Despite the circumstances of John Lennon’s death, this really isn’t intended to be a morose post. I can only imagine the multitudes who today are revisiting that moment in time and reflecting upon their own lives, especially Baby Boomers. Lennon’s music adds joy to my life, and when all is said and done, the music is what’s left and I’m grateful for what he gave us. I’ve shared bits and pieces on this topic in previous posts, but today seems like a good time to empty the memory bank.
Monday, December 8, 1980: I was a nine year old in Mrs. Echelmeier’s fourth grade class. Like most of the other boys in school, I was a football fan, primarily the NFL up to that point in my life. We’d spend every Monday recess during the season talking about the games from the day before and trying to reenact some of the standout plays on the playground. Back then, Monday Night Football was the weekly marquee event. It usually showcased the better teams and got fans through until the next weekend of sports. On Monday nights my usual bedtime was extended to halftime of the MNF game. That particular week’s matchup pitted the New England Patriots – back then a team not often featured on national broadcasts – against the Miami Dolphins. I had no particular interest in the game other than the joy of watching it, which I did. But halftime arrived, and I was off to bed. I couldn’t have imagined the announcement that would come near the end of the game.
Tuesday, December 9: I shuffled down the hallway to the kitchen for breakfast, which was probably a bowl of Malt-O-Meal hot cereal or Cheerios with cinnamon toast. We had a 12-inch black and white TV on the counter next to the refrigerator with the CBS Morning News on per our morning routine. But this day something was different. Half awake, I looked at the screen and saw grainy footage of the Beatles descending the stairs of a Japan Airlines jet wearing kimonos. The Beatles! Even at that age I loved the band, but seeing actual film of them was a rarity for me. Other footage followed. Mom was silent. Then I heard the news being reported.
That day at school I heard John’s name spoken in the hallway by my classmates, and it made me uncomfortable. As with the Iranian hostage crisis and the assassination attempt on President Reagan – both of which also happened that school year – big news like that was going to be talked about whether kids really understood what it was about or not. I walked by the teacher’s lounge, cigarette smoke billowing out of it, and wondered if they were talking about it or if they cared. I also wondered who I could talk to about it. My brothers were away at college, and I remember feeling very alone all day. I didn’t cry because I was more stunned than anything. The Beatles were as much a part of my life as Cardinals baseball and, well, just being a kid.
It was probably a borderline odd obsession for someone my age who wasn’t even born until ten months after they ceased to exist as a band. I say borderline because I doubt I was that unique in my status as a young, second generation fan. But in my small town I’m fairly certain I was. If professional athletes were larger than life, then John, Paul, George, and Ringo were mythical gods. And now one of them was gone forever. I didn’t try to make sense of it then because I couldn’t. It had only been ten years since the Beatles split, but it seemed like a hundred to me. John had been in relative seclusion for half that time, so I didn’t really think about him in current terms until Double Fantasy appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Scratched hand-me-down Beatles LP’s and 45’s had made their way from the basement to my bedroom upstairs. Paul’s post-Fabs band was even on the fritz by then. But looking at it as an adult, ten years is a flash. I probably have fast food ketchup packets in my fridge that are older. Lord knows some of my clothes are.
A week or so later my brothers were home for Christmas break, and to this day I associate Lennon’s Shaved Fish compilation album with those weeks. It never left the basement turntable. I soon got my first lesson in mass-media exploitation of a sensational story. I was in a local drug store with my brother Paul when I noticed a large amount of magazines with cover photos of John and/or the Beatles on its shelves. Wow! Neato! I chose one and bought it, but on the way home he explained that the main reason John and the Beatles were on all those magazine covers was to drive sales. I sort of understood, but his face remained on magazine covers all the following year while his new music was everywhere on the radio. We subscribed to Newsweek, and he was soon looking at us from the living room coffee table. I still have that issue, as well as the Rolling Stone issue with John and Yoko on the cover. That cover photo, along with this post’s featured image, were taken the day John died.
By the time I reached high school I had gone through various music phases, including Top 40 and even some rap, but the Beatles and their contemporaries were still my favorites. My senior year I grew my hair (alas, a mullet), and wore round granny sunglasses and one of my dad’s old olive drab army field shirts. My “favorite Beatle” status had shifted from Paul to John somewhere along the line. I guess I connected more with the angst, anger, and social awareness in some of Lennon’s songs by then (not that I didn’t still appreciate a good silly love song…). My few close friends either liked him too or otherwise tolerated me being a Beatles fanboy.
Also by then, the usually cold and gray week or so around December 8 had become an annual period of reflection on John Lennon for me that recurs all these years later. It’s not the only time I listen to his music, but I do go through most of his catalog at this time. December of ’88 brought a sea change to my home life which was compounded by my brother’s impending three year stint with the Peace Corps. He came home for a visit shortly before leaving for Senegal, and he and I watched the then-new Imagine documentary at the local cinema where I also worked part time. Years later I learned that he spent the night of 12/8/80 in his freshman dorm room in southwest Missouri adjusting the late night AM dial on his stereo from left to right and back, listening to live reports on WABC radio in New York and other locations eastward, most of which were also playing nothing but Beatles and Lennon songs. It occurred to him to drop a blank cassette in the player and hit record. He transferred it to CD for me, and it’s an eerie but fascinating homemade document of that sad and shocking night.
Now here we are, 40 years since John’s passing. The ebb and flow of life continues. I became a father, and my kids are now mostly grown. I visited Vietnam and brought home a small strip of sandbag which I found sticking out of the ground at Khe Sahn (not exactly a rare find in Vietnam, even today). It’s had a Lennon button which reads “Imagine Peace” stuck through it for nearly 20 years. My first born was given a personalized “Welcome to the world!” autograph from Ringo before he ceased giving his signature to fans. His younger brother has developed an interest in this music like his old man. Over the past 25 years I’ve taken the Liverpool tour, which includes Lennon’s childhood home and Strawberry Field. I’ve visited the Central Park memorial of the same name and stood at the gate of the Dakota where John took his last steps. I also accepted many years ago that he was a flawed individual like most of us. And as silly as it might be for a middle-aged person in 2020 to have thoughts about it one way or another, George has gradually become the ex-Beatle I admire the most. But of course it’s all relative.
In recent years I’ve taken the happier route of acknowledging Lennon’s birthday in October as much as the dark day of his demise, but today brings a strange milestone: John Lennon has now been gone the same number of years that he lived. I get it, it’s just a number like 39 or 41. Maybe it’s the history student in me who likes to mentally organize the past, including my own, in terms of dates and years. That theme is the foundation of this blog, after all. But it’s a significant milestone to me nonetheless. Perhaps my rapidly approaching 50th birthday has something to do with it. Maybe in this less than enjoyable year I’m trying to hold on to good memories of the comforts of home and family from childhood, and this anniversary marks an unforgettable occasion that impacted me in the middle of it all.