reasons, the revolution he sang about has failed so far. We still live in a country where powerful, moneyed interests stand in the way of rational public policy, including sensible gun control. Trump has taken us to the very brink of authoritarianism, and maybe beyond, and far too many people in this country are okay with that. Trumpism won’t disappear overnight, but neither will the Resistance. I suspect John Lennon would go on telling us, “Don’t throw bombs. Free your mind instead.” And he would punctuate his advice with the exuberant refrain of his most political song: “Don’t you know it’s gonna be … all right!”