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I HEARD THE news just as I was going to bed on Dec. 8, 1980. Oh, boy. Murdered by a nutball fan. I was distraught for days.

Of the four Beatles, I'd identified most closely with John Lennon. Paul McCartney was too sweet, George Harrison too introverted, Ringo Starr too one-dimensional.

I savored John's reckless wit, his defiance of authority, his brilliantly rough artistry. He opened up unthought-of realms of rock 'n' roll possibility. Album covers in the nude. Billboards for peace.

His death diminished those possibilities. Even now, I wonder what he might have done if he had lived to see his 50th birthday this year.

When he was gunned down, we had just heard the first of his mature work -- the "Double Fantasy" album. Here was an assured, loving, cheerful John Lennon, ready to tackle the world again, apparently free of the demons that had haunted his previous decade.

Would he have toured? How could he have resisted?

Would he have shown up on the Band Aid record or at the Live Aid concert? Quite possibly.

Would he have reunited with the other Beatles? Forget it. Nobody has even managed to get the remaining three of them together. Trying for a fourth would have been even tougher.

Would he have turned out more anthems of peace, love and Yoko Ono? You bet. There would be three or four more John Lennon albums by now at least. Maybe more, if events inspired them.

Would he have thrown himself in with the socially conscious songwriting of the past few years? He might have inspired it.

Imagine him throwing barbs at warmongering in Central America and bouquets at the fallen Berlin Wall. Imagine what pointed comments he might have about both sides in the current Persian Gulf situation.

Then again, would he have sustained his edge through the '80s? Or would the novelty of his reappearance wear off? Would he have turned into a cuddly, familiar soft-rock figure like so many of his contemporaries?

Or, worse yet, would he have recoiled from a fresh round of post-Beatlemania, then retreated into isolation again, there to spend his days in bed, watching television and smoking marijuana?

Instead of these possibilities, however, we have legacy. What, after all, did John leave us?

The most obvious is his peace legacy. Through the efforts of Yoko Ono, Lennon's memory has become a symbol for peace. Two of his songs, the idealistic "Imagine" and the sloganistic "Give Peace a Chance," have become anthems for the betterment of human relations.

Less obvious is his lifestyle legacy. John lost millions to bad business management. He lost years to bad habits. He was a prisoner of his own celebrity. His life should be studied by all would-be rock stars as a cautionary tale, a primer in the pitfalls of stardom.

As for his musical legacy, parts of it have indeed become soft-rock fodder, albeit high-quality soft-rock fodder.

His work with McCartney is among the most brilliant songwriting of the second half of the century. Before he died, Leonard Bernstein noted that he considered Lennon and McCartney the greatest writing team since the Gershwins.

In compact disc reissues, his music continues to be widely available. A new four-disc package, released for the holidays, rounds up much of his solo career.

For musicians, he continues to be an inspiration at all stages of his career. Hard rockers zero in on his early days. Psychedelic revivalists find treasures in the post-"Sgt. Pepper" period. Those with a penchant for the odd dig up his lesser-known solo tracks.

But the value in John Lennon is more than his songs. It's in his spirit of adventure and curiosity, his willingness to borrow something from others and make it his own.

It's that spark which illuminates the annual John Lennon tribute at Nietzsche's. Not all the songs are necessarily Lennon songs, but they're all in his spirit of freedom and possibility -- the rebel spirit of rock 'n' roll.

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