Twenty-five 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 be described accurately in 1980 as Elvis Country, but you couldn’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: Sometimes the absolute fatigue that follows a massive adrenaline rush and physical exertion 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 my new grandson comes home. But one thing on my must-do list today is to dance away my gloom. I dance as often as I can when sad, and today, I shall dance with abandon: Early Beatles and solo John, 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. She can think anything she wants. As Lennon sang, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right.”
This year, I also will spend some time thinking about Lennon the peacemaker. His voice is so needed during this time when many of the world’s leaders seem hellbent on killing whomever it takes to maintain… well, whatever it is they want to maintain. Frankly, what I see leaves me cold; much of mainstream mentality and its way of life is not worth maintaining. And John Lennon’s voice is a necessary one for the effort to subvert the dominant, disgusting paradigm.
Whatever you hear and read today, know that Lennon was not a saint. He was a complicated man, sometimes driven by demons, sometimes – it is alleged – cruel and given to violence. He even called himself a bastard. Still, a call to something better, higher, burned within him – he wanted a world of peace and love. He answered that call and addressed this theme through much of his words and music. Yes, he was flawed, but he had many ideas worth considering:
- Instant karma’s going to get you…
- I don’t believe in killing whatever the reason!
- Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given never forgotten, never let it disappear.
- If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.
- If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliche that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal.
- Possession isn’t nine-tenths of the law. It’s nine-tenths of the problem.
- We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.
- You either get tired fighting for peace, or you die.
- Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.
- Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.
- Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.
- All we are saying is give peace a chance.
The good news is that it appears Lennon found personal peace and embraced love with Yoko Ono and their son before Mark David Chapman achieved his lunatic wish. Obviously, much of the world and certainly its leaders have refused to embrace the artist’s message. Which makes the job of those of us who do believe and who do fight for love and peace increasingly difficult.
The world is a dark, cold, violent place that has gotten infinitely worse in the past 25 years. John Lennon died without being given the privilege of getting tired. Those of us still breathing and still committed to peace must shake off any lethargy we feel. We can find inspiration in his words, but it’s up to us to do the work, no matter what anyone says, no matter how the mainstream marginalizes and ridicules and ignores us. Don’t trust in some preacher, some guru, some Beatle, trust in yourself, your love for peace, your own imagined view of what the world could be. As Lennon said, “You’re just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You’ve got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It’s all down to you, mate. ”
As for my fight for peace, it’s down to me (though I’m not the only one). Doesn’t mean I can’t give thanks for John Lennon and his inspiration; I simply can’t imagine having lived life without his music and peace-filled imagination being part of it. And it doesn’t mean I can’t remember and honor the flawed man who wanted to help make the world a better place. My push for peace may be down to me, but it doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t miss John. Because I do. I suspect I always will.
(Reworked from the original Dec. 8, 2003 remembrance)