I was standing on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Durant on the southside of the UC Berkeley campus still a little groggy from an unplanned afternoon nap. I was waiting for the 51 bus to take be the three miles down College avenue to my one evening class, a history of film class that, lecture and movie combined, would last a full five hours. I remember thinking that after class I was planning to stop at Top Dog on the way home for my standing order, “a Top and an Bock:” an all-beef foot long and a bulging German Bochwurst.
But I don’t remember making it to College Avenue, or to Top Dog or even what was screening that night thirty years ago.
After I got on the bus, there was a stop at the next block, Dana Street. Between those two stops was a Tower records and I remember how as we passed it seemed the Tower was unusually busy. When the door opened college kids piled in with bags from the record store and announced that John Lennon had been shot in NYC. The crackling urgency in their voices was exactly the tone and timber I would have expected the day (which we assumed as inevitable) that President Reagan initiated nuclear war with the USSR. The shockwave of disbelief that rocked the bus was an EMP that erased any thoughts we’d had prior to that moment.
Discordant surreality had, for the first time, presented me with a gut-level definition.
It had only been a few months prior that I became familiar with Lennon’s solo work. Freshman year in a co-op dorm with 190 other people was a crash course in all sorts of pop culture, and everyone arrived with a stereo and their record collection as a major part of their luggage. Personal influences were debated, gaps in collections borrowed and taped, acquisitions made to replace worn out borrowed copies. I remember being turned on to Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light on the same day that Fall.
I don’t know why I’d dismissed Lennon’s solo work prior to college – I’d soaked up Beatles and clicked with John’s sardonic take on things – but aside from the known singles I hadn’t really thought he had anything to say to me. In retrospect I heard someone who had taken the artist’s path, learning the basics and then building a personal form of expression out of those nits and bolts. But few, if any, receive the international platform Lennon did and when he delved he straddled the worlds of conceptual art and political activism. The same year he wrote and recorded the peace anthem “Imagine” Lennon landed on Nixon’s “enemies list.” That alone should have sealed the deal for me right there.
But something got taken away from me that day on the bus, like a sucker punch that knocked the wind out of me. Only months after nearly a decade of ignoring him he was taken away and the hope that his comeback album Double Fantasy was the beginning of a new phase instantly became a licorice tombstone. In my lifetime JFL, RFK, and MLK were taken as well, and a whole slew of other cultural icons like Elvis and Jimi (and earlier that same year Hitchcock and Bonham) died from a variety of misadventures, but not of them hit me as hard. The irony that Lennon wrote a song called “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was not lost on anyone.
I don’t remember much else. I’m pretty sure I went to class but can’t say for sure. I know at some point not long after I tried to write about the experience as a poem – which I later disposed of, partially because it wasn’t finished but mostly because it was horrible. I remember the images of the impromptu memorial at the Dakota, and the national gun control arguments afterward. The dismay that a “fan” had shot him, to get the attention of Jodie Foster, made the entire enterprise more difficult to comprehend. Reagan had been elected but these were the waning days of President James Earl Carter, another signal that we were on the cusp of a new era, a new decade.
Strange days, indeed, John had sung.
Most peculiar, mama.