It’s 2020, a year that ends in a zero, so I’ve been thinking, “10 years since this, 20 since that, a scary 30 years since something else.”
Forty years ago is the real landmark for me, however, and December 8 is the date lodged in my memory. That was the Monday night John Lennon was gunned down in front of the Dakota Hotel in NYC, where he lived with wife Yoko Ono and their young son Sean.
I was on the air at WQSU-FM at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, playing records from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. We were excited about recent releases by Dire Straits (Making Movies), Bruce Springsteen (The River), The Clash (Sandinista), Talking Heads (Remain in Light), and Double Fantasy by Lennon and Ono.
Longtime Lennon fans were delighted to hear him after an absence from the music business, especially “Just Like Starting over Again.”
Along with spinning music, announcing song titles, etc., I had to keep an ear out for news coming from the antique monstrosity that was the AP machine. This massive device was so noisy it had to be kept in a special closet so the din wouldn’t be heard over the live portion of our broadcasts.
Like a ticker tape but much larger, and smelling like aged metal and machine oil, the AP “wire” churned out news copy on cheap beige paper, its bells ringing from time to time. Most record-playing folks at ‘QSU ignored the old thing, especially at night.
This particular evening though, the AP machine wouldn’t stop, and about an hour into my show, the bells went off repeatedly. I was not a journalism major, so I didn’t know what the “ding-ding-ding” meant. But I knew something must be happening, beyond the usual truck mishap on Routes 11-15 in Shamokin Dam.
I came out of the studio to check the wire, and read the very bad news: “Former Beatle John Lennon has been shot in New York City.”
Stunned, I went back on the air and shared the bulletin, chose another song, a long one so I could gather my thoughts.
Soon after however, there were more bells and more distress from the metal contraption. First, “John Lennon has been rushed to the Emergency Room at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital.”
Next, “John Lennon is in critical condition.”
Then, the machine’s bells rang what seemed to be non-stop, and went silent, as though the thing had died from the effort. I had a sick feeling when I read, “John Lennon has been pronounced dead.”
Shocked but too numb to be sad, I went back to the studio, opened up the mic, and told the listeners that John was gone.
I still had a show to run, so I invited listeners to call, make requests, talk things out a little. My friend Beth checked in, requested Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.”
People phoned, several were crying, a few more asked for Beatles/Lennon songs. One man was sobbing and yelling at the same time, very angry. He wanted to go hurt the person who killed John Lennon.
I kept on working until signing off and powering the station down at 1 a.m.
Then I went home and thought, “What just happened?”
Forty years later, I am still trying to process that night, and I miss John so much.
Today as I write this, my eyes are welling up with tears thinking about the unnecessary violence, of us fans losing our old friend, the snarky, sexy Beatle.
Wouldn’t Lennon have had a few choice words for our current wind-bag, self-involved politicians? A clever comeback for the more insane stuff on social media? A peaceful song or kind thought to soften the nightmare of COVID-19 and self-isolation?
Here’s to you John Winston Ono Lennon, October 9, 1940, to December 8, 1980. “So long ago, was it just a dream?”