Struggling Weekly, Dec. 11, 1980
"And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died."
John Lennon is dead. The news stunned me when it came over the radio last night. The former member of the English rock group The Beatles, one-half of one of the most popular songwriting duos of all time, was gunned down as he entered his New York apartment building Monday night. He was shot either five or seven times (depending on which news report you heard) by a young man who offered no resistance when taken by the police, and no explanation for his crime.
Rock music has been a singular force in my life. There are, have been and will be things more important to me, but the music runs through all of my days since 1960 as a kind of undercurrent, a soundtrack to a movie acted out on the stage and set of the same world that produced the music.
Whether I was listening to WLS, WCFL or KAAY during my teens, or to album rock on WIBA-FM in Madison, or playing albums and tapes from my collection, rock was always there. Even in the past few years, when the classics, jazz and bluegrass have captured more of my attention, I still listened to the beat, still read Rolling Stone, still tried to keep current.
Within that singular force of rock and roll, the Beatles were more than just a favorite group — they were THE group. They caught my ear in 1962, when their first American release, "Please Please Me," flopped months before "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" set this country on its ear.
I tried to wear a Beatle haircut, running afoul of parents and greaser upperclassmen; the first four albums I ever owned were by the group, Christmas presents that made the holiday.
The release of each new hit was an eagerly-awaited event. I went to their movies, argued their case against the competition (The Stones, Kinks, etc.) and hoped to see them live some day.
Even more than other music, Beatle songs take me back to the places and times when I heard them, the people with whom I associated them: "P.S. I Love You," to a high school sweetheart; "Sgt. Pepper's," to the spring of my senior year; the White Album, to junior college; and "Abbey Road" to my early dropout stage in Madison.
When they stopped touring as a group, it was a crushing blow to me, who had never seen them live. When they broke up in 1970, I expected the world to end, or at least for the music to die.
(Listening to their music Saturday night — out of some premonition? — I decided the group did not break up because of the personal and financial conflicts, as reported. Listen to side two of "Abbey Road" and you realize that that was the culmination of their work as a group. The title of their last album said it all; "Let It Be," they called it, and it was less a continuation of their work than a review of what they had done.)
Since then, the Fab Four had gone their separates ways, although all still were in the business of making music. Ringo had to settle for a succession of gimmick hits; George Harrison peddled (and soft-pedaled) Eastern music and religion, not unpleasantly.
Paul McCartney flapped his Wings and took to writing and performing silly love songs, undistinguished except for their salability. ("Band on the Run" will no doubt prove to be his only post-Beatle work of lasting stature).
Lennon, on the other hand, continued to do what the Beatles had always done, startling and entertaining people. While stunts like posing nude with wife Yoko Ono on an album cover, and others, kept the eyes of the world on him, his music still did the talking. And the voice still had the edge that was characteristic of his influence in the Lennon-McCartney collaborations.
The voice had been quiet for most of the past five years, while John and Yoko devoted their time and energy to raising their son. But he had just released his first album in years, and was planning a comeback. I, and many others who still care about The Music, who hope that it can transcend disco and bubblegum, punk and pop, were eager to see what would happen.
Now John Lennon is dead, shot down by one of those crazies this world seems to turn out regularly, a man for whom Lennon had autographed an album earlier that day. It's fortunate that the same world that produces these sickies also turns out people of creativity and imagination, the John Lennons, who make the music that is the soundtrack of our lives.
The music never really dies, even though the musicians may. Even they live on in their music. What we lose is the future, what they have left in them.
So long, John.