Remembering Johnnie

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It was my nightly ritual, lying in bed in the dark listening to the radio.

Still in high school and living at home, I had finally exercised some autonomy by moving my bedroom to the basement of our townhouse, two full floors from the rest of the family. It was my sanctuary, surrounded by my books, my mattress resting on the floor, the sounds of Toronto’s 1050 CHUM filling the room, disturbing no one.

The music stopped, as it often would for commercial breaks, but this time for a news announcement. Odd for this time of night.

“Reports are coming in that John Lennon has been shot and killed outside of his Dakota apartment in New York City.”

The air then hung silent—for a moment, a minute, an hour, I can’t say for certain—and then the room filled with the simple piano chords that start the song Imagine.

I knew of John Lennon, at that point in my life. Knew his songs from years of listening to the radio.

And I was well aware of The Beatles; from their music, their movies and even the lesser remembered cartoon series of my childhood.

But where my awareness of John Lennon and The Beatles had been a passive thing up to that dark night of December 8, 1980, something changed in me upon learning that Lennon was dead. A fire to understand, to turn my awareness into knowledge, to experience more kindled inside me, overtaking me.

The world had lost a beautiful, elegant poet who I was later to learn could also be a fragile, ego-centric asshole.

The world had lost a magnificent artist who stood atop a mountain of pain, grief, anger, vindictiveness and sorrow.

And in a Lennon-esque stroke of irony, the world had lost a man who had finally come to grips with his frailties, who had finally learned to express love and not just demand it, who could offer his talents to the world as a gift and not a response.

Although at times I found myself worshipping John Lennon as a god, I now remember the artist as a man.

Later tonight, I will play Imagine and I will remember.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Remembering to Imagine

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I had just moved my bedroom to the basement of the townhouse we lived in. The lights were off as I lie on the mattress listening to the radio. I can’t remember what I was thinking of, but it probably had something to do with my next day at school, Grade 12 at White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville, Ontario.

As a song ended, the announcer came on the air to deliver the fateful news that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside of his home at the Dakota Apartments in New York City. Details were sketchy at that exact moment, so the announcer simply put on the song Imagine.

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For every way that the death of Elvis Presley affected my mother just three years earlier, the murder of John Lennon felt that much bigger for me.

Not quite old enough to have been impacted by Beatlemania the first time through, I had fond memories of The Beatles cartoon, the movie Help, and the bajillion songs that the four band mates had produced together and in solo ventures. To this day, I cannot see Ringo Starr without thinking back to the movies Caveman or The Magic Christian.

But with the murder of John Lennon, my fondness became a mania as I started to realize what I had largely missed in only listening to pop radio and watching late night movies. I set out immediately to learn everything I could about the man and the band. If nothing else, this instantly made birthday and Christmas present buying so much easier for those around me.

Within a few years, the can-do-no-wrong mania tempered into an acknowledgement that these were not gods, but brilliant artists with all the flaws that go with being humans under a microscope.

I don’t like a lot of the music John Lennon produced, but what I do like, I adore. The man was an absolute prick at the best of times, and yet I could see where some of that came from as I learned his life story. Had we ever known each other, I seriously doubt he and I would have been friends. Our personalities simply would not have meshed.

But none of that takes away from the wonders of his music and his poetry.

Thirty-four years later, I still have reason to weep in the dark for my loss, but thankfully, 34 years later, I still have your art to refill the broken heart.