Author: Campbell, Bruce

A Day That Lives in Infamy

Warning - no bluegrass content, but still about music

For me, December 8th is a day that will live in infamy. I know it doesn’t compare to the historical and national significance of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. But I wasn’t born until almost 17 years after Pearl Harbor. I understand, intellectually, how the events of that date affected history forever, but the events of that don’t have a personal emotional resonance with me.

But December 8th, 1980 has a huge, lasting emotional effect on me – it was the day that John Lennon was killed. Like many of my generation, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was watching Monday Night Football with some friends, when Howard Cosell cut in to report the news that John Lennon had been shot. I was shocked, but hoped he’d have a speedy recovery. John Lennon had recently jumped back into the spotlight after years of self-imposed obscurity, and his new album (“Double Fantasy”) was doing well in the charts. It was simply not conceivable that Lennon would die.

But die he did, and as the facts unfolded, it seemed all the more senseless. Lennon wasn’t robbed – he was gunned down in front of his apartment building by a mad man, who was trying to impress Jody Foster. Lennon was chosen as a victim simply because he was the most famous person the killer knew how to find.

For many years, John Lennon was arguably the most famous person in the world – famous to a degree that simply could not have occurred in an earlier part of history. The Beatles’ arrival was part of a perfect storm – an unlikely confluence of a fallow period in popular music, a baby boom that created a huge potential fan base, hungry for music that they could claim as their own, and the emergence of technology that could deliver the sights and sounds of music all over the world, very quickly.

There’s another important part of this historical sequence of events – the Beatles had talent -- transcendental talent. Their singing, playing and songwriting skills were nearly impossible to deny, and I would argue that the years that have passed since then prove how true this is. Their influence on popular music is still felt, from guitar sounds, to harmonies, chord structures and even fashion. The media of the day fed us nonstop images and sounds of the “Fab Four”, we lapped it up.

But the loveable moptops were all really just human beings, with all the complexity that entails. John Lennon came from a very dysfunctional background and suffered from self doubt and insecurities that manifested themselves in contradictory ways. He was a brave crusader for peace and love, but got into senseless fights, and was capable of a very cruel brand of humor. He liked the bully pulpit of fame, but was hurt when his words were misconstrued or misunderstood. Eventually, the Beatles collapsed under the overwhelming weight of fame after a relatively short career.

Lennon continued to struggle with his personal demons, mostly away from the glare of the public spotlight. After some painful missteps, he found his peace, in retirement as a “housefather”. For 6 or so years, he was first and foremost, a husband and father (a very wealthy one), and concentrated on savoring the family life he never had known in his own childhood. As he neared his fortieth birthday, he reached a point where he felt he could resume his career as an artist without jeopardizing his family, and began an ambitious set of recordings with plans for a world tour to support them.

For many of us, the sounds of “Double Fantasy” were a thrill – hearing John Lennon do his rock’n’roll thing again was very comforting. And true to John’s irascible spirit – half the album was Yoko’s songs, and it dared you to try and find a comfort level with her vision, as well. It was awful hard not to root for the Lennons. You may not want to buy into their musical vision, but a musical landscape with John Lennon is vastly more interesting that without him.

Mark David Chapman, in a single deranged act, robbed the musical landscape of any future surprises from John Lennon. And every December 8th, I get choked up thinking about what might have been. John Lennon was no saint, but he had the courage of his convictions. Although he took a lot of wrong turns, he also gave the world some wonderful lasting art. It’s a terrible shame he didn’t get to do more.

Posted:  12/8/2010

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