I’m usually about the last person on Earth that someone in this community would think of to write a post commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of one of the most celebrated musicians of all time. As a general rule, I’m just not very hip when it comes to music, regardless of the genre–I rarely listen to music, I haven’t purchased a CD in who knows how long, and even when I turn on the radio in the car or on the Internet, it’s usually only to follow a sporting event or catch a bit of news. As such, it’s not obvious why the murder of John Lennon would weigh any more on my mind than the murder or premature death of any other celebrity or public figure. And yet it does.
I grew up in a home which was not particularly media friendly. We had one television, located in the family room, and it was used almost exclusively by my parents in the evenings: The Nightly Business Report (and later, the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour), Jeopardy! (dinner was eaten right after Final Jeopardy ended–almost like clockwork), LA Law (after the kids had gone to bed), and on Sunday evenings, Nature. We owned no movies, with the exceptions of a VHS tape of E.T. some cousins had given us for Christmas and a recording of The Empire Strikes Back, which eventually stopped working due to excess use. My parents demonstrated virtually no interest in music when I was a child–we never listened to the radio, never attended any concerts, and never sang (to my best recollection). The only exception to this rule was a large, dusty stack of vinyl records in a largely-hidden corner of our basement, and an equally large and dusty record player situated near my father’s recliner by the pool table. Although there were a few other albums mixed in, virtually every record in the stack was by The Beatles.
Due to the presence of our pool table, my home became a destination for all of the neighborhood kids during summer vacations, on weekends, and any other time we weren’t in school. My older brother and the other “big kids” would engage in 8- and 9-ball tournaments for hours on end. (I generally wasn’t allowed to play, and was certainly considered a nuisance–the obnoxious little brother, hanging around the big kids…) Part of this nearly ritualistic pre-lunch activity was listening to the Beatles albums, over and over without end.
As a result, my early childhood summers were filled with every melody and lyric ever recorded by the Beatles, with the sole exception of anything from Yellow Submarine, because, as my mother put it, “It was a stupid song, and they were so drugged out that I couldn’t stand them anymore.” I can scarcely remember a time when I couldn’t sing “Eight Days a Week” from memory, or when I didn’t know that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was a symbolic title (though my brother would never tell me what LSD was!); the songs John Lennon & Paul McCartney wrote were far more familiar (and enjoyable) to me than primary songs like “I am a Child of God,” “Search, Ponder, and Pray,” or “Follow the Prophet.” Our family’s fascination with the Beatles spilled over into movies as well–we rented and re-rented all of the Beatles movies, such as Help! and A Hard Day’s Night.
During all of this, I remember talking with my mother about the Beatles, about how much she adored them as a teenager, about whether she would have been among the screaming voices when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I also remember asking her why the Beatles didn’t make music anymore. When I asked her that, I was holding the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo pose in flashy, brightly colored militaristic uniforms and are surrounded by scores of other people and faces. My mother pointed to Lennon, and said that, “Mr. Lennon was shot and killed by another man.” Being a child at the time, I misunderstood her and thought for years that the murderer, Mark David Chapman, was one of the people depicted in the SPLHCB album artwork.
Later, as a teenager, I discovered a large book in our family library–a Rock n’ Roll anthology of sorts produced by Rolling Stone. The book contained a chapter on John Lennon, and was my first introduction to Yoko Ono and her complicated relationship with the Beatles, as well as other information about the band’s breakup, drug abuse, and Lennon’s murder. Shortly thereafter, in 1995, I sat with my mother in the car as we listened to the newly-released Anthology 1 album, and heard “Free as a Bird” for the time.
Like I said at the outset, I don’t listen to music very often, and I’m no great authority on any aspect of the industry. But I do know the Beatles, and I know John Lennon, and I love them because they are inextricably linked to my childhood and embedded in some of the most distinct memories I have of my siblings, parents, and friends. These memories return to me whenever I hear a new musicians singing Lennon on American Idol, when I see Beatles tunes in movies, or listening–as I did this morning–to a sports talk radio host describe his feelings during the Monday Night Football game when Howard Cosell delivered the news of Lennon’s death.