Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon the day before my tenth birthday.
News of Lennon’s death interrupted evening TV viewing—we were likely watching Monday Night Football http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n73GFvAyIjs – and then shifted by degrees to live broadcasts in front of the Dakota Apartments, where he was gunned down, and in Central Park where throngs of the distressed gathered to mourn.
I remember standing beside the television (I can still feel our retched carpet beneath my toes) as the cameras panned along the ever-growing crowd. People now had signs—the most famous asking the single but essential question WHY?--and were weeping with naked despair.
I had never experienced anything like it.
And without knowing what I was doing, or why I was doing it, I vowed to continue doing Lennon’s work.
Anyway, I knew well who John Lennon was; he was the singer of my favorite rock band. I grew up with the ‘post-LSD’ Beatles harmonizing my ears, and ‘Abbey Road’ was the soundtrack of ages 0-5. (‘Abbey’ is still, because everything is all about me all of the time, my favorite Beatles album.) I favored studying the record covers of the earlier Beatles releases because of the moody, clean-cut images (Yes, I know that in the mid-60s those Beatles haircuts were considered shaggy but by the early 70s, those mop tops were practically flat-tops.)
I doubt I’m the only child born of hippies that found aesthetic solace in the sharp styles and clear lines of the 50s and early 60s. In the 70s there was just so much…hair.
Not unrelated: My parents were Southern California surfer hippies (this genus of hippie did in fact exist), and Lennon and Yoko Ono guided their lifestyles. All those tired clichés of the 60s—the peace activism (which in my parents' peer group was mostly draft dodging the war in Vietnam), the drugs, the sexual mores—this was where I grew up. Lennon and Ono together served as an oracle sending messages from on high. Such singular cultural influence is difficult to imagine now, but there was a reason that Lennon hid away in the mid-1970s – when everyone is hanging on your every whim and word, living with that responsibility is daunting if not crushing.
Back to that ten year old at the television. I felt loss. Not only for myself but for my parents. The silence in the room was telling. I knew I was in the midst of an important moment, and I responded in the way a child on the cusp of moving into double-digit age would: with a ridiculous pronouncement I couldn’t possibly live up to.
And yet, Lennon’s life and death still shadow my days. Especially my birthday. He was there for me as a teenager when I needed a roguish father figure to tell me that living an artistic life was possible. He was there for me when Christianity failed to provide me with a satisfying spiritual vocabulary. He was there to instruct me how to articulate my feelings about my conflicted relationship with my own mother, with my own distant father. When my own two sons were born, he was there with perhaps the best parenting advice I’ve received: be there. No matter how you’re feeling in the moment, just be there.
One of my all-time favorite comic book writers JM Dematteis has an amazing account of actually meeting Lennon http://www.jmdematteis.com/2010/04/meeting-lennon-part-one.html that speaks so well to the level of obsessive personal worship and shiny-eyed fandom each of us has for the man. It’s impossible not to feel like we knew him, that he was right here next to us up until the moment when Chapman stole him away.
It’s probably a cliché at this point to acknowledge that I’ve now lived longer than Lennon. And that in that time I’ve accomplished far, far less as an artist. But there it is. I can’t say that I became a writer because of that day in 1980, but then again, that damned ten year old probably knew what he was doing when he committed us to a creative path we couldn’t possibly complete and one that we can’t possibly deny.
Rest well, John.