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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John

The autumn of 1980 was a seminal one for me. I was 17 and in my first semester of my freshman year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I reveled in my independence, in making new friends, and in having fun. I did not apply my usual scholastic discipline and enthusiasm that semester, but I had such a great time! That autumn, as we established ourselves as "sophisticated" college students, we began to trade in the familiar soundtrack of our high school years, that late 70's hard rock and heavy metal, for punk, post-punk and new wave. We danced around to The Romantics "What I Like About You" or Squeeze's "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell). Some Irish guy named Bob Geldof and his band The Boomtown Rats played "Mocon," the dining hall, one Saturday night. We thought, no, we knew, we were so cool and so cutting edge. Since I already loved music, I didn't have to feign interest or excitement about all the new groups to which I was being exposed. Yet, my favorite group was The Beatles, which wasn't as trendy in 1980 as it had been in 1970. My love for The Beatles had been with me as long as I could remember.

In June 1967 my friend Kari got a new LP and it was called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." We all gathered at her home to listen to this spectacular treasure. Kari announced that the name of the band was not Sgt. Pepper. The band was called The Beatles. Only Kari was allowed to handle the vinyl and put the record on the turn table. She did allow us to pass around and look at the album cover. Bearing in mind that I was 4-years-old and had just completed Kindergarten, I did not get any of the sly and ironic cultural references. However, I thought it was real art, and I stared at it intently. My gaze kept coming back to the man wearing the yellow uniform. Like me, he wore eyeglasses, and I thought he seemed very kind. That summer we spent many hours at Kari's listening to the LP repeatedly, and learning the words to the songs with the same devotion we would show to learning our catechism the following fall. I found the music to be so beautiful and, given the primal nature of childhood, I had different visceral reactions to each of the tracks. "With a Little Help From My Friends" made me want to sing along and out loud with the record and my friends. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" confused me and, frankly, irritated me. Then "Getting Better" actually did make me feel better. "She's Leaving Home" made me feel sad. The last track, "A Day In The Life" brought up feelings of sorrow, excitement, anger and fear. I enjoyed the cacophonous crash at the end, the last chords on the piano.

Five years later, at age 9, I began learning to play the guitar. I also had a lovely singing voice, and I began to accrue spiral notebooks which I filled with the lyrics and chords to my favorite songs. At least half of my repertoire was Beatles songs. When I joined a youth orchestra at age 14, and our conductor had us performing arrangements of Beatles songs, I came to know that their songs were every bit as musically complex and important as pieces by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. My ear became refined enough to the point where I could tell which songs were more Lennon, and which were more McCartney. I adore them both. However, I couldn't resist the way John Lennon was such a smartass and a charmer. John also lived in New York City, just 17 miles from my Long Island suburban town but it might as well have been light years away. New York City was then—and, to me, still is—the center of the universe.

My father was transferred by his company to Houston, Texas, and I spent my senior year of high school attending Humble High School in the morning, and my afternoons moping in my bedroom. I was experiencing full-blown teen angst that I was missing the way my senior year was supposed to be if we had been back on Long Island. My only relief was discovering that the local PBS station ran episodes of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on Sunday nights, my collection of Beatles albums, and my "early decision" acceptance to Wesleyan University for the Fall of 1980.

It was a Monday night in early December, and a bunch of us had brought in blankets and our books into Margie and Alison's room to study for finals which would be the following week. Their room was on the third, the top floor of our freshman house, a place we had dubbed "The Rude House" early on. Then there was a knock on the door, and Hans, who lived all the way down on the first floor, was standing at the door, asking if I was there. Hans and I had experienced our differences over the past 4 months, but we both loved The Beatles. He came over to me and said, "I just heard on the radio that John Lennon was shot." I jumped up, and I was enraged. "How could you play such a mean joke, Hans?" My friends were shocked at how upset I was. They all began to wonder whether or not this was a joke. We put on the radio, and I heard the news myself. John Lennon had been shot in front of The Dakota, the building where he lived with his wife Yoko and young son Sean. Before long, the radio announcer said that it was official. John Lennon, age 40, was dead. I apologized to Hans. I went to my room, and called my boyfriend Steve. We both were sobbing. I asked him to walk across campus and meet me at The CFA (The Center For The Arts complex). I brought candles and a book of matches. We sat out there all night holding one another, crying, and singing every Beatles song we knew. I said goodbye to my childhood that night.

I'll be 48 next week; 8 years older than John ever got to be. For the past 20 years I have lived on the Upper Westside. Most days I walk through Central Park, and I always exit by Strawberry Fields, the 2.5 acre memorial which Yoko Ono set up so that John's fans would have a place to gather and celebrate her husband's life. No matter how bad the weather, fans come to pay their respect, and some bring their guitars and sing "Imagine" or "All You Need Is Love." I still love The Beatles, and my love and appreciation for John Lennon, the peace activist, the man, grows every year.