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Monday, December 08, 2008


NOTE : every word of the following story is true (or rather remembered as exactly as humanly possible given that nearly three decades have elapsed since it happened), and if you find some of it offensive at this late date, imagine being in my shoes at age fifteen!

December 8th, 1980-

It was the start of my tenth grade school day morning and I was disgruntled (as usual) at being denied sleep and instead being herded along with the rest of the cattle at Staples High School into yet another inane class. The first item of regurgitation/education of the morning was English with Mr. Dyskolos (not his real name; changed for reasons soon to be apparent), a late-forty-something red-headed guy who then looked like what Danny Bonaduce looks like today who was also among the minute handful of teachers whose classes would keep students awake because he was genuinely interesting, did not talk down to the kids and had not allowed the thankless teaching system to beat him down and force him to consider his job a mocking reminder of wage-slavery (I'm the son of a teacher, so I speak with a working knowledge of such things).

As the students took their chairs we all noticed that Mr. Dyskolos's usual laid-back manner seemed somewhat "off" that morning and after nearly a minute of total silence as he stared into space as though contemplating some cosmic truth or inevitability, he suddenly focused himself, looked at us and said, as serious as a heart attack, "By the look of you, you haven't heard what happened this morning. I'll just get right to it. John Lennon, de facto leader of the Beatles, was shot dead by some lunatic fan." Most of the class had indeed not heard about Lennon's murder, and those of us who hadn't, myself among them, were stunned. But before the horrible truth could fully set in, Mr. Dyskolos continued. "You kids probably know a lot about the Beatles from what your parents or maybe your older brothers and sisters played for you, but you can't even begin to imagine the worldwide pop culture impact those guys had at the time. Obviously I was there for the 1960's and can tell you firsthand what it was like, but I'm gonna spare you that nauseating, self-indulgent trip down memory lane. I guarantee you that all your other teachers are going to suspend actual teaching for the day and drag you along for their reminiscences of their flower-power salad days, but I'm not gonna do that to you. Instead, I'm gonna tell you a few truths that you won't hear anywhere else in this school, or damn near anywhere else, on what's gonna no doubt be a day of worldwide mourning."

He leaned forward in his chair, his face a mask of utmost solemnity, and uttered words that blew the minds of the roomful of privileged suburban white kids (and me): "The Beatles sucked. They were a bunch of marginally talented 'heads' who started out ripping off the work of their black American influences and made a hell of a lot of money for no good reason, killing real rock 'n' roll in the process and unleashing legions of even less-talented imitators in that godawful British Invasion nonsense. And then they went to India, supposedly to gain 'enlightenment' or some other George Harrison-inspired bee-ess, but if you ask me all it did was make their music more annoying." To emphasize that point of criticism, Mr. Dyskolos began making a nasal and high-pitched "neeeeeeer neeeeeer neeeeeeeeeee neeeer" sound by way of approximating the tones of a sitar.

By this point in his diatribe you could have heard an amoeba fart. Young eyes practically bugged out of their sockets and jaws had fallen into laps. This was rock 'n' roll blasphemy in the extreme, and on the morning of the senseless slaughter of a man held by most in the room to be a hero of peace, love and great music, no less. Our worlds were shaken to the core. And then Mr. Dyskolos continued, still looking solemn, but his mouth betrayed a slight half-smile as he was very obviously enjoying his class' speechless outrage.

"Then they put out that asinine White Album that had exactly two good songs on it — 'Birthday" and 'Back in the U.S.S.R.,' and those two were good because they sound like actual rock 'n' roll! — and had the fucking unbelievable nerve to include that 'Revolution 9' horseshit! What the hell was that? (assumes comedic Liverpudlian accent) 'Noombuh nine? Noombuh nine?' What a load of crap! I'm telling you kids right here and now, remember how 'deep' that bullshit is when you decide to give acid a try!" (NOTE: this was the first time I ever hear a teacher curse when not discussing some of the content in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.)

Before he could say another word, Mr. Dyskolos was cut off and drowned out by an aural assault of irate dissenting opinion, his every word being tarred as the rantings of an anti-peace & love curmudgeon who "just didn't get it." "Who do you think you are???" shrieked several of my classmates. "The Beatles were the most important band in history! John Lennon and Paul McCartney were two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived! Are you crazy?" Dyskolos responded with a sneer that would have done Vincent Price proud and uttered my favorite comeback heard in all of my teenage years, whether I agreed with him or not: "What the hell did they ever write that was worth a goddamn? 'We all live in a yellow submarine?' Puh-leeeeze. The only reason you kids enshrine those hacks is because of nostalgia filtered down from parents who were barely your age when the Beatles showed up and absorbed by the general public and your older brothers and sisters who used that garbage as a soundtrack for when they'd sneak off to smoke weed in the back of a van. Which also explains how anybody could ever find the stomach to listen to those Doors assholes! Face it, kids. For some of what are supposed to be this country's brightest young minds, you sure are a bunch of programmed parrots!" And when one of the students blurted out that John Lennon was a symbol of "give peace a chance," our sage teacher batted that one aside with "You've obviously never heard about the time when Mr. Give Peace A Chance went to some club and hung out with a Kotex stuck to his forehead," a then-shocking truth that only elicited more teenage keening.

That was the real meat of it but the back and forth ranting went on for the class' full hour, with order barely being restored with the ringing of the bell marking the rotation to the next class. Each of my classmates and I zombied off to the next class and swiftly discovered that Mr. Dyskolos had been correct in his auguring; indeed, each and every teacher I had to endure for the rest of the day derailed the planned curriculum in favor of rose-colored reminiscences of "a more innocent time" full of free love, "the people getting together, man!"and how the Beatles were the troubadours that saw them through all of it and changed to reflect the time. That was all well and good in theory, but not for hours on end as heard from speakers of wildly varying levels of eloquence (to say nothing of interest), with lunch being the only respite from what was essentially the same story only with the most minor of variations.

When the day finally ended I headed downtown to do my volunteer teaching of a cartooning class at the local YMCA and the journey allowed me some time to process the events of the day and the "truths" imparted. I'd grown up liking the Beatles quite a lot but didn't own any of their albums thanks to their many hits being available in endless rotation on some of the nascent stations that played what would come to be known as "classic rock," and as the seventies ended I avoided the agonizing repetition of disco and such by listening to the excellent oldies station WBLI out of Long Island, a radio entity that served to plant the seeds of my passion for pre-1970's rock that was either primitive and raw of bizarre and very much off the beaten path. WBLI played some of the standard Beatles hits, but they also threw stuff like "Dig A Pony" and "Rain" (nowadays my favorite Beatles tune of all) into the mix and showed me just how much the classic rock stations played the same Fab Four songs over and over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum, and taking into account the espoused theory — voiced with absolute certainty of its veracity — that myself and my fellow students may have been a bunch of programmed drones, I began to wonder if Mr. Dyskolos had in fact done his young charges a favor by showing none of the rote reverence extended to the favorite sons of Liverpool by all who drew breath. He had effectively "killed our idol," on the day when one would expect nothing but 100% adherence to the party line, and that greatly intrigued my punk rock-influenced sensibilities.

As I pondered these thoughts, I wandered past Westport Record and tape, one of the town's most accessible record stores, and greeted Jean, the sweet Southern proprietor. I asked her if the shooting of John Lennon had affected her sales that day and she said, "Honey, look over at the Beatles and John Lennon sections. Whadda you see? Tumbleweeds 'n' cattle skulls, that's what! Folks came in and cleaned the place out like they were a bunch of vinyl-eatin' locusts! On sales of Beatles and Lennon records alone, I could close early today." And it was true. Every single Beatles/Lennon platter had vanished into the Westport ether, bought up by fools who believed those perennial best-sellers (okay, maybe not SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY) would become instant collector's items.

Later that night as I lay there in my bed staring up at the white stucco ceiling, I listened to my cassette tape of SERGEANT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and experienced it in a way that I never had before. I'd listened to it about two dozen times since acquiring it a couple of years previous, but now it served as a poignant grave marker for my favorite member of the Beatles and its words took on a whole new timbre. No one would be "fixing a hole" in Lennon and ensuring he would live to see sixty-four and beyond. He would not be getting better and there would be no more good mornings for him. Yet tragic though it was, this was just another day in the collective life, and that life would go on without John Lennon (though obviously not "within").

I remember the hue and cry when Elvis Presley, the so-called King of Rock 'n' Roll, gave up the ghost and people acted as though the world had come to an end, and I frankly didn't get it. I liked some of Elvis's music but it didn't really speak to me in the way that the Beatles had, and I now chalk that up to the Beatles happening during what could arguably be considered the most pivotal period of the twentieth century, a time that redefined much of American culture and into which my generation was born. We didn't grow up with Elvis, whose music helped set the template of rock 'n' roll, but we did come along during the rise of the Beatles and reached early sentience while under the influence of their sound. We couldn't know at the time just what their contribution meant, but we did know that we liked it. Obsessive poring over the minutia of the whys and wherefores of their lives, art and careers would come later. At that point in our young lives love was indeed all we needed, and in the wake of the plastic disco era and what small impact punk had in the U.S. at the time, that wasn't a bad thing.

So today marks the twenty-eighth anniversary of John Lennon's senseless slaughter and for me the day that it happened becomes ever more remote, so I figured I'd jot down my experience of it before age robs it of what clarity remains. If any of you have tales of that day, please write in and share.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reflections! I had been thinking of similarly putting down my own recollections of that day, though I recall less of it.

For me, it was probably another day in high school outside Journalism class when I picked the lock on Ms. Crum's door and let us kids in to prepare another practical joke on her (like the time we turned everything in the class around so that the back was the front and vice versa).

When she got there (late, as usual... hence the propensity for us to play jokes on her), she was definitely sullen. She began class by discussing the incident. I recalled seeing reporters on TV trying to get to Paul McCartney that morning, and his response that the killing was a "real drag" seemed so cold to me.

Anyway, our assignment that day was to write what we thought John Lennon's death meant to us personally. Now to me, at the time, I had grown up a Beatles fan. But a self-absorbed teenager, I couldn't foresee how the death of someone I didn't know affected me personally. I thought it was a real drag, too, but I didn't feel it would have major impact on me.

Of course, years and experience and life later, I curse the day. I hadn't known what courses my life would take, what interests and feelings would emerge as stronger for me -- I knew nothing as a teenager. But I know now, as an adult, that a great artist and philosopher was lost prematurely that day, and that the world is already far too short of such people. And that impacts all of us in a major way every day.

Big difference in how I see it between then and now.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm well, frankly, I remember the black armbands some of my classmates wore in honor of John Lennon's passing but I didn't care then as I don't care now. Call me cold but I mourned for the passing of another human but I really didn't give a shit that it was John Lennon. Moments before and moments after he was shot someone else's father, brother, uncle, cousine, mother, wife, etc., also died and no one noticed or no one cared except for those related or effected by that person's passing. Was John Lennon a talented artist? I guess - never been a fan but I can respect talent (kind of how I feel about most jazz - don't get it but I appreciate the effort it takes) Mostly I think that the Beatles were an influential moment in musical time that John Lennon was a part of and whether any of us like it or not the music/musicians we listen to is probably effected by something the Beatles did/created. I feel bad for those around John Lennon and the pain they must feel (as I feel on the day of the anniversary of the death of my mother) but, then again, I feel for all those who weren't as lucky as he to have a successful career and admired by millions and may have been just as talented but were silenced at too young an age and nobody knew them and their genius. Many had no name - nobody came.

Geoff Sebesta said...

"You've obviously never heard about the time when Mr. Give Peace A Chance went to some club and hung out with a Kotex stuck to his forehead...."

I don't see the contradiction there, but I guess he did.

All I remember is my parents being crushingly depressed and lots of pictures of the Dakota on the news. I was quite young at the time.

I appreciate your teacher speaking truth to power, though time has revealed him to be a bit of a snob -- he obviously never anticipated how bad music would get after the Beatles, or how we the punk generation would learn to love bad music on its own merits. To each their own. I respect anyone who can be an utter asshole at the exact right time, and that would seem to describe him.

Satyrblade said...

On my end, I had been home sick the day Lennon's death was announced, and I'd slept in that morning. When I woke up and turned on the radio, they were playing "A Day in the Life." I've always loved the song, so I listened to it. As the climactic piano chord faded into silence, the DJ sadly announced that he had played the song in honor of John Lennon, murdered the previous night in New York City.

To this day, I cannot hear that final build-crash-fade - or even remember it - without getting chills.

And for all that your teacher had brass balls declaring what he felt was the truth that day, songs like "A Day in the Life" are the contradictions to what he said.

Yes, The Beatles were a popular band. Yes, they began their career ripping off Blues artists and warming teeniebopper hearts everywhere. Yes, the "prince of peace" thing was utter bullshit; Lennon himself admitted to being a violent, misogynistic, girl-beating son of a bitch, with a night-black sense of humor and a dedication to the absurd.

And THAT'S why he, and The Beatles, matter.

Because, as the photo you used in your post - the original cover of "The White Album" - displays, The Beatles were dedicated to pushing the envelope 'til it fell off the shelf.

The true legacy of The Beatles is not the cadre of songs that have been overplayed, remixed, badly covered and used & abused ad infinitum by popular culture. The true legacy of The Beatles is that a mediocre R&B band with cute faces and undeniable hooks took advantage of their celebrity to overturn every Apple cart (pun intended) they could find. Without that sense of adventure - and its popular success - Rock itself might have run out of steam by 1970s. The Beatles' success broke new ground for experiments by other artists, and brought new vitality to Rock in general.

The Beatles could very easily have ridden their success into the ground, doing the same shit every album until they either got sick of one another or burned themselves (or their audience) out. They could have done the teen-idol thing, drugged themselves senseless , fucked and beat girls all over the world, and achieved nothing more than a pile of pop songs and big pile of cash.

But they didn't.

The short career of The Beatles - one still continued to this day by Sir Paul in his guise of The Fireman - involved fucking with expectations. The very songs that your teacher sneered at present one of the reasons The Beatles remain important. Rather than sitting on their asses churning out pop tunes, the Fab Four changed their image radically, experimented musically, and took chances that would have destroyed a lesser band. Really - who else would have risked releasing something like "Revolution #9" in 1966? Who else could have gotten away with it? "Eleanor Rigby," "Helter Skelter," "Hey Bulldog," "I Am teh Walrus"... these are not pop confections, but flirtations with the avant-garde unimaginable to almost any other popular artist of the time. Sure, folks like John Cage and the MC-5 were taking big whacks at the status quo as well, but what impact did THAT have on popular culture? When The Beatles broke out sitars, sound loops and screams, people LISTENED. And that, Mr. Whatever-Your-Teacher's-Name-Was, was truly a revolutionary act.

Are The Beatles overplayed? Certainly? Have they been ripped off to the point of nausea? Definitely. Has their mythology overshadowed the real (and often obnoxious) young men it was based upon? Doesn't that always happen? Despite all that, The Beatles exerted an immortal influence upon music, culture and the human experience, not only by being memorable tunesmiths whose work - like Shakespeare's - can be endlessly reworked yet retain its resonance, but by taking chances and making changes that would have been insignificant or unimaginable from any other artist of their time and position. Sure, everyone was experimenting in the 1960s, but no one else - with the possible exception of their friendly rivals The Rolling Stones and their paint-world contemporary Andy Warhol - had both the influence to ring those changes loud and the talent to make them timeless.

And THAT is why The Beatles still matter. Like John Lennon himself, they wanted to reach farther and be better than they had been in the beginning. And like Lennon the man, they succeeded on a legendary scale.

Laser Rocket Arm said...

I was a freshman in high school when Lennon was shot, on the other side of New York from you (New Jersey). I woke up late to the news on WABC as my high school had split sessions and freshmen came in late. I really didn't feel too much about it although I had a friend who absolutely adored the Beatles. I spent that day trying to console her. The teachers didn't say too much about it--at the time I really didn't have any young teachers. It would have been interesting to see what Lennon would have become--if he would have continued with his thoughtful work or sold out like Paul McCartney. One thing I do know? There would have been a Beatles reunion eventually. Someone would have made it worth their while, probably sometime in the mid-nineties when the whole nostalgia craze was really kicking in.

Anonymous said...

Drongo sez-

Never cared for the Beatles that much, even when I watched them on Ed Sullivan as a four-year old. I like some of their early rock & roll tunes, but they are mostly covers. At age 10, my older sister brought home the White album and I would groove to "Revolution #9".
Okay, then Elvis died and I thought it was big joke and my friends and I started a Church of Elvis to goof on the hordes of actual fans. Then John Lennon got killed and I was like, wow what a spectacular murder took place in my hometown.
It wasn't until December 2002 that I could understand why people felt the way they did when their idols like Messrs. Presley and Lennon buy the farm.

Joe Strummer's death devastated me.