Imagine: John Lennon at 70

With new generations discovering the Beatles, the focus is finally more on the musician’s birthday than the anniversary of his death

We're in the midst of a spate of notable dates in rock-and-roll history: the past three weeks brought the 40th anniversaries of the passing of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both of whom died at 27, victims of the excesses of their time.

Saturday, meanwhile, marks what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, which is being celebrated with the release of two movies, solo album reissues, a ceremony at the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland and, no doubt, fan gatherings across the universe (or at least around much of the world).

But lurking barely two months away is one of pop culture's saddest dates: the 30th anniversary of Lennon's slaying in front of his Manhattan home.

It's a bittersweet time for the ex-Beatle’s many fans. But all the activity surrounding his birthday in this year of gloomy anniversaries is a welcome sign that the annual Lennon-related commemorations finally will be more about the day he was born than the day he died.

You can chalk much of this up to Yoko Ono’s long, tireless efforts to turn her husband’s birthday into an annual plea for peace – which, this year, includes her call for fans to tweet “a million wishes for peace for John’s birthday!”

Her embracing of youth-driven Internet technology speaks to another reason for the growing shift in focus away from the musician’s death: the growing legions of young fans for whom Lennon's murder isn't a memory, but rather an abstraction – just another a depressing date in history.

The fans are getting both younger and older: a 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that the Beatles were in the top four favorite music acts of American 16 to 64. The 2000 Beatle compilation CD “1” sold 25 million copies – a fair number of those purchased by folks born after Lennon’s death. Last year's release of “The Beatles: Rock Band” video game introduced the group to an even younger crowd.

For those of us old enough to remember Dec. 8, 1980 as rock-and-roll’s night of infamy, time has dissipated the anger and shock, even if it hasn’t chased away the lingering sadness. But we've been around long enough to see Lennon’s influence grow, and realize, as his pal Paul McCartney joyously sang in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” that “Life goes on.”

Lennon’s birthday is a fine time for fans to come together, and celebrate the youthful energy and hope embodied in his music with and without the Beatles. It’s also an opportunity recall a vibrant, complicated man who overcame his own demons to push in song and deed for a peaceful world, powered by love and the courage to imagine.

That's Lennon's birthday present to us: a timeless legacy dreamers of any age can embrace.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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