If you didn’t see the PBS documentary or the Rolling Stone cover or any of the other reminders, the occasional John Lennon tune on the radio during morning drive today would have been the tipoff that 30 years has passed since he was shot and killed in New York City.
I worked in radio for 22 years before getting into print. On Dec. 8, 1980, I was with WLYX, FM 89, a radio station at what was then Southwestern at Memphis. We were on the fourth floor of the gymnasium and I wasn’t on the air but in the production room doing what I normally did in those days – listening to everything new on vinyl that I could get my hands on. We had all of it that we could handle and more.
Next to me in the other studio, Clay Yager was on air doing his weekly jazz show. I was popping in and out to grab a few albums at a time from the station’s massive record library that occupied one entire room across the hall and the back wall of the on air studio.
For some reason, I took a break and decided to flip on the ABC radio network to see what was happening. We were an ABC radio affiliate and so in the studio, I could bring up the network line and hear all of their newscasts, not just the one we aired at 15 past the hour every hour. We also had a cue channel where a behind the scenes ABC voice would tell you what the lead story was coming up or if there was something unexpected coming up. Today we would call it breaking news. Then it was a bulletin.
There was nothing on the network feed at the time, so I brought up the cue channel just in time to hear the alternating tones indicating a bulletin was about to go on the air and the person on the other end speaking over the tones was saying John Lennon had been shot. I got Clay’s attention by waving my hands but I think he was already hearing the same thing. And then the voice repeating the gist of what was about to go on the air changed and said he was dead and repeated it again with a mix of directness and surprise. It’s hard to describe 30 years later.
It was 1980 and while we thought information moved fast it was pretty slow compared to now. I wrote up a longer take on it that incorporated much of what I had read in the recent interviews Lennon had done to promote his new record and his return to music.
It was basically all from memory and when it came to The Beatles, those in my age group, had total recall about the most inane bits of knowledge about the band. I remember during one of those breaks summarizing what had happened and what we knew from the wire service reports for those just making it in from the evening out.
Three decades later my thoughts tend to be about more than the event. They are about the way we were and how different we are all this time later.
Today, music is more companion than leader – more intimate than anthemic. We tend to identify with it on a more intimate basis, I think.
Even a band as big as U2 is conscious about not appearing to take itself too seriously on a continuous basis.
And as someone who probably lost some of his hearing to its pursuit, we don’t follow music as closely as we did way back then. We like more distance – more perspective.
I have to confess, I wasn’t a big fan of the Double Fantasy album that came out just before Lennon was shot – didn’t dislike it, just didn’t hear anything that grabbed me the first or second time around.
Much of it was personal, but if John Lennon was anything he was someone who reflected his times as well as influenced them. That was the big message he had as he turned 40. The two ways that he had an impact on millions of other lives may have reached a comfortable balance for him at about this time 30 years ago.