That Monday night, like most Monday nights, the Walnut Grove community was going through a dire dilemma. I can’t remember what their trial was during that episode, but I know that I, a child who’d savored each Little House on the Prairie book, was entranced in front of the television.
Strangely enough, what I do recall very clearly about the night of Dec. 8, 1980, is the NBC News announcement that interrupted my weekly reverie. As I watched the footage from New York City I thought, Why does this matter more than Laura baking a pie?
Some old man named John Lennon had been killed at a spooky looking place called the Dakota. All over the world, millions of fans were linking arms, singing, crying and running around with enough candles to illuminate (or ignite) my small, fir-tree-covered hometown for days. To a then 9-year-old Oregonian girl, a strange gentleman I’d never heard of before was irrelevant. And how dare he cut Laura off mid-scene.
Several years later, in high school, my favorite English teacher properly introduced me to the late Mr. Lennon. My attitude toward him changed overnight. And it was a pleasure to meet his friends Paul, George and Ringo, too.
Some have chided me over the years. The Beatles caused the fall of Western civilization. How can you call yourself a Christian and listen to such drug-induced nonsense? How dare you like these earthly things? And so on. Well, the fact is that some of their music isn’t healthy. But I’d like to think that their more wholesome songs had a positive effect on me during my teen years—and still do today.
People often wonder why this group’s meteoric success endures. Allow me, a long-time observer and aficionado of sorts, to propose a few thoughts on this.
They searched. Unlike many bands of their time (and ours for that matter), the Beatles were more than bubble-gum pop. As the band found its voice, the Fab Four dug into spiritual matters and, however erroneous, shared their findings. Though all of the men sought deeper meaning in life, I specifically remember sitting in the living room as a 14-year-old listening to a George Harrison song. His passion, sincerity and emotional need felt almost tangible, and I, a sensitive high school freshman, cried my eyes out for him (much to the consternation of my mother). It was the very first time I realized that non-Christians can wholeheartedly and authentically search for a savior. After that night, I prayed for his salvation for years. When he died in 2001—likely a Hindu—I cried again. But the passion for souls that he indirectly introduced me to has been a shaping force in my life ever since.
They were vulnerable. The Stones, Led Zeppelin and their ilk were bold. Arrogant. Strong. In contrast, the Beatles were almost cuddly. And the four young men never shied away from sharing their struggles. “Help!” for example, is more than just a song—it was Lennon’s plea to the world to save him from the madness his life had become following instant fame and fortune. “We Can Work It Out” was McCartney’s plea to John to save their alliance and working relationship. And those of us who listen today understand that these Brits’ trials often mirror our own. As a frustrated high school student who felt at odds with much of her way-too-small-for-her hometown, the Beatles’ music resonated with me as nothing else at the time did. In some ways, it opened the world for me.
They were fun. Case in point: If a person can sit still or remain glum during a song like “Twist and Shout,” there’s probably something wrong with them.
They were brilliant wordsmiths. To a soon-to-be English major and—yes, I will admit it—lifelong dictionary lover, the Beatles’ lyrics lit my brain up like a Christmas tree. For those of us who craft our livelihood through language, the word pictures in songs such as “Across the Universe” and even the much-maligned “Lucy in the Sky” still unlock reservoirs of creativity in our own work. For me, every word feels like eating German chocolate cake.
They reached the entire world with their music. How I can be confident of this, you ask? Well, it’s because I’ve experienced the influence of the Beatles in London, Beijing, Edinburgh, New York, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Addis Ababa, Cape Town, Hong Kong and virtually every other big city or country I’ve ever lived in or visited.
I still remember the thrill of being a 15-year-old exchange student who was “set loose” in Japan at a Roppongi district Beatles night club (think Hard Rock Cafe) when the Fab Four were all the rage in Tokyo. And when I saw Paul in concert several years ago, everyone seated around me became a temporary family. It didn’t matter that we didn’t even know each other’s names; we chatted, laughed, sang along together and linked arms (not unlike those I laughed at as they mourned Lennon). Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, language, occupation or age, I’ve always bonded with Beatles fans from around the world. Somehow we just seem to find one another.
The Beatles are by no means immortal and they are certainly not more popular than Jesus, as Lennon famously claimed in 1966. But they are the emotional soundtrack to millions of lives. Even now when I hear certain songs, I’m instantly taken back 25 years to a specific memory.
When I lived in New York, I visited Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, across the street from the Dakota. I listened to fans talk about Lennon, a fallible, sometimes arrogant man who railed against God. But I still understood how even his life could point some toward Christ, myself included. The saying goes, “All truth is God’s truth.” While this can be taken to an extreme, I understand it with regard to the Beatles.
And now I also understand why Lennon’s death shook so many people.