By Jim Downing
Monday, 08 December 2008
At 33 years old, December 1980 had already been the worst year of my
life and it was soon to get much worse. Losing two jobs, divorced,
arrested, and moving were all at the top of my stress
list. Developing a long dormant taste for alcohol and other drugs, I
wasn't eating well or getting enough rest. My father was dying and
he knew it. He didn't know how long, but was actually starting to
get anxious about getting it over with; something I had never before
understood. My dreams were shattered, but I was in a band again,
Flying Horse, and we were recording an album.
That December evening it was cold, but not bitterly. I was writing
my journal at Dad's kitchen table, using his venerable L.C. Smith
typewriter with a nameplate "Big Iron" riveted to the front that the
guys down at The Tribune had done. It was the one he used on staff
there for many years. Nursing a glass of wine, I had Monday Night
Football on because the news would be next when suddenly I heard the
tone of Howard Cosell's voice change:
"I have some very bad news here. My good friend John Lennon has been
shot and killed in front of his apartment at the Dakota by Central
Park in New York City. Police are looking for a deranged local man."
I felt my whole body slump as I was covered with goose bumps. This
could NOT be true. No one would want to kill John Lennon. He was
one of the most harmless people on earth. But if Cosell interrupted
the sacred football game to announce it, it must be true.
It was on the news shortly thereafter. After the news I turned on
KMOD and they were already starting a marathon of nothing but John
Lennon songs; Beatles and solo work. They updated the reports as
more information became available.
He was taken to the hospital in a police car with several gunshot
wounds to the chest and probably died in the car. A policeman asked
if he knew his name and he said "Yeah, I'm John Lennon." Those were
probably his last words. Doctors had tried to revive him but there
was nothing they could do. He had already lost too much blood. The
gunman was arrested at the scene where he sat reading "The Catcher In
The Rye." He had gotten Lennon's autograph hours earlier. I rolled
tape on the radio broadcast. I taped about six hours of it.
Dad came home and saw that I'd been crying. It may seem silly, but I
couldn't help it. I only cried for a celebrity one other time in my
life and that was when Jimi Hendrix died.
"You're crying because a famous musician died?" Dad asked incredulously.
"He was one of my heroes, Dad" was the only explanation I could offer.
"I see. All right. Yes, I can understand that." he conceded. He truly
If you're under forty, you don't remember The Beatles when they were
the most vital popular music of their time. It might be safe to say
they were the most significant popular musicians of ANY time. Their
albums are all still available and their first one has been out now
for 45 years. I know of no other 1963 album that is still in print.
It's rare that one isn't deleted in three years these days.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote just over 200 songs together.
Many musical acts have put out more songs than that, but the
Lennon-McCartney catalog is one of the most varied in existence. How
do you classify a song like "Eleanor Rigby"? This is from a rock
band? They did start out rocking, even filling up their third album
with old tunes like "Long Tall Sally" and "Roll Over Beethoven". They
covered Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, even Motown. The Stones were doing
Howlin' Wolf songs and The Beatles were doing "Till There Was You"
from "The Music Man". Paul even said on the back of Meet The Beatles
"Our music is not exactly Rock And Roll..."
Rock And Roll in the early days was American, specifically from the
south; Memphis, Texas & Louisiana. There was oily Doo-Wop from New
York and there were sanitized manufactured Elvis clones from
Philadelphia. Their music was as flaccid as Elvis' post-army dreck.
Girl groups and Surf music were about the rockingest things going on
in 1963, with the outstanding exception of Lonnie Mack.
I remember when I first heard The Beatles. It was "I Want To Hold
Your Hand"; still one of their best songs. I was struck by the odd
tones of the guitars, the emphatic urgency of the playing, and above
all, the grit and powerful harmony of John and Paul. The chord
progression was odd for a guitar band. (The Cars stole it for "Just
What I Needed", by the way.) And I thought to myself: "Well I like
it, but I doubt that anyone else will." Of course I hadn't seen them yet.
The hair had a lot to do with it, as did the clothes. True, they
were wearing suits, but they weren't ordinary suits. They didn't
stand like they were modeling suits either; they had the posture of
bikers or Elvises. My dad thought they must be queers. Only queers
had long hair. Teenage girls thought they were cute and cuddly and sexy.
Teenage girls went nuts.
Of course, teenage girls had gone nuts for Frank Sinatra and Elvis,
but now they had four guys to go nuts over. Beatlemania was the
ultimate in female teenage lunacy. It still happens now and then to
some degree, but it hit its apogee in 1964.
The pill brought about women's lib, the sexual revolution. Teenage
girls are not as repressed now as they were in those days, so they
don't get caught up in the teen idol scenario as much as they used
to. The counterculture revolution The Beatles helped instigate
actually helped put an end to the type of fanatic phenomenon that
propelled them to the top.
The Hippies embraced the free love concept from the original
Bohemians of Paris in the 20s, but the pill allowed it to expand
exponentially. The Hippies were philosophical descendants of the
Beats, but they had psychedelics to increase their kicks. Joseph
Campbell regards the Hippie phenomenon as a cultural revolution, but
I think it was the beginning of a spiritual revolution. America is a
religious melting pot too. Beatniks and Hippies explored other
religions and philosophies such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Tao, Zen and
Existentialism. The Beatles helped create the Hippie
culture. Surely the "anything goes" fashion of long hair and wild
clothes began in swinging London. The most psychedelic places,
however, were ultimately San Francisco and Greenwich Village.
It was John who started The Beatles, named them, had the big dreams
and ideals for them, urged them on, and ultimately ended them. He
was the ringleader. "Where are we going, boys?" he would ask them.
"To the topper-most of the popper-most, Johnny" they answered in unison.
They got tight playing twelve hours a day seven days a week in filthy
bars in Hamburg for weeks on end. They drank and ate speed and lived
in squalor on the sleaziest streets in Europe, playing American Rock
And Roll for pimps, whores, thugs and junkies. It was more fun than
poor British boys ever thought they could have. In England, there is
little chance to rise above the level of prosperity you're born
into. They had greasy pompadours, dressed all in leather and smoked
cigarettes on stage.
By the time they were packaged as the Mop Tops, they had already been
through quite a bit of depravity and were actually quite
street-wise. The raw energy of those low-rent footloose days was
carried into the sterile London studios in songs like "Long Tall
Sally" and later "I'm Down."
Recently "In My Life" by John (from "Rubber Soul") was named the
greatest pop song of the last 40 years. John probably started
psychedelic music with "Tomorrow Never Knows" on Revolver. Before "A
Day In The Life" was released as a single, newspapers all over the
world were writing about it. When was the last time a pop song was
worthy of a news article in the front pages?
Initially I was not impressed that much with their musicianship. The
guitar solos were pedestrian. The bass on the records was
uneven. The cymbals were too loud. But the songs were extremely
clever. Just the intro of that first song I heard had me scratching
my head for days figuring out how that extra eighth note got in
there; they started on the "and" of "three!"
You often hear that one week in April 1964 The Beatles held all the
top five spots on the Billboard chart. You don't usually hear that
they were number one for months with song after song, holding the top
two or three spots or having six of the top ten at once.
Forty years later, no musical act has even come close to being that
popular. Maybe Garth or Michael sold more copies of one record, but
will those records still be selling in forty years? It's not likely.
The Beatles brought about a rebirth of Rock And Roll, and they also
helped to kill it. They brought all kinds of music into it;
orchestral, folk, polkas, hillbilly, electronics, nonmusical
sounds. Everything became "Rock" and there was very little left of
Rock And Roll.
"Their amazingly inventive song writing aside, you're unlikely to
ever find another band with TWO singers as good as John and Paul,"
said George Martin.
Lennon could draw, play, act, write ridiculous hilarious poetry,
compose, write songs and sing. Egad,could he sing. He was quick
witted and almost a standup improv comic in interviews. He embraced
noble causes, asked deep philosophical questions, spoke his mind and
even turned away from the artifice of show business for years to have
a real life. He got over himself.
When he sang I almost felt his voice coming from my own chest and
throat. That was how my voice should sound. His songs were my
songs, where I could share his feelings and he could feel mine. A
lot of us felt that way. Rarely does a popular artist speak to and
for a generation. The Beatles reflected their times but they also
had the largest influence in shaping those times. They went from a
simple tight little bar band writing catchy ditties to serious
musical artists blending many musical forms and creating new ones.
There are so many great Beatles songs, most fans are overwhelmed at
trying to name their favorite.
Not me. I can answer that in a half a second. "I Am The Walrus" is
a song that practically exists in it's own universe. Never before
was there a song anything like that or a musical construction so
bizarre. It starts with Ray Charles electric piano sound and in
comes Lennon's distorted voice (which sounded naturally distorted
anyway) like a European siren. The chord progression sounds as if it
were pulled out of a hat. It culminates with sound effects and
elements of music concrete pioneered by musical eggheads like
Stockhausen and Cage.
John's life had been hard from the beginning. He had no father and
an estranged mother who was run over by a drunk driver when he was
ten. He came from nowhere and rose to the heights of the material
world, yet his success did not kill him. He went beyond the
pleasures of the flesh and into the realm of spiritual values. He
may have been sarcastic and skeptical at times, but he wasn't ultimately mean.
He was a seeker, a thought-provoking Shaman Troubadour. He affected
millions of us and left us some great memories. There won't be
another one like him.
I recently saw a twenty-something-rocker on Politically Incorrect who
said "I think pop music has sucked for the last twenty years."
Perhaps it was twenty-eight years ago today ... the day the music died.
About the author:
A working Tulsa musician and writer Jim Downing has often been
featured in Tulsa Today. To see all of his work, use the site search
feature by entering Downing. (Ok, so some Downing Street political
stuff may display, but ignore that – we're talking music
here.) Downing's columns have included his discovery of the first
place Bob Wills played in Tulsa, "Musical Hallowed Ground Found" and
a series on Tulsa's unique historic contributions to the
international music scene and a tribute to Rockin' John Henry.