The 20th anniversary of John Lennon's death brings sadness at the memory of his senseless murder, but also an occasion to remember a musical genius who challenged as much as he entertained his generation.
Those of us who came of age with the Beatles knew that the magic came from the Lennon-McCartney combination, with its sometimes odd mix of opposites. While McCartney generated the ingeniously durable tunes, it was Lennon who added the sharp counterpoint to lift the music beyond melody to message. Lennon was the Beatle with edge, and it showed not just in the studio, but in his politics.
To be sure, there was an element of naiveté to his childlike insistence that peace could exist if only we willed it. But while his philosophy may have been simplistic, we never doubted his good heart and his belief each of us could help bring an end to war.
His political power derived from his fame, and he lent it freely to the cause, opposing the war in Vietnam and drawing the world's media into hotel bedrooms in Europe and in Canada during his "Bed-In for Peace."
It was that effort that brought him to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in June of 1969. That summer, I was president of the students' council at the University of Ottawa, looking for a way to fill the quiet months until September. We resolved to get John and Yoko to the campus and invented a "World Conference on Peace" as our pretext. I drove to Montreal, talked my way into Lennon's suite, and suggested that if he appeared, our New Age and progressive Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, might also participate. Lennon agreed to come, and the campus was pandemonium when he arrived for what turned into a noisy and extended press conference. (The Prime Minister had declined to take part.)
I spent the day with Lennon, watching as he managed the incessant demands of megafame, a starstruck 21-year-old making dinner plans with an almost mythical figure who for five years had held my generation transfixed. He was calm at the centre of a constant, frantic happening, ignoring the kooks and crazies drawn by his raucous road show, and polite and patient with those of us trying to plan some sense into his schedule. In early evening, he told me that he wanted to see something of the city. He and Yoko Ono sat in the rear of my Volkswagen fastback as I drove them around the capital, with John at one point singing along to the Beatles' Get Back on the radio ("Turn it up!" he yelled from the back). Disappointed that the Prime Minister had not joined us at the "Peace Conference," Lennon agreed when I suggested we visit 24 Sussex to see if Trudeau was home. In his absence, Lennon left a hand-written note, which led to a return visit in December of that year, when the two met on Parliament Hill.
Within six months of his June visit, the Beatles had broken up, and, for the remaining years of his life, John Lennon carried on his very public quest for self-discovery and for a better world. But he had left one young Canadian student with indelible memories of a remarkable episode, and warm feelings toward a superstar who was unfailingly courteous, refreshingly down to earth and who showed not a hint of the arrogance or willfulness that are sometimes associated with rock 'n' roll stardom. If anything, my deep impression was of a gentleness that hinted enough at vulnerability to make me feel a slight pang of guilt at the transparent ruse we had employed to persuade him to come to Ottawa. The Beatle with the edge was, after all, a believer and a gentle soul.
My memory of that gentleness added to the sadness and outrage I felt when I learned of his murder on that December night more than 10 years later.
The summer of 1969, much like today, was a time of challenge and great promise. It honours the memory of John Lennon to remember his commitment and optimism, and to say, like him, "Imagine!" Allan Rock is the federal Minister of Health.