a memoir by Matthew Ward
"... all the serious people like Martin Luther King and Kennedy and Gandhi got shot." - John Lennon, 1969
above: John & Yoko, 1969 (Wikipedia, Fair Use)
It was only last week at the time of writing that Michael Jackson died at the relatively young age of fifty. Now, it might be hard for some of us who have entered middle age to fathom the outpouring of emotion for that musician - even though we are aware of the record sales, and the MTV clips - but it only seems like a week ago that John Lennon, creator of The Beatles, went to meet his maker after he was murdered in New York City on 8th December 1980. Lennon was younger than Jackson when he died, he was only 40, and was more influential than Jackson in terms of music and popular culture, it could be argued, and certainly more so than most other musicians of the 20th century, with the exceptions being John's hero Elvis Presley, contemporary Bob Dylan, and his Liverpool cohort Paul McCartney.
My journey from ignorant youngster to Beatles aficionado took but a glimmer of time; and all it took was the death of Beatle John: the rocker, the teddy boy, the artist, the wordsmith, the poet, the peacenik, the loving husband and father, the house-husband, the orphan, the King of the Comeback; but also the sarcastic one, the drug addict, the womaniser, the alleged wife beater, the deadbeat dad, the blasphemer, the political criminal and the adulterer.
It was sometime in 1981 that I waited in the Newcastle NSW suburb of The Junction. It was night, maybe close to 10pm and I had been to a Beatles film evening at the old Hunter Theatre, a place that was built back in the 1920s I believe, and a building that would be demolished in 1990 after Newcastle's 1989 earthquake. I had previously been to the theatre for school excursions, to see such 1970s must-sees as 'Storm Boy' and 'Blue Fin'. The ceilings were tall, and the seats leather and wood and uncomfortable as all hell.
above: The Hunter Theatre, The Junction (Cultural Collections)
I was leaning against a half brick garden wall in the semi-darkness for my father to come and pick me up, and as I stood there I watched the cars roll on by towards Bar Beach in the City or the other way, past the council flats to Adamstown.
In my mind I also relived the movies I had just seen, films that for the most part had debuted over 15 years before, when I was a little boy living in Williamtown, when I lived near the Air Force base with my mum and dad in 'marry-quarters' (when my dad was in the RAAF). The films were zany director Richard Lester's 'A Hard Day's Night'; and also 'A Magical Mystery Tour'; and the famous 'Shea Stadium' concert from 1965. The Washington DC concert that was also advertised was not shown due to 'sprocket damage,' but I didn't mind as I had seen three movies back to back for my $5.00 or however cheap it was in those days. I might have been the youngest one there by at least 20 years, but what we all had in common was a love of The Fab Four.
As I was so young when they were released, I hadn't seen any of the films before. 'A Hard Day's Night', the black and white masterpiece that perfectly captured Beatlemania - at least what the media thought Beatlemania was about anyway - with the Moptops running around like lunatics, trying to keep away from screaming girls and all the while encouraging them at the same time (George Harrison met his future wife Pattie Boyd on the set when she was playing the part of a schoolgirl.) 'Magical Mystery Tour' was in colour - bright colour - that was like Alice in Wonderland and Edward Lear go on a bus trip with carnival freaks. And 'Shea Stadium' had The Beatles helecoptered into the middle of a baseball field to the shrill sound of thousands of (mostly) girls who clutched the boundary fence and screamed in one continuous scream like summer cicadas I had heard in Blackbutt Reserve near my home.
I also thought of The Beatles, of course, my new group, even though most of my friends liked the New Romantic bands or semi-metal groups like The Angels, The Oils, and The Radiators, or nothing at all. I was again aware that one of The Beatles had died at the end of the previous year, and the world was quiet as I stood there, thinking as 13 year old boys are apt to do.
On the afternoon of 8th December 1980 I arrived home from high school to find out John Lennon had been murdered in New York City at the age of 40 by some nutcase who thought he himself was the sardonic ex-Beatle and peacenik and that his victim was an imposter. Of course you know that Lennon had signed the murderer's record sleeve, and then a short while later he addressed him, shot him, sat down and seemingly waited for whatever was to come, be it praise or something else.
The thing is at age 14 I had never known of John Lennon as a Beatle. Sure, I was aware of The Beatles - who wasn't? - but to me they were a long ago black and white movies band who sang 'She Loves You', 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and 'Help'. The John Lennon I knew was a recent star who had just released an album called 'Double Fantasy'.
It was a warm Newcastle afternoon and as I walked through the front door my mother asked me if I had heard that John Lennon had been killed. I said I hadn't and felt a little saddened as I had loved his recent hits '(Just Like) Starting Over' and 'Watching the Wheels' (and maybe 'Woman' but that might have been released after his death).
It was through watching the headlines and news on TV did I get the connection that John Lennon of 'Double Fantasy' and John of The Beatles were the same man. I saw story after story of fans crying, holding vigils with candles at The Dakota, the building that John and his wife Yoko called home in New York. I saw the brief interviews with John's friends, other musicians, the other ex-Beatles Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
I had my dinner that night, then watched TV again and saw more stories on John Lennon, this phenomenon who had been cruelly cut down in the prime of his life, after his comeback album was selling so well. That night I went to sleep crying quietly into my pillow, for reasons that had less to do with Lennon being shot, but, selfishly, more to do with me never having the chance to appreciate his music as a Beatle and that I would never get the opportunity to see him in person or watch him perform on stage.
This was the first time in my life I would mourn someone's death.
In 1977 I was in primary school and recall talking to a boy who sadly told me Elvis Presley had died. I thought it odd later on that this boy, Stephen, loved Elvis when he seemed to me to me old hat, a bit daggy for 1977 when everyone else was listening to disco, long-haired glam rock, or Sherbet Vs Skyhooks battles on Countdown with Ian 'Molly' Meldrum. However when John Lennon died I understood Stephen's grief for the King of Rock ’n' Roll, and also Lennon's grief at his hero Buddy Holly dying in 1959. We all have our heroes, it seems.
In the days after John's death, I started obsessively collecting newspaper and magazine clippings regarding the murder but also general Beatles-related clippings, too, which was easy as all the newspapers had them for a long time, featuring everything from the living ex-Beatles' reactions to the death (McCartney's perhaps misunderstood "It's a drag" comment became as commonly repeated as Lennon's 'Bigger than Jesus' statement of the mid-’60s).
Then I borrowed books from the library, Hunter Davies' Beatles tome was devoured every afternoon and into the night; and I bought them, too, with whatever money I could scrounge (Peter Brown's 'The Love You Make' is still a thorough and fair read.) Obviously I collected the LPs, the singles, the EPs, and later cassettes and CDs. 'The Beatles Ballads' was an LP released in 1980 by EMI, and I would lay in the darkness of my bedroom at night and unconsciously memorise the songs, like 'Yesterday', 'Do You Want to Know a Secret?', 'Hey Jude', 'Norwegian Wood', 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away' and more... At any time of the day I could imagine the songs and play them in my head like I had my own internal jukebox (such is the imagination of the adolescent).
above: The Beatles Ballads (EMI, 1981)
Over the next couple of years I collected the rest of the Beatles albums, one per month, sometimes two if I was flush with cash. One birthday I bought a tape player and the albums 'Revolver' (1966) and 'Abbey Road' (1969). The others followed ('Sgt Pepper', White Album, 'Revolver', 'Help!', 'A Hard Day's Night', 'Magical Mystery Tour', 'Please Please Me', 'With the Beatles', 'Let It Be', 'Yellow Submarine', 'Rubber Soul', 'Beatles For Sale', and other official mixtures like 'Hey Jude', 'Past Masters', 'Oldies But Goldies', 'Rarities'. And the singles, as many as the second hand shops had.
After that I collected the ex-Beatles' albums including those of John Lennon ('Imagine', 'Plastic Ono Band', 'Mind Games', 'Walls and Bridges', 'Double Fantasy', 'Sometime in New York City', 'Live Peace in Toronto', 'Menlove Avenue', 'Shaved Fish' among them). It seems to me now that the best ex-Beatles albums were recorded during the time of the Beatles or soon after - as afterwards, with no-one to check them, the ex-Beatles made music that was good but not as tight, in my opinion, as those recorded in the periods 1963-1969.
I had a few friends in high school who liked The Beatles and we discussed the band all the time. We had our favourite Beatles. I admired John I think because of his attitude and thought the chicks liked him more than Paul (which according to John was never true). One friend, David, used to play squash at the squash courts at the International Sports Centre, Waratah (now the Newcastle Knights Admin Headquarters) on a Tuesday. We'd talk Beatles on the way over and often in Beatley voices, probably imitating the Beatles cartoon more than the real deal, and pretending we knew how to play guitar with our rackets. I recall David's sister had given him for his birthday a coloured vinyl copy of 'Sgt Pepper' from The Green Apple record store at Garden City, Kotara and I was more than a little envious.
Another friend was walking with me one day and when I saw a dead beetle on the ground I asked, in a silly way, which of the Beatles it was. The friend answered, 'John Lennon' in a snide way that the real Lennon would have been proud of. The comment made me a little sad, wishing I had never asked the question.
I watched every Beatles special on TV, and every week Donnie Sutherland on his show Sounds Unlimited (later, Sounds) would regularly play Beatles clips from the Let It Be period, like 'Let It Be', 'Don't Let Me Down', and 'Get Back'. McCartney looked cool in his Scotland beard, Lennon starved but still looking dapper with long hair, round glasses and F-You attitude, and Yoko at his feet.
Years ago there was that 6 Degrees of Separation thing with connections to actor Kevin Bacon. We all like to try to connect with our heroes. My connections to The Beatles are flimsy. Let me see... My dad's uncle by marriage was related to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin played in the band The Yardbirds. Eric Clapton played in The Yardbirds and was friends with George Harrison and so played guitar on George's Beatles song 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (and would eventually marry George's first wife, Pattie). Also, recently I commented on Yoko's Twitter page and a day later she started following me on Twitter. Lastly, about 6 years ago I designed a website for a client who in 1964 took time off school to go to Sydney to see The Beatles perform (she proudly said she was the only one in her school who did so). Not much is it? But it's something.
For me, The Beatles never died. Lennon said in an interview that fans can listen to the albums if they want to reminisce, and also record their own compilations: one of his songs, one of Paul's, one of George's, one of Ringo's from the post-1970 albums, and pretend if they wanted to that the band was still together (as the Beatles albums from 1967 on were recorded largely it has been said as individuals, with the others playing 'backup band'). It's just a band that broke up, it's not important, he said. But we wanted it to be important, and we knew it was important, and we knew that when Lennon died, they could never reform again, and I knew that I could never watch them perform in person.
Lennon said that death was like getting out of one car and getting into another. I don't know if I believe that, in reincarnation, but I guess there's always hope that we can meet our heroes, in this world, or the next.
My dad picked me up in his car and asked me if I enjoyed myself. I said yes, smiled and we drove off towards home, and towards my tape player, headphones and drawer after drawer of Beatles masterpieces.
© Matthew Ward, 2009
This article was first published on the Making of Modern Australia website, August 2009.