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Remembering John Lennon

By Gary Wien

"I just shot John Lennon," said Mark Chapman when the doorman at the Dakota asked him if he knew what he had just done. And just like that the sixties had ended. With one bullet, the world lost its greatest dreamer - a man that still inspires great debate to the day.

"I loved his music but wasn't thrilled with his commie loving politics," said one person while others praised him for his activism.

For me, John Lennon meant hope. Hope that something as simple as peace could be done if we really wanted it to happen. He was a dreamer, but most of us wanted to be part of that dream. Whether or not you grew up in the sixties or were born after he got shot, John Lennon's dream is still alive.

Hundreds of people will most likely be heading to Strawberry Fields in New York City on December 8th as they do every year. More people come on the "special" anniversaries like this one. "Has it really been 25 years," asked someone when I mentioned I was doing a story on John Lennon. It does seem like yesterday to many people.

"The night he was shot was devasting," recalled Richard Barone of the Bongos. "I was living in Hoboken, and all my friends back home in Florida were calling me all night -- knowing I was such a Lennon fan. My phone rang off the hook. A sad and unbelievable night. The next day we had to bring the first Bongos record master to the label for manufacturing, and I just kept thinking how, without John, I probably would never have had the inspiration as a kid to pick up a guitar in the first place."

For many people, the first notice came during Monday Night Football in a moment that ranks among Howard Cosell's most famous.

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"I was watching Monday Night Football and I believe Howard Cosell announced that John Lennon had been shot and had died..." recalled Fran Smith, Jr. of the Hooters. "And I kinda went into a state of shock.. I don't know if I really ever got over it. I do remember my kids looking at me at the time saying ,AeoDad are you ok?' The rest of the night was a blur."

Music Journalist, Bob Makin recalls watching the game between his favorite team (Miami Dolphins) and the New England Patriots. "The Dolphins won, but the loss of John caused me to cry for two days. I was in 10th grade. My mother let me stay home from school for two days because I was so upset. I had just finished reading the Lennon biography and the large paperback The Beatles book by Schaffer if that's the right name. I was in a huge Beatles phase and anxiously awaiting John's first solo CD in a long time. And then, like everyone else, I was crushed."

Music fans just seemed to know how important Lennon was even if they weren't old enough to know much about the Beatles. John Lennon transcended music. He was a celebrity among celebrities and yet he lived one of the most open lives of anyone. Just as Bruce Springsteen roams freely among Monmouth County, Lennon roamed freely through the streets of New York City. The city was his home. He almost became more popular through the years he was "invisible." It's like the myth grew and grew. Maybe that's why people who were teenagers or younger felt a loss that day. They were connected to Lennon without even knowing it.

"My father got me my first clock radio, it was a Sony," recalled Mimi Cross. "I used to lie awake at night - you know - you could set the timer for an hour, and the radio would go off by itself. So I'd lie there for an hour listening every night - sometimes singing too. In the morning I'd wake up to music. The day that John Lennon was shot the news seemed to enter my mind while I was sleeping; because I woke up sobbing. My father and then my mother came running in ,AeoWhat's wrong, what's wrong?!' I said ,AeoJohn Lennon has been shot!' I was crying and crying. They couldn't believe it - they didn't believe it. But it was true. "

"That morning at school, I went to the principal, guess I took a friend or two along, and we asked if we could have a minute of silence for John Lennon before the morning announcements," continued Mimi Cross. "Our principal didn't want to do it. It seemed like a weird request I think. A large school, affluent suburbs...but this man, this white haired, conservative principal must have been moved after all - by events or by us - and we did have our minute of silence. December 8th, 1980."

Jon Caspi remembers hearing the news that "someone who may be John Lennon has just been shot" on WNEW. His school was also one who had a moment of silence the next day. "At school the next day they had a moment for John in which they played ,AeoHappy Xmas (War is Over)' - 25 years later I still cannot hear that song without thinking of John's death."

Lazlo of Blowupradio.com was only seven when Lennon was shot so he doesn't remember it clearly. "Years later I remember listening to Vin Scelsa on one of the anniversaries of John's death re-air some of the old WNEW tapes of their broadcast the day he died, and it jogged my memory...I listened to a lot of radio back then, but I think at the time I knew of John Lennon and the Beatles without really knowing their music...anyway, hearing those broadcasts re-aired, it sounded so familiar that I realized I must have sat there listening to it on my radio back in 1980, probably without really realizing the full impact of what it was I was hearing."

Colie Brice, founder of AERIA Records is a big fan of John Lennon. He recalls becoming obsessed with rock and roll at age 10 and begging his mother for more records. "She dutifully brought me down to the Platterpuss in Sayreville and bought me all the Beatles albums on the rack available that day - Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, Let It Be, and a Bootleg from the Star Club in Hamburg with "Shimmie, Shimmie Shake". I turned up the turntable and basically played "guitar" on a tennis racket all summer and had absolutely no tan. Later as a teenage fledgling musician myself I experienced an epiphany about my life's direction watching the film Imagine. The movie left me with the profound realization that life is so precious and fragile and yet we constantly take it for granted and get caught up in bull shit. John's life clearly illustrated the struggle we face between our selfish, ego based perceptions and the realization of a higher truth encompassing love, peace, and compassion. John Lennon was no Jesus Christ. He was a sinner! He could be drunk, violent, hypocritical, etc., yet like Christ, he had the courage to crucify himself standing up for his ideals. And he didn't have to... He was extremely successful and could have quite easily lived in his own utopian world - as most rock stars do. Instead he imagined a concept of Nutopia, a land with out borders for ALL people."

Brice talks about feeling Lennon's presence - almost as a guiding force in his life. Many Lennon fans feel the same way. I know I have. If there's a Heaven, he's the first person I'm looking up. He's been the inspiration for nearly every thing I do. I remember interviewing Val Emmich for the first issue of Upstage and talking to him about Lennon's songwriting. He said he loved how he took simple ideas like "I'm just a jealous guy" and made them work. I think that's what really makes people believe that Lennon was something more than just a musician. Nothing was ever stupid to him if it could accomplish positive things. Whether it was bed-ins to end war or purchasing billboards to promote peace or simply telling people to imagine the world was a better place. Hope was never lost with him.

"John Lennon to me was a renaissance man," said Fran Smith, Jr. "He could have been just as successful at anything he put his hand to... lucky for us it was music he created."

"John Lennon was an icon in life, and like Elvis and James Dean, became an even greater one after he passed on," added Richard Barone. "He was a hero -- who had survived Beatlemania and all the ups and downs of pop stardom, and came out on top -- only to be shot down at the doorstep of his own castle. His story is almost Shakespearean."

"What a visionary," said Bruce Tunkel of Redhouse. "Sadly, I'd say we're going to have to wait awhile for that vision to be realized."

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It's hard to say what John would have done had he not been struck down by Chapman. His legend has certainly grown - as all who are struck down early have their legends grow - because of his death. But John finally seemed comfortable in his life and his music. Just listen to Double Fantasy and see how he was writing about love and family and starting over. As Richard Barone said, the ending is almost Shakespearean. Imagine being killed while your song about starting over would soon be climbing the charts.

"Lennon also was a courageous soul who wasn't afraid to speak his mind about what he believed in," added Bob Makin. "It's so sad that such an outspoken and influential critic of our societal ills was silenced. If he had been silenced for his outspokeness, he might have been a martyr whose example lived on like MLK and Gandhi. But because he was killed by a fruitcake, this isn't the case."

"He was a prophet, bard and a sage who came to this world to spread a timeless message about love and peace," said Colie Brice. "Why is it that every time somebody does that, they get killed?"

Rest in peace, John. We miss you. Twenty-five years... It's hard to believe.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 12/05/2005



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