The Day The Music Died – For Me

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.

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Pearl Harbor: A Date That Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

Sixty-eight years ago today, your grandparents’ generation had their 9-11 moment. On that day, the Empire of Japan decided to sucker-punch the United States Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Japanese military leadership hoped that by destroying America’s naval presence in the Pacific, they could bully the United States into accepting Japanese hegemony in the Far East. This would allow their aggressive expansionism to continue unchecked.

The attack began at 11:55AM Eastern time (6:55AM local time), with the aerial bombing beginning almost an hour later. The Americans at Pearl Harbor were taken by surprise, and nearly 3,000 were killed. The destruction was nearly complete: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded.

The United States, however, was fortunate on this day. The decisive weapon of the war in the Pacific would not be battleships, but aircraft carriers, and the American carriers were out to sea when the Japanese struck, and thus they survived. What the attack had accomplished more immediately, however, was to thrust the United States into the Second World War.

For the next six months, the Japanese Empire ran amok in the Far East, capturing nations at will as the United States at first reeled, and then began to build the most formidable war machine in human history to that point. By the summer of 1942, the United States had begun the process of taking the fight to the Japanese, winning two stunning victories at Coral Sea and Midway. From then on, the Japanese were on the defensive. But on December 7, 1941, Americans didn’t know how things would turn out.

Many expected a Japanese invasion of the West Coast; any American with an Oriental look about them was soon considered suspect. Many whites had no time for subtleties  -to them, they all looked like the guys flying Zeros at Pearl Harbor and Midway. Not long after this, the internment order for Japanese-Americans would be issued.

For my father, then a seventeen-year-old living at St. Mary’s Industrial School on the present site of Cardinal Gibbons School, the entry of the United States into the war brought him to enlist in the Marines. He would eventually be wounded on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945, but lived to tell the tale. He quickly recovered and would have been part of the invasion of the Japanese mainland had not the atomic bomb ended the war. For this, I probably owe my existence, because conservative estimates put American casualties in Japan at around one million.

Marines on Okinawa

The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said that the date would “live in infamy.” For many younger Americans, the date has already lost its meaning, and the future looks bleak as less than 50 survivors of the attack remain. Soon, there will be no one to recall the events of that day, and we will become dependent on books, photographs and films.

But today, while we still have them here, let’s not pass up a chance to pause for a moment or two and recall their 9-11 moment, just as we hope that sixty years from now, our grandchildren will be able to recall ours.