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The Night John Lennon Died

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This past week, a lot of us who grew up with the music of the Beatles and John Lennon have been looking back and remembering just where we were on that night some thirty years ago when we first heard the news that forever changed history and our lives.

Like JFK and Elvis before him, John Lennon’s death was a snapshot in time we will never forget.

Okay, so here we go.

On the night of December 8, 1980 — which I want to say was a Monday — I was attending the annual Christmas party hosted every year by and for the Seattle retail music business community, in celebration of a job mostly well done. Business overall was still mostly down at the time, but hey, party on, right?

Since the local retail music community in Seattle (and indeed nationwide) had experienced something of a downturn in recent years back then — this particular party took place during the post-disco, pre-MTV netherworld of diminished record sales that was 1980 after all — most of the local music retail hacks (including yours truly) in attendance that night were simply grateful the beer and grub were once again flowing freely, and that the locale that year was the fairly upscale Butcher Atrium.

The years immediately previous to this had seen the annual music industry Christmas soiree go from full-on five course meals at Andy’s Diner, to pizza and beer (requiring a drink ticket) at the lowly Ballard Firehouse. Talk about your buzzkills.

Needless to say, it was certainly a long way from the glory days of the mid-seventies — when the mega-hits of folks like Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees and Journey (much as us hardcore record store geeks loved to bitch about them) — had afforded us underpaid counter jockeys a fleeting glimpse at such true rock star opulence.

The fact that for the first time in a few years, we didn’t have to pimp the local record label reps for drink tickets on this particular night was certainly a sign that good times were indeed upon us once again.

Whatever the case, spirits were once again flying high that night when Ed Richter — the Seattle record distributor who did his best to keep this local music industry tradition alive in both good times and bad (thanks, Ed) — dutifully put on his Santa outfit and proceeded to dole out all of the “gifts” supposedly determined by the raffle tickets all of us retail record geeks had received at the door. Yeah, right.

Was the rock buyer at Tower going to get the lions share of the loot — boxed sets and such — as opposed to me, the lowly manager of a record store (Penny Lane in Lakewood), known more for its expansive selection of a still then underground phenomenon called “rap” ?

Well, sure he was. But no matter.

That was mostly okay too. As long as the beer was once again flowing freely for the rest of us minimum wage type record store employees, and as long as optimism for a better future ahead for music retail was in the air once again, who really gave a rats ass, right?

It was at right about the same time that Richter Claus started to read off that first winning number — I think Tower dude scored a Windham Hill Boxed set or something — that the dark rumors started to sweep the room.

John Lennon had just been shot. ABC’s Monday Night Football announcer Howard Cossell had just broke the story at half time during some NFL game between the Broncos and the Raiders, the Giants and the Dolphins or whoever.

Whatever the case, since the game didn’t involve our hapless Seattle Seahawks, and since most of us record geeks were busy celebrating the holidays in Georgetown with free beer, free grub and (for a few of us, anyway) free backroom coke, what did the big game matter, and who was paying attention anyway?

Santa Richter was giving out his presents, dammit!

At this point, and for some odd reason, it fell upon me to confirm the rumors which were by then sweeping the room at the party.

So I borrowed a quarter from someone, went to the pay phone in the lobby, and called the Seattle Post Intelligencer (once, in a pre-internet “Journalism” time, known as one of Seattle’s two great daily newspapers, but now known online as the casualty of that era called Seattle P-I.com).

I was quoted in the front page story on John Lennon’s murder published the very next morning.

By the time I made it back to the bigger room confirming the story, word was already spreading and the room was emptying fast. I’m not even sure if Santa Richter had a chance to hand out all the booty in his Bag O’ Gifts. It’s entirely possible that Tower guy went home a stocking shy of a three disc Alligator Records blues anthology that night.

Meanwhile, the evenings guests of honor — Seattle’s then reigning royal twin princesses of rock, the Wilson sisters of Heart – were just arriving to make to make their grand surprise entrance.

I can still distinctly remember the perplexed look on Ann and Nancy’s faces as they strode into the Butcher Atrium in Seattle’s Georgetown district — just a stones throw away from General Record Service (one of the bigger one-stop distributors for Seattle music retail at the time).

It was this really odd “what the fuck?” sort of look. Apparently, they hadn’t heard the news.

The next morning, still nursing the monster sort of hangover I could still handle back then as a twenty-something year old record geek, I loaded up the car with all of the Beatles and Lennon albums I could carry from the warehouse at General Record Service In Georgetown (at least the ones that were still left), and made the forty mile drive to my record store, Penny Lane in Tacoma.

I also remember listening to the radio on the way up — with all of the endless Lennon tributes — and having to pull over on the side of I-5 when they played “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out” to have a much needed cry. Don’t ask me why, but that one really got to me for some reason.

By the time I arrived at Penny Lane, there was already a line in wait.

Good times for music retail had apparently indeed come once again. Too bad the circumstances sucked the way that they did.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Greg Barbrick

    I remember staggering into Penny Lane at about 6 pm the next day with the mother of all hangovers – having spent the night drinking, crying, not believing it could possibly be true, and listening to his music with friends.

    I hadn’t even graduated high school yet, and already, in a very profound way “the dream was over.”

    That night sucked like no other. It was kind of fun to see you mention good old Richter, The Butcher, and my former employer GRS though.

    Nice job Glen.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Of all the people I know, I knew you were the one guy who would “get it” Greg, because you were right there. Thanx so much for comemnting.

  • Dr Mike G. Beech

    I was one of the few people who was profoundly privileged to have met John and spoken to him in depth about his music and yes his love of life. This was just a few days before the horror of all horrors happened and of course shattered all our dreams as the greatest voice in rock & roll, the greatest song writer, the greatest peace activist… was no more. He may be dead but of course his spirit, his music and his brilliant thoughts will undoubtedly live on forever both as a beacon and in our hearts too…
    [Personal contact info deleted]

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Glenn, I appreciate this article very much. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Its Glen, Victorr.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Sory aboutt that, chef.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Glen, thank you for sharing your story. I was 8 years old and not yet a Beatles and John Lennon fan when it happened. Of course I now appreciate what a tragic loss we suffered that day, and what a senseless act it was. It’s amazing, though, how one person (John Lennon) can have an effect on people he didn’t even know, and how he touched so many lives.