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Remembering the night John Lennon died

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“What was it like the night that John Lennon died?”

This is a question frequently asked of baby boomers by Generations X and Y, especially around the December 8th anniversary of his death. It is a fascination they have with the culture that we Baby Boomers lived through; one that has long since passed us by.

“Was it like the assassination of John F. Kennedy?”

The assassination of JFK changed the nation and, some have opined, made it possible for the Beatles massive success, for their ability to re-ignite the cultural revolution that was rock and roll. The music had been a rebel yell and a lover’s whisper until The Beatles transformed it into the most comprehensive music of the century.

Just how would one explain Beatlemania to those who didn’t live through it? The music has retained its impact all these years. Youngsters born decades after the era are buying the old songs. The Beatles were the top selling artists of 2001, thirty-one years after they had disbanded---and 21 years after John Lennon was killed. Their remasters topped the charts again in 2009. Their Rock Band video game was another massive success as were the release of their songs to iTunes.

But respecting the music’s longevity isn’t the same as realizing its initial impact. Those of us who lived through the period still have trouble understanding just why it had such a profound effect on us. Beatle music was more than just a peripheral soundtrack to time and events, it was a central part of those times and of each event. The music grew as we grew, learned as we learned, changed as we changed.

“Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard John Lennon was murdered?”

We all remember where we were, what we were doing, what we were thinking, and whom we were with when an assassin shot down a friend we’d never met and touched off an orgy of worldwide mourning.

On the night of December 8, 1980 I was air directing at a low tier cable television station; popping in commercials whenever the screen went black. This was the early days of cable broadcasting when the only affordable things were public service announcements and shoddy local programming that absolutely nobody watched. The station tried to survive with locally produced commercials aired during local news broadcasts being poorly performed by stammering college-aged anchors. It was a dull job, I worked there only briefly, and have only sketchy memories of having done so. But I remember this night. Maybe not the names, or even the faces, of the others. But I remember the events that unfolded.

When I found out about Lennon, I was not among the many who heard it announced by a passive Howard Cosell to a disinterested Frank Gifford on Monday night football. They had no idea of its impact, it was just an unfortunate celebrity death to them. Howard, with his flair for drama, said something like “it’s hard to go on with calling the game after that news.” Gifford said something like “Yeah.” Then they went on calling the game as if they’d just reported a flat tire in the parking lot.

Being in a TV studio, I got the news perhaps before Howard announced it. One of the boys came in from the teletype room holding a small sheet of paper with the bottom torn. He was staring at the paper, walking slowly, his face pale. I asked what was wrong. He handed me the scrap of paper. I looked at it. My eyes went blurry as I started to read, then slowly focused.

Former Beatle John Lennon shot to death outside his apartment

building in New York by local screwball. More to follow.

Late that night I left the studio to head for home. It had been snowing hard, and took me a while to wipe off my car. I had the engine running to warm it up, and sat inside turning the radio dial. Every station was playing Beatle music, despite if they usually presented rock, soul, jazz, country, classical, or just talk. It was a testament to the versatility of the group, as well as the impact of the man.

When I got home I sat in the dark all night with the radio on. I started calling radio stations asking if it was really true. I asked one DJ to do me a favor; “Don’t play ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun.’” He promised he wouldn’t. Then he said, “Elvis and John Lennon are dead. Hang up your rock and roll shoes. It’s all over.” I hung up the phone and sat in the dark hearing John sing over the radio: “And so my friends, you’ll just have to carry on. The Dream is Over....”

Now it is 33 years later. Another Beatle has since died, leaving only half of the group among the living. We still have wars. But we have no John Lennon to protest. And maybe things like bed-ins for peace seem like ridiculous publicity stunts in these technologically enlightened times, they are really no different than the protests of today. I believe that if John were alive, it is pretty obvious he would have been helping to occupy wall street and perhaps even doing an acoustic set on the steps of the Wisconsin capital building in Madison a couple years back.

The dream might be over, but the music will live forever.

“...and we all shine on....”


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