SPECIAL TO NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, December 5, 2015, 8:12 PM
For those too young to have any memories of the Beatles as a working band, but old enough to recall John Lennon’s death, Dec. 8, 1980, is our Kennedy assassination.
We remember where we were when we heard the news that day, oh boy. We remember the collective wallop to the gut, a blow we’ve never quite fully caught our breath from, even 35 years later.
For my adolescence and well into fatherhood, the events of Dec. 8, 1980, defined my life as a Beatles fan who felt an aching loss that couldn’t be filled.
But not for lack of trying: I read every book. I learned to play every song. I retraced the Beatles’ footsteps in London and Liverpool, first on my honeymoon with a woman who shares my obsession, and later with our daughter, Ella, who has been raised a Beatle baby since her birth in 1997. In some ways, we’re a family of seven.
This is the story, through a Brooklyn boy’s eyes, of the night that forever changed music. It’s the story of how my daughter taught me that Dec. 8 is a day best spent celebrating John Lennon and the Beatles. And it’s the story of a promise I plan to hold her to, many years from now.
* * *
It was 11:30 p.m., and a school night. But that didn’t stop my younger brother, Drew, and I from our weeknight ritual of secreting ourselves in his room, huddled around a new 12-inch black-and-white Zenith TV bought at Crazy Eddie’s.
With the volume turned down to a whisper, we waited for “Prisoner: Cell Block H,” a campy Australian soap opera about a women’s prison, to begin on Channel 11. At age 14, this passed for titillation.
Drew’s room in our modest Brooklyn rowhouse was about the size of a prison cell itself. It felt even smaller as we flanked the tiny screen, not breathing so we could hear every word of overheated dialogue. We had to be careful not to wake our mother and younger sister, lest we infuriate our father who was not to be interrupted in the downstairs living room as he watched “The Tonight Show.”
We were a few minutes into the latest jailhouse melodrama when words to this effect crawled across the bottom of the screen: “A man tentatively identified as former Beatle John Lennon has been reported shot on the Upper West Side and rushed to Roosevelt Hospital.”
The 11 p.m. news broadcasts were over. CNN was about six months old — not that we had it. Our working-class corner of Sunset Park wouldn’t be wired for cable for years.
But I knew ABC’s “Monday Night Football” was still on Channel 7.
The words “tentatively identified” and the lack of the word “dead” gave me some optimism as the dial clicked four times under my hand. Howard Cosell quickly dashed those hopes:
“Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell began in his world-famous, voice-of-authority nasal tones. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival.”
I grabbed my brother’s half of our Beatles record collection and pounded downstairs past my father, Andy, still in his mailman’s uniform, eating dinner off the tray table in front of his Archie Bunker-like easy chair. “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted.
“Somebody shot John Lennon,” I said, burying the lead. “He’s dead.”
“Oh,” my father replied, taking his attention off “The Tonight Show” for just a moment. “Well, it’s too damn late to play any records. Go to sleep!”
I continued on to to my basement room, jumped into bed and turned on my clock radio. I flipped from station to station — WPLJ, WNEW, WABC — listening to the DJs struggling with their emotions, fielding calls from weeping fans and playing Lennon’s music. Meanwhile, fans massed outside the Dakota, where John had lived and died, brandishing candles and singing his songs.
I wanted to be there. But there was no question I would be staying put. I wasn’t going to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and take a train to a place I wasn’t even sure how to find. Not in 1980 New York. Not at 14.
The next year, on Dec. 8, I went to Central Park after school and stood with throngs of fans near the spot that later would be rechristened Strawberry Fields. I would repeat the ritual over the years, looking for answers and solace, but usually coming away feeling cold and empty.
* * *
I began to wonder whether I was making a mistake as then-8-year-old Ella and I walked into the park 25 years to the day after John’s murder. The turnout was the biggest I’d seen since the first anniversary vigil.
Thanks to both the crowd and the cops, the line leading up the “Imagine” mosaic was as orderly as it was long. As we got closer, the candles made it almost seem like we were approaching a round patch of daylight, to a soundtrack of Beatles songs provided by hundreds of voices and dozens of jangling acoustic guitars.
“I can’t see!” Ella said.
Someone overheard her. “Hey, there’s a little girl trying to get in!” a woman said, and the message began to travel up the line.
Suddenly, cops cleared us a path. We stopped a moment and took in the light, flowers, photos and fan art that obscured the mosaic.
I looked into those gray-blue eyes. She was smiling. Ella was cold and tired — but happy. For her, it was another fun Beatle day, full of music, nice people and a pleasant surprise. For her, this gathering represented a celebration.
In that moment, 25 years of sorrow lifted. Believing in yesterday is fine, but living for the moment and embracing the future is where it’s at.
I was thinking about the future that night when I extracted from Ella a vow I hope she’ll keep.
“I need you to make me a promise,” I told her. “I took you here tonight. I want you to take me here in 25 years, on Dec. 8, 2030.
“When I’m 64.”
Jere Hester is director of news products and projects at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. This story is adapted from “Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped Us Come Together as a Family,” published by Books by Brooklyn.