In an article in Saturday's edition of the Vatican's daily Osservatore Romano, the newspaper commemorated the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' White Album with some unprecedented (and presumably Pope-approved) kudos to the Fab Four not only for that 1968-released "magical musical anthology," but also for the "unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words" of the group's overall body of work. And amidst all the hosannas being hurled their way, the journal noted that Lennon's remark "after many years sounds only like a 'boast' by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll."
Of course, trying to figure out precisely why the Vatican chose this particular moment, and this particular album, to give up the (holy) ghost, so to speak, for the much-quoted quip that got Lennon and his mates into so much (unholy) hot water requires more Papal parsing than a poor layman like me to figure out. But having it brought back into the public eye can't help but make those of us who were around at the time recall the controversy, and how it set off debate not only over the state of organized religion back in the turbulent days of the mid/late 1960s, but also questions of censorship and free speech.
It all started fairly innocuously in March 1966 when the London Daily Standard published a piece called "How Does A Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This" in which journalist Maureen Cleave talked to the so-called "smart" Beatle about the changes that fame and fortune had brought to his daily existence. After playing the reporter some raga music that George Harrison had recently turned him onto ("Don't the Indians appear cool to you? This music is thousands of years old; it makes me laugh, the British going over there and telling them what to do"), Lennon segued into the subject of religion.
"Christianity will go," Lennon told Cleave. "It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first — rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
In the context of the time, Lennon's rant spoke to factors involving the failure of organized religion to even acknowledge, let alone actively address, the generation gap of the 1960s, and how young people, feeling alienated and disenfranchised from society, were seeking answers more from their peers--especially those in music, film and other popular arts, whom they trusted--than their elders, whom they increasingly didn't.
Interestingly, the quote caused nary a ruffle when it first appeared in England, and it actually didn't even surface in the U.S. until nearly four month later when, just as the Beatles were about to hit American shores for a concert tour, the teen magazine Datebook ran the article, and it set off a firestorm. Literally. Besides being attacked verbally from pulpits and podiums throughout the country by outraged religious and community leaders, there were organized "Beatle Bonfires," where any and all things relating to the group--records, photos, even Beatle wigs--were ceremoniously piled high and (often gleefully) set aflame.
It was all pretty scary, and in virtually every city the Beatles visited on their tour, the band held press conferences to try and defuse the situation. Lennon quickly apologized, and at every stop sought to clarify what he meant to say.
Eventually, the controversy died down, but it is significant to note that once the tour of the U.S. ended in San Francisco in August of 1966, the Beatles never toured again--not in the U.S., or anywhere else. The innocence of their youth was gone; not just for them but indeed for the entire '60s generation.
Perhaps if the Catholic Church had made some overtures to Lennon to accept his apology at the time, things might have been different for all of us. In any event, it's at least a small comfort to know that after over 42 years, they've finally taken Jesus' advice, and turned the other cheek.