“Some Time in New York City” — Remembering 35 Years Ago Tonight
Thirty-five years ago tonight, on December 8, 1980 at 10:45 pm, a deranged loner stepped onto a dimly-lit New York City side street and fired four shots point blank from a loaded Charter Arms .38-caliber revolver into an inexplicable target that made no sense whatsoever.
Most of us learned of John Lennon’s murder a short time later, not from a breaking news flash, but from the oddest of sources — the rhapsodic voice of ABC sportscaster and quintessential New York journalist Howard Cosell. A thrilling Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins was playing down to the closing seconds of what would turnout to be a game-winning field goal attempt. As the Pats’ placekicker, a native Englishman named John Smith, was taking the field, that’s when Cosell without hesitation broke into the national telecast and stunned millions of listeners on the edge of their seats by announcing news that Lennon had been shot and was confirmed dead.
Most of us can recall the tragic events which affected us most, sometimes in excruciating detail, and painfully so. I was only slightly more than a year old when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and therefore have no memory of it. I vaguely remember the terrible shootings of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy (which happened in 1968), but still wasn’t old enough to fully comprehend such tragedy. Hence, for many of us of a certain age, John Lennon’s murder was a profound watershed moment of personal tragedy and our own transformative moment of lost innocense, particularly for fans and admirers of The Beatles and those involved the counterculture movement of the 1960’s.
I was freshman at Texas at the time, majoring in political science with a minor in history. That meant, it was nearing 10 pm in the central time zone by the time Lennon’s lifeless body had been rushed to Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, where he was pronounced dead almost instantly. By coincidence, an ABC reporter just so happened to be lying in the emergency room at the time following a motorcycle accident, saw Lennon’s bullet-ridden body get wheeled in on a stretcher, and contacted the news bureau with what would become a bombshell story. That’s how ABC came to break the tragic news before everyone else. After a series of frantic phone calls that went back and forth between the hospital, the newsroom, and the Orange Bowl in Miami, Cosell came on television and informed the nation of what had occurred in New York City about an hour after the murder.
It’s important to put the assassination into some context. At the time, Lennon had virtually been forgotten by the public as a rock star and cultural icon. The days of Beatlemania were long gone. Lennon and his wife Yoko routinely walked all over the latticework of streets and avenues on the Upper West Side, often going to markets and doing their own shopping, dining out frequently, and behaving as though they were just average citizens, when they were anything but. Most people who saw John Lennon walking the streets respected his privacy and left the couple alone. Impressed by the respect, Lennon once said New York was the one place where that was possible, a major reason they made The Big Apple their home during the last nine years of his life.
Lennon had not released a record of any kind, nor made any public appearances in more than five years, a diminutive lifetime in the fickle music business where tastes and popularity have the shelf life of a loaf of bread. He’d willingly gone into self-imposed seclusion at the very height of his personal fame and musical influence, choosing instead to spend as much time as possible with Sean, his second son.
The roots of this change of heart and adjustment of priorities went deep. Lennon had admittedly been an absentee father to his first son, Julian. Born in England around 1964 when The Beatles were almost godlike, Lennon willfully neglected his first wife Cynthia, and their son, who had been conceived earlier out of wedlock. Lennon did “the right thing” by marrying Cynthia, even though the pair were a complete mismatch from the start. Then again, being married to the driving force behind The Beatles wasn’t exactly a stable foundation for emotional sustenance and parenthood.
To his credit, Lennon was determined not to make the same mistake twice given another opportunity and when Sean was born in 1975, the rock icon went on what he called “an extended leave” in order to spend time at home with his family. Later, Lennon wrote the song “Watching the Wheels,” (see cover sleeve above) about this lengthy time away from the game, “no longer riding on the merry-go-round.” Here’s the finished recording, put to lots of home movies of Lennon’s life between 1975 and 1980, when he was age 35 to 40.
“Double Fantasy” a co-collaboration between John and Yoko made at The Hit Factory, was (and remains) a stunning album which has stood the test of time remarkably well. Released a few weeks prior to that tragic December night, all of John’s songs were destined to become instant hits in the wake of his death. But even had he lived on and continued writing and recording music, one suspects that “Starting Over” and “Woman” would have become chart-toppers, anyway. Beautifully crafted and infused with a definitive doo-wop sound that he’d loved and admired as a youth while growing up in the port city of Liverpool, if Lennon had to leave us with what would become a final and fateful album, he gave us all a generous parting gift.
When I listened to the news during the closing moments of that football game, I wasn’t overly emotional, nor much affected. Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to The Beatles in several years. Other than Paul McCartney and Wings, the late 1970’s were a drought for fans of the Fab Four. Following their 1970 break up, each of them used to get pestered all the time, everyone nagging as to if and when they’d ever form a reunion, an absurdly naive query revealing ignorance and a complete lack of empathy. Following seven years of musical innovation and revolution, these four men deserved to move on and live lives on their own terms, not morph into some bland nostalgic touring band playing oldies. Still, by 1980, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard a John Lennon song.
Driving to class early the next morning, John Lennon songs were all that were playing on the radio. Everywhere. I’d never heard anything like it before. There wasn’t a pop station around that wasn’t spinning his records non-stop, a ludicrously rich 16-year catalog of classics that gave dee-jays a treasure trove to choose from in tribute. Only then and there did the magnitude of the tragedy begin to sink in. Lennon wasn’t a president nor a civil rights leader who had been senselessly gunned down like the others. He was a musician. Yet, arguably more people — not just in the USA and the UK but all over the world — connected with him in a way that would have made most politicians and activists envious by comparison.
If there were still any lingering doubts as to the impact Lennon’s shocking death was having on many people, my next several hours spent on campus would serve as a stark reminder as to the power and everlasting legacy of his music. An Medieval English History course I was taking was taught by a stodgy old ex-Brit who I had viewed as a horrible instructor. He was so bad and dull that I nearly dropped the course at one point. Yet that morning, the professor ditched the tutorial on the War of the Roses and spent the entire hour reminiscing about the profound influence of Lennon and The Beatles, since he had lived in London during the 1960’s. I remembering wishing that class had lasted longer, all morning in fact. Listening to him speak, I was transported to another place and a different time. The thought of dropping his course never entered my mind again.
On campus, spontaneous sing-a-longs just manifested out of nowhere. I was astounded to learn that I wasn’t the only student who seemed to know the words to just about every Beatles’ song. Just about everyone I knew spent that entire day just hanging out and talking, listening to the sounds of rickety, poorly-tuned guitars strummed by singers who faked most of the chords. No one cared. Oddly enough, that tearful moment of tragedy became an occasion for the smiles of collective joy.
Today, I wonder how Lennon might view all the postmortem adulation he’s received in the 35 years that have since passed, this anniversary night marked in so many places with fitting tributes and remembrances with the best of intentions. He didn’t just distance himself from fame which he came to regard as a prison, he ran away from it as fast and as far as he could. One suspects Lennon would probably laugh off our reverence.
Indeed, there now seems something ridiculously naive to the astral lyrics of “Give Peace and Chance,” “Imagine,” and “Merry Christmas; War is Over.” These anthems written and recorded nearly a half-century ago, while idealistically earnest, pale in the darker shadows cast by the ominous clouds of our times.
Still, I cannot help but remain idealistic and even retain a prevailing sense of optimism about society and the state of the world. All ideas start small. Love and peace begins with a dream, which becomes a lyric, which becomes a recording, which becomes a chorus, which becomes a global movement. Let us hope that the words to “Imagine” ultimately do become a reality.
Lennon’s legacy remains that he gave us the start.
Special Note of Thanks: To Paul McGuire (@taopauly) who wrote a short article today reminding us of the anniversary of Lennon’s death. Had I not seen and read his narrative, I would not have penned my own essay here and shared my remembrances.