This column was originally published on December 14, 2000.
For a generation of baby boomers and music lovers, the phrase “a day that will live in infamy,” first uttered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, is equally appropriate for Monday, December 8, 1980.
It was 20 years ago last Friday when a crazed fan assassinated one of rock and roll’s most influential and controversial figures outside the elegant Manhattan apartment building where he lived with his wife and 5-year-old son.
When the news was heard that day of John Lennon’s murder, the impact resulted in a wave of grief that rippled through an entire generation and shocked the world.
The violent death of a man dedicated to peace also shattered any prospect of a reunion of The Beatles, who had gone their separate ways a decade earlier, after seven incredible years of reinventing and reinvigorating the world of rock and roll.
In the wake of his sudden death — and again last week — fans came together to remember the slain Beatle in his upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood.
Within an hour after the news of Lennon’s death was broadcast, hundreds of mourners descended on East 72nd Street and Central Park West, lighting candles, singing Lennon’s songs and transforming the gate outside The Dakota apartment building into an impromptu shrine, covering it with flowers and pictures.
The nation and the world were shocked, but New Yorkers were more affected because the Big Apple had become Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s hometown in the post-Beatles years. New Yorkers would occasionally witness him on city streets or in Central Park walking arm-in-arm with Yoko or with Sean.
Like the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, I’ll never forget the night John Lennon was shot.
I switched off “Monday Night Football” shortly before 11 p.m. with an impulse to turn on the radio — something I rarely did before going to bed. I powered up the stereo, which was pre-programmed to WNEW-FM, a popular, free-form rock station. As the radio played, I read a magazine as I sorted through assorted personal papers.
After a song ended, deejay Vin Scelsa read an Associated Press bulletin that said “a man tentatively identified as John Lennon had been shot.”
Scelsa, evidently stunned as everyone else, said nothing more and played a couple of songs, which he followed with the confirmed, dreadful news: “I have the sad task to inform you that John Lennon is dead.”
Rather than turn to television in that pre-cable, pre-CNN era, I stayed with Scelsa. After reading the dire news he played The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” Listening to music on the radio supplemented with emotional fan reaction seemed more assuring than hearing detached journalists reporting cold, hard facts.
After reading other bulletins, Scelsa asked listeners to pray for John, Yoko and Sean.
At that point Scelsa decided to go commercial-free, airing only Beatles music interspersed with listeners’ phone calls. After a while the other on-air personalities, who had been at a station Christmas party, drifted into the studio and began talking about how various Beatles songs affected their individual lives.
The primary medium that served as the conduit for the music of Lennon and The Beatles was temporarily transformed into an outlet for fans seeking comfort and an emotional release in the wake of tragedy.
When The Beatles’ phenomenon erupted in 1963, I was not a fan. As the mop-topped quartet’s music initially saturated the airwaves, creating a legion of screaming little girls, I scorned them as forerunners of an invasion of foreigners into rock and roll, an American tradition since way back in 1955.
My aversion gradually diminished as my tastes in music matured. By the time the group’s final studio album Abbey Road was released in 1969, I was fully aware of the impact and innovations The Beatles made on rock and roll. Nowadays I have no problem listening to Beatles’ music nonstop.
For five years before his death, Lennon, an established solo star, was on a break from music and celebrity, devoting his life to Sean and Yoko. At the age of 40, apparently having found the inner peace he sought, Lennon ended the self-imposed hiatus by recording a new album, Double Fantasy, released on November 17, 1980. The first track was aptly titled, “Starting Over.” On the day he died, three weeks later, the album had sold in excess of 500,000 copies.
As Lennon moved away from The Beatles and in his post-Beatles years, he imagined a better world through his music, his lyrics and his life. He wrote and sang what he believed in and protested injustice. He made fans and supporters, as well as critics and detractors, sit up and take notice. He left an indelible influence on popular culture.
Though the post-World War II generation had been horrified and somewhat numbed by the political assassinations of the ‘60s — JFK, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert F. Kennedy — the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings, this murder was not politically motivated. Lennon’s assassin was 25-year-old Mark David Chapman, a Hawaiian resident with a history of mental problems, who, according to reports, believed the altruistic Lennon had become a money-hungry sellout.
Ono asked fans around the world to remember John on December 14, 1980 with a 10-minute period of silence at 2 p.m. Eastern time. A friend and I were among the crowd of over 100,000 that gathered in Central Park that balmy Sunday afternoon.
Before the silence, stacks of speakers broadcast a few of Lennon’s more subdued songs — “In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood” and the antiwar anthem of a decade earlier, “Give Peace A Chance” — being simulcast by ‘NEW.
Promptly at 2 p.m. silence spread through the gathering. The only audible sounds were hovering news helicopters and the sobbing and sniffing of many in the crowd. Never before or since have I stood in such a large gathering and felt such an emotional connection.
When 10-minutes of silence ended, “Imagine” was played as the throng slowly dispersed with Lennon’s Utopian sentiment “I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one” echoing through the air.
John Lennon was his own man, yet his lyrics and opinions provided inspiration for at least one generation. His enduring musical legacy will echo for generations yet to come.