I had seen his face only last Sunday: he and the other three looking out from 1960s buttons and posters. The four were all encased in glass, like cameos of Queen Victoria. They were captured in a Beatles booth at an antique show.
It startled me then to see the Beatles sold as something old. But it is always surprising when our youth becomes a collector's item.
On Tuesday, I saw his face again, on the front page. John Lennon, the most complex of the Beatles, has been shot dead by a loony, a cuckoo, a nutcake -- the New York police used all the familiar words, including "allegedly." The killer apparently was some crazed cousin to all the crackpots and criminals who can buy guns as easily as Christman trees. Amen to that.
But the Lennon I'll miss isn't the brilliant Beatle of the '60s with his hair "rebelliously" grown below his ears. That John Lennon exists on my records. The man I'll miss is the one I just met again, the man of the '80s, moving in new ways, making new sounds. Five bullets wiped out this father, husband, musician . . . human work in progress.
I am more a member of the Beatles generation then the fans' generation. So I was moved by the emergence of John Lennon at 40.
It was good to see him selling Promise at Forty. Not depressions, not complacency, not mania, but Promise. "It's quite possible," he said, "to do anything."
The new record he made with his wife, Yoko Ono, "Double Fantasy," was the work of a survivor. "You have to give thanks to God or whatever is up there [for] the fact that we all survived -- survived Vietnam or Watergate, the tremendous upheaval of the whole world," he said in an ironic prelude to his death.
But it wasn't just the decades he'd survived. He'd overcome something else: other people's expectations.
John Lennon got lost for a time, wandering in the body of The Famous John Lennon. He became so public a person that his life became a role he was playing. Other people were the directors.
There were the fans who expected him to be a Beatle Forever, until he ended up singing "I Wanna Hole Your Hand" in Las Vegas nightclubs. There were the business managers who wanted him to be their product. "I was a machine," he said, "that was supposed to produce so much creative something and give it out periodically for approval to justify my existence on earth."
There were even people who expected him to self-destruct like Dylan Thomas or the rock stars with needle tracks up their arms. "I'd just naively accepted the idea." he said, "that an artist had to self-destruct in order to create."
He survived all these expectations by getting better, saner, older. In 1975, he jumped into his private life as if it were a lifeboat. His fans called it seclusion. He called it becoming a "househusband." But he got in touch with the routines that root all of us, with daily-ness. He took care of his child, instead of being taken care of like a child. He let himself go into his new rhythms.
Five years later, this fall, he and his wife came out with music and words. He talked about men and women "Starting Over," about balancing family and work, about growing up.
"Is it possible to have a life centered around a family and a child and still be an artist?" he asked one reporter. "When I look at the relative importance of what life is about, I can't quite convince myself that making a record or having a career is more important or even as important as my child, or any child," he told another.
The man changed, and typically refused to apologize or simplify it. "The attitude is that when you change when you get older there's something wrong with that. Whatever changes I'm going through because I'm 40 I'm thankful for, because they give me some insight into the madness I've been living all myself.
In a way he was talking to and for his own generation. "I'm saying, 'Here I am now, how are you? How's your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Wasn't the '70s a drag, you know? Well, here we are, let's make the '80s great because it's up to us to what we can of it'".
John Lennon of the '60s survived so much -- even pessimism -- only to get murdered. He made a life late and died early.
Did his murderer aim for the '60 superstar, the Beatle, the face under glass? What craziness and waste. You can't kill what a man has already done. You can only kill what might have come next.
The antique John Lennon had already been perserved. Dammit, it's the promised that's gone.