(Originally published here in 2005, and repeated)
On the morning of December 9, 1980, I learned that John Lennon had been shot to death the previous night. Groggy and entirely unaware, I shuffled into the kitchen and looked down at the Louisville Courier-Journal lying atop the kitchen table. The headline was very clear. My reaction was anything but.
My mother was listening to the AM radio, as was her morning habit before going off to teach school, and as I listened to the news reports, my enthusiasm for attending morning classes at Indiana University Southeast quickly dissipated.
However, I wanted to be with friends, so I drove from our home in Georgetown to the Grant Line Road campus in a daze, thoughts swirling. FM radios everywhere were tuned to the inevitable all-day tributes. Chronologically, I was at the age of twenty, although on this day, matters still seemed far too painfully adolescent.
Apparently there had been too little of death in my upbringing, too few opportunities to learn how to handle grief. What was it about pop culture that made it easier to display emotion at the murder of an icon far, far away, even as it remained impossible to discuss feelings with one's own family?
My father and his schoolmates could easily remember where they were and what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and in the 1960’s, a different generation reacted in similar fashion to the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King.
When John Lennon was killed, I was quite certain something had come to an end. It was unclear to me exactly what it was. It was an emotion not to be experienced again until September 11, 2001.
On December 9, 1980, walking through the corridors at school, I met a friend named Sean, who had moved to Louisville from the East Coast a short time before. Sean was Irish, and a prodigious drinker. As we shared our mutual feelings about Lennon’s death, I was reminded that Sean’s father was an executive in the bourbon industry, something that loomed large considering our mutual desire to get drunk, and the fact that neither of us was 21.
The result? Two bottles of Old Yellowstone, artfully purloined from Sean's home.
I don’t recommend driving while drinking, but we did, listening to the music of Lennon and the Beatles, watching the Ohio River pass by, and wishing we had girlfriends. After Sean returned to campus to meet other friends, it was safe for me to sit alone in the parking lot and have a good cry when one of the FM deejays played “Beautiful Boy” from the Double Fantasy album.
Two or three days later, I saw a letter in one of the local newspapers, in which a fundamentalist Christian took offense at the widespread depth of feeling for John Lennon, preferring to view the slain musician as an immoral agent of Satan, out to subvert Christianity and promote sinful lifestyles. Incensed, I wrote a rebuttal, which was published … and I began to reflect on the hatred and spite that so often preface religious fanaticism.
Suddenly, I understood what had changed. On December 9, 1980, I abandoned the notion – admittedly, a tenuous one even then – that a world in which artists are violently struck down before their time, and the upwardly devout respond by piously sneering at the blood of the victim, has anything whatsoever to do with deities and the supernatural.
John Lennon’s brutal death wasn’t the only impetus for this conclusion. It was 1980, and the ascendancy of Jerry Falwell. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. There were many reasons for a young man to be angry before the morning when Lennon's music died.
35 years later, there remain such causes for anger … even though I’m no longer by any means young.
In recording these thoughts, honesty is my first aim. In the years since, we've arrived at a balanced portrait of Lennon, the man, which isn't always savory. He may (or may not) have addressed and conquered some of these issues during the last five years of his life, when he "had to let it go" professionally and did just that, watching the wheels go round and round until Sean was older and the musical bug bit again.
It would be much less jolting and far more pleasing to concentrate on remembrances of the good times when the music of Lennon and the Beatles filled my life – and indeed, there were many such times.
There will be more. I cherish them.
But the image of the newspaper headline won’t go away, and neither will the conclusions that the tragedy of Lennon’s death produced for me, in my life.
I miss his creativity, and my innocence. That's life, absent the simplistic blacks and whites. I'll always struggle with the grays.