Twenty-three years ago tonight, John Lennon was murdered. It feels like yesterday to me.
On that day in 1980, I was working as a radio disc jockey in Louisville, KY. That night I went out to dinner with some friends; we had a great time. Upon our return to my Jeffersontown apartment, I flipped on the television to catch the Dolphins/Patriots game on “Monday Night Football.” Two minutes after turning on the set, legendary commentator Howard Cosell announced some horrible news: John Lennon had been shot in New York City.
My friends and I fell into a stunned silence at the news. An icy chill ran through my veins. I finally broke the stillness with a whisper, “What if he…” Then Cosell’s voice broke through. He had just taken a call from the show’s producer. Uncharacteristically somber, Cosell put down the receiver and took a deep breath before describing an “unspeakable tragedy”: “John Lennon, a member of the famed Beatles — maybe the best-known member — was shot twice in the back outside of his apartment building on the west side of New York tonight and rushed to the Roosevelt hospital – dead on arrival.”
I collapsed into tears on the spot. So did my roommate, Patti. The two guys with us, her boyfriend and a pal of his, began to weep as well. Someone turned off the TV at some point; football had become meaningless. Instead, we turned on the rock radio station — as expected, it was playing nonstop Lennon music. The DJ spoke in hushed, reverent tones — we could tell he was as much in shock as we were. The music we first heard, “A Day in the Life,” seemed awfully appropriate…
“I read the news today, oh boy…”
After a while, I thought to call my mother, who was in Baltimore. It was from Mom that I inherited much of my Beatles collection; I knew she would have to be distraught.
Mother picked up the phone on its first ring, and sadly, I was correct: She was disconsolate and grateful for the call. She and I ended up sitting on the phone all night long, talking about Beatles music and John and memories. This, Mom told me, hit her harder than losing Elvis three years before. It made sense — Elvis’ death was shocking and tragic to be sure, but he obviously had been ill, and rock ‘n roll drug deaths were nothing new. But how could one make sense of someone gunning down a musician — a Beatle; peace-loving John fucking Lennon, for Christ’s sake — in cold blood?
Near six o’clock, the sky began to lighten and Mom said that I should try to get some sleep. We shared “I love you”s and hung up, and, obedient girl that I was, I crawled off to bed. Sleep never came. After a couple of hours, I got up, showered and dressed, and sat with Patti in front of the radio. An announcement was made of a memorial service in Lennon’s honor that was going to be held at a church near us; we decided that we had to go.
Jeffersontown, KY, a little town east of Louisville, could accurately be described in 1980 as Elvis Country, but you can’t tell that by the overflow crowd at the church. Scads of people of all ages were there, weeping, holding hands with and hugging total strangers. Several large photos of Lennon were placed all around. The event was quite beautiful, and I am glad to this day that we attended it. But in retrospect, that had to be one of the saddest memorials I ever experiened. At other, similar events, the goal is to celebrate the life. In this case, the loss was so unimaginable, and the circumstances behind Lennon’s death so tragic and cruel and inexplicable, that there was no celebration, no joy — only despair multiplied by the hundreds of people present.
What helps me deal with that despair, which still resides within me? Music. The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” for one. I think the raucous, physical nature of the song and Lennon’s raw, powerful, frenzied singing makes him sound almost invincible — and that helps, as does the abject exhaustion that follows a wild bout of twisting and shouting. Imagine me as Ferris Bueller among the frauleins: As I’ve learned again in dealing with losing my dad, sometimes the absolute fatigue that follows a massive adrenaline rush is the best way to cope with great loss and sadness, at least for a time.
Life goes on and I have a thousand and one things to accomplish before tonight. But one thing on my must-do list today is to touch base with Mother, which we do every Dec. 8. Another is to dance away my gloom. I dance as often as I can when sad, and today, I shall dance with abandon: Early Beatles, as always, will be the music of choice to help send my darkness away for a spell. And I won’t apologize for it, though my daughter thinks it unseemly. As Lennon sang, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right.”
Missing you, John… can’t imagine having lived life without your music and vision being part of it.