The most sickening bus ride of my life came on the morning of December 9, 1980. My driver played Top 40 station WGCL every morning, which had one of those prototypical morning zoo shows. Only morning jock Phil Gardner wasn’t so funny today. At first, all I noticed was that they were playing a lot of Beatles music this morning. Fine by me. The Beatles were on their way to becoming one of my obsessions. Then Phil came on just before the news break.
“In case you haven’t heard,” he said, the exaggerated modulation in his voice completely gone, “John Lennon was murdered last night outside his apartment in New York City.” ‘GCL’s newscaster Bob Gaat had trouble getting through the newscast. I got off the bus in shock.
My classmates and I had lived in a world that had, since just before kindergarten, lived in anticipation of The Beatles reuniting. Now that wasn’t going to happen, not with the band intact anyway. John Lennon, the philosophical Beatle, some would say the smartest one, was dead. And he was barely 40. We knew that was old to us teenagers, but not really old at all. My dad was 40. He was born the same day as Lennon. That left me doubly weirded out.
John was always something to an enigma to me. He was a man of peace, but I also learned he was somewhat violent in his younger days. In my teens, I was actually turned off by his solo work because it was so angry. If I wanted angry, there were plenty of heavy metal bands that fit the bill. Weren’t The Beatles supposed to be the happy band? The clean-cut side of the coin backed by The Rolling Stones? Besides, Paul, to me, was always the better musician. It’s why a Roger Water-less Pink Floyd went down better for me than one without Rick Wright.
But as I grew older and wiser, I learned John was the most complex of The Beatles. Paul had the ego and was more of a pure musician. George was similar to Paul, but just wanted the music to support his gardening habit after The Beatles broke up. Ringo was not the idiot some paint him as, but was the quiet, classy center of the storm, the real working class hero of the band. John was…
John was a work in progress, progress that was interrupted by a gun man’s bullet. Many people wear their hearts on their sleeves. John wore his mind on his. He was far from a perfect man, less than the ideal husband and father, and he wanted you to know that. In light of his struggles with his own demons, he wanted us all to see what he was reaching for.
After The Beatles, there were some dark moments. “How Can You Sleep” and “Instant Karma” are some very pointed digs at his former band mates. Yet he had a vision. Imagine no possessions. He wondered if you could. If you could see all of John Lennon’s flaws, then you understood the effects that human society had on him in particular. He wanted better. And he wanted it for all of us.
By the mid-seventies, he was starting to make peace with himself. “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and his backup turn David Bowie on “Fame” all had a sense of fun that sounded more modern than The Beatles a decade earlier, but had that playfulness John was noted for when he first rose to fame.
I’ve heard conspiracy theories about John Lennon’s murder, and I’ve even been guilty of piling on Yoko Ono. Both cases really insult Lennon’s memory. He wasn’t a god. He was a man taken down by that most common of predators, the mentally unhinged fan. The fact is his death made the world a darker place, and it’s been very hard finding a way to bring some of the light back since.