In January of 1964, the airwaves were resonating with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles, a new-to-the-United-States musical group. On February 9th, like practically every other thirteen year old girl in America, I was glued to the television watching Ed Sullivan as he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen ... the Beatles!”
Before I go much further, let me clear up one thing—John did not start out as my favorite Beatle. That was George, from start to finish, at least in the romantic department. George was an amazing person in his own right (to borrow a phrase from John); his music, lyrics, and life truly resonated with me. But this remembrance is about John Lennon, whose death affected me in a way I hadn’t yet imagined.
Of course, John wasn’t anyone I knew personally, in the flesh-and-blood sense. However, I grew up with him in a way that made his death personal, even as it was universal in marking the end of an era.
The Beatles were a constant in my life from the first bars of “Love Me, Do” to their final output on Abbey Road. (Let It Be was their last released album, but it was recorded prior to Abbey Road—check out the biography.) I Want to Hold Your Hand was the first “45” I ever bought, and I listened to it over and over and over again—I’m sure much to the chagrin of my grandmother, who had to have had the patience of Job. (Or, perhaps she enjoyed the music, too!)
Like many of my best friends, I knew all the words to all of the Beatles’ songs, collected their bubblegum cards, had George’s picture taped over the mirror of my ballerina music box, kept a scrapbook of pictures, news and magazine articles, and the coveted program from their concert. Every new single or album release was cause to go to the local music store and spend my hard-earned allowance on the Fab Four.
When their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, came out, my sister and I sat through two showings and then went to see the flick the very next weekend, too. I wore my hair in a Beatles’ cut. I was a die-hard fan.
And, love ... ah, love. The way John, Paul, George, and Ringo sang about love was the way it was happening in my life—hand-holding, dancing (I’m Happy Just to Dance with You), heartbreak (I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party), and a myriad of other songs. By the end of 1965, I was 15 years old, and Rubber Soul was recently released. The unique album was a departure from the simpler rock and roll of their earlier music. And John Lennon’s lyrics in particular were taking many turns of complexity that were being mirrored in my own life. Perhaps it was just that I was coming of age—but I felt like the Beatles were right there with me. Lennon’s sensibilities on songs like “Day Tripper,” “Nowhere Man,” “The Word,” and “In My Life”. Life was getting more complicated, boy-girl relationships were becoming labyrinthine, and the world was rapidly gyrating into an upheaval of social norms.
In the summer of 1966, the same time Revolver came out, I moved from a small town in southern Indiana to the big city of Chicago. Shortly after that move, I found myself sitting in the International Amphitheater in Chicago with my sister and her best friend, waiting to see The Beatles live. We sat through Bobby Hebb, The Cyrkle, and at least two or three other groups whose names are long forgotten. Even though we were so excited and squirming around in our seats like five-year-olds waiting for ice cream, the three of us had made a vow that we would not be like those screaming teenagers on which every news story centered. We were much too old for childish things like that after all.
Seated to the side of the makeshift stage, we were among the first to see four mop top heads coming around behind the curtain. Our screams were quickly joined by the thousands of other girls, and honestly, we hardly could hear the music. But it was them: John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the flesh. The next twenty minutes comprised some of the most unforgettable minutes of which I’ve ever been a part. After the show, hoarse and exhausted, we still walked around the entire perimeter of the Amphitheater twice, hoping to find the right stage door, praying for another glimpse of our idols. Of course, it didn’t happen that night; but it might have, and that was enough for us to continue dreaming for weeks. Not long after the move, I remember sitting in the room I shared with my sister and mother, listening to Eleanor Rigby, wallowing in the loneliness of missing my friends back home. However, with the resilience of youth, I’d head out the door to the strains of “Good Day Sunshine,” meeting new people and gaining new experiences. The Beatles’ music was my “ticket to ride” into a whole new life. No matter my mood, I could always count on them as my rock. I really trusted them, and they never let me down.
As much as I loved George, I began identifying more and more with the songs John was writing. His wit, his grittiness and his candor were reflections, not just of my own life, but of life in the world. As I was going through changes, so was John, and he was much more eloquent in his expression.
The next summer (1967) was “The Summer of Love,” and Lennon was writing songs like “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “All You Need Is Love”. I think that perfectly summed up June through August of ’67 for me. Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour took pretty firm hold of my life for the next year. Like John, I was doing a lot of searching and coming up with similar esoteric answers.
There had been murmurings of the Beatles breaking up as far back as early ’66. Rumors that sent chills through their millions of fans, myself included. These rumors grew even more persistent when Yoko Ono entered the picture in November of 1966—Read “When John Met Yoko” for a more complete picture—although it wasn’t until 1968 that John and Yoko’s acquaintance turned into romance. A line in one of my favorite songs of John’s from the White Album, Julia, is a direct reference to Yoko: “Ocean child, calls me ...” Yoko means “ocean child” in Japanese. It appears to be a “song of love” not only for his mother (Julia), but also for the woman who was indeed his soul mate.
On March 20, 1969, John and Yoko married. August of ’69 was the last time the Beatles recorded together (even though Abbey Road was released in May of 1970). In September 1969, my mother died. By the end of the following year, the Beatles were dead.
Like many fans (you may say I’m a dreamer ...) hope sprang eternal. As long as the four Beatles were alive, there was always a chance for a reunion, and occasionally rumors of one would crop up. Then, on December 8, 1980, two days before my 30th birthday, that hope was crushed forever. After putting my young daughter to bed, my pregnant self was sprawled on the couch watching Monday Night Football when Howard Cosell (in answer to Frank Gifford) said, “... we have to say it. This is just a football game. An unspeakable tragedy ... John Lennon ... dead on arrival.” That was how I found out about John Lennon’s death.
There was no Internet back then, where I could’ve logged on and read endless accounts of the tragedy until my brain was convinced it had really happened. Like wandering around the Amphitheater years early, hoping for a glimpse of the Beatles, my mind cast around for reasons that Cosell could’ve been mistaken. Surely, he was mistaken. It had to be a horrible hoax. Something so irrational couldn’t have happened. Who would ever want to kill John Lennon? When my husband got home from work an hour later, the look on his face told me it was real.
Tears came, but not until the next day. That night I tossed from side to side, got up to check on my daughter, lay down again, closed my eyes, but saw only memories and couldn’t turn off the music in my head. The next morning, I called my sister. “How can I bring a child into a world where someone like John Lennon can be gunned down?” It was a question with no answer, and there I was, my heart full of emptiness. The idealism and innocence I’d carried with me from my youth were in tatters. I had lived (and mourned) through three life-changing assassinations, John Kennedy’s in 1963 as well as Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s earlier in 1968. But this was different. There were no political or racial reasons, not that those would have made it any less horrific. It was a senseless act of violence committed by a very disturbed person against someone who was the epitome of peace and nonviolence.
John Lennon’s loss for me was the loss of a musical “best friend”. Someone who had journeyed with me, lyrically mentored me, and often commiserated with me through the turbulent seas of adolescence. He sang me through the innocent days of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the ultimate peace anthem of “Give Peace a Chance”. A few years ago I had the opportunity to see a traveling exhibition of John’s artwork. As I wandered through the exhibit, I was struck once again by the sense of connection I felt with John, first through his music and now through his art. He didn’t waste a line (or a lyric) and his meanings were complex or simple, depending on what the viewer (or listener) chose. Bittersweet memories sprang up unbidden, and all those years later, I cried again. So much unwritten music, so many unpainted pictures, undoodled sketches ... a boy who grew up without his father, a wife sleeping in an empty bed, and a life that had touched mine so deeply had ended much too soon.
If only I could, I would tell him, “Even though you didn’t know it, John, you shared so much of yourself with me. You took me from adolescent schoolgirl crushes to the recognition of the importance of being true to yourself, your creative expression, and your life at large. Your lyrics and life journey were the concrete demonstration that peace and love really are all one needs. Your music and your vision live on today. Thank you, John Lennon ... in my life I love you more.”
// Notes from the Road
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