40 years after John Lennon's death, Yoav Kutner recalls his legacy

Cellcom TV will be making two Lennon documentaries available for streaming to mark the anniversary of his death

A VISITOR walks past painted art depicting John Lennon during an exhibition in Jakarta in October. (photo credit: AJENG DINAR ULFIANA/REUTERS)
A VISITOR walks past painted art depicting John Lennon during an exhibition in Jakarta in October.
For those of us who grew up on the music of the Beatles, 40 years ago this very day the world stopped. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was fatally shot by Mark Chapman outside the Dakota apartment building where he lived with his wife, famed Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono.
“It was a sort of end to the age of innocence, the dream of peace and love,” says Yoav Kutner.
The veteran pop and rock radio show presenter knows more than your average Spotify listener, or even die-hard Beatles fan, about the Fab Four and Lennon.
For some, the flower power mindset began to fizzle out at its very apogee, the Woodstock Festival, which took place in upstate New York in August 1969, attended by over 400,000 people, and featured a roll call of acts that were to make up much of the rock pantheon in the years to come.
At the time Kutner was living out of town and had to hotfoot it over to the Army Radio studios as the announcement of Lennon’s death – long before the advent of the Internet, when transatlantic phone calls were a logistically challenging and expensive business – made its way over to this part of the world.
“At the time I lived in a neighborhood of Kfar Saba called Ramot Hashavim,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a phone then, and they called my neighbor, who came over to bang on my door and tell me I had to go the radio station as fast as I could.”
After his Mini Minor got him to Jaffa, Kutner spent the rest of the day at work talking about the dead Beatle and his work and playing some of his music. He opened his December 1980 broadcast by saying how much Lennon meant to him personally, as well as artistically, and how he felt he’d lost someone close to him.
Lennon was always considered the more interesting, radical and caustic member of the legendary British band. Back then, most fans of the group were either firmly in the McCartney camp or the Lennon camp. Notwithstanding the symbiotic relationship the two principal songwriters enjoyed, it is generally not too difficult to discern who wrote what, even with the ubiquitous official Lennon-McCartney authorship tag.
That became even clearer after the Beatles broke up, in 1970, and each of the band members embarked on a solo career.
While McCartney hit the ground running, reeling off a string of hits and well-received albums, in tandem with his then-wife Linda, Lennon followed a very different artistic trajectory.
Together with Ono – who was blamed by many a Beatles fan for the group’s breakup – as the band began to wane he established the Plastic Ono Band, and set about expressing his social and political views, and feelings, through his music. The Vietnam War was still raging, and Lennon and Ono set up various peace- and love-oriented campaigns, which attracted a lot of media coverage, including their Bed-ins for Peace, broadcast to the world from hotels in Amsterdam and Montreal.
But, although the couple had recently married, Lennon was far from happy, and was still battling his demons sparked by his abandonment as a child, first by his father and subsequently by his mother.
That emotional baggage, says Kutner, comes through particularly stridently in Lennon’s solo work. “The records of the Plastic Ono Band and, later, Imagine were very significant for me in my life. I’d never heard anyone bring up such topics before, like his mother, his father, addiction. I listened to those records hundreds of times. McCartney’s records were always so pretty and so pleasant. The music was so good. McCartney is a much better musician than John Lennon. But Lennon had something that gave you a punch in the belly.”
HAVING PUT together a long-running radio series about the Beatles for Army Radio over 30 years ago now, which was prompted by Lennon’s killing, Kutner is in a better position than most to pass judgment on the work of the Liverpudlian with the famous round specs, and how it has survived the passage of time.
Not too well, Kutner says. “His work doesn’t get much of an airing, in contrast with what one might have thought. I think Lennon’s legacy has largely dissipated, compared with the legacy of the Beatles, which is still very much with us.”
Kutner puts that down to the way the group went about its business. “They always demonstrated total artistic freedom. A creative artist has to constantly change and develop. You can hear that in all their songs, even in the poor ones. They always went for broke. They never held back.”
That, he believes, serves to keep the Beatles flame burning brightly for fans, and as an inspiration for artists. “Lennon, of course, is part of that. But Lennon took on other roles, including the extremely personal side.”
They may say an artist has to suffer to be creative, but in Lennon’s case Kutner feels that may have been detrimental to his output and to the ability of his oeuvre to stand the test of time. Still, the man had to off-load.
“In 1967 Lennon already had a four-year-old son, Julian, named after his mother, Julia,” says Kutner. “He neglected his son. He was with Yoko then. But he expressed his hurt at being abandoned by his mother – for example, in his song ‘Julia’ [from the White Album].”
The song opens with the lines: “Half of what I say is meaningless. But I say it just to reach you, Julia. Julia, Julia, Ocean child calls me.” “‘Ocean child’ is the English meaning of Yoko Ono. He is singing to his mother, but puts Yoko Ono, whom he treated as his mother, into that.”
Whether Beatles fans preferred McCartney or Lennon – Kutner actually says George Harrison was his personal favorite – you can’t get away from the fact that Lennon always wore his heart on his sleeve.
So, where does Kutner think 2020 would have found Lennon had he not died at the age of 40?
“He would have made a big noise about Trump,” that’s for sure. “He always walked on thin ice.”
Cellcom TV will be making two Lennon documentaries available for streaming to mark the anniversary of his death. The first – ‘Let Me Take You Down’ – focuses on the circumstances of Lennon’s death and the other – ‘LennonNYC - Remastered’ – is an intimate look at Lennon’s life with Ono in New York in the 1970s.