The Witty One

By Jack Canfora

John Lennon was 40 when he was killed; that murder took place 40 years ago today.

I spent most of my teenage years trying to be John Lennon; eventually I realized that position was permanently filled. The whole band (you know who I’m talking about, right?) grabbed my imagination and still hasn’t loosened its grip. But for a teenage boy of a certain age and sense of alienation, John cast a particular spell. His lyrics were often incandescent with imagination. His melodies could be propulsive and muscular yet tender and beautiful: sometimes at the same time. 

And then there was his wit: stinging, diamond-hard, and lightning-quick.

“For this next number, I’d like to ask your help,” Lennon said to the audience at the Royal Command Performance in 1963. “Will the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands? And the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry.” Another time, on the BBC, as they were just starting their careers, the band introduced themselves (tough to believe there was a time when any of them needed to identify themselves):

“Ringo: I’m Ringo, and I play the drums.

Paul: I’m Paul, and I play the um, bass.

George: I’m George, and I play the guitar.

John: I’m John, and I too play the guitar. Sometimes, I play the fool.”

There are a multitude of more moments like that sprinkled throughout his all-too-brief 40 years.  In short, his voice – a plaintive, nasal snarl imbued simultaneously with haunting vulnerability – was one of the few things that pierced the thick shell of my self-conscious, adolescent cynicism. 

Lennon also had a prodigious amount of demons. He was far from a perfect man, but today isn’t the day to dwell on that. In fact, that he was so unflinching in his honesty about himself – about everything – and struggled to be a better person is an example and consolation for those of us who are trying to do the same thing as we wrestle with the darker angels of our nature. 

My life, and indeed the whole world, would be a tangibly darker, lonelier place without his time here, just as it would no doubt be a little better if had been allowed to live the last four decades. 

The first time I heard John Lennon’s name was when I heard he had been killed. I was bewildered by the weight of grief that pressed on so many of the adults around me that day and in the weeks that followed. 

Now I get it. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years have blurred past us since that time. As Lennon himself instructed us on one of his final recordings before his murder:

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

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30 thoughts on “The Witty One

  1. Hmm…I am old enough to remember the first beginnings of the Beatles and I never appreciated them at the time. Nor thereafter. Not until a long, long time thereafter. I still would not claim to “enjoy” their music other that the odd ditty like “Now I’m 64”. But I wish I had been more aware as a youth. Less closed minded. I now recognize that I actually agree with a lot of what the pop/hippy movement stood for. some 50 or 60 years too late.

      1. Happily, aged 64 I would consider myself entirely open minded. I may not “enjoy” cultures other than my own very much but I respect them. I may consider religion absurd but respect the right to believe. All the same i still find the bible bashing Americans too much. It would be so easy if one could live one’s life over1

      2. Let’s hope we do. Unfortunately, as has been observed, anything in life worth truly learning can’t be taught: it has to be learned firsthand.

  2. Thank you for this well-written and heartfelt ode to John Lennon, he truly was the voice of a generation who wanted an end to war and violence, and frightened the US so much with his activism that the CIA kept a file on him! That shows just how deep his idealism went to the hearts of his millions of fans. I still cannot believe sometimes that such a peaceful, loving soul could meet such a violent end.

  3. This is a beautiful expression of the influence John Lennon had our your life. There are many wonderful lines in this piece. My personal favorite is this one: “His melodies could be propulsive and muscular yet tender and beautiful: sometimes at the same time.” I totally get where you’re coming from. I have bands and music that shaped the person I became. Charles Bukowski, the wildman poet who wrote about those who are marginalized, played a similar influence in my life and writing. There was a time in my life when I thought I would become a hobo just to follow in Bukowski’s footsteps. Thanks, Jack.

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  6. I remember exactly where I was the day he was murdered. I was in 10th grade and stopped at a red light in my hometown, in the back of our friends Brat when it came across the radio. It was horribly shocking and sorrowful that day.

  7. ‘A plaintive nasal snarl imbued with a haunting vulnerability’ – this phrase is going to stay with me for life. It just describes Lennon too so perfectly! It’s always what I wanted to express about his voice, but never could find the words.
    Thank you, Jack, for remembering, and for making one person world feel less alone

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