It's hard to believe that it's been 26 years since we lost John Lennon, but it has. Most of the people I know remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about it. I'm no different. I was living in Augusta, Georgia, where I grew up. I worked for the phone company during the week and played music in the local clubs on the weekends. It was still Southern Bell in those days. I worked from 5 PM until 1 AM and I was at a desk filling out the end of the evening paperwork. My friend Clarence, who worked with me, was listening to a ball game on a pocket transistor radio and announcer Howard Cosell broke the news. My first thought was that it was a hoax. Someone had called in a false report or was playing a sick joke. When a police official came on and confirmed it, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Within ten minutes, some of my musician friends, guitarist Mark, bassist Don and his brother Phil, came pulling into the parking lot. Soon, they were followed by trumpeter Ray who, by that time, had moved to Florida but who was back in town to visit family and friends. After everyone had told what details they knew about it, we sat in the office with no one saying much, just taking comfort in each other’s company. Clarence came in at 1 AM and said that it was time to go, but we didn't want to go anywhere. We were a group of old friends who had grown up with John and who loved him dearly and we were hurting. A part of our youth had died with him that night and it was to leave a hole in our lives that nothing else would ever quite be able to fill. At that moment, we needed each other more than we ever had before. I told Clarence to go ahead home and give my best to his wife and children. Ray went to his car and returned with a fifth of Crown Royal. We passed the bottle around and talked until almost dawn.
When John Lennon’s contract expired in 1974 and he left the music business, it was the first time he had been out from under contractual obligation to anyone since his early twenties. In 1975 he turned the business over to his wife, Yoko Ono, and became a “house husband”, spending the next five years raising his son. It wasn’t like he was just sitting around taking it easy though, because, as any mother will tell you, taking care of a baby is a full time job! We missed him, of course, but didn’t begrudge him his privacy or his change of lifestyle. He’d more than earned it. He’d been under a microscope for more than a decade, unable to do any of the things in public life that the rest of us take for granted everyday. He couldn’t go to the movies. He couldn’t go shopping in a store. He couldn’t take a walk in the park. He couldn’t go to a restaurant unless, as he said, you wanted to do all the “Rock Star Goes To The Restaurant.” garbage required for the Press photographers. He couldn’t even walk down the street! Before he left England to move to New York City, he still couldn’t leave his home or hotel without being mobbed. Everywhere, everybody wanted an autograph, an interview, a photograph, a handshake, a word with him, a few minutes of his time, a lock of hair, a piece of clothing, a souvenir! On tour, the only privacy to be had without paying someone to keep people away from him was when he went into the bathroom and shut and locked the door. Other stars had told him that he would be able to walk on the street in New York but he didn’t really believe it until he went there for a visit in the early Seventies and saw for himself. That’s what made him finally decide to live there. During those years from 1975 to 1980 we waited patiently, knowing that when he decided to start writing and playing music again, it would be because he was inspired to do so, which always makes for the best art in any medium. When Double Fantasy came out in the fall of 1980 and we heard that he and Yoko were already at work on the follow-up album, we knew that the wait was over. In an interview with Andy Peebles for the BBC on the evening of December seventh, John was asked if he still felt comfortable in public with no bodyguards and he replied, “Yeah. People might say “Hi” as they walk past or “Like your record”, that because we’ve got a record out now, or occasionally ask for an autograph but they don’t bug you!” Some sixteen hours later, a psychopath pulled a pistol and shot John Lennon to death as he was walking into his apartment building after returning home from a recording session. John left behind him some of the truly great music of the twentieth century, music that will be discovered and enjoyed by many generations for many centuries to come. To paraphrase one of his songs: all he was saying was, “Give Peace A Chance.”
Don was about 5 years older than the rest of us and was the only one of us who had seen The Beatles play live in Atlanta Stadium in 1965. Ray and I had seen Paul McCartney’s band Wings in Miami during the early Seventies. In the years since then, Don and I saw George Harrison in Washington, D.C. in 1986, Don, Mark and I saw Paul McCartney at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 1993 and Phil and I saw Ringo Starr's All-Starr band at Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta in 1995 and again in 2000.
Don passed away from diabetes related kidney failure a few years ago. I haven't seen Ray in almost two decades. (Ray, get in touch, will ya?) Mark only lives about 20 miles from me, Phil still lives in Augusta and we all see and talk to each other often. Every year on the eighth of December, I never fail to think about that night in the phone company office when we tried to drink and talk away the pain. It didn't work. Yet, in a way, it did. It brought all of us even closer together as friends, if that's possible, and it kept me from facing that horrible night alone.
Thanks, guys. I owe you one.
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