Some 2,000 people, led by Yoko Ono, gathered in New York's Central Park this week to form a human peace sign as part of celebrations leading up to what would have been John Lennon's 75th birthday Friday.
It's a safe bet Lennon would have relished the spectacle, knowing from his Bed-in days the value of a gimmick to draw attention to a worthy cause ("Yoko and I are quite willing to be the world's clowns, if by doing it we do some good,” he once said). There’s also little doubt that the man who asked the world in song to give peace a chance and imagine life without war, would have loved the tribute – not to him, but to those ideals, which remain as powerful and elusive as they did all those years ago.
The bittersweet commemoration of a landmark rock-and-roll birthday underscores the enduring pull not just of a long-gone pop culture icon, but of the very real voice coursing through our ear buds with every play of “Revolution” or “Power to the People.” John Lennon lives on more as a man, with flaws and talent, than as a symbol – even if nearly 35 years after his death his ongoing impact is a sign of our times.
It's tempting to imagine a world with John Lennon. It's also a somewhat selfish exercise – fans’ initial thoughts inevitably race to the music he would have produced, the concert tours he might have launched, the tweets he would have fired off as a soldier in the digital revolution, the causes to which he would have brought a voice acerbic, humorous and unfailingly honest. No what-if daydream, of course, would be complete without envisioning the Beatles coming together again to unleash a latter-day wave of joy.
We’re left to be grateful for the time Lennon gave us, a gift that keeps giving as new generations embrace the man, the music and the message – all as relevant as ever.
The Lennon legacy lives on through the lips of youngsters singing “All You Need is Love” as much as through Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr producing new music and playing the Beatles’ timeless songs in concert, honoring Lennon and George Harrison. Ono and her son, Sean Lennon, who shares a birthday with his father and turns 40 Friday, work with equal determination to keep his spirit alive.
The human peace sign that formed in Central Park represents hopes for a better future, as well as the power of memory, unity and possibility – all thanks to a working class hero, born 75 years ago Friday in war-torn Liverpool, who formed a band that dared to dream of being bigger than Elvis and wound up shaking the world. Imagine that...
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.