“I read the news today, oh boy….”
On another chilly Monday in December nearly 40 years ago, a gunshot extinguished the remaining idealism of a generation.
A brief, violent moment and hope had died yet again for me
That the life of a man like John Lennon, someone with such penetrating genius and deep sense of social justice who moved us to imagine a world of peace right along with him, could end in such an abrupt and violent way was devastating and numbingly impossible to comprehend.
The outpouring of grief, despair and disbelief that followed his death had the same breadth and intensity as the reaction of the killing of any world figure.
The senseless killing of our icons had tragically become all too familiar in our still young lives, yet the horror of this one seemed inconceivable.
How many times had we witnessed the sense of idealism and optimism slowly snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet first with President John Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King.
Now it was John Lennon. A Beatle.
It is hard to impress the magnitude of the Beatles to those who did not live through the times. There had just never been anything like them.
“She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…”
There are few of my generation who do not recall first seeing the Beatles that February night in 1964.
Like most Americans, Sunday, night was Ed Sullivan at my house and at 8 o’clock along with 73 million other viewers my family gathered around the TV set in the living room to watch the very first live television appearance of that British import the Beatles. Like most, my own parents tuned in just to see what the heck all the fuss was about with this Mop Top Foursome.
While my parents sat a safe distance away, I plopped myself down as close as possible to the set (without being yelled at by Mom not to sit too close as I would ruin my eyes) to get as good a look at these 4 Lads from Liverpool. They opened with “All my Loving” muffled by the screams of teenage girls in the audience and by the time of their closing song pleading with us that “I want to Hold Your Hand” I did. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!
Somehow watching the program on our old hulking mahogany encased Emerson TV now seemed so dated and old-fashioned an appliance to be viewing something so utterly new and modern. The Beatles ushered in the future and with it a sense of hope and possibility.
The Beatles became a mass phenomenon at a time of profound loss.
They burst into our lives at a primal moment – only 77 days after President Kennedy had been assassinated the first of our shared childhood traumas.
The sense of possibility, of optimism, of inevitable progress that had been so buoyant in those first years of the 1960’s New Frontier 1960’s that Jack Kennedy beckoned us to, died in November of 1963.
Filling this emotional and spiritual void, this deep grieving my generation related to a group of young men, vibrant, upbeat, irreverent a departure from the past. Like JFK, they were both smart, quick-witted and energetic and we could easily transfer the sense of hope onto these 4 lads from Liverpool.
The Day the Music Died
Now another date indelibly imprinted in my mind, dashed that hope yet again.
I would remember that bone chilling night of December 8 1980 as vividly as when I heard the news of JFK, or RFK or MLK.
“A Day in the Life”
It was just an ordinary Monday.
The streets in NYC where I lived were clogged with vendors hawking Christmas trees and holiday shoppers were trying to get their hands on a Rubik’s Cube that year’s “must have” Xmas gift for the kiddies. The hostages in Iran were spending their 401 day in captivity and it was becoming old news. Barely a month had passed since Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan became our president-elect and he was we assumed busy planning his transition.
For me I had settled in to another late night of working.
A student at the School of Visual Arts I had yet to complete an illustration assignment due the next day. As usual my Pioneer Radio was on, set to 102.7 WNEW-FM its music taking take me through the wee hours. Painting to the music of Queen, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart I got into a groove.
When Vince Scelsa took over the 10pm time slot as usual I took little note. But when the legendary broadcaster broke in with an announcement, I dropped my paint brush and froze. “I have the extremely sad task to report tonight that John Lennon died tonight,” he said, barely able to keep it together as he struggled to get out the words.
Grief stricken and in a state of suspended disbelief I became glued to the radio, ignoring the ringing phone as my answering machine quickly got filled with message from distressed friends hearing the news.
One friend who had been watching Monday Night Football was the first to call when ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell was the first to announce that Lennon had been shot and rushed to Roosevelt Hospital “Dead on arrival” Cosell told the world.
Devastated Beatle fans without the benefits of twitter took to calling in to radio stations to share their anguish on air, desperately seeking information. “This can’t be true!” cried more than one inconsolable listener. “They’ve killed him they’ve killed John Lennon,” wailed others. “How could something like this happen in N.Y. one caller asked tormented?
I Love New York
I loved that John Lennon considered himself a New Yorker. He had made it his home. So did I. That he had lived so contentedly in the place I called home was special. That he was killed in the city I loved, devastating.
As the evening wore on, reports began circulating of a vigil taking place outside Lennon’s residence on the Upper West Side. Despite the late hour I didn’t hesitate…I knew where I needed to be. It was essential for me to join the more than 600 singing, chanting and crying fans that would spend the evening till early dawn outside the Dakota.
Hailing a cab I raced uptown and soon saw the crowds that had gathered outside the iconic apartment building across from Central Park. The crowd was so thick that police closed off 72 Street from Central Park West to Columbus Avenue.
Looking up at the massive fortress-like building brooding with its Chateauesque like architecture so unlike anything else in N.Y.C. it seemed incomprehensible that only hours earlier Lennon had been shot as he entered this storied structure with his wife Yoko Ono.
Surrounded others of my generation, we stood bereft in shocked solidarity. There was no place else I would have wanted to be.
The frigid night air was filled with singing, and quiet sobs and indelible memories.
Some carried Beatles posters, others decorated the tall iron gates with wreathes and single flowers and banners. One mourner held a sign saying “Christmas in heaven.”
But it was not just adults. Some of the mourners brought young children, some stood with baby carriages. Some had portable radios and sang along with the Beatles with tears in their eyes.
One group of people would start singing a Beatles song and “All You Need is Love” could be heard reverberating for blocks, then others would applaud and start another and soon the sound of “Strawberries Fields Forever” filled the air.
“In My Hour of Darkness…Let It Be…”
There were chants of “Give Peace a Chance” while some mournfully choked out the lyrics to “Imagine”.
Now the unimaginable had happened.
Someone hung black bunting on the arched entryway and gates of the Dakota and soon candles appeared in the windows. People in the crowd lit matches or cigarette lighters in response and filled the dark night with light.
Someone in the group called for a moment of silence – and for a minute, the crying and the singing ceased.
“Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away….”
We were grieving not only for his death but a death of an era, for a rock star who symbolized our youth.
You would be hard pressed to find a baby boomer who did not secretly hope for a Beatles reunion. There had always been this hope the Beatles would get back together. As long as the Beatles themselves were all alive as long as people could kid themselves that their might finally be, one final concert, one more album.
That hope too died that chilly Monday night.
In Unimaginable Times, it’s Time to Imagine
Nearly 40 years later the tragedy of gun violence has only escalated, bloodshed itself washing over us through the decades. Hate and distrust has intensified.
“We Can Work it Out…”
In our current climate where so many are so dispirited and in despair, as cruelty and division have been unleashed in a stark rawness not seen in my lifetime, it is well to recall John Lennon’s words.
Now that we are living in unimaginable times, with war and conflict seeming to erupt at every border we need to Imagine. The song that played over and over in my mind that week in 1980 still does. Now more than ever.
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you”
Copyright (©) 2017 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved