John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” his greatest musical gift to the world, one morning early in 1971 in his bedroom at Tittenhurst Park, his estate in Ascot, England. His wife, Yoko Ono, watched as Lennon sat at the white grand piano now known around the world from films and photographs of the sessions for his Imagine album and virtually completed the song: the serene melody; the pillowy chord progression; that beckoning, four-note figure; and nearly all of the lyrics, 22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.
“It’s not like he thought, ‘Oh, this can be an anthem,'” Ono said, looking back at that morning 30 years later. “Imagine” was “just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out.”
The idea was not his alone: Ono’s own art, before and after she met Lennon in 1966, celebrated the transformative power of dreams. The first line of “Imagine” — “Imagine there’s no heaven” — is a direct descendant of the interactive pieces in Ono’s 1964 book, Grapefruit (“Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky”). But Lennon, as a former Beatle, was an expert in the pop vernacular. He once admitted that “Imagine” — an absolute equality created by the dissolution of governments, borders, organized religion and economic class — was “virtually the Communist Manifesto.” But the elementary beauty of his melody, the warm composure in his voice and the poetic touch of co-producer Phil Spector — who bathed Lennon’s performance in gentle strings and summer-breeze echo — emphasized the song’s fundamental humanity.
Lennon knew he had written something special. In one of his last interviews, he declared “Imagine” to be as good as anything he had written with the Beatles. We know it’s better than that: an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon’s own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th. It is now impossible to imagine a world without “Imagine.” And we need it, more than he ever dreamed.