Last month, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and watched myself outlive John Lennon.
I’d been bracing for the moment ever since I was 17, six years after Lennon was murdered and right around the time I was headed off to college, seriously pissed off that my generation didn’t have a bloody, unjust war to protest, nor a draft to dodge, nor a political excuse to engage in an enormous amount of anonymous sex with braless, straight-haired girls with names like Windy and Ryvre and Feelfree. Rather than growing my hair for peace, I was relegated to cutting it short so that there would be no mistaking my disdain for Geddy Lee, Nikki Sixx and Shadoe Stevens — not exactly the most gratifying act of political dissent and public outrage but one I embraced with all the seriousness of any young 1980s revolutionary convinced that doomsday was just as likely to arrive wearing leg warmers and rainbow suspenders as it was to goose-step through the confetti-filled streets, with perfect abs and excellent posture. So the idea that one day I would reach the age that Lennon was when he was gunned down outside his New York apartment building — a tragedy slightly softened by my belief that 40 was the retirement age for the ultracool, whether you were murdered or allowed to live on — made me wonder how it would feel to have finished my life’s work as a great artist at 40 and gotten everybody in the world to know my name.
Nine hours before my bathroom transformation, while speeding along the two-mile stretch of swooping roadway that is Forest Lawn Drive, with the backside of the rolling Hollywood Hills to my left, green and full of pedigreed bones, and to my right, the 122-foot sorcerer’s hat at the Disney Animation Studios, just beyond a collapsing chainlink fence and a reservoir overgrown with brown grass and trees wizened into enormous arachnids by a lifetime of slurping highway runoff, I wasn’t thinking about Lennon or my birthday. But then, as I flew around the belly-lifting curve that levels off into the straightaway that leads past the main entrance of Forest Lawn cemetery, I nearly rear-ended a hearse carrying a single casket draped with an American flag.
Braking hard enough to hear my wheels bark against the asphalt, I drifted into the right-hand lane and slowed to a respectful crawl 20 feet behind the car’s rear window to where I could see the coffin resting as wrinkle-free as a freshly made bed. Looking around to see that we were the only ones on the road and that there was no procession of friends and family whose line of vehicles I’d breached, I was suddenly overwhelmed with tremendous sadness at the loneliness of the body. Unloading my vitriol into the flesh and blood of living soldiers engaged in what I saw as the criminal occupation of Iraq — something that I’d been doing almost daily for five years with my cartooning — was one thing, but coming upon what I guessed to be a dead kid who was more a victim of stupidity than a proponent of the war, whose death was not being buffered by the agony of mourners whose job it was to sop up the sorrow from such a tragedy before allowing it to spill over unrequited into the rest of our lives, was quite another. The experience was a little like spending years hating the guts of your little sister’s asshole boyfriend and then meeting him in a bar weeks after he and your sister broke up and finding him, to your embarrassment, to be affable, not an asshole at all.
It was at this moment that Lennon popped into my head, and specifically the realization that, contrary to my 17-year-old perspective, he was not retirement age when he died. In fact, on this eve of my own 40th birthday, I realized that he was tragically young and just as much a Beatle when he was killed as I remain the pissed-off college student hell-bent on making a difference in the world with my unkempt haircut and my unwavering disdain for Rush, Mötley Crüe and the John Davidson years of Hollywood Squares.
Watching the hearse move into the center lane and slowly turn left through the cemetery’s front gate, peeling away from me like a seed falling in slow motion in the direction of soil, I thought about how, with my own unjust war to protest against, I’d made a mistake — like a ton of other 1960s sentimentalists from my generation — about what I might have missed being born 20 years too late. I realized for the first time how I’d spent a sizable chunk of my young adulthood confusing the remarkable cultural advancements of the middle 20th century with its lousy politics. As it turns out, they were completely separate things. Jimi Hendrix, the miniskirt and a blind optimism for a future based on mutual respect, free love and a shitload of patchouli really had nothing to do with 3 million dead Vietnamese and the propagation of the American imperialistic model.
Nine hours later, I would turn away from my bathroom mirror and notice that, with the time difference between L.A. and New York, there was still enough pink and orange light in the marmalade sky to make me imagine that my window was looking out onto some sort of dawn.