After the death of J.D. Salinger, His Most Significant Work is Subject to Reflection; Its Controversial Presence in Rock is Still Felt.
Though most literature has no place in rock and roll, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye stands at the heart of much of the music’s essence in it’s lyrics: rebellion, frustration, and being a general outcast; even further, the book could even have influenced rock’s sense of mental confusion, heartbreak, and insanity. Through Salinger’s masterful imitation of the teenage voice, Holden Caulfield has long been held as the apex of fictionalized teenage angst — the missing link, of sorts, connecting Huckleberry Finn to Hamlet, and crossing into the real world, Jack Kerouac’s literary doppelganger Sal Paradise. In the world of rock and roll, however, references to the book are vast: Green Day, Guns N’ Roses, Billy Joel, The Offspring, Streetlight Manifesto, The Old 97’s, The Refreshments, Clem Snide, and yes even the Caulfields, all write from a similar view point (and, sometimes, about) Salinger’s most famous book. Yet, the book’s relationship to rock and roll is not always celebratory.
This year will mark the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, one rock’s most irrepressible rebels. From the early Hamburg days of the Beatles, to his potential deportation from the United States for being one of those long-haired peaceniks Nixon heard so much about, his views, actions, and even his life, seemed to be reaction to the status quo. John Lennon was a critic of a society fragmented and without peace — inner, or outer — just as Holden Caulfield was. What binds them together is that they were both consummate hypocrites.
Holden is a troublemaker, a liar, a drunk, a failed womanizer, a dunce, and a hypocrite. He criticizes as he performs the very activities he claims to loathe. He hates the guys who use women for sex, and then visits a prostitute. Hates the word ‘fuck’ in graffiti at a wall school, but does not shy away from ‘god damn’ and ‘shitty.’ Comparatively, John Lennon wrote “Imagine” and had millions of dollars, an apartment over looking Central Park in New York City, and was also a critic, not only his own work in the Beatles, but that of his former band mates. Paul was the target of the scathing lyrics of “How Do You Sleep?” blaming him for the break-up. Through his turbulent life in the 1970’s, he would mend fences and break them as he saw fit, and that included peers in the industry, the other Beatles, and even his son, Julian.
So you can see the connection, right?
Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman, referred to Catcher in the Rye several times as his motivation and inspiration to slay his former hero, citing him as a phony, the same sort of person that Holden criticizes yet embodies. Many analysts who studied Mark David Chapman’s testimony and his plea saw him as an attempt to co-opt Holden’s dream of being the titular “catcher in the rye,” a protector character who catches children from falling off a cliff. By killing Lennon, by whom Chapman felt betrayed by denouncing Christ, writing songs about peace and anti-material anthems when he had so much excess and violence in his life, and his most egregious sin, releasing “Double Fantasy,” he would slay the ultimate phony.
In the 29 years Chapman has spent in prison for second-degree murder, he has since been up for parole five times; he is eligible again coming this August. The last time he was eligible (December 8, 2008), Yoko Ono released a public announcement proclaiming that the day should be considered a day of forgiveness, yet did not openly forgive Mark David Chapman. Likewise, Mark David Chapman has since admitted regret for killing Lennon, not because of his status as a star, but because he has come to understand he has killed a person, not an image.
Meanwhile, you can buy just about anything with John’s face (or his famous self-portrait) — which is not so radical an idea compared to Beatlemania. But we have seen such delicacies as a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream named after him, “Imagine Whirled Peace.” Or that his voice and likeness was used to hock laptops. And, of course, the Rock Band: The Beatles video game. All of this propagating the image of John, the peace lovin’, funny Beatle, who got along with everybody.
My comparisons to Holden Caulfield are facetious, I know, and I do not believe his murder was justified in any way. In reflection of Salinger’s novel, it is my personal hope that more than just the rebellious nature of Holden Caulfield, readers rediscover that The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about reflecting on death. When Holden is distraught, he evokes the memory of his deceased brother, Allie. More than anger at society and it’s norms, it is a book that expresses the anger at that which we cannot change.
After 30 years, it is time we look back on Lennon’s true influence as a musician, and whether he was a true agent of peace or not, and if his legacy is worth remembering at all. His work outside the Beatles has not held up well, aside from “Imagine” — and if only because it has been co-opted as the official soundtrack to every lousy September 11th soundtrack. His work is extremely personal, and sounds as exactly he’s lived at the time, being an angry, bitter, and hurt social critic. His is the music of someone dissatisfied with the world because it’s failed his lofty expectations. Though some of his songs reflect on losing and never knowing his mother, John Lennon would rather rage at her failings as a mother rather than her death, unlike Holden. Some how, Lennon’s “Imagine” more so than any other track, remains as the one thing maintaining this absurd legacy of peace, love, and tolerance.
It is this image that is most prevalent in our minds when we consider the work of John Lennon; yet there was so much more to the story. As such, it is unfair of us — listeners and advert producers alike — to continue to promote this image when he was more than this one-note character with a marketable message. Even with charities attached to his name, it is no question that even worse than his death at the hands of a mentally disturbed man, is the rape of his corpse by corporate advertising.
This essay originally began composition two nights before the death of J.D. Salinger, on January 27th, 2010. Upon the reclusive author’s death, this essay took a new direction and meaning as Salinger’s most popular his most significant work is reflected upon due to his unfortunate death. UPDATE: This is precisely what I'm talking about. (Thanks to Everything is Terrible for editing the clip into an easy-to-swallow digestible tablet.]