I think about that night,
Shots rang out, the angry shouts,
a man losing his life.
Well, it's something we shouldn't dwell upon
but it's something we shouldn't ignore--
too many good men have been cut down,
let's pray there won't be any more".--Christine Lavin
My emotions surprise me. I sometimes prove to have a strong feeling over something I never thought I cared much about. I remember the week that John Lennon was killed, when it mattered a great deal to me and all in my circle, though I never imagined that it would matter so much to everyone.
I liked the Beatles in the way that many people like the Beatles. I knew lots of their songs, many of their songs influenced bands that I liked, and others of their songs were in turn influenced by bands that I found interesting. But they were really a band of the folks a decade older than we were. We listened to them and Bob Dylan, but they were not "our" music, really.
In my neck of Arkansas, growing up, Elvis Presley attained a near-mythic state. Old men at the barbershop remember their teenage years, when Elvis was the sock hop artist at an event called the Louisiana Hayride (pronounced either "looooseiana hayriiiide" or "leeeeeziannner hayride"), to which they'd take their best girls (the ones, in many cases, whom they married at 17 or 18). To these men, Elvis lived some divine life that bears little relationship to the Elvis that lived.
But for my generation, perhaps the Beatles represented the possibility for healing. Of the four "great" mainstream sixties rock bands, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Beatles, only the Beatles were apt to be in everyone's music collection. No matter which social cliques one ran in, one owned (or knew by heart from laser shows) Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Carole King's Tapestry and a number of Beatles albums. One could even self-identify by which Beatles records one preferred. I tended to identify as a Revolver through Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band fan, which widely separated me from the Love Me Do folks and from the Abbey Road folks.
The Beatles broke up when I was almost a teenager. In some ways, the Beatles being apart symbolized a great deal about the 1970s in general to me. They achieved such a great body of work as a group; but suddenly, they were all fragmented and fractured. Lennon did some interesting solo work, but also some extremely self-indulgent material. McCartney wrote classic pop songs, but also showed that his form of pop genius comes with a liberal dose of rock-candy sugar. Starr's absurdity delighted, but he was better behind the drum kit as a Beatle. Only George Harrison, really, seemed to progress from his Beatles days in any material way, although every ex-Beatle did very good stuff.
But the Beatles served a symbolic function for me. You see, everyone knew that some day the Beatles would reunite. It's a silly and in some ways counterproductive way to think, but I wanted the Beatles to get together again, because somehow life would be more whole if they did so. The television show Saturday Night Live satirically offered the band $ 3,000 to reunite, with the express proviso that they could give Ringo an uneven share if they wished to do so (apparently, supposedly the band almost did reunite on the show in keeping with the joke, but limo delays meant they could not all make it in time, so that reunion did not come off). To me, the Beatles reunion was like a five year old wishing for divorced parents to remarry. Something lost would be recaptured when the Beatles got together. Something broken would be fixed.
It's irrational, I know. But I always though the Beatles would reunite, in the same way I thought I'd live in small town Arkansas forever and that the Soviets would one day lob nuclear weapons at us.
When the news came down on December 8, 1980 that Mr. Lennon had been shot, the entire dormitory became engulfed in collective shock. We'd had a generation of assasinations, of course--the first television memory I have is the flag-draped horse-drawn hearse for the JFK funeral, and I still remember the RFK funeral and the TV announcer interrupting programming to tell the audience that Martin Luther King had been killed. So this was not the first senseless celebrity killing.
In the dormitory, we all discussed the odd facts. In Arkansas, we always look for the Arkansas context of every news story. If the news were from Myanmar, we would no doubt get small town news stories about how Odell Clark, from Okalona, visited Myanmar just last year. In the Lennon story, Mark David Chapman, the deranged fellow who killed him, lived in Arkansas for some years, and the rumor was that he apparently had lived on our campus for a while (I think later it turned out he lived on another campus). Before his name was known, I remember wondering out loud if he was one of my deranged roommates (although, with hindsight, the roommate I had in mind was merely eccentric rather than truly deranged). Apparently, one of the people from Gurdon, Arkansas at school with me was within earshot, because I later learned that the radio station in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, which serves tiny Gurdon, announced as news that I was Chapman's roommate. Gurdonark, "formerly of Gurdon, used to room with the man who shot John Lennon", the radio announced.
A lot of rock stars die for a lot of reasons. In some cases, when the death is self-inflicted or drug-addicted, one merely shakes one's head at dysfunction, and what it can do to gifted people.
When it's a plane crash, as with Ronnie Van Zandt, one wishes for albums never to be recorded. We lose people; they're gifted; we must take solace from other people. That's the odd way of "fandom".
But John Lennon's death mattered more to me, because when Lennon died, it became suddenly clear that the 70s were over, they had been irretrievably broken, and they would never be repaired. Although I no longer have the visceral reaction, the metaphor lives within me still. When John Lennon died, I realized that life seems desperately in need of some super glue sometimes, but the pieces often just stay in shards.