It is inconceivable to me that it has been 30 years since a maniac came out of the night and assassinated John Lennon. What’s worse is it happened in my city. This was the place where John and the Beatles first broke into the American consciousness, and now in this his adopted city he was taken much too soon. I still can’t even believe that he is gone, but his enormous contribution to music and his amazing spirit certainly live on and on.
The night before John died I had what I’ve always thought was a foreshadowing of his death. I was on the phone with my friend Ralph. He was in the Air Force and home on leave. We were talking about how we were going to get together the next night to celebrate his return, and I was sitting on my sofa looking up at the shelf on my wall, where I had the four individual pictures of the Beatles that came with the White Album in frames. As I was talking with Ralph, the frame with John’s picture in it toppled off the shelf. Nothing precipitated this event: no rumble of the subway below, no bus going by outside, no helicopter flying low overhead. It just fell.
At the time I thought it was weird but nothing else. When I got off the phone I got up and put the picture back in place, staring briefly at John’s face and remembering when I saw him in Manhattan a couple of years before. It was only the second time I had ever seen him in person (the first being when he walked on stage during an Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden). He had been walking down the street, hands in pockets, rather nonchalant and happy. When I saw him he looked at me, and he knew I recognized him even in his sunglasses and hat pulled down a bit. He gave me a little smirk and something like a nod, and I wanted to say something, but my tongue was infinitely tied in knots, and it is best I did not blurt out something stupid. John kept walking and so did I, my hands shaking for blocks. I had just seen John Lennon.
The next night Ralph and I met some friends in a bar in Queens in the shadow of Shea Stadium, where John and his mates once rocked the house. We were there to ostensibly watch Monday Night Football, but the bar was filled with people and music. It was decorated for Christmas, and there was a jovial mood filling the place.
We all talked and talked. Ralph told us about life in the Air Force. He was stationed in Greenland and he couldn’t talk about this and that. We started talking about high school and various teachers, and the night went by very quickly. As it started getting late, our friends who had to work the next morning left. Ralph was on leave and I was in college and had no classes on Tuesday mornings, so we sat at the bar and started watching the football game.
Only a few minutes had gone by when a special news bulletin broke into the program. The announcer spoke stiltedly as she said that there was word that John Lennon had been shot outside the Dakota Building. He was being rushed to the hospital. Ralph and I just looked up at the screen, and everyone in the bar stopped and stared at the screen with us.
The game came back on for a time. Someone pulled the plug out of the jukebox, and the patrons all crowded around the bar and watched the TV waiting to hear an update. I don’t know how long it was until the next news bulletin came on, but the grim face of the news anchor Kaity Tong told it all. Before she spoke, the room was so quiet, I could hear the taps dripping behind the bar.
She confirmed that John Lennon had died at St. Luke’s Hospital. I felt myself shaking, worse than when I had seen John on the street; I felt like I was convulsing. Ralph hung his head and stared at his hands. Behind me I could hear some of the girls crying, the men too, and the bartender who looked like a professional wrestler complete with bald head and tattoos kept wiping the tears from his eyes.
There wasn’t anything left to do or to celebrate. Ralph and I put on our coats, walked outside, and stood in the cold quietly watching a big city bus go down the street. Ralph seemed to snap out of a trance and turned to me and shook my hand. We parted without words because there was nothing left to say.
I went home to my room and sat on the floor, pulling all my records out of the cabinet. I threw Sgt. Pepper on the turntable and listened to John sing those prophetic words, “I heard the news today, oh boy…” I looked at all the albums spread on the floor, and I cried some more as I was shaken by the hopefulness of their early photographs.
I leaned my head back and stared at the pictures on my shelf, especially the one of John that had fallen the night before. I didn’t know all the reasons why this felt like the loss of my brother instead of a stranger whom I had fleetingly met. John Lennon was a celebrity, one of the biggest stars of all time, and yet I felt like it was a personal loss. I had invested so much time and energy in the Beatles and then later John in his solo career (and to a lesser extent the other Beatles).
To those too young (or too old) to understand, I can only say that John meant something personal to me. He had touched my life, and so many lives, with his work. Perhaps it was because we perceived he stood for something we believed in deeply, like the message of peace and love for the world that we got through his music. On a very big planet with very big problems, John seemed to stand for those of us who had no voice, and he spoke and sang what we wanted and needed to be heard.
Today, 30 years later, I stare at the skyline of the city I have loved all my life, and I know that John loved it too. He felt at home in New York, free to wander the streets unencumbered by the celebrity that had once threatened to overwhelm him elsewhere. Here John was free to be himself and to be what he saw himself as in the end: a New Yorker.
The world has changed in these last 30 years, as has this city. Today people will mark John’s passing in many different ways, but the way I shall remember him is not through public displays or even watching reports about him on the TV or the Internet. The way I will remember him is to listen to his music, to appreciate what made him occupy that special place in so many hearts around the world.
So on this day I’m going to put on my headphones and turn up the volume. As I listen to his songs, I will not think about that night he died, but about the life he lived. And I will remember that one special day when two New Yorkers passed each other on the street, and in that simple everyday moment there was an acknowledgement of everything I had ever felt in a simple smirk and nod of the head that let me know that John knew what he meant, not just to me, but to everyone whom he touched in life.
You are still missed, John Lennon. In pace requiescat.