We’ve all heard somber-sounding people on television or the radio asking the question: “Do you remember where you were when you heard about (insert traumatic event here)?”
For my parents, there was Pearl Harbor and then the assassination of John Kennedy. For most people of my generation, we have 9-11. But I think there exists a second category of psychic traumas, traumas that are not national ins cope, but are more personal, and leave their scars on a smaller, more targeted audience.
For me, the shooting death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980 falls into this category. I’ve always been a Beatles‘ fan, surrounded as I was by older brothers who were Beatlemaniacs (until I was 8, I was led to believe that all music was Beatles’ music). As I got older, I developed my own love for the Beatles, and for John Lennon’s music in particular. Being a sixteen-year-old in the winter of 1980, I guess I identified with Lennon’s rebellious nature, his brutal honesty and the raw truth in his lyrics. Lennon bowed to no one, and had a reputation as a troublemaker. All of this I found very appealing.
On the night of December 8, 1980, I spent a good deal of time tying up my parents’ telephone line in conversation with my best friend, Dave Padgett (that was how we communicated with each other back in the day). We laughed as we imitated Monty Python skits, in particular, The Piranha Brothers, and we talked about playing an elaborate practical joke on my brother Alan. It was a typical, nondescript Monday night.
Much of America heard about Lennon’s shooting on Monday Night Football. At that moment, however, I was in my family’s upstairs bathroom, having just finished washing my hair. As I was vigorously toweling it dry, my mother, who had been watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the living room, called to me that NBC News had just broken into the program to say that a Beatle had been shot. I rushed downstairs, telling myself that she must have misunderstood, that someone with a similar sounding name or something must have been shot. It had to be a mixup. When I got there, Johnny was back on the air, seeming completely oblivious to the incredible news (I didn’t realize that his show was taped).
Flipping around the few channels we had in 1980, I found a reporter in front of Lennon’s building in New York, the Dakota, with a growing crowd behind her. As the taped interviews with witnesses and the updates from Roosevelt Hospital came in, it became clear: John Lennon was dead. I called Dave, who hadn’t been watching television. We hung up quickly to watch the coverage, which alternated between reporters at the hospital and the chaotic, sad scene outside the Dakota. By 1 AM, there were literally thousands of people gathered around Yoko’s building, singing John’s songs, hugging and weeping.
Radio stations of all formats immediately switched to all-Beatles programming, and I stayed up all night, listening to the music, listening to the tributes, listening to the DJs struggle to make sense of it all. It was strange, but I kept checking the newscasts, almost believing that there was still a chance that it was all a mistake, but the facts remained unchanged. John Lennon was dead, killed by a mentally ill fan. We later found out that Lennon had signed a copy of Double Fantasy for his killer, Mark David Chapman, earlier that evening, and the moment had been captured by an amateur photographer:
At school the next day, Dave and I made plans to travel to New York for what was certain to be a massive public funeral. As it turned out, there would be no funeral. Instead Yoko opted for ten minutes of silence on Sunday the 14th; it is said that tens of millions stopped to observe it.
During that week, it seemed like every magazine featured a tribute to John Lennon, and I wondered how much money was made from the grief.
For my part, I kept reading newspapers, listening to the radio tributes and talking to Dave. I sent a short letter to Yoko expressing my feelings of loss, knowing that it was one of a million letters she’d never see. It all seemed surreal.
Over the next few weeks, it felt like we struggled to place John Lennon in context. Was he a pop superstar, a troubled poet, a rebel rocker, a peace activist, or a feminist house husband? How could we label him for easy, convenient packaging? Lennon reinvented himself so often it was hard to pin him down. I remember DJs starting to refer to him as “The Master,” as if he required a label (maybe because Elvis was “The King?”). Thankfully, the attempts to label John Lennon soon passed. The selling of John continues unabated, however, and I expect that he will be redefined and repackaged by each succeeding generation; such is the price of immortality.
For me, though, it was more personal than that; I felt robbed of Lennon’s future almost as if it were my own. I recall being in a record store in Lansdowne soon after and overhearing two middle-aged women discussing the tragedy. They were tsk-tsking it, saying what a shame it was. You have no idea, I remember thinking. You have no idea.