Sunday 8 December 2019

A letter to John Lennon, icon of courage, on his 70th birthday

Do you want to know a secret? Joseph O'Connor imagines Beatle John is here, there and everywhere

Dear John, a little note just to wish you a happy 70th birthday this weekend. Wherever you are, I hope you've found happiness. I think of you often, and I wish you were still around, but then I remember, you'll always be around. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.

Often, when I find myself on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin, you come into my mind and I hope you're at peace. For it was in a building on that street, in 1963, that you came to play a concert with your band. I've thought about it so often that I almost remember being there, although I wasn't actually born yet. But that doesn't matter. I can still remember. I don't think I'll ever forget it. The night you played in Dublin.

It was very hot inside the Adelphi cinema, and the air seemed damp and sweet. Dark red and gold curtains had been draped across the stage. When the house lights started to fade, the screaming began. Then, from the upper balcony, a spotlight snapped on, spreading an undulating disc of whiteness across those beautiful curtains, which parted, as though driven further apart by the screaming, and there it was -- the beautiful drum kit.

Paul came on first, waving and making thumbs-up to the audience, followed by George and then Ringo, who saluted like a soldier. And then, as I watched, feeling a lightning-storm of excitement, you strolled on, cool to the last.

You were smoking a cigarette and waving to the crowd. I thought my heart would explode with happiness. All four of you came to the front of the stage and bowed. There were piercing screams, wild, anguished cheers. Ringo clambered up on to the podium and bashed at the cymbals. Paul strapped on his bass. George strummed a few chords. You shouldered into your beautiful Rickenbacker guitar. And then the music started.

And I know I wasn't there, John. But such is the power of music. It opens the gates of memory and love, and takes us on any journey we wish for. I can still hear the thud and the clatter of those drums, still hear the harmonies battling with the screaming, still see your insolent angel's face as you howled 'Twist and Shout' into the mike. Outside, on the streets of Dublin, the statues glared sternly, and the seagulls of my hometown were raucous in the night.

All of it is as fresh to me as though it happened yesterday. You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.

This summer, I took my 10-year-old son to see Paul playing solo in Dublin. He sang songs you wrote together, and songs you wrote apart, and a special song he had written to wish you goodbye and thank you for everything you left us. As the sun declined slowly on that unforgettable evening, 50,000 people were remembering what they felt for you. Absence can be a presence. Anyone who was there in the RDS that night will know that you were there too.

What is your legacy? To stand up and shout. Not to do what we're told. Always to question. To believe in the possibility of a better, kinder world, even on the days when it's hard. All you need is love? How beautiful if that were true. But on dark days love can rescue us, and you knew it. You were a motherless child, a boy who had known pain, and for those many of us whose own families had known hurt and broken hopes, you were a special icon of courage and toughness.

And your caustic brand of wit, so Irish in its spirit, was a reminder that the city of your birth is an Irish immigrant town only a ferry-journey from the mouth of the Liffey. "Those of you in the cheap seats, clap your hands," you once said. "Those in the expensive ones, just rattle your jewellery."

Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try. That isn't something I want to imagine today. There's a heaven in being loved and remembered and valued, and that's a heaven you'll always be in, whether you'd wish to be or not, as long as we retain the capacity to be touched and moved by recognising ourselves in the existence of the greats.

You were naive, foolish, innocent, brave, hurt, hopeful, funny, afraid; and as David Bowie said of his hero Ziggy Stardust, boy, could you play guitar. You were probably the most famous person on the planet for a while, but you were always one of us, and that was part of your greatness. So Happy Birthday, John. If you are up there with the angels, I hope they're singing 'Twist and Shout'.

Joseph O'Connor's novel 'Ghost Light' is published by Harvill Secker. 'The Drivetime Diaries', a CD of his radio columns for RTE One's Drivetime with Mary Wilson, is available from www.rte.ie

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