It was 34 years ago today ….December 8, 2014
Dec. 8, 1980: It was probably almost midnight, maybe later, in a club called the Blarney Stone, near Centenary College on Youree Drive in Shreveport, when we got the word.
I don’t know whether there was a general announcement — in my mind someone heard it on the radio and whispered it in the ear of one of the guys in the band between songs. He took the microphone and told us John Lennon was dead. The piano player sat down at the Fender-Rhodes and pecked out a solemn, wordless version of “Imagine.” Then we left.
We did not go home. Some of us went to the Freeman-Harris Cafe, a soul-food place in an area called either the Bottoms or Ledbetter Heights (depending on whether or not you got the Chamber of Commerce memo) where James Brown and B.B. King and Prince would eat when they were in town. We got a bottle of whiskey and a plate of fried chicken livers.
We got drunk that night and told ourselves it was because some unworthy little man — some Lee Harvey Oswald — had murdered a person who was important to us. Already we were calling it an assassination, an ideologically inspired assault. Lennon was a martyr, not a victim, and we were the bathetically bereft. We flattered ourselves by imagining he was one of us, that we were like him. Someone organized a vigil, there were candles, there was weeping. There were all sorts of posturing and wallowing and bingeing on sentiment. We were sad, no doubt about that, but there was something self-aggrandizing about the way we exploited the occasion of his death. We were so sensitive and dashing with our moist eyes and broken hearts. Every generation needs its pick-up saints and tragic ballads; John Lennon was a guitar player and a songwriter, a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band. He was talented and uncommonly intelligent, and the facts of his execution secured his place among the tragically slain famous young. He wasn’t so fascinating that we couldn’t make him stand for whatever we wanted. We still do.
A crazy young man named Mark David Chapman shot Lennon outside his 72nd Street apartment building across from Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He shot him maybe because he wanted to become him, because he admired him, because he thought that by shooting Lennon five times in the back he might transcend the dull pain of the everyday.
“Then this morning I went to the bookstore and bought The Catcher in the Rye,” Chapman told the police three hours after he shot Lennon. “I’m sure the large part of me is Holden Caulfield, who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the devil.
“I went to the building. It’s called the Dakota. I stayed there until he came out and asked him to sign my album. At that point my big part won and I wanted to go back to my hotel, but I couldn’t. I waited until he came back. He came in a car. Yoko walked past first and I said hello, I didn’t want to hurt her.”
Lennon signed that album, a copy of the then newly released Double Fantasy. Chapman stuck it in a flower planter by the Dakota’s front gate while he waited for Lennon to return. After the murder, another Lennon fan retrieved it and turned it over to police. They returned it to the fan after Chapman was sentenced, along with a letter of gratitude from the district attorney. A few years ago, the album went up for sale — the selling agent commented on Chapman’s “forensically enhanced fingerprints” visible on the cover.
“Then John came and looked at me and printed me. I took the gun from my coat pocket and fired at him. I can’t believe I could do that. I just stood there clutching the book. I didn’t want to run away. I don’t know what happened to the gun.”
The police had the gun. Yoko took John’s bloody glasses and put them on the cover of her album, Season of Glass. You can go to Cleveland and see them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Some people think that’s ghastly, but Yoko Ono has an answer for them.
“John would have approved and I will explain why,” she has written. “I wanted the whole world to be reminded of what happened. People are offended by the glasses and the blood? The glasses are a tiny part of what happened. If people can’t stomach the glasses, I’m sorry. There was a dead body. There was blood. His whole body was bloody … That’s the reality … He was killed. People are offended by the glasses and the blood? John had to stomach a lot more.”
John Lennon wasn’t what we imagined, what we made of him in our heads. He was flesh and blood and bone; a painfully thin 40-year-old man who had been through a lot. He was very rich and probably passably happy. He had a family, he had re-entered public life. He seemed less shrill, less angry than he had a few years before. The tragedy of John Lennon — which may not be the whole truth, but seems a reasonable guess — is that he was in a pretty good frame of mind when he was killed. He might have been poised for a major comeback. He might have made a lot more good music.
I didn’t care much for Double Fantasy, in part because it was a gentler, kinder album than I expected from John Lennon. I liked my Lennon nasty, taunting — the Lennon of “How Do You Sleep?” as opposed to the Lennon of “Watching the Wheels” or “Beautiful Boy.” I prefer the primal-scream Lennon who didn’t “believe in Beatles” to the domesticated cat who sang about starting over.
But then it’s been 34 years since Lennon was murdered, and 34 years is longer than he knew Paul McCartney. The further away we get from these events, the more compressed they seem — the Beatles were a moment, not an epoch.
None of the Beatles — not even Lennon — escaped mediocrity in their solo work. Perhaps that was inevitable. You can only burn so hot so long, and in retrospect you can see the strain starting to show as early as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and certainly in the albums that followed it.
These days, you can get by on the collateral Beatles you encounter; “Penny Lane” bleeds from a passing speaker and you smile. You don’t need to hunker in the dark with headphones, listening for the point where the chicken at the end of “Good Morning Good Morning” turns into a guitar. If you are of a certain age and inclination, you have probably assimilated the entire Beatles’ catalog. You might not have any trouble describing John Lennon as one of your heroes.
I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that other than my sneaking suspicion that Lennon himself might not approve. He might be flattered, but so much of his work seems to be aimed at the demystification of idols. Lennon was nothing if not a reflexive iconoclast. He could be ruthlessly careerist — all the Beatles were — but it’s difficult to imagine him buying into the idea that he was essentially more than a Liverpool lad who had a run of luck and a bit of talent.
“I saw him as a cardboard cutout on an album cover,” Chapman said at his parole hearing in 2003. “I was very young and stupid, and you get caught up in the media and the records and the music. And now I — I’ve come to grips with the fact that John Lennon was a person. This has nothing to do with being a Beatle or a celebrity or famous. He was breathing, and I knocked him right off his feet, and I don’t feel because of that I have any right to be standing on my feet here, you know, asking for anything. I don’t have a leg to stand on because I took his right out from under him, and he bled to death. And I’m sorry that ever occurred.”