Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Thirty Years Later, John Lennon Is Still Dead - But His Music Isn't

foollenn2I'm old enough to remember where I was then I heard John Lennon had died. For that matter, I'm old enough to remember the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in the summer of 1964. I've been cruising YouTube and Google tonight for appropriate clips and tributes, and it occurs to me I should get something posted here before this 30th anniversary of his death passes.

Husband John's best friend from college (CGI wizard John Berton) called that night (the 8th) and said, "Lennon's been shot."

I couldn't believe it. "Is he all right?"

"He's dead."

It was a shock. I had been a Beatles fan most of my life, had done a report on them in high school, and had bought all of their LPs (except for Revolver, which I already owned) during high school and college. John had not only their commercial albums, but a number of bootlegs of their demos and studio sessions. We even had a large Beatles mirror hanging on our living room wall.

But Lennon was dead, and I was the co-owner/manager of a tiny Rock memorabilia store, Rockarama in Columbus Ohio. I had to do something in response to this horrific and life-changing event. Five years ago, I wrote about what happened next in my life, as a direct result of John Lennon's death:

Memories of December 9th
(reprinted from a post 5 years ago

On December 9th, 1980, I went to work as usual; but it was decidedly not an ordinary day.

My job at the time, such as it was, was as co-owner, manager and sole employee of Shirt Off My Back / Rockarama. The first part of the name was the original business, started by Kal and Larry in 1979. Yes, it was a used T-shirt shop. Kal and Larry also did computer portraits (primitive dot matrix portraits printed on cloth banners) at Lazarus and elsewhere on a seasonal basis.

I made about half of the buttons shown here.

We were next door to Mole's Used Records, so the rock and roll angle worked much better than the used shirts. We bought out Larry, and started carrying new rock T-shirts, posters, stickers, patches and buttons. I designed and made some of the buttons myself, while others came from suppliers in New York and London. Before we moved to a larger storefront, the place was crammed so full of all of these things, plus 45s and vintage rock collectibles, that our slogan was "A Lot of Stuff in a Tiny Room!"

John Lennon had spent half of the 1970s out of the public eye and away from recording studios, instead playing househusband to Yoko and father to little Sean. He was expected to reemerge around his birthday (and Sean's) in October, 1980. This was the meaning (or, at least, a meaning) of some buttons we had for sale, that simply said "Where's Lennon?" But John had recently relaunched his career on schedule, with the Double Fantasy LP and the hit single (Just Like) Starting Over. We knew where Lennon was, so those particular buttons were no longer topical as of early December 1980.

But the morning of December 9th, those buttons seemed to have a new and sadder meaning. People started coming in, looking for something to wear in memorial to him, and leaving with that button. So I used press-on lettering to design a new button: just the name John Lennon in white on a black background. I made about 75 or 100 of them, and gave them away. It didn't seem right to profit by his death.

Just a few weeks before that, I'd had a conversation with someone about every major rock band having at least one dead member. I figured at the time that the Beatles were "pre-disastered" (a Garp reference), because they'd met their dead member quota with Stu Sutcliffe, back in 1962. The rest of the Beatles weren't drug addicts (not anymore), and weren't likely to die of a brain hemorrhage (as Stu did), so they ought to be pretty safe. But it turned out I was wrong about that one.

Two other things happened at Rockarama on or about December 9th. One was a run-in with a couple of loud-mouthed college boys, who tried to get a rise out of me by saying they were glad John Lennon was dead. I kept my temper, and asked them to leave my store. They declined to leave on demand, but soon wandered off when I failed to entertain them further.

I wrote the cover story for this.

The other was a phone call with Toni from Relix, wholesale purveyors of rock buttons, Grateful Dead collectibles, and Relix Magazine. Toni told me she didn't have anyone to write a Lennon tribute for the next issue of Relix, which was going to press almost immediately. I offered to write it for her, and have it ready the next day. That little article was my first professional sale as a writer. I got paid $35.00 for it, and was glad to get it.

I remember other things from that tiny room, such as Mark Eitzel writing in his songs and poetry notebook in my store, back when his stage name was Billy Lee Buckeye. I remember that early on, I was so ignorant about 1970s rock that I didn't know Led Zeppelin was popular. I remember buying someone's vintage Beatles collection for about $75, including 1964 drinking glasses and bobbing head dolls. I didn't mean to cheat the guy; I just didn't realize the items were old, because they were in such great condition (and because a lot of the old stuff had been pirated in the 1970s). And I remember selling lots and lots of Pat Benatar posters, and buttons of Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Groovy times, man.

Rockarama moved onto 13th Ave. in 1981, and shut down in 1982. It never paid me more than lunch money and the occasional record or collectible. It didn't really break even, most of the time. We supported it by taking selected stock to record shows on weekends. Eventually I had to go get a real job. But heck, it was fun while it lasted. I have no regrets. Well, almost no regrets. Not about Rockarama itself.


That terrible, awful night still echoes across the intervening decades, like the final chord in A Day in the Life. It silenced John Lennon, ending a period of musical creativity shortly after it began, with no possibility of more brand new music to come. The much longed-for Beatles reunion happened only in the form of a posthumous collaboration, with Lennon's old bandmates adding on to a couple of his old demo recordings.

Amazingly and rather wonderfully, however, the musical legacy of John Lennon and the Beatles continues, even without John Lennon sitting at his piano or guitar. My husband published a handful of books about the Beatles in the late 1980s, written by the pseudonymous L R E King. The books were an attempt to catalog all the Beatle-related demos, live recordings, studio sessions, remixes and "outfakes" (recordings marketed by bootleggers as something they weren't) that had surfaced illegally. Much of the best material was later released legally, on The Beatles Anthology, Live at the BBC and so on. Nowadays, much of the information King worked so hard on is really available online. There is even sort-of-new material in the form of the Love album, plus gray market remixes and tributes.

And the Internet is such that tonight I've watched a 1966 video of Paperback Writer/Rain, which I probably first saw the night it aired on The Ed Sullivan Show. I've watched a 2007 live clip of a Beatles tribute band perform Hold My Hand, the Rutles song from 1978, which parodied the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan in 1964. I've read parts of a 1980 interview with Lennon that Rolling Stone just got around to publishing. All these years later, Lennon's legacy is as vital as ever.


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