Trying To Get To You

Monday, December 08, 2008

John Lennon, December 8, 1980 and Me

December 8, 1980 is, in retrospect, one of the most important days in my life.

It was a Monday. I was in the 5th grade at Solomon Schecter Day School in Cranford, NJ, and we had the day off for some reason. My Dad and I were living alone in Plainfield, New Jersey, but I was spending the long weekend at my Godfather’s tiny studio in Manhattan on W. 72nd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue, one avenue away from the Dakota, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived.

My Godfather, Vincent Cavallaro, was a painter, and it was he who introduced me to fine art and what it is to be an artist. He was a wonderful painter and sculptor – one of very few artists commissioned by NASA to depict the space program in the 60’s. He was never financially successful (although he made his living solely through his art, which counts him as wildly successful in my book); his best work came in the 50’s and 60’s, and it didn’t quite follow the fashion of Abstract Expressionism in the 50's and especially not the Pop Art that Warhol and Rauschenberg ushered in during the early 60’s. By 1980, he was almost seventy, and his fire was beginning to go out.

But Jimmy (his nickname, which was the only name I ever called him) was the grandfather I never had – and he spoiled me rotten. Pretty much anything I wanted, he’d get it for me. One day in the spring of 1980, Jimmy had bought me a new pair of roller skates and we went to Central Park to try them out. On our way back to his place, I saw a couple walk out the very scary looking (to my eyes) Dakota building on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West, into a waiting car. The man was signing autographs before he got into the car. “Who is that,” I asked Jimmy. “John Lennon,” he replied. Even at the age of nine going on ten, I knew that John Lennon was someone important, and that he had been in the Beatles, and they were important, even though I didn’t really know anything about them yet.

My Dad picked me up early in the evening on December 8th, and I was home by around seven. I was asleep by ten. The following morning, I awoke and got the paper for my Dad, opened it up, and saw the headline in the upper left section: John Lennon Dead. I read the article, fascinated, my adrenaline beginning to pump, thinking that this murder had happened someplace I had walked by countless times – that I had just been there the day before - I had seen this man before.

And then I turned on the radio (I listened to WPLJ in those days - it was a rock station then), and then I started to get the depth of what had happened, what John Lennon had meant to people, and who the Beatles really were. The radio played the saddest Beatles and John Lennon songs. (I recall hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day In The Life,” “Let It Be,” and “Imagine” more than almost anything else.) And in hearing the listeners call in, anguished and crying, their grief touched me and clued me in that something historic was happening.

I was transfixed by the story and the footage I saw on TV. I related to Sean losing his father violently, as I had lost my mom violently in a car accident about three and a half years previously. I heard about John Lennon losing his mom twice; once as a young boy when his parents split, and then as a teenager when she was hit by a car - and how embittered it made him as a young man. Of course, it resonated with me completely.

And then I made a discovery. Underneath the stereo, there was a cabinet full of (vinyl) albums. I thought they were all opera albums belonging to my Dad, but as I went through the collection, I saw them – Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, the White Album and Let It Be. They had been left behind by my older brother and sister, and now they were mine.

I put on Revolver first, because I thought the cover looked cool. And from the first note of "Good Day Sunshine," (I put side two on first and yes, I know it's a Paul song) I was gone. I didn’t just listen to the music; I swallowed it whole, like air or water. By that Sunday, when there was a worldwide vigil for John, I had made tape recordings of all of those albums, and was playing them on my little Panasonic mono tape recorder, even taking the tape recorder into bed with me when I went to sleep at night. Yes, I felt the sadness of the moment – I related to that sadness all too well. But I heard the joy, pleasure and possibility in the Beatles, and I, thank God, related to that more. Like millions before me, I was now discovering the power of their music - and of rock and soul.

Within three months, I had every Beatles album and was fully obsessed with them. When I would see Jimmy, I would have him buy me books on the Beatles and rock n’ roll. And reading those books (Shout! by Philip Norman, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll, The Beatles by Hunter Davies, Lennon Remembers) led to names that I had might have heard before, but that I certainly hadn’t yet reckoned with: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Smokey Robinson, Billy Preston, Motown, Stax and more, all of whom in the months and years to come would be more treasure for me discover. In the Time Magazine with Lennon on the cover following his death, it covered Bruce Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt’s reaction to Lennon’s death the following night in Philadelphia, and that Lennon had been warmly admiring of “Hungry Heart,” which had just been released. That led to me buying The River in February, 1981. I was gone, again.

Who I am, who I’ve been and who I will ever be as a music lover, executive, participant, producer, writer, critic, A&R man, and advocate was, in part, birthed in the aftermath of that horrible event on December 8, 1980. My relationship with John Lennon’s music – from the sublime way he sang “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” to the anguished soul of Plastic Ono Band, is at the core of who I am. The soul of his music - romantic, cynical, hilarious, mocking, loving, angry, fun, questioning- is there with me always, as something to treasure, and a benchmark to aspire to. I’ve never stopped missing him and wishing I had had the opportunity to appreciate him while he was alive.

And I'm still pissed off he's gone.


Philip Clark said...

Fantastic post, Ben. Thanks for this.

Chris Huff said...

Nicely put, Ben! I went to school 20 blocks from the Dakota, grew up near Columbia U. Never passed John on the street, but heard of numerous sightings (my dad used to see him in the Souen macrobiotic restaurant).

The most moving account I ever heard was from one of Sean's preschool teachers, later my boss at a day camp where I was a swim instructor. The preschool class loved John and Yoko because they wore these big fur coats in the wintertime - the class would scream and shout "The Bears, the Bears are coming!" and John and Yoko would growl and the kids would scream, run, and hide. It was great fun for the kids. When he died, the class was very sad not because he was John Lennon but because he was Sean's daddy and one of The Bears.

So although I think about John Lennon and the Beatles myth, how he changed the world, how much his music meant to me (I too taped Beatles' records off the LPs and listened on a little Panasonic!), and how much he meant to so many, I always think about Sean first and foremost. Even more since becoming a parent. I like to think John would have agreed with my take; I think he thought the rest was probably "rubbish", people needing to get a life and appreciate the people in front of them. And I think how sad it is that one of The Bears is gone.

Thanks for your piece. :-)

LiT Web Studio said...

what a brilliant post...i grew up in the UK and remember so well the media coverage of his death and Happy Xmas, War is Over on the radio on a loop that year. i STILL get a lump in my throat when i hear those opening whispered words "Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian"...

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben, Great post and as always I appreciate your passion and ability to transmit it via words. Thanks!

Ben Lazar said...


Your story about "The Bears" was very moving; one I hadn't heard before. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Ben --

Thanks for taking the time to share your highly personal, and yet inclusive story and narrative: I felt as if I was at a round table amongst family and friends.

To relate, I had also penned my own "where was I when?" essay on Lennon's death, and decided against posting or even emailing it to my cardinal circle.

However, here, I am both moved and glad you took it to the next level: every reader visiting this page today is better than before having arrived.


-- Rene (rnrrenegade)

Anonymous said...

Ben, this is a wonderful, moving post. I remember that day too. I was in high school, listening to the Beatles and also that little guy Bruce Springsteen most of the days and nights,got to the school's door and my best buddy said the words: "John Lennon was murdered las tnight". We were in shock. Every TV and Radio station was talking about it. This was in Barcelona, Spain, Dec.9, 1980. I was 15. Just a few months later my first BS show would arrive.

Chris Huff said...

Sure thing, Ben! Got your blog on RSS now...

HippieGirl said...

Ben, I think this is one of the most inspirational posts ever. With me being a huge Beatles fan, I think it is so sad that someone actually had the balls to kill poor John. I ask you, what the hell did John ever do to deserve getting shot in the head 4 times in front of his wife Yoko?

That monster who killed Lennon took away a father to his kids and a husband to Yoko. The only way I learned about his death was the internet and this book my aunt got me for Christmas about the Beatles. It says the exact date and everything about the day John Lennon died and the day that George Harrison died too.