Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Living With Lennon's Death

At five minutes to eight, I stumbled out of bed and across the cold room to the radiogram. I punched the button for the radio, and fell back gratefully beneath the covers. Through the weather forecast, it was just another day. Then came the electronic pips with which the BBC marked the hour, followed by the familiar voice of Today presenter and professional contrarian Brian Redhead; and my world changed.

"The former Beatle", he began, and time began to slip free of its boundaries. "Not John", I remember thinking. "Please, not John." In the split-second between words, I was ready to condemn three other men. "John Lennon", Redhead continued, and I knew the worst.

Even in 2010, when other stations might lead their bulletins with the announcement that one celebrity has attacked another's performance on a reality TV show, Today still has standards. In 1980, there was no uncertainty. The top of the news meant death.

Redhead's statement was brutally austere. "The former Beatle John Lennon has been shot dead outside his home in New York." Already lying down, I had nowhere to fall, but when I recall the moment, I picture myself plummeting down and down, an impossible weight crushing my chest. I don't remember breathing, except to mutter a single profanity, over and over. I was 23 years old, and it was the biggest shock of my life. Thirty years later, I can't remember a moment to match it. There's been grief since then, and sadness of every kind that an adult in this tangled world can expect. But nothing else that split the universe asunder; shattered the fragile shell of life; wiped out hope. I've lived through worse things than John Lennon's murder, but nothing else has ever hit me that hard.

For almost exactly ten years, Lennon had been my touchstone, my role model, my hero. As a fan, I felt as if I owed him my life. And in a way, I did, as he had unwittingly provided me with an escape route from the deadening future that had seemed inevitable; had led me to the first months of a career in rock journalism; had lent me just enough of his swaggering arrogance to pull myself through month after difficult month. Later, I would always say that the world was a less interesting place without Lennon in it. But on December 9, 1980, a world without John Lennon seemed impossible - and impossible to bear.

Yet it had to be endured. I have grim, vivid memories of that day - calling my girlfriend across the other side of London, as if that would console me; walking like a dead man to work, where I demanded that the radio was silenced, as I could not bear to hear John's voice; phoning my mother, who advised me sensibly enough that I shouldn't get too upset, because he was only a pop star and I didn't actually know him. I can imagine saying something similar to my own children today, and getting the same response: "You don't understand". I didn't shed a tear, because I knew that if I started to cry, I would never stop.

In retrospect, my grief for a man I'd never met approached the borders of mental illness. That Christmas was insufferable: how could I enjoy anything when Lennon was gone? Every year, the anniversary would loom like a monster, poisoning the weeks before it. Gradually I regained some equilibrium. I wrote a book (The Art And Music Of John Lennon) that analysed every fragment of his output, and another (You Never Give Me Your Money) that chronicled the sadness that scarred his final decade, and the dissolution of the band that he had once loved. Yet through it all the terrible starkness of that moment remains.

Today, I can apply perspective to my obsession, and my grief; I know where they came from, and why they controlled me (and millions more). I can put Lennon's life and work into context; I can divide genius (John Lennon Plastic Ono Band) from hackwork (Double Fantasy), and appreciate both for what they are. I can even sit through a documentary about the murder, like ITV's surprisingly meticulous The Day John Lennon Died earlier this week, almost without a pang (no pun intended, May).

And yet . . . late in that film, the doctor who vainly attempted to save Lennon's life described the appalling damage that the assassin's bullets had done to his body. Just for a second, I caught myself thinking: "Maybe they'll be able to restart the heart, and patch up the arteries, and it will be OK." Thirty years on, part of my brain still refuses to accept that John Lennon is dead. Some dreams live forever, it seems, even when heroes are gone.


  1. Indeed. I've seen that doctor on countless retrospectives of that horrible day, and each time, I find myself hoping that the story will turn out differently. Unfortunately, this particular "dream" is not over.

  2. I too was in London on that horrible, horrible day. My girlfriend woke me with the news and yes, I too was in bed with nowhere to fall. I struggled to work with weeping passengers on the underground and had to work on producing pre-recorded cassettes of Double Fantasy, listening to it over and over again - in tears.

    And now, I am sitting here typing through tears at your recollection which so much matches mine.

    Thank you for your beautiful article. How I wish you had never had to write it.

  3. I remember the morning so well.

    Dave Lee Travis was playing Lennon when I awoke. Nobody played Lennon in those days (regardless of what the re-written history tells kids today). So I knew something was amiss.

    I was a teacher, in charge of a tutor group of 14 year olds. During registration one said "Who's John Lennon?" They all knew Wings, of course, but the name Lennon meant very little. Even in my guitar classes I taught chords via Band On the Run and Wings at the Speed of Sound.

    December 1980 was when m-m-My g-Generation suddenly got old.

    As a boy I smuggled the Sgt Pepper album sleeve from classroom to classroom, sharing its mysteries. As an art student (L'pool), I bought Plastic Onon Band and Imagine on their day of release.

    I don't recognise the John Lennon of today; the plastic jesus on the dashboard.

    But I do really miss him being out there.

    PS: Thanks for a great book. Most unusual to have a Beatle read which goes beyond the early 70's law suits. Thoroughly enjoyed it.