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Explainer: Celebrating John Lennon's life and legacy

  • Image: John Lennon in Plaid Shirt
    Geoff Rhind 1957 & 2010  /  Courtesy Paley Center for Media
    Paul McCartney first met John Lennon (in plaid shirt) after this July 6, 1957, performance of the Quarrymen. Two weeks later, McCartney joined the band.

    This iconic photograph, snapped on July 6, 1957, was taken the day Paul McCartney met John Lennon in what’s considered to be the “Big Bang” moment that led to formation of The Beatles.

    Taken by one of Lennon’s schoolmates, the snapshot is part of an exhibition debuting this week at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. The show is filled with early, rarely seen images and is just one of many events in the U.S. and the U.K. that will mark John Lennon’s birthday.

    Had he not been shot and killed outside his New York City apartment on Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon would be turning 70 on Oct. 9.

    Imagine the milestone: Remembering Lennon

    As a member of The Beatles and as a solo artist, Lennon wrote dozens of classic songs, including “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance.” “He also showed the world that rock 'n' roll could address serious subjects and be far more than simple three-chord songs,” notes Jim Henke, curatorial director of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. “He had an enormous impact.”

    To honor John Lennon’s legacy, there are concerts, film screenings and exhibitions scheduled at museums, parks and clubs in cities stretching from Los Angeles to Liverpool. Here are a few highlights:

  • 'Strawberry Fields Forever'

    Image: Strawberry Fields, New York Cit
    Willy Wong  /  © NYC & Co. Photographer
    The word "Imagine" on this large, black and white mosaic in Strawberry Fields is a reminder of one of John Lennon's most famous songs.

    Throughout the day on Oct. 9, and as they do each year on his birthday and on the anniversary of his death, fans will gather at Strawberry Fields to sing and remember John Lennon. The 2.5-acre Lennon memorial is in New York City’s Central Park, across the street from the Dakota, the building where Lennon lived until his death outside that same building, in 1980. Because this is a milestone year, the crowds at Strawberry Fields are expected to be larger than usual.

    On the evening of Oct. 9, there will be a free Central Park screening of “LENNONYC,”a new film by Michael Epstein with concert footage and home movies documenting Lennon’s life in New York City after the breakup of the Beatles. The film will air nationally on PBS as part of the American Masters series on Nov. 22.

  • The Quarrymen

    Image: Paul McCartney with Quarrymen
    Leslie Kearney 1957  /  © 2010 The Quarrymen
    Paul McCartney first performed with the Quarrymen on October 18, 1957. Paul and John wore white jackets; the rest of the band wore white shirts with bootlace ties.

    Beginning this week and continuing through Dec. 31,  New York’s Paley Center for the Media will be hosting a series of panel discussions and screenings of four Lennon-related documentary films. The Paley Center is also presenting “This Boy… John Lennon in Liverpool,”an exhibition of early photos curated by the Paley Center’s Rod Simon.

    “We’re trying to give the fullest portrait we can of Lennon’s life and his legacy,” explains Simon. “Even today, John Lennon permeates media in many different ways. Whether it’s his music or his attitude, he’s one of these artists you go to help interpret the world; even a world that he didn’t know.” 

    'Nowhere Boy' sweetly reveals young Lennon

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

    Image: John Lennon's Gibson guitar
    Carl Fowler  /  Courtesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
    John Lennon drew caricatures of Yoko and himself on this Gibson acoustic guitar to commemorate their two "Bed-Ins" for peace in 1969.

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame andMuseum in Cleveland, Ohio, is holding a John Lennon Weekend Oct. 8-10. Events include a concert, the sealing of a time capsule filled with Lennon’s music and items contributed by fans, as well as film highlights from both the Beatles' and John Lennon's inductions into the Hall of Fame. The weekend will also feature tours of the museum’s Beatles exhibit, which includes Lennon’s 1979 Yamaha Upright piano, his Sgt. Pepper outfit, one of his electric guitars and the 1964 Gibson J 160E acoustic guitar he and Yoko had with them for the two “bed-ins” for peace in March and May of 1969.

    “The Beatles went from a relatively simple, classic rock 'n' roll sound to a far more complex, groundbreaking sound on such albums as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road,” said Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curatorial director Jim Henke. “Much of that transformation was spurred on by John Lennon. In addition, he was the group’s social conscience.”

    Was Lennon the most interesting Beatle?

  • 'Bed-In for Peace'

    Image: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
    © Joan Athey  /  Peaceworks Now Productions
    John Lennon and Yoko Ono during the recording of "Give Peace a Chance."

    Fans can learn more about John Lennon’s political activism in “Give Peace a Chance: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In for Peace,” a traveling exhibit opening Oct. 9 at the Lake County Discovery Museumin Wauconda, Ill.

    On display through Jan. 2, 2011, will be more than 40 large-format photos taken during the bed-in for peace John and Yoko held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal from May 26 to June 2, 1969, and a re-creation of the room where the bed-in took place.

    Yoko Ono doesn't rule out John Lennon's return

  • GRAMMY Museum

    Image: John Lennon's glasses
    David Behl  /  © Yoko Ono
    John Lennon's round, wire-rimmed glasses.

    In Los Angeles this week, the GRAMMY Museum debuts“John Lennon, Songwriter,”an exhibition paying tribute to the person Grammy Museum executive director Robert Santelli calls, “One of the most prolific and profound songwriters of our time.” On display are some of John Lennon’s guitars, his signature round, wire-framed eyeglasses, his typewriter, some of his original drawings and handwritten lyrics, and photographs, posters and other artifacts and memorabilia loaned to the museum by Yoko Ono.

    Looking back at John Lennon

  • Liverpool

    Image: John Lennon smoking
    Photo by Astrid Kirchherr
    John Lennon smokes after dinner while shooting "A Hard Day's Night?" in 1964.

    And in Liverpool, England, Oct. 9 will be the kick-off of an event-filled John Lennon Tribute Season that will last through Dec. 9.  In addition to rock, pop and classical music tributes, there will be art exhibitions, city tours, a poetry slam and a series of lectures.

    Liverpool’s John Lennon Tribute Season will also include the dedication of an 18-foot global peace monument in Lennon’s memory, an exhibition of early Beatles photos taken by Astrid Kirchherr (the girlfriend of Stuart Sutcliffe, the original Beatles’ bass player), and a Bed-Inendorsed by Yoko Ono in which a curated group of participants will perform serious, humorous, commemorative or provocative actions in a publicly sited bed over the course of 62 days.

    What would John Lennon have thought of all this attention? Bill Stainton, the author of “The 5 Best Decisions the Beatles Ever Made,” suspects “John would be horrified at the way he's been deified over the past 30 years. But it’s hard to overstate Lennon's role in music history. He was one of the greatest songwriters. He had one of the greatest voices in rock. And then there was that little band he put together with a fellow named McCartney.”

    Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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