Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The 30th Anniversary of John Lennon's Death

Today it is the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. It was around 10:50 PM on 8 December 1980 that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were returning from a recording session at the Record Plant to The Dakota, the late Victorian apartment house John and Yoko had called home since 1973. Unfortunately, in the shadows one Mark David Chapman was waiting for John. As John made his way towards The Dakota's entrance, Chapman took aim and fired upon him. The first bullet would miss. Unfortunately, the next two would strike John, one in the left side of his back and the next in his left shoulder. Chapman would shoot John several more times, one of the bullets penetrating the aorta of John's heart. The shot was fatal. John managed to stagger a few steps to The Dakota's reception area where he murmured, "I'm shot," before collapsing. The Dakota's concierge Jay Hastings covered John's body with the jacket from his uniform and called the police. The Dakota's doorman Jose Perdromo seized Chapman and shook the gun from his hand.

John was taken by policemen Bill Gamble and James Moran to Roosevelt Hospital. When John was brought into the emergency he had no pulse and was not breathing. Three doctors worked for twenty minutes in an attempt to revive John. It was at 11:15 PM, Monday, 8 December 1980 that John Lennon was declared dead on arrival.

On 8 December 1980 I had a severe case of influenza which included several trips to the bathroom during the day. The following morning of 9 December 1980 I had no intention of waking up and going to school at 6:30 AM as I usually did. Unfortunately, I would be awakened with the second worst news I had ever had in my life (the worst was when my mother passed). My brother shook me awake and simply said, "John Lennon's dead. He was shot." I simply sat up in my bed, glared at my brother, and said flatly, "B.S. (well, that's the abbreviation for what I said--I used the whole word...)." My brother shook his head and replied, "No. It's true. The Today Show is on." I could tell by the tremble in my brother's voice and the state of shock in which he looked to be that what he said was true. I walked into the living room to learn the horrible truth.  The Today Show was indeed on a half hour early. The usually calm Tom Brokaw looked shaken. Jane Pauley, a self proclaimed Beatles fan, was as white as a sheet and looked as if she had been crying. It was true. The night before John Lennon had been shot and murdered.

It was perhaps good that I had the flu, as I could not have gone to school that day regardless. I spent the next three days crying and listening to Beatles and John Lennon songs. In fact, in the weeks that came I would cry any time John Lennon's latest single, "Starting Over," or his perennial holiday classic, "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," would come on the radio (indeed, I have to confess, I have cried while writing this). While I had already heard of the deaths of many celebrities I admired (the first was Judy Garland, followed later that summer by Sharon Tate) in my young life, the death of John  Lennon grieved me more than any before or since. Quite simply, he was John Lennon. I have already written of the impact John Lennon had on my life.  Suffice it to say that John Lennon had a greater and longer lasting impact on my life than any other artist in any field.

Of course, I was not alone in mourning John Lennon. In fact, the sheer scale of the grief upon his murder was far greater than anything seen before. Fans gathered from all around outside The Dakota, creating a makeshift memorial of flowers and other tokens of appreciation for John. Tape players played old Beatles and John Lennon songs, and fans sang some themselves. By the night of Tuesday, 9 December 1980, the crowd had swelled to over 1000. No funeral was held, but perhaps because she had witnessed the grief of John's fans first hand, Yoko Ono suggested that on 14 December 1980 fans should meet at Central Park for 10 minutes of silence in remembrance of John Lennon. Fans would not only meet at Central Park, however, as the 10 minutes of silence in remembrance of John would become a worldwide event, making John Lennon's vigil perhaps the largest ever held in history. On 14 December 1980, over 225,000 fans gathered at Central Park in New York City. They gathered in other cities as well. Thirty thousand gathered in John's hometown of Liverpool. Even in Moscow fans gathered to mourn John, although there the Soviet police broke up the vigil. The ten minutes of silence was not simply limited to John Lennon fans either. Radio stations around the world fell silent for ten minutes too. Sales of Beatles albums and John Lennon albums rose sharply in sales after John's murder.

Even the media seemed to take notice of the sheer scale of mourning for John Lennon. Indeed, after dismissing rock musicians for years, they actually realised John Lennon's importance in the history of the late 20th Century. I am not sure who first used the term. It may have been Tom Brokaw that very morning of 9 December 1980 or it may have been in Time magazine or some other news outlet. Regardless, John Lennon may have been the first musician in the history of mankind whose murder was termed an assassination, as if he had been a political or religious figure, or at least as important as a political or religious figure. Over the next several weeks there would be literally thousands of articles in the news and pieces on television shows on John Lennon's life and death. A search on Google's news archive for December 1980 results in about 2080 articles. Given that even Google's formidable news archive does not cover every printed news source and certainly not those of television or radio stations, this number is probably very conservative.

I am sure in 1980 there were many who wondered why John's fans mourned him so and in such numbers. Indeed, most all of us had experienced the deaths of celebrities before. The first celebrity death I remember happened when I was six. when Judy Garland died. Knowing she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the news upset me. Indeed, I thought she was still 17 years old. I asked my mother how someone so young could die and she told me The Wizard of Oz was made years ago and Judy Garland was not young any more. She conveniently left out the part about her death being cause by a drug overdose and that she was that old. It was only a few weeks later that I would hear of Sharon Tate's murder, later to be revealed as having been at the hands of the Manson Family. Much more so than Miss Garland's death, Sharon Tate's death would haunt me for years to come. I did not quite know who Sharon Tate was, but I knew she played Janet Trego (on whom I had a crush) on The Beverly Hillbillies. And while I did not know the details of her murder, the fact that she had been murdered bothered me to no end (it still does to this day). Over the years other celebrities I admired would pass, including Jack Benny (whom I actually cried over), Groucho Marx, and Steve McQueen. Keith Moon of The Who would be the first rock star I admired whose death I heard reported, but as much as I loved The Who, I fully expected him to die young given his lifestyle. But none of those deaths would impact me in the way John Lennon's death did.

In fact, the plain truth is that John Lennon's death still has an impact on me. Over the years I have cried many times over John Lennon's passing, and I always do on the anniversary of his death. Indeed, as I stated earlier, I have cried writing this post, as I had also cried during the post I wrote for his 70th birthday. Since John Lennon's death there have been only a few deaths that have come close to evoking the sort of grief in me that John's did (George Harrison, John Entwistle, Patrick McGoohan), but none have ever surpassed the sheer level of emotion that John's murder evoked in me. He is truly the only celebrity whose passing evoked grief in me as intense as if a personal friend or family member died.

I suppose there are those who think that it is silly that someone should mourn over someone famous as intensely as I did John Lennon. After all, I never met him or even so much as exchanged letters with him.  Having experienced such grief, I do not. The plain fact is that we have lived in a society of mass communication for the past several hundred years, since the invention of the printing press. This has made it possible for us to be touched by the lives and words of individuals we have never even met. Before the advent of radio, much less television, in 1870 Charles Dickens was mourned by all of England and much of the rest of the world. In 1944 crowds of people gathered to witness the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's funeral train. In 1962 Marilyn Monroe was mourned nearly as much as some politicians. In 1964 the assassination of John F. Kennedy not only resulted in schools and businesses closing down, but in coverage of the passing of the President for the next three days on television. The vast majority of people who mourned Messrs. Dickens, Roosevelt, and Kennedy and Miss Monroe had never met them in person or even so much as exchanged letters with them, yet these individuals had a huge impact on the lives of many. As a musician, songwriter, and political activist, John Lennon had influenced the lives of many and shaped the lives of many. It should be little wonder, then, that people mourned him so.

Terence Towles Canote
8 December, 2010

As I wrote on his 70th birthday, John Lennon had an enormous impact on my life. Given the fact that I was a Beatles fan and John Lennon fan since birth (they came to the U.S. less than a year after I had been born), John Lennon perhaps influenced and shaped my life in ways I cannot measure and cannot possibly begin to understand. Indeed, it would seem I am not alone. In the days following his death a young New Yorker said what many of us felt, "I can't believe he's dead. He kept me from dying so many times before." Given John Lennon had influenced the lives of many, shaped the lives of many, and even saved the lives of many, it should be little wonder he was mourned by so many and so intensely. If the outpouring of grief for John Lennon was so great and came from so many, it is perhaps a mark of so deeply he had touched so many of us. In fact, if many John Lennon fans are like myself, he continues to be a lasting influence on them as well as me. In a way, then, while John Lennon may have died that cold, New York night on Monday, 8 December 1980, he has never really left us.


Anonymous said...

"John Lennon perhaps influenced and shaped my life in ways I cannot measure and cannot possibly begin to understand." A feeling shared by millions worldwide-- myself included. This was a beautiful reflection on a truly beautiful soul... thanks for posting.

Raquel Stecher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raquel Stecher said...

Wow this is very touching. I had a similar, although not as intense reaction to Selena's death. I think it wounded me in a way that I will never recover from.

My mom told me that I was in the Dominican Republic when John Lennon was murdered. I had been born about 13 days prior and we had just gone to her country so she could introduce me to my family. She remembers being very sad over the incident especially since it was a senseless killing of a talented and kind soul.

Thank you for writing this. I know it must have been difficult.

simoncolumb said...

Lennon will never be forgotton.