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Archive for Thursday, November 24, 2005

Imagine: Annniversary looms for horrible night no rock fan can ever forget

November 24, 2005

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— The song was only six years old, but might just as well have been 60.

Walking out of a college dormitory after visiting a friend one December night 25 years ago, I heard John Lennon's sweet song of longing, "9 Dream," wafting out from an open door. It sounded wonderful. It sounded odd.

Why would a radio station or stereo be playing that? So much had happened since. Disco. Punk rock. Lennon had reconciled with Yoko Ono after a separation and was only then beginning to publicly emerge from a period where he concentrated on home life more than music. I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard the song.

I walked home. Then, when I saw a cluster of friends quietly gathered around a television set, the reason became sickeningly apparent.

It was Dec. 8, 1980. A mentally disturbed fan who had collected Lennon's autograph earlier in the day waited outside of the Manhattan apartment building called the Dakota for the singer to return from a recording session. Mark David Chapman opened fire. Lennon didn't survive the trip to the hospital.

The musical hero of a generation was dead, and anyone who had ever sang along to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or chanted "give peace a chance" also remembers where they were when they heard the news.

In his typically blunt manner, Lennon had told Beatles fans a decade earlier that "the dream is over."

Now it really was.

Personal recollections

Twenty-five years later, the day stands as a cultural black hole. Lennon became an instant legend, even more so than before, but it was hardly worth the price. Millions of people who never met him felt they knew him, felt they knew all the Beatles. His music often felt like personal letters; on "Watching the Wheels" he explained why he needed to step off the merry-go-round of stardom. A friend was gone.

"I still miss him massively," former songwriting partner Paul McCartney told The Associated Press. "It was a horrific day for all of us."

That night, an ambitious young woman who had just moved to New York to make it as a singer or dancer was out walking a few blocks from Lennon's home on the Upper West Side. She heard the sirens, saw a crowd beginning to gather. A curious Madonna joined them outside the Dakota.

"I remember walking up and going 'What's going on? What's going on?"' she recalled. "And they said John Lennon was shot. It was so weird."

Madonna was a toddler during the feverish days of Beatlemania. But she later recorded Lennon's utopian vision of a peaceful world, "Imagine," which has matured into an anthem and, 25 years from now, will likely be Lennon's best-remembered song.

Another version of "Imagine," by country singer Dolly Parton, is in music stores now. In her own tribute, Parton shot part of a video for the song in Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial for Lennon. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot the Dakota in the background.

Parton had been on a plane from Nashville to Los Angeles the night Lennon was shot. She was supposed to go out with friends, but instead they all went to her house to watch the news and talk about it. "Everyone was so heartbroken," she said.

"Like all young teenage girls back then, I fell in love with the Beatles," she said. "Back there in the Smoky Mountains, it was like something had been dropped from outer space."

Also in California, rock singer John Fogerty felt the loss of a kindred spirit. In 1969, Fogerty's band Creedence Clearwater Revival had sold more records than the Beatles, then an astonishing accomplishment. But both men spent the latter half of the 1970s publicly silent; Fogerty because of a business dispute, Lennon because he was "watching the wheels."

"I thought about him every day because he was that important to me," he said. "I was still a recluse but I was working on music in some fashion every day, and I would say to myself, 'I wonder what John Lennon is doing?' For several years we didn't hear from him and I would always think about that fact."

Singer Neil Diamond had been in New York that December night for the premiere of his movie "The Jazz Singer."

Diamond had been a struggling songwriter when the Beatles hit. No one was interested in hearing him sing. No one was particularly interested in his creativity, either: They just wanted him to churn out songs that sounded like current hits. The Beatles made it standard for musicians to interpret their own songs, and to experiment.

"Aside from being broken-hearted about the loss of this man, I felt I owed him something," he said. "My life would not have been the same without the Beatles."

Lennon's music has even touched artists who weren't alive when he was, like 21-year-old singer Patrick Stump of the hit pop-punk band Fall Out Boy.

"It is like the Bible," he said. "You can't cite it without sounding cliched, but here's the thing, there's a reason why it's so citable like that. His body of work was so interesting and had so many valid points."

Frozen in time

What has the world missed in 25 years without John Lennon?

Yoko Ono has grown old without a husband; she still lives in the Dakota and is the caretaker of the work he left behind. Sean Lennon grew up without a dad. He's tried music, too.

John's legacy remains frozen in time and, like James Dean's or Kurt Cobain's, burnished by sudden death far too young. Lennon didn't grow old in the spotlight, didn't have to contend with tired "steel wheelchairs" jokes like his peers in the Rolling Stones. He didn't have to watch his talent fade, his instincts betray him or hear the whispers that he'd lost it. McCartney could tell him a few things about that.

It's impossible to predict from his catalogue where his muse would have taken him.

Truth be told, his track record as a solo artist was wildly uneven in style and quality. The brutal confessional of "The Plastic Ono Band" was followed by the perfectly polished "Imagine." There's the leftist screeds in "Some Time in New York City," the tired wistfulness on "Walls and Bridges" and the domesticated work he made at the end.

By moving to New York and walking the streets, Lennon always seemed more accessible, more human than his peers, Light said. No one had more reason to fear the warped effect of fandom than the four men who lived through the hysteria of Beatlemania. Living outside of a bubble made Lennon a target.

Chapman remains in New York's Attica state prison, where his third request for parole was denied in October. Ono wrote to the parole board urging he not be released. Chapman won't be eligible for parole again for two years.

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