Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Day the Music Really Died

When I was a child, Don McLean's song "American Pie" forever dubbed Feb. 3, 1959, the "day the music died" because that was the day that Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash in Iowa.

That was a major event for the young people of that time, but it had no real meaning for me. I hadn't even been born yet.

On Aug. 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley died, that could have been considered the day the music died for people who came of age when Presley was at the top of the charts. But it didn't have the same meaning for me. I wasn't really brought up on his music.

For me, the day the music died was 30 years ago today — when John Lennon was gunned down in front of his apartment building in New York.

That was a traumatic event in my young life — and in the lives of millions the world over, which is really an amazing thing to realize, considering that the members of my generation, perhaps more than any who had come before, were brought up in a world in which violent acts aimed at prominent people — mostly politicians and leaders of political/social movements — were commonplace.

Before I graduated from high school, there had been three presidential assassination attempts (one of which was successful), two assassination attempts on presidential candidates (one of which was successful) and the murders of numerous civil rights figures.

And I heard of death threats against people in other walks of life — sports figures, mostly, like Hank Aaron and Arthur Ashe.

But the shooting of a musician, an entertainer, was truly astonishing.


And, even today, people who lived through that event recall it with a clarity that is reserved for those events that are truly unique in our experience.

I remember the night it happened so vividly. I was out with some friends, eating nachos while we watched Monday Night Football and, late in the game, Howard Cosell told the viewing audience that Lennon had been shot.

It was, he said, an "unspeakable tragedy." And so it was.

Cosell didn't provide too many details. I didn't learn until later that Lennon had been killed by a deranged fan who had approached him for an autograph only hours before — and in approximately the same place where he would shoot the musician.

My friends and I went out into the chilly December night a short time after hearing the news. The all–news cable channel concept was still new and defining itself — and, in most places, only available to those who paid extra for it — and it wasn't possible in those days to simply switch on the TV and get breaking news reports — at least, not where we were, in Fayetteville, Ark.

I insisted to my friends that I didn't believe it was true. A mistake had been made, I told them. Why would anyone want to kill John Lennon? He was one of the Beatles! That would be like killing Elvis!

And then I remember one of my friends looking at me with what were perhaps the saddest eyes I have ever seen and saying, "He's dead, man. John Lennon is dead."

I remember wondering, how could he believe it — after all the times when people in charge had lied to us in the past? But, at that moment, it really began to sink in. It still seemed beyond belief, but that would change as the news delivery systems of that time slowly caught up, and word eventually spread that, yes, it was true.

My friends and I went to our homes, and I switched on my TV, hoping to find something, anything about this, but I found nothing that night. I remember watching the first few minutes of The Tonight Show, hoping Johnny Carson would say something about it (I didn't yet know that The Tonight Show was not broadcast live, that it was taped several hours earlier), but Carson said nothing, of course. So I went to bed, hoping that the next morning I would awaken to find it had been a cruel hoax.

But, of course, it was not.

I recall there was some resentment at the time among Lennon's most devoted admirers for what was considered a rather unfeeling response to the news by his famous ex–bandmate, Paul McCartney.

"It's a drag, isn't it?" the cameras showed him saying casually in London the next day. Some people thought that was unfeeling. McCartney later explained that he had been in shock. It was an explanation I found easy to accept.

Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, issued a statement to Lennon's grieving fans that day.

"There is no funeral for John," it read. "John loved and prayed for the human race. Please do the same for him."

And, in fact, there was no formal funeral service for John Lennon. Instead, Ono asked his fans to observe 10 minutes of silence the Sunday after his death.

But there were candlelight vigils held the world over. That was Lennon's funeral, I suppose.

I remember a radio station in the town where I was in college played Lennon music and Beatles music all week in Lennon's honor and repeatedly reminded listeners of Ono's request. Then, at the appointed time on that Sunday, that radio station went silent for the full 10 minutes. I listened when it went silent and I left my radio on to hear when it came back on the air.

It did so with a playing of "Give Peace a Chance."

That was only the beginning of many tributes to Lennon's life after his death. A section of Central Park across the street from the building in New York where Lennon lived and was murdered was renamed "Strawberry Fields" and has become a popular gathering place for Lennon's fans on the anniversaries of his birthday and his murder — and on other significant days, like the day ex–Beatle George Harrison died in November 2001 and on the occasion of the September 11 terrorist attacks earlier that year.

On the 20th anniversary of his death, in what may have been the most profound of such tributes, Cuban President Fidel Castro unveiled a statue of Lennon in a park in Havana.

As I wrote on the occasion of his 70th birthday in October, I think Lennon would have continued to be a societal influence in these last 30 years, writing and recording songs about all of the major events — and, perhaps, at times, altering the course of events through the sheer magnetism of his personality.

Today is a reminder of how much we lost on that day 30 years ago.