It was Monday evening, a few minutes before 9 p.m. I had spent the last 35 minutes or so listening to Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions; M*A*S*H would be coming on at 9, so I put away the LP, turned off the stereo, and headed for the living room.
Since my mom had already gone to bed, and my dad wasn’t home yet, I figured I’d watch the show on the living room TV. My own TV, a JCPenney set about ten years old, had really awful color—typically with sort of a greenish cast. On a school field trip a few years back, we had gone to the Pacific Science Center, where one of the exhibits featured a magnet attached to a small black-and-white TV; the instructions were to hold the magnet up to the screen, so you could see what it did to the picture. The resulting distortion was very cool, so, despite the ‘don’t try this at home’ warning, of course I tried it on the color set in my room. It was immediately obvious to me that I had messed up the set, but I still tried to fix it by repeating the very action that ruined it in the first place. I did get it back to something resembling a normal picture, but it never displayed colors properly again.
But I digress…
Once in the living room, I turned on our console TV set. Right after whatever commercial was showing, on came the night’s CBS Newsbreak. The CBS Newsbreak had started out in 1974 as the Bicentennial Minute; once 1976 came to an end, CBS continued the segment for a few years longer, but with regular news taking the place of the Bicentennial-themed segments.
The most famous account of the breaking news came from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football, but I was no longer a football fan by that point, so I heard it from Walter Cronkite just before I was to watch that evening’s episode of M*A*S*H. (It may actually not have been Cronkite, but that’s how I remembered it.)
Regardless of who delivered it, it was a shocking piece of news. It wasn’t so much that Lennon had died; rather, it was that someone had actually shot him. Here was a musician and songwriter who had spent most of my life writing and singing about peace and love, and campaigning for peace—plus he was returning to the public eye after a five-year break. After his 1975 album Rock and Roll, he took the bold step of stepping back from the spotlight for a while, even as his ‘old estranged fiancé’ Paul McCartney reached new heights in his career, George Harrison showed up from time to time on NBC’s Saturday Night (which wasn’t yet called Saturday Night Live, because Howard Cosell had a show by that name on ABC), and Ringo kept making records (though he was no longer as popular as he was in 1973–1974).
So, Lennon was back, making a fresh start—and as soon as he’d got started, he was gone.
Stunned, I turned off the TV, went back to my room, and turned on the FM. The stations I usually listened to were playing nothing but Beatles and John Lennon—even the stuff they wouldn’t normally play.
I finally settled on KISW, which was probably the top FM station in Seattle at that time (at least, among the teenage rock audience of which I was a part). Steve Slaton, the DJ on the air at that hour, was taking listener phone calls between records, with everyone talking about what Lennon and the Beatles had meant to them. At one point, Slaton became so distraught that the caller he was talking to had to console him. It was really a wake over the airwaves.
Perhaps the low point of the evening (apart from Lennon having been killed, that is) was when Ann Wilson of Heart (who were local heroes, and were at the peak of their popularity) called. Amidst whatever else she was saying, she had the audacity to say that it was ‘up to us [Heart] and Bruce Springsteen to carry the mantle of rock ‘n’ roll now that John is gone.’ Never mind that The Clash at their worst were doing far more exciting stuff than Heart had ever done; Cheap Trick, Blondie, and The Knack had become huge (though all stumbled in 1980); and the likes of Devo, The B-52’s, Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, and Elvis Costello were all making waves under the ‘new wave’ banner. I lost whatever respect I had for her that night; even when Heart once again made the charts in the mid-1980s with schlocky tunes their label made them do, I never bought another Heart record again.
But I digress…
The newspaper headlines the next day were almost surreal. They were all some variation or other on Lennon Assassinated. The use of the word ‘assassinated’ itself was remarkable. Until then, it had only been used in reference to political figures—never for entertainment personalities. (Then again, I can’t think of any other musicians who have been killed the way Lennon was.)
The rest of the week was sort of surreal, actually. I went to school as usual, but everything felt different.
Either way, it was quickly obvious that the murder of John Lennon was my generation’s JFK—i.e., the kind of event where those who were alive when it happened will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news. Everywhere you went, it was the main topic of conversation. The TV news shows all had specials about Lennon, his life, and his death. The album rock stations continued to play more Lennon and Beatles records than usual.
Record stores experienced a run on John Lennon albums. I remember going to Tower Records on December 9; I had originally planned to get the new Steely Dan album (Gaucho), but I ended up buying a copy of Double Fantasy instead. Several of Lennon’s 1970s LPs had already sold out—so many Lennon albums had sold in the days and weeks after Lennon’s death that Capitol had to press more copies to meet the demand; in the process, Capitol went for budget packaging for the fairly elaborate Walls and Bridges jacket, and all of the re-pressed albums bore the dark grey Capitol label instead of the long-familiar Apple label of the original issues.
Double Fantasy went to #1 after Lennon’s death, as did the album’s first single, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’, and its follow-up, ‘Woman’. In January 1981, Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, the song Lennon and Ono were mixing the night he died, was released as a single; that summer, her album Season of Glass (with its controversial cover photo of the glasses Lennon was wearing when he was shot) was released. At the 1982 Grammy Awards, Double Fantasy was named Album of the Year. In 1984, some of the other songs recorded at the same time as Double Fantasy were released as the album Milk and Honey (following the same format as Double Fantasy, which alternated John songs and Yoko songs).
In the meantime, Lennon’s death remained a topic of conversation, particularly whenever anyone associated with Lennon or Beatles released a new record—e.g., George Harrison’s ‘All Those Years Ago’, Paul McCartney’s Tug of War, Elton John’s ‘Empty Garden’, Julian Lennon’s Valotte—or when anything related to his killer made the news. There have been numerous biographies and compilations released, along with frequent reissues, and the rest of the Beatles resurrected Lennon demos to produce two new Beatle songs as part of their mid-1990s Anthology compilations. Over the last twenty years in particular, Lennon’s likeness, signature, and/or artwork has been featured on a myriad of products—most recently on a long-sleeve t-shirt to raise funds for Hungerthon 2014.
Though some folks occasionally question Lennon’s legacy by focusing on his failings as a human being or the unevenness of some of his albums, Lennon is probably as popular as ever. Even folks who wouldn’t otherwise know much of his music beyond the Beatles are familiar with ‘Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.
I think it’s useless to speculate about what Lennon would have gone on to do had his life not been cut short, or what his subsequent impact would have been. He’s been gone too long for that to matter now. It is remarkable enough that people are still enjoying his music 40 to 50 years later.
My favorite Lennon album is still Walls and Bridges, with Plastic Ono Band coming in a close second. I think that what I appreciate most about John Lennon is that he tried to express himself honestly through his music. The best art contains something of the artist within it; that is definitely true of Lennon’s art.
I do not normally pay much attention to December 8th. It is only because tonight, like that night 34 years ago, is a Monday that I have been thinking about it at all. I don’t really have a proper ending for this; it’s mostly been off the top of my head. I just know that I have been listening to the music of John Lennon in some form since I was a kid; for that reason, if no other, I thought I would acknowledge the occasion.(8 December 2014)