It’s almost too much of a cliche to open this piece with lines from John Lennon’s “Number Nine Dream:” “So long ago/was it in a dream?/Was it just a dream?” But this is what it feels like to me.
December 8, 1980, was indeed so long ago and that awful night when John Lennon was shot and killed has faded enough to seem like a dream. The details have dimmed, to be sure, but I have such a connection to that night that I suppose it will never fade completely.
I was a student disc jockey/announcer at WQSU-FM, the radio station for Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts college in Selinsgrove, PA. I worked the 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift at the station, Monday nights, when I literally was a “disc jockey,” selecting vinyl discs — records! — placing them on turntables, planning shows, talking to the audience, and reading the news.
Our source of news and weather was “the wire,” a giant, old AP (Associated Press) machine, like a ticker tape but much bigger and noisier. So noisy was this behemoth that it had its own special closet, but if the closet door was open, its sound of chunka, chunka, chunka, ka-chunka, chunka, chunka, leaked into the studio and could be heard over the air if you opened the microphone.
Every once in a while, the machine’s bells would go off, which usually meant bad weather in the region, travel conditions more important to the morning shift, not late night listeners. But we were supposed to check.
That Monday night, I had been on the air less than an hour when I heard the AP machine’s bells go off. I was in the middle of a longish song, so I went out to see what was happening. I ripped the copy off the wire to read, something like (remember, it was so long ago), “former Beatle John Lennon has been shot outside his home at the Dakota Building in New York City.”
What?! What was this? My reaction: This can’t be true! What is going on?
I didn’t have time to check with someone else to see if it was true, and who would I check with anyway? There was certainly no Internet, we weren’t close to the local police (who would have grumbled anyway), the station manager would have killed me if I made a long distance call to a regional AP bureau, so, I took the copy into the studio and when the song ended, I opened the mic, identified the song and gave the news.
“We have just received news from the AP that John Lennon has been shot in New York City. We do not have any reports of his condition, but we will keep you posted as soon as we know.”
Fortunately, another record was cued up, which I played, then I found an even longer song, probably some old Yes song, so I could re-think my show, keep checking the news, and answer the phones that were beginning to ring.
The bells on the wire went off again, just a few minutes later. This time, the copy announced that Lennon had been taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital emergency room where he was in critical condition. This is interesting, because today we know that Lennon had actually died, but the announcement had been postponed. (I just saw a documentary about John and Yoko in New York and it implied that she didn’t want to announce his death; she was in so much shock.)
But I distinctly remember the AP machine’s bells going off three times, three trips to rip off the copy, three times trying to absorb the news, and making three announcements over the air. It was the third trip to the wire that put me in a state of confusion and sadness.
I was numb but I still had a show to run, call letters to announce, phones to answer, and this terrible news to share. The third time I said, “I have very bad news. . . I am sorry to have to tell you that, according to the AP, John Lennon has died from his wounds.” Then what did I say? Something like, “give me a call if you have a question or want to make a request.”
People called and a couple of them were crying. They couldn’t believe it, and we hung out together over the phone. The call I really remember was from a very angry young man, who wanted to know just who it was who shot John Lennon, because he wanted to go hurt him, badly. So weird, and so strange to remember. The records continued to play, the calls tapered off after midnight, and the AP machine was finally silent. I wrapped things up, played the official going-off-the-air announcement, powered down the station, and went home.
Yes, we went off the air at 1 a.m., back on at 6 a.m. That’s the way it was back then.
Now, I reflect that stations stay on the air 24/7. Thanks to satellites and computers, they might not even need a live person to run things. If there are AP machines still churning out copy, I am sure they are quieter than our old monster. But now the news probably comes over the Internet, even the DJ’s own BlackBerry or iPod. And there are likely no turntables or records, VU meters, or round “pots” (potentiometers) on the console. Who needs radio stations and DJs anyway when you can have your own Podcast, blog and tweet? The sharing of Lennon’s death would be very different now: everyone would know the news immediately.
See what I mean? It was so long ago. My life has changed too. All those years ago I was really still a kid: I had not yet graduated, was years away from being married, then divorced, then married again. Ronald Reagan would be inaugurated a month or so later. And a few months after that, someone would shoot at him, too. In May, the Pope was the victim of a shooting.
If only Lennon had lived, perhaps he would have had a wry reaction to those strange times, and the stranger decades that followed. Today, he would be an interesting foil to pop culture and some of the gassier political pundits. Perhaps he would steer away from political involvement, still stung from the early ’70s, but he would surely have his sense of humor.
That night on the radio will always give me a special closeness to John Lennon. Funny thing is, in 1980, I was such a rocker that I didn’t really like his new album “Double Fantasy.” I thought the songs were middle-of-the-road, soft rock. On the radio, they played “Watching the Wheels” so much, I tuned it out.
But now, as a person of a certain age, who watches the light in the house change, tends the hearth, communes with the cats, and occasionally writes a little, I am watching the wheels the way Lennon was when he was “no longer riding on the merry-go-round.” I get it now, and I get “Beautiful Boy,” in which Lennon wrote, “Life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Here’s to you John Lennon, from a grown-up lady who still has a college student inside of her, here’s to your music and your memory. I really miss you.