I was in New York City the night John Lennon was killed.
After visiting with my folks around Thanksgiving, I celebrated my birthday on the sixth with my girlfriend Lisa in New Jersey, then caught a bus up to the city to visit my friends Bill and Karen. We spent the night of the eighth in their microscopic apartment in the East Village: drinking and smoking pot, arguing poetry, and discussing the Tarot. [It’s not about fortune-telling. It’s about the journey of the soul, the pilgrim’s progress.] I fell asleep curled on the floor of their tiny living room. Early the next morning, I was awakened by a phone call from Lisa. Bill answered it and handed the phone grumpily to me. She and I had talked on the phone for quite a while the night before, and I remember Bill saying with sarcasm, “welcome to the telephone” as I sat up in my sleeping bag and took the receiver.
But the first words from Lisa jolted me awake. “Did you hear John Lennon was killed?!” I repeated her words out loud, “John Lennon was killed!?” and Bill and Karen sprang up at this news. We turned on the radio, and as we drank coffee we discussed going up to the Dakota (or the park across the street) to join the gathering that had begun in the middle of the night and was growing quickly. We didn’t end up going there. Just listened to the Beatles and John Lennon that played all day on the radio, and talked and talked more about politics and music and society and life, and about poetry which to us incorporated all the rest.
It took days, then weeks, and then years, for me to realize the full extent of what we lost that terrible evening. Things were weird all around back then, and that killing was just one more straw spinning in a whirlwind of strangeness. Ronald Reagan had been elected president, for one thing. It was the era of the October Surprise, the hostage crisis in Iran, civil war and coups in Central America, nuclear power protests and a brutal, middle-class-killing inflation. I had already come to feel that American society was disintegrating, having gone deeply wrong somewhere along the way, and I had already decided to leave San Francisco for the sweet countryside I saw that spring up in Oregon. The death of Lennon just confirmed all that in my mind.
But as the years have passed, and as Lennon’s music has maintained so much of its beauty and power and integrity, the deep loss of possible art echoes more and more for me. He was only 40, for god’s sake, and though that seemed pretty old at the time, now I realize how much more life he had in front of him, and I can only imagine the music he might have made.
When conspiracy theories began to swirl about the murder, I certainly took note. I commented that morning, talking with Bill and Karen, that Lennon was one of the few radicals who had real money, what I then naively called “power money”. Hundreds of millions. Enough to push things in a real way. I didn’t even know about Lennon’s ties with the Black Panthers, or his connections with other radical political groups. But I knew his song, “Imagine”. That’s the kind of song that can make the powers that be a little nervous, for sure. That’s the kind of song that can get you killed.
I worked delivering flowers for my summer job after senior year in high school, back in 1974. It was a pretty cool job. I’d putter around the shop in the morning, help with cutting and arrangements. Then I’d load up the big white van with flowers and cruise through the suburban Maryland neighborhoods all afternoon dropping them off. People generally love getting flowers, so it wasn’t at all unpleasant like the door to door sales job I’d had the previous summer. But I did have to visit hospitals a lot, and also funeral homes.
One day I made a delivery to the base hospital on Fort Meade. Since my family lived on the base I had ID to come and go, so those were always my deliveries. I got onto the elevator to bring the flowers up to the room. As the doors closed I noticed the song playing on the Muzak speakers in the elevator. It was John Lennon’s “Imagine”, a song I knew by heart, though this was a weird, reedy, and almost unrecognizable version. Muzak was everywhere back then, and it was softly piping out of little speakers in the lobby and elevators and hallways throughout the hospital. I seldom noticed Muzak, which is part of its design, but I loved this song and recognized it right away. And I also recognized immediately the deep irony of hearing it there, on a military base with the Vietnam war still raging, there in the heart of the military/intelligence establishment, there in the very belly of the beast. Did anyone around me realize what they were listening to? I grinned as I walked through the halls, past all the men in uniform, with a bouquet of sweet flowers in my hand, singing along with the Muzak, “nothing to kill or die for…” “no need for greed nor hunger…”
That was more than 40 years ago. 37 since that night in New York when Lennon was murdered. Sadly, the same power, the same establishment, still rules our country, still wreaks death and havoc around the world, still rolls in its riches while greed and hunger prevail.
And yet, despite history, despite endless war and the growing poverty and homelessness I see all around me, John Lennon’s words can still lift my spirit. That is the power of art, the power of poetry, the power of song. I can still sing his words today, without irony, without despair. They still bring me hope, because they are still true. After all these years, I’m still a dreamer. You are welcome to say so, if you like. Yes, I’m still a dreamer, and I still think I’m not the only one.