Yes, it's the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's shooting, and yes, I remember quite clearly where I was at the time because I was a newspaper reporter and that was my beat: pop music.
The weird thing was, I knew Yoko Ono before I knew John Lennon. I used to scour the Village Voice for weird art and performance and music happenings when I was a junior high school student, and through that I wound up at the New York Avant-Garde Festival, held at Judon Hall, every year. I think it was curated by Charlotte Moorman, the "topless cellist," and I got to see a lot of fabulous performances there. Yoko I remember as a quiet, short woman selling books in the part of the hall where artists could sell their stuff (I signed up for the Fluxus Newsletter there, and still have a few of them), including a book called Grapefruit and also snippets from a reel of recording tape labelled "Snow Falling In Kyoto." She was selling it by the inch.
The two announced their partnership while I was at Rolling Stone, causing the first of what were to be many problems between me and editor/publisher/boy genius Jann Wenner. We were having an editorial meeting and he announced "I have news from London that John Lennon's going out with someone named Yoko Ono." I burst out "Yoko Ono's going out with John Lennon?" and Wenner sneered at me "Oh, I suppose you know who she is." I, being the naive 21-year-old I was, immediately launched into a description of her art and her background and so on, which I babbled out and then encountered a truly frosty silence from the boss. Some months later, the happy couple, smashed on heroin, visited the offices, and Wenner showed them around, introducing us to them, as in "and this is..." They were so out of focus, I'm still not convinced John actually saw me, or Yoko, either. I said hi, but he just grunted.
Ten years later, I was in Austin, Texas, working at the Austin American-Statesman, the local daily. The big issue in my pop music world at that point was a very delicate issue. Armadillo World Headquarters, the local psychedelic dungeon (a former National Guard armory), one with a really amazing booking policy, was going to be demolished to make way for...well, maybe a hotel. Actually, nobody knew. There was amazing opposition in the community, but I was under strict orders not to editorialize about it, probably because there was some corrupt connection between the owners of the paper and the developers who were grabbing the land. Instead, I made sure I covered it as thoroughly as I could and tried to slant my coverage in a way that I quoted others saying what I felt about this destruction of an important local cultural institution.
The Armadillo, though, was doomed by December, 1980, and had booked its last month of concerts, and I was out covering an Asleep At The Wheel/Charlie Daniels Band show when someone found me in the crowd and told me that Lennon had been shot. I think I was waiting to interview Charlie Daniels, but I remember going backstage and making excuses to someone, and telling Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson what I'd heard. Then I jumped in my car, went to the newsroom, and watched the feed coming in off the wires. When it appeared they had the shooter in hand and had locked him up, I went home, grabbed a couple hours' sleep, and then commenced telephoning people I knew in England to get comments.
My first victim was my old pal Pete Frame, he of Rock Family Trees fame, and after he got over his shock, he gave me some phone numbers of people who should know. I called a number of people in Liverpool, and managed to find Echo and the Bunnymen's bassist, Les Pattinson, who gave me a really good, moving quote as to how Liverpool's younger generation felt about Lennon as both a figure they resented and rejected, but also someone who, after they got their feet a bit wet in the music business, they came to admire. I ran into work with my notebook bulging, made a few more calls, and wrote up what I thought was a first-rate story. What did the paper do? They hid it way in the back pages, and didn't even put it out on the wires. That may have been the day I decided that busting my butt for those people was, perhaps, a losing proposition, a conclusion I'd certainly reached a couple of years later.
As for me, I wasn't so much devastated by Lennon's death -- I'd long considered him a self-indulgent songwriter on his own, and one who certainly wouldn't have had as much attention paid to him if he hadn't been an ex-Beatle -- as I was by the way it went down. By then, I'd been around the pop business long enough to know plenty of obsessives, pepole who maybe weren't right in the head, but had their useful side when it came to finding out stuff about whichever personality they were obesessed by, even though you tried to get the info and get the hell away before their vibe leached off onto you. I'd never met one with a gun before, and that was the part that got to me.
I've mellowed slightly in my feelings about Lennon, but I remain firm in believing that groups are more than the sum of their parts, and leaving for a solo career, nine times out of ten, means that the quality of your art is about to go down precipitously. None of the ex-Beatles were close to what they'd been as Beatles. That includes John, his posthumous deification notwithstanding. And since I know that's going to piss people off, I invite the pissed-off to examine their relationship to nostalgia, the most destructive and limiting way to look at art you've experienced, since it usually means you've found a way to seal yourself off from the reality of both the art of the past and of the present.
Beware geeks with guns, and remember John by going to a show or buying a record by someone who's following in his footsteps right now. I think he'd appreciate it.