THE DAY John Lennon died I was an eleven year old grade six student who loved the Beatles and who’s favorite album was Sgt. Pepper’s. My parents had somehow inexplicably “missed” the whole 60′s pop culture revolution, so my love and pursuit of Beatles’ music was entirely unaided. My mom, in 1973, was buying Jim Nabors albums as a 29 year old, and my father’s album collection consisted of a few cowboy ballad and movie western themed pieces, along with an old chipped Fat’s Domino album. My mom’s experience with the Beatles was always parleyed by her telling a story about how sick of Ob La Di Ob La Da she was after it was played endlessly and the diner she once waitressed at. Hardly an endorsement, and only suggestive of her isolation from the mainstream even at a young age.
As a young boy I did three things incessantly. One was listen to music. I had a small collection of kid’s albums and singalong storybook type things, and a few adult albums, including Elvis’s Sun Sessions, and a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s. The other things I did were read, and listen to the radio. I did all three alone and in my room for hours on end, until the wee hours of the morning. And it was on one of these evenings of late night listening that the radio broke the story of John Lennon’s shooting and death.
The news, and the unfolding live drama of the releasing of information, and the reactions of the world echoed what 24-7 news coverage and breaking news coverage of major stories would become – something we are all very familiar with today. But in many ways this was the prototype event for that type of coverage that was being invented in the moment, and the drama of how it was covered became as much of the story as the event and details of the shooting itself.
I remember running downstairs to tell my mother (my father was already in bed). She responded to the news with polite concern. For her it was just another piece of information to be heard and commented on, but then put aside. I returned to my room, and listened to hours and hours of live coverage on the radio – the spontaneous spilling into the streets of New York by fans, the vigil in the park — audio of interviews with fans and reactions – the singing – the sobbing and cries of disbelief — it went on and on..
That morning I awoke. My father had already left for work and my mother was still asleep. I readied myself, eating cereal and showering before dressing and leaving for school. I attended a special program and my school was unusually far from my home so my departure was early and the walk was about 45 mins. The walk itself was strange. I felt I had this adult secret that I needed to tell – the event as well as what I had heard and witnessed with respect to the coverage huddled around my radio. But there was no-one. The streets were empty and I walked in silence.
I still remember the weather. It was cold, and dull – Overcast but very dry. And as I rounded the corner approaching the school it too seemed empty and barren. There was one kid — probably a 9 year old, playing alone on the outdoor rings – suspended in space by his arms. Or it may have been a girl. I don’t remember. I called out: “John Lennon – did you hear?” The person just stared at me, suspended over the ground. Was there even anyone there?
In the parking lot of the school I saw a teacher pulling some stuff out of her car. I approached. “John Lennon’s dead. Somebody shot him” I told her. She looked at me with strangeness – as if I was strange. Why is this child saying these things? She hadn’t heard and it was obvious that she didn’t believe – or she didn’t want to believe me. This wasn’t how you were supposed to be told about these kinds of things – by a child in a parking lot. She quickly left – dashing to the teacher’s lounge to get the bad news confirmed – and I was alone again.
It wasn’t until I saw my friend Vartan that I had someone to share the experience with. He liked the Beatles too, though he was more of a Yellow Submarine kind of guy – that and Octopus’s Garden. We thought it was sad. Sad for John and his wife and especially his young son. Yes – there was that. Plus the idea that he would never be 64.* That came up as well.
It wasn’t until later that afternoon, at home watching TV, did I get to see images of what I had heard on the radio. The outpouring of grief, the crowds — the celebration and commiseration. My parents were there then — those images gave their comments context. It was sad. Look at all those people. Could they not see what this was doing to me?
I think I became an adult that day. I think I broke through the pleural sack of adolescence all on my own and was baptized by the world’s tears for John. I now carried the burden of knowledge. Of knowing.
That Christmas is also one I’ll never forget. Double Fantasy, and that famed image of John and Yoko kissing (and the one of them both standing on the street casting their gaze towards an uncertain future) — those were the visuals of the season. And around the tree that morning, opening presents containing now long forgotten toys, there was one present that was obviously an album addressed to me from my 80 year old grandfather. At 80 he was already half senile — long beyond what I had assumed was the ability to absorb new information about the world. His stories, like his mind, seemed permanently resident in the past.
I can remember peeling away the wrapping and seeing right away that it was Double Fantasy. I immediately thought my parents must have purchased it for him – that at least they’d gotten me something that wasn’t just some throwaway kid’s thing. I looked over to my Grandfather for the obligatory thank-you as he watched me reveal the contents. He gestured, calling me over for what I assumed was a Christmas hug. As I leaned in towards him he grasped me and pulled me closer, whispering into my ear: “He was the best.” I pulled back almost in shock while he held me firm and looked into my eyes. His eyes confirmed it. “He was the best” he said again. I couldn’t believe it. He knew. He knew.
I still have the album – and back then I played it endlessly, building an elaborate narrative and mythology about John, Yoko, and young Sean in my head. In this way John was still alive and his story was, as the album said – A Heart Play. It was a story of love - for family, his lover, his young son, and a story of his redemption in the world… That’s how I kept him alive.
*re-64 — we didn’t necessarily attribute songs or performances to specific Beatles so the fact that Paul sang and wrote this song was lost on us. It was all Beatles.