Marshall McLuhan & John Lennon


Of course John Lennon knew of McLuhan, followed his work, sought him out in Toronto and was later interviewed by McLuhan. More on that in another posting.


By: Jan Feldman

It was 30 years ago today, well, 30 years ago December, when the light of two pop culture superstars went out. As with a supernova, the phenomenon marking the violent and explosive end of a huge star, their light shone long after their end.

So it was with John Lennon who died on December 8, 1980 at 40, at the hands of a notoriety-seeking fanatic.

In Toronto another pop culture superstar burned out. On New Year’s Eve, 1980, Marshall McLuhan, 69, noted media theorist and academic, frontrunner of electronic technology and communication, died of a stroke in his sleep. Not the dramatic exit of a supernova, McLuhan’s popularity had “been going in and out of style” like Sgt. Pepper’s band. Lennon and McLuhan were two strong spirits, counterculture contemporaries, whose sometimes radical often revolutionary paths had crossed a decade earlier in the heady stratosphere of celebrity and fame.

Individually they were vastly successful showmen in the mold of P.T. Barnum: Larger-than-life pitchmen, huge self-promoters, doers and seers, half guru, half god. They lived in the public eye, basking in the glow of parallel spotlights, knowing expertly and intuitively how to adjust the focus on themselves as well as society. As master manipulators they demonstrated a certain synchronicity of communication skills by which they led a generation into awakening adulthood and awareness. Arguably Lennon the singer, avant garde artist and performer, lived in his heart and McLuhan, professor of literature, technological determinist and observer, lived in his head. They shared an exquisite ability to communicate. Viewed as idol and icon to an entire era, shaping, informing, and reflecting our time as we took note.

And how we took note! McLuhan’s concepts were cutting-edge visionary, his electronic media prophesies considered fabulous. Not only did he foresee a then-unnamed worldwide network, he revered and feared it. He articulated a new understanding of interconnection of all media forms and its importance on the ‘Global Village’, a term he coined. His theories included “The medium is the message” popularized in his 1964 book “Understanding the Media.” The principle focus was on the form of the media itself, not just its content, and how embedding a message symbiotically with the medium influences perception. Even then McLuhan worried about information overload and computer technology contributing to illiteracy of the masses. In 1967 ‘Newsweek’ magazine featured him on their cover, branding him “Oracle of the Electric Age.” His recognition revived posthumously as his predictions were realized with growth of the Internet. In 1993 ‘Wired’ magazine labeled him its “Patron Saint.”

John’s music and magnetic persona landed him on countless magazine covers. Among his enormous gifts was his intuitive talent for using Media: Print, records, movies. His celebrity gave him access to promote his causes as demonstrated by John and Yoko’s 1969 ‘War is Over’ poster campaign and 1970 ‘Bed-In’ event. The couple’s tactics defined McLuhan’s theories of perception and process, one concept being “Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th Century”.

These legendary talents came from disparate backgrounds with notable degree of overlay. Each was a magnetic, treasured world figure. John Winston Lennon had a humble start in a broken home in Catholic Liverpool. His spotty education emphasized his strengths in music and art; his desperation and drive lennonmarshall5 propelled him to superstardom. Early on, Professor Herbert Marshall McLuhan converted to Catholicism and turned to literature to satisfy his soul’s desire for truth and beauty. Both family men and fathers of sons, they felt a powerful personal association with the Virgin Mary, and fiercely-held mystical beliefs surrounding specific numbers: #3 for McLuhan and #9 for Lennon.

Numbers are unavoidable today, and astronomical, as a measure of popularity and celebrity status. Applying a 30 year time path, someone born since 1980 need not be an artist nor visionary to have a legion of followers. Witness the stats of our celebrity-obsessed culture: John Mayer, with 3.7 million Twitter fans, Lady Gaga gets more hits than Obama, even ‘David at the Dentist’ nets 37 million disciples on youtube. The nature of fame is transitory and transformative for the individual and society. Few will become as significant a star as Beatle’s front man John Lennon or as essential as McLuhan, who foresaw our interdependence on modern technology.

The turbulent Sixties presented limitless possibilities from transcendental introspection to space exploration. The stars of these two powerhouses ascended amidst a period of chaos and insanity, political assassinations, and war. Neither man was in government yet they were demonstrably not apolitical. Their reach was immense. Lennon supported global anti-violence, and McLuhan foreshadowed progress in a new, nebulous worldwide technology.

Near-deified Lennon, his defenses down, succumbed to a combination of his optimistic spirit and the sheer enormity of his fame which attracted a crazed killer. Relegated to a footnote, McLuhan’s stock fell when then-current culture refused to embrace his fanatic foresight. It rose again with the ultimate realization of his vision. Both legends focused our attention, captured it and held a mirror up to society. Thirty years after their death, the legacy and light of these celebrated personalities is illuminating and at times troubling. Applying McLuhan’s theory that “we become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” crystallizes the concept of how both men shaped an era, and us.



3 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan & John Lennon”

  1. It is always pleasure to read your blog, will back here soon


  2. Of course John Lennon died on December 8, 1980 (vs 1989 ~ a typo in second paragraph). I wrote this piece. Too many things are irreparable in this universe, but this should be an easy fix. Marshall, I askyou: How do you undo cyberspace?!


    • Thank you for pointing out the error. I remember that night well, so of course 1989 was wrong. How do you undo cyberspace? You don’t. You just continue to improve upon it and correct the mistakes, as you have done. Thank you…..AlexK


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