Thirty years ago today John Lennon was murdered. I remember well how I found that out.
I was working as a D.J. at a college radio station. I had a late evening shift on Mondays, during which we had “album hour,” when we would play a new album all the way through, uninterrupted. On Monday night, December 8, 1980, I was playing Fleetwood Mac Live (a double album) when the bell on the ticker tape machine rang.
In those days, long before internet, we got the news over a ticker tape. It would periodically spit out the weather and news headlines. If a breaking news story was coming in, a bell would ring.
While I was sitting in the studio, studying and listening to the record, the bell rang. So I went back to the machine to check out the news. It was stunning. It said that there were reports that John Lennon had been shot outside his home in New York City. No word on his condition.
I wandered back to the studio in something of a haze. I was (and still am) a huge fan of John Lennon, both as an artist and a peace activist. I was unsure what I should do. I knew that many listeners taped the albums when we played them on album hour. I wasn’t sure if I should interrupt the record without knowing if the reports were accurate. As I sat there, wondering what to do and worrying about the report, I heard the ticker tape machine ring again. This time it rang three times. I’d never heard it do that before.
I hurried back to the machine and looked at the tape. On it were four words: “John Lennon shot dead.”
Thirty years later I still feel the tragedy of that night. John had just released a new record. He seemed happy and healthy. We can only guess at the great gifts to the world that were stolen that night by a deranged killer.
I stopped the Fleetwood Mac record. I broke the news to anyone who may have been tuned in. And I started playing Beatles records.
There is a bridge in Charlottesville that students regularly paint over, usually with birthday greetings, party announcements and the like. Painting the bridge is an old tradition. The paint on it is inches thick. Sometimes it will be painted over several times in a single night.
A friend of mine painted the bridge after John died. He painted it black except for the words: “John Lennon 1940-1980. This bird has flown.”
It was a simple but beautiful tribute to John. No one wanted to paint over it. It stayed up for weeks, which was far longer than I’d ever known that bridge to go without a new paint job. Even when someone finally did paint over it, they added an apology to John for having done so.
The Sunday after John’s murder I had a show that began at noon. I took over from the guy who did a Christian music show on Sunday mornings. Station protocol required that the outgoing D.J. cue up the first song of the next show. I handed him a John Lennon album. He looked at it contemptuously and said, “I don’t see why everyone thinks it’s such a big deal that John Lennon got killed.”
I was speechless. What do you say in response to something like that? How sad that someone could be so completely clueless and how sad that he could not appreciate the sadness the rest of us felt.
So I just asked him to cue up the first cut for me.
As his final song was winding down and he had said his goodbyes, he potted up the song I’d chosen to begin my show.