Reams and reams have been written about John Lennon, gentle activist and one-half of the world’s most famous, prolific, and successful songwriting team: the half that was brutally slain on December 8th, 1980. Much of John Lennon’s continuing eulogies, including a PBS special airing on November 22, 2010, stem from deeply devoted fans, those who keep his music and his memory close to their hearts. I was not one of those fans. And yet, John found a way to touch me.
Before I reveal how he did that, I should clarify why I was not a true fan. When you understand that, you will have a clearer view of how he did touch me — from beyond the grave.
When Ed Sullivan unveiled The Beatles and thus changed the entire face of contemporary music, I was just nine years old. Like every other kid and weeping, fainting adolescent girl, I fell in love with four mop-topped cuties from Liverpool. But the love affair ended with their I Wanna Hold Your Hand phase. A few months after The Beatles burst into living rooms across the U.S., you see, Ed introduced us all to The Rolling Stones.
Sneering, pug-ugly smoking guns with a lead singer embodying the log flume to hell for innocent little Catholic girls like me, the Stones’ gritty music was 180 degrees removed from the bright, bouncy tunes of The Beatles. One look at and one listen to Mick and Company and The Beatles were nothing but a fond memory, pleasant little ditties on the radio. Of all the bands to grace Ed Sullivan’s stage in that most glorious musical era, The Stones were the quintessential purveyors of bluesy rock. With its roots deep in the blood-soaked cotton fields of America’s Deep South, this music spoke to me, a nine-year-old kid, like no other.
As my friends played the latest Beatles’ LP backwards to hear the message about Paul’s “death” and decipher the group’s dress code on the album cover, (inferring his “demise”), I simply shrugged and spun The Stones, Creedence, my older Animals platters, and similar, blues-soaked rockers. When my friends ooh’d and ahh’d over Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I thought the entire concept — and the music — tres strange as I eased Joplin (Janis, not Scot!) and Led Zeppelin onto my turntable.
John Lennon, however, interested me, before and after the biggest band in the world disbanded. He’d married a distinctly unattractive artist-cum-business mogul, when he could have had any woman in the world. I liked that John saw beyond superficialities, put his money where his mouth was, and embraced Yoko’s quirkiness.
John was true to Yoko even though the world at large seemed to despise her, blaming her (unfairly) for the band’s breakup and unprecedented outrages such as the couple’s nude sit-in in their own bedroom, to which they’d cheerfully invited the press. And then John broke the cardinal rule, the one established by legions of die-hard Beatles fans. He began to make music with Yoko! Paul, George, and Ringo he’d tossed aside, but Yoko became his new partner, and not only in music.
The daughter of a Japanese cattle rancher, she managed the couple’s businesses and finances. John, in turn, became the stay-at-home dad “watching the wheels go round and round” as he raised his and Yoko’s only child, Sean Lennon. John was watching those wheels not from a castle in the English countryside, but from a New York City apartment overlooking Central Park. And while the British Tax Man that John had immortalized in song was sucking 90% of the income out of its mega-earning musicians, making expatriates out of many, John Lennon could have lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills or a beachfront in The Bahamas. Instead, he chose an apartment in New York City – My City.
He said he’d liked Manhattan for its anonymity, and largely, he was right about that. Those of us born and raised in New York rarely blink when we spy a celebrity, for in the city, there are nearly as many famous people as there are fish in the Hudson River. Most native New Yorkers respect the privacy and personal space of celebrities. But it was more than that that drew John to my city.
I think he must have loved it as I do, as every New Yorker does. I think he loved waking up every morning to look down upon the huge oasis of Central Park, upon Cleopatra’s Needle, the lake, the zoo, the skating rink, and the rolling green miles of trees, grass, and trails (see the Park from the sky and you’ll understand how truly immense it really is). I think he liked the museums, the Planetarium, the theater, the art galleries, the little clubs and the bigger venues, the restaurants, the street artists and musicians, the thousand dizzying cultures all melding and yet unique, the fact that life teemed and throbbed and never seemed truly quiet on such a tiny island, connected to the rest of the world by a series of bridges and underground tunnels. And I think that, in the midst of this beautiful, cacophonous, rushing city, he found peace. For John was a man of peace.
When news of his murder at the hands of a twisted non-New Yorker broke, I was entrenched in the world of publishing. Editors and editorial assistants, authors, the entire production department, sales and customer service reps, all laboring under terrible deadlines, came to a grinding halt. Women burst into tears while the men were struck speechless. One editorial assistant fled the building and returned later with black armbands.
I was among the few who did not cry; neither did I wear an armband. I wasn’t crazy about John’s post-I Wanna Hold Your Hand music. It was just okay by me. Perhaps it was too simple and gentle for me, for I was still steeped in hard, bluesy rock and getting my head turned by the angry young man who was Billy Joel and the nerd punk-rock god, Elvis Costello. John Lennon did not need me to mourn him. The world was mourning him and particularly, I think, my city — the city where he had felt so safe, the city that had loved him back.
As a strange, communal quietude hung over the city, its citizens grieved, laying armloads, truckloads of flowers at The Dakota, the building before which John had been gunned down, the building in which he’d lived with his wife and young son. The faces on the subway and the crowded city streets were oddly subdued. Eventually, the city stretched slowly, painfully back to life, like an arthritic too long asleep.
And still, I had not mourned John.
The week after his assassination, I found myself, at 6 AM, in the Port Authority — the old Port Authority. This was the bus terminal where angels feared to tread, as the homeless struggled to find warm alcoves from which they would not be tossed, and muggers preyed gleefully upon commuters … including very young women, like me, sitting all alone on an empty bench at 6 AM on a weekday.
As a production vigilante in the days before desktop publishing, I was scheduled to sit shotgun on a typesetter in Connecticut, just before the book went to press. Peter, my editor on this project, was coming along in case of disaster, but Peter was afraid to fly. Young idiot that I was, I felt bad for him and decided to take the long bus ride up to Connecticut to keep him company. I was an idiot because Peter and I were about as far apart in musical and artistic tastes, preferred cuisines, fashions, and personalities as Earth is from Alpha Centuri. He was quiet to the point of being aloof; I was the Italian-American firecracker who abhorred protracted silences.
Peter was notoriously late, and I was notoriously early: another difference that separated us, another thing about him that ticked me off. On that morning, waiting (once again!) for my editor, I bought a container of orange juice and a copy of Time magazine. There on the cover was John Lennon.
It was just a headshot, or perhaps it was a drawing. I cannot remember now, but I remember John’s face on that cover, still. It was John, quintessential John. The gentle, quietly confident musician-singer-songwriter with the ubiquitous round spectacles. The man who’d more than once turned the world on its ear, the man with the kind, knowing eyes whose wry humor telegraphed that nobody was getting one over on him. The man who’d made gentle music and who had rallied for peace, even when half the world had jeered at him for doing so.
Inexplicably, my throat constricted and my eyes swelled. On the cover of Time, John’s picture curdled with my salty tears. I knew how utterly stupid it was to be crying all alone in the cavernous, pre-rush hour Port Authority; I knew that it made me a target for the muggers, the homeless, and the just plain crazed. Still, I could not stop crying.
A shadow fell across the magazine and I looked up. There stood Peter, his handsome face changing from sanguine to concerned the minute that he saw me. “What’s wrong?” he demanded. “Are you okay?” Silently, I shook my head; the words would not come. Again, he insisted, “What’s wrong?!?“ In answer, I held up the magazine and said only, “John,” in the voice of one who suddenly realizes she has lost something ephemeral and very precious, something irreplaceable.
I watched as Peter’s face changed again, to complete understanding. In that moment, I had finally achieved total, soul-level understanding with a man with whom I had worked closely for months, a man who had not previously understood one damned thing about me — and whom I had not understood. John Lennon did that. He made that connection. He leveled the barriers between two hard-nosed, stubborn, diametrically opposed New Yorkers and brought us to a moment of total understanding … and afterwards, a sort of silent truce.
I think that John Lennon did that for many, many other people all around the world. I think that somehow, he is doing that still.