(Pictured: John and Yoko, November 2, 1980.)
I feel compelled to write a bit about John Lennon’s death 40 years ago today, but I haven’t got much to add to what I’ve written here in the past. A bunch of us had been at a campus bar on that Monday night; the football game was on TV, and Howard Cosell likely made his famous announcement while we were there, but with the sound down, nobody heard it. When I got back to my apartment and walked in the door, the phone was ringing. It was one of the guys I’d been drinking with minutes before, telling me the news. My roommates and I turned on CNN, and I remember wanting to cry but not wanting to do it in front of them. The memory has stuck with me because it was the first time in my life that something that had not happened to me directly affected me like that. John Lennon wasn’t a family member or a friend (or even a beloved pet), but I felt his loss in the same way.
I was program director of the campus radio station, but we were off the air that week, waiting on a transmitter repair, so there was nothing we could do but mourn privately. We were back on the air by the weekend, however, so when the world’s radio stations went silent for several minutes in tribute that Sunday, we were able to participate.
I wrote a music column for the campus newspaper then, and I think our deadline was noon on Tuesday. So I went into the office and wrote something that morning to replace whatever I had already submitted. I don’t have a clipping, and I have little memory of it, which is just as well. I am not proud of my columns, which are mostly dumb opinions expressed poorly. Whatever I wrote was probably inadequate for the moment.
Walking around campus that day, Lennon was inescapable, and not just because each of us was playing his music in our heads. Somebody, or several somebodies, had posted pictures of him on walls, on bulletin boards, on message posts, all over campus. His face was everywhere.
That week, during which the world mourned, was the campus TV station’s annual telethon for Wisconsin Badger Camp, and I worked a few shifts behind the scenes on the tech crew. The telethon was always the capper to the fall semester. Finals would have been the next week. After that, we all went home for Christmas, and life went on as it always had.
“Life went on as it always had.” It does not feel now, 40 years later, like John Lennon’s death marks a historical break. It felt like one then: the leader of the most important band in history, rock’s philosopher-poet, has been taken from us too young by a senseless act of murder, and nothing is ever going to be the same again.
But apart from foreclosing any idea of a Beatles reunion (which was the longest of longshots in 1980 anyway), his murder really didn’t change the course of history all that much. What—specifically—happened, or did not happen, as a direct result of his death? The single biggest thing was lost music. But as a comeback, Double Fantasy was less than I wanted to hear from him. Maybe his five years off the radar, devoted to house-husbandry and fatherhood, had mellowed him (as others seemed to mellow by the dawn of the 80s), but maybe it was temporary. Maybe his next album would have been more challenging. Or not. But it certainly would have been something, and we’ll never know what.
Beyond that, it’s hard for me to imagine MTV-era John Lennon, or grunge-era John Lennon—or #MeToo era John Lennon, for that matter. In the years following 1980, we saw each Beatle’s gift writ large: Paul’s bottomless well of ideas, George’s generous willingness to collaborate, Ringo’s ability to reflect the fans’ love back on them. What would John’s gift have turned out to be? How would it have played through the 40 years he didn’t get to live?
Maybe, just as they were back then, my thoughts on Lennon’s death are inadequate once again. But that’s the chance you take when you click over here. Let me know what yours are.
Via Facebook, I convened a small panel of sages to help me think about this topic, and I thank each of them for their thoughts. Also: our pal Yah Shure was on the air on December 8, 1980, and he shared his recollections here.