This week, Hootenanny turns its bulging, strigine eyes to the past to celebrate a musical manifesto of radical human collaboration. The song is known and loved by nearly everybody (as long as the lyrics are tweaked just a little.)
Thirty-two years ago today in New York City, an attention-seeking madman (who shall go nameless here, if nowhere else) murdered a musician, political activist and philosopher in cold blood. But gunfire can’t destroy the musical legacy left behind by John Winston Ono Lennon.
The Beatles remain peerless in musical history; not just a darn good band, but an event, a cultural turning point. After the members went their separate ways in 1970, none of them really managed to gain the same level of attention and acclaim individually that they had repeatedly attracted as a group, and that’s hardly a surprise. But I would argue that John Lennon came closest to that level of universal awareness, appreciation and immortality with a simple, easily-learned piano line and a deceptively subversive hymn to the potential of humanity.
Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.
Yes, we’ve got a lovely little piano melody going along, lulling the listener into a false sense of security, and then Lennon comes along singing gently, almost whispering, “What if your deepest beliefs about the world and everything you think you’re living your life for are all a lie? Go on, try it out.”
A statement like that should be a blow to the stomach for anyone deeply committed to religious goals. It should shock and stun. Yet there is something about the compelling melody, the simple accompaniment and the sheer compassion that emanates from Lennon’s voice that doesn’t just keep you listening, it demands your respect and will never let your mind go.
Once (admittedly decades ago) I attended a High School commencement in Shreveport, LA where the students had chosen Imagine as their class song. As much as they loved the message of hope and peace it offered, they could not bring themselves to sing such a devastating opening line in front of their parents and peers. So rather than choose another song that they agreed with more thoroughly, they altered the lyrics so that they could sing the much less confrontational “Imagine there’s one heaven.” Oh, yeah, and “one religion too.” And Lennon surely snickered in his grave.
It’s those images of a unified, peaceful world that are so compelling to people of faith. Lennon comes so close to describing a liberal Christian utopia in these spare lyrics: all the people living live in peace, sharing all the world, a brotherhood of man and so forth. This all sounds like it could have come straight out of Jesus’ mouth … but Lennon removed Christ from the picture in the first line of the song. Tricksy, tricksy Walrus.
This contradiction won’t come as a a surprise to any of our readers, but the vast bulk of cultural intolerance and environmental abuse our planet has to bear is invariably blamed on one “Holy” book or another. Christianity is not alone in walking an uneasy line between loving, tolerant ideals and hateful, oppressive behaviors.
Lennon envisions a world where people are more concerned with the welfare of other people than with ideologies or dogma. Loving and helping your neighbor is a transformative act, a radical act. It has the potential to break down powers and preconceptions and truly remake our world into something beautiful.
It will probably never truly happen, but we can always imagine.
You can say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope one day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one