Central Park, Sept. 13, 1980. It was late in the afternoon on a hot, sticky, late-summer Saturday. I decided to take the train in with a few other folks from from my college on Long Island to share the afternoon with about a half-million other like-minded people.
It was for Elton John’s legendary free concert in the Sheep Meadow — the first time I would be seeing the consummate showman whose music was a big part of the early days of my tortured adolescence.
We found a spot on the Great Lawn, and somebody passed around some wine and maybe a joint — not a wise thing to do on such a hot day, but hey, I was 19 and stupid — and despite the sight of Elton furiously banging away on the piano in his infamous Donald Duck costume, it was a very mellow vibe. (Wine, joint, mellow vibe — gawd, I sound like such a fucking hippie!)
And as the proud sun began its descent — probably 5:30ish, by its position in the sky at that point — Elton introduced his next song by saying, “This is for a friend who lives nearby.” And with that came the familiar opening piano strains of “Imagine.”
And I looked over at the general area of the Dakota, just blocks away, and I thought, “I wonder what he’s been up to.” It had been four years since I had heard anything about John Lennon — since he won his hard-fought battle with immigration officials for the right to stay in America. (It’s a facet of the Lennon story that came to light again this week when the FBI seized a fingerprint card from Lennon’s 1976 citizenship application, which had been slated to go to auction.)
It was a gorgeous, freeze-frame moment, the crystallization of a beautiful day.
And four weeks later, I woke up on a Sunday morning to the greatest rock radio station of them all — the late 102.7, WNEW-FM — and heard a news item that not only was John turning 40, but he and Yoko were putting out a new album. That was “Double Fantasy,” and soon the airwaves were saturated with the Lennon-meets-doo-wop sound of “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
And two months after that, he was gone for good.
And now, I have a hard time saying “God, he would have been 70 today.” It’s kind of a shock to the system. Not nearly as much as his murder was, of course, but still a wake-up call.
Sure, age is inevitable. I encountered that early on with the sports heroes of my childhood. The first such jolting collision of past glory and age in my life was when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle turned 50 a few months apart in 1981. (And now Willie will turn 80 in May.)
But that was sports; rock’n'roll is another matter.
Rock’n'roll is the ultimate youth serum; unlike sports, you don’t have to give it up at 30, 35, 41. But for every singer who still gets up, rips off his shirt and goes apeshit in his 60s, like Iggy Pop — come to think of it, he’s the only one — there are thousands of musicians who are facing the impending onslaught of the infirmities of old age.
I’ve been a big fan of ’60s garage sounds since the mid-’80s (hell, here we go again — that’s over half my life now). The lasting images are of young, sneering, snotty, dashing kids in hip clothing and longish hair, replicating the British Invasion sounds of The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who and Animals.
The last time I was home, in late February, I met up with my former New Haven neighbor, Chip Damiani, for dinner one Sunday at our favorite Chinese place in Westville, House of Chao. I used to live five blocks from Chip, who was the drummer for The Remains — the band of Boston University dormmates who put together a Beatles-inspired rock combo so good that they also ended up on “Ed Sullivan” and, after Chip quit, opened for The Fab Four on what would be the final tour for both groups. I was also there when they played their first American show in decades, at Cavestomp! in New York in November 1998, and at their first Boston show in even longer, the following March at the Paradise.
Even though I’ve known the guys for over a decade, in my mind they’re flash-frozen in 1966 (when I was preparing to start kindergarten). So it was a bit of a shock in the course of random conversation — just talking about everyday stuff in our lives — when Chip dropped in ” … I’m gonna be 65 …” Almost spit up my eggplant in garlic sauce …
That’s the way I feel about Lennon’s 70th, only magnified.
I’m gonna be 50 next spring. Lennon, his impeccable moptop, his crooked beak, his scouse accent, his granny glasses, his individualism and his deadly witty sense of humor have been a huge part of my life, directly or indirectly, since I was a 2 1/2-year-old tot in Brooklyn, when The Beatles first landed at JFK. Yeah, me and about three billion other people.
Imagining Lennon at 70 is kinda like the days when I never imagined my parents getting old. In the years since I’ve been in California, coming home maybe a couple times a year, I’ve seen the process accelerate — my father just turned 80 over the summer, Mom will be 75 over the winter — and it’s disconcerting. Not because of my own impending mortality or anything selfish like that, but because you don’t picture your parents as frail, or shrinking, or dealing with a slew of physical problems.
I wonder what would have influenced John and Yoko now. I remember reading that Lennon was spurred to recording again after hearing The B-52′s’ “Rock Lobster,” and its Yoko-sounding warble-screams, at a nightclub. What would have gotten him to record once again at 70? Would he be spurred by Radiohead? By punk? By Nirvana? The garage revival? Maybe one of his older progeny, like Paul Weller? Or would he have just done the sterile oldies concert-tour thing, like Paul? (Scratch that — I know the answer already.)
And would he have gotten together at some point with the other Fab Three? Would we have had our one last full explosion of Beatlemania to satisfy us? (The greatest television moment that never happened: the night Lennon and McCartney were hanging out in New York, Lorne Michaels was on “Saturday Night Live,” imploring The Beatles again to reunite on his show for a few hundred bucks, and the two of them almost went down to the studio before John changed his mind.)
And would he be involved in politics? After all, he was killed in the lame-duck period before Reagan took office. I can’t see him not being politically active. Or would he have just said “fuck it,” after having been in the spotlight most of his life, and just retreated into a shell? New York, after all, offered him the best of both those worlds — he could make occasional public performances and appearances, but in everyday life, New Yorkers left him alone to be just another person living his life.
(My friend Larry Kirwan, the singer for Black 47, once wrote a play, later a novel, called “Liverpool Fantasy,” the premise being that The Beatles broke up in 1962, when John walked out of the studio after the band was forced by their label to record something lame. Fast-forward to Liverpool 30 years later: John is a bitter, miserable alcoholic; son Julian is a National Front skinhead who’s as trigger-quick with the sarcasm and bitterness as his old man; George is a Jesuit priest who’s had a series of breakdowns; Ringo’s the drummer for Gerry & the Pacemakers — and Paul is a Vegas star named Paulie Montana, who stirs the shit up when he comes back to visit with his latest blonde bimbo. Fast and fascinating and well-thought-out reading …)
This isn’t a long-winded spiel about Lennon and his influence on me or on society — we have countless books and films (I’m waiting for “Nowhere Boy”) that still don’t quite capture him. He wasn’t the overruling influence on my life, but he’s still as alive to me as he was as a phenom in 1964, as alive as he was before the night of Dec. 8, 1980. We still talk about him, most of the time favorably, nearly 30 years after his death. He still shines on, wherever he is.