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Backstage: The Death of John Lennon

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, The day(s) the music died... 

For those of us who remember it first-hand, this week's 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder resonates both endlessly and intimately. Like the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, most people that were around at the time will testify that they can recall precisely where they were and what they were doing when the tragic news were announced. While other events might recede into the recesses of memory, these circumstances were so profound that inevitably they were etched into a collective consciousness where they remain suspended for all time.

I remember hearing the news about Lennon on the way home from a Police concert in Sunrise. It was nearly 11 p.m. and I was still basking in the afterglow of the amazing show I had just witnessed when the news came over the radio that John had been shot. At first, his condition was unknown, but it seemed only moments later that the deejay confirmed the fact that he had died. It was a numbing feeling, one that I couldn't comprehend. Why would anyone shoot a Beatle? But then again, how could anyone have murdered a president or a leader like Martin Luther King? 

It wasn't the end of innocence -- Kennedy's killing had effectively clinched that -- but it was the end of an era, a time when the Beatles were an inextricable part of our daily lives and their lingering collective influence had changed us all so profoundly. With John dead, it was as if our world had shifted on its axis. Suddenly, we were forced to confront our mortality. If our gods could be felled in such random fashion, then who among us was immune? 

Ironically it was 16 years prior, practically to the day, on December 11, 1964 to be precise, when the legendary soul singer Sam Cooke was shot and killed by the owner of the motel where he had taken a woman companion for the night. The circumstances were never fully fleshed out, but I have a vague recollection of hearing the news while at religious school. I was too young to fully appreciate Cooke's impact on popular music, although I heard his songs "You Send Me" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" on the radio at the time. 

The death of another great R&B singer, Marvin Gaye, made a more indelible impact on me, when, on April 1, 1984, he too became the victim of a bullet, which in his case, was fired from his father. Again, it was unbelievable, especially to think that his father, Marvin Sr., was to blame, despite reports that he had acted in self defense. Regardless, I remember that the news broke just prior to the start of a Judy Collins concert I was attending, and Collins made mention of it during her show, paying tribute to a man credited by many as the greatest soul singer of all time. 

At the end of the '60s, a quick succession of rock star fatalities further affirmed the fact that the era of peace, love and youthful abandon had come to a close. Coupled with the debacle of Altamont, which witnessed the murder of an audience member by the Hell's Angels during a set by the Rolling Stones, the accidental overdoses of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1969 and Jim Morrison's demise two years later further emphasized the fact that there was no longer any divide between indulgence and excess.

The personalities of those particular individuals had been widely trumpeted in the music press at the time, so it was almost expected that they would likely not live to see their senior years. So I can't say I was especially shocked when the news arrived over the airwaves. 

The death of Brian Jones on July 3, 1969 did surprise me however. Initially ruled a "death by misadventure," his drowning in the swimming pool of his English country estate was later rumored to be a deliberate act of murder perpetrated by his handyman. Whatever, the cause, it made quite an impression on me. The Stones were superstars and champions of the early British music invasion, so in a very real sense, they had always been part of my musical upbringing. What's more, Jones was always my favorite Stone. His multi-instrumental prowess and irreverent attitude made the band all the more interesting, and when he was sacked the month earlier, the Stones were never the same. I remember hearing the news of his death in the office of my parents' gift shop in St. Thomas Virgin Islands, where we were living at the time. (Ironically, I'd meet his bandmates while they were visiting the island a scant two years later.) I was devastated, and it was only America's landing on the moon just over two weeks when I could be comforted by better news brought to that tiny office TV screen. 

Nearly a decade later, I found myself working as promotion man in South Florida, which is when the next major wave of superstar tragedies hit in rapid succession. Elvis Presley passed away on August 16, 1977, followed by Keith Moon on September 7, 1978 and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin on September 25, 1980. Perhaps it was the fact that I was in the music business at the time, and I had acquired a jaundiced attitude in conjunction with my everyday dealings, but I remember hearing the news and accepting it as simply another turn of events. Their deaths were devastating to the rock world overall, but I seemed to think that becoming a casualty of one's own carelessness was not so surprising anymore. Being in the business, I had seen too many people fall through their own foolishness. 

Still, I must admit that George Harrison's passing in 2001 still numbs me, as does John Lennon's death now an unbelievable three decades past. When I was in New York last month I walked by the Dakota, the building where he lived, and stared at the spot where he was shot down, still trying to absorb the senselessness of it all. If only he had allowed his car to drive him into that courtyard so he wouldn't have stepped out on the curb and made himself an easy target. If only... I suppose when one loses an idol, that loss always lingers.

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Lee Zimmerman

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