We’d gone to a movie that Monday night – Scott Mitchell and I were at the Chalet Theater in Enumclaw. The Chalet has long been the ‘We-try-harder’ champion of small-town theaters. I hadn’t remembered what we saw until searching an archived copy of the Courier-Herald. “My Brilliant Career” was an early-century period piece detailing the life of a spirited Australian woman. Australian New Wave films were all the rage and the Chalet advertised Monday and Tuesday as Foreign Film Festival nights. Watching foreign films in Enumclaw on Monday night was the height of sophistication for those of us stuck in the sticks. I was living in Black Diamond and Enumclaw was the hometown I loved, and still do.
We arrived cheerfully back at Lake Sawyer about 9:30, stepping inside the Mitchell home. Scott’s sister, Nina excitedly broke the news – John Lennon was shot and pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. Howard Cosell was first to announce the tragedy, on ABC’s Monday Night Football around 8:15 pm. It was December 8, 1980.
The smile fell slowly from my face. I was shocked, but the intensity of my anguish went unreciprocated. Lennon was one of my heroes growing up. Each new song implanted a fresh childhood image, all tucked tightly as memories of things past. By college, I owned every one of their albums, most bought second-hand from record stores which populated the U-District’s Ave. I couldn’t yet stomach the news. How? Where? But most pressing, why?
The morning newspapers provided snippets of the sordid story. A crackpot, with the now-familiar first-middle-last name, assassinated Lennon outside his Dakota apartment on Central Park West. Why do assassins always have three-part names? John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Mark David Chapman.
The next day at work took my mind off the morning headlines. Yet, thoughts drifted in – there would never be a Beatles reunion. That hope died the previous evening. The following night, I watched TV news broadcasts and listened to my records. Over the weekend, I purchased the just released, “Double Fantasy” and savored his homey tunes. “Beautiful Boys Watching the Wheels and Starting Over.” But John wasn’t starting over. His dream was over, and so was ours. The dream weaver left, never to return. He told us in a song, “And so dear friends, you have to carry on. The Dream is Over.”
I carried on. Time marched along. Just after Christmas, while in San Francisco I purchased the first book released following his death. In January, I enrolled in a night class, “History of the Fifties and Sixties” at Green River Community College. It was taught by Nigel Adams. He was a passionate teacher, but he too died far before his time, ten years after Lennon. For his class, I wrote a review of the first new Lennon book. That’s what I always seem to do – write reviews of things I’ve seen or read.
It felt fitting to share it on the anniversary of the day that dream died.
Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered: by: Vic Garbarini and Brian Cullman with Barbara Graustark, Introduction by Dave Marsh. Deliah Books $2.95
Most events, at least most public events, are folded into time – the world stops for a moment, and then, a moment later, the world continues. This event refused to fold.
With the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, two facts became perfectly clear. First, the world was deeply shocked by the loss of Lennon. Second, the public obsession’s with his life and death. If newspaper headlines, record sales, radio play, and book publications are any indication of importance, Lennon’s assassination was an event of stunning magnitude for our collective consciousness. And though the public tried hard not to believe, it actually happened. It was almost as though we needed four or five days of newspaper front pages dominated by Lennon headlines, just to accept the fact, that yes, maybe it really happened. Yes, John Lennon, cultural hero was dead.
When the fact had finally settled in, writers and publishers took up the challenge – let’s see who can publish the first biography and how quickly get it out. In time for Christmas perhaps? I don’t know if this book’s publishers made their Christmas deadline, but my paperback copy was purchased on December 29th, a mere three weeks after Lennon’s tragic death. If there was ever a marvel of the modern world this was it. A book is written, edited, printed, published, bound, marketed, distributed, and in the reader’s hand in three short weeks.
In addition, two other exploitative paperbacks, which don’t even merit review, were in book stores a week after the initial effort. Timothy Green Beckley’s “Lennon Up Close and Personal” and “Lennon – What Happened?” by Sunshine Publications are trashy magazines of mere hype in paperback bindings. If nothing else, they are perfect examples of the mentality, mildly chastised by Yoko in her published message that said she didn’t mind people making a little money off of John’s death. She understood human nature.
“Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered” is perhaps as good of a book as one could expect given the time frame surrounding its publication. Parts might very well have been written before his death, with loose ends and a unifying theme added later. More likely though, the authors simply copped relevant facts from the libraries of Beatles books already in existence.
The book’s best chapters are those reviewing Lennon’s musical canon with special emphasis on his solo output. From well before the announced break-up of the Beatles until his voluntary retirement from popular culture in 1975, Lennon created the lifestyle that made him a cultural hero. Whether posing nude with Yoko for an album cover or bed-ins for peace in posh hotels, Lennon acutely recognized the power of the media. He was one of that tiny number of the truly famous who’ve effectively mastered how to manipulate the public’s thirst for the extraordinary. Yet, he never lost sight of the message he tried to communicate.
Lennon emerged as poet-philosopher to armies of fans dedicated to peace and love. Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, Lennon justly transcended the famous dictum, “The medium is the message,” and perhaps even served up his fair share of peace, love, and understanding. If there were occasional lapses (being tossed from an L.A. nightclub for crude, drunken behavior), the incidents were quickly forgiven, if not forgotten with the release of his next visionary song. Lennon thrust himself headlong into life, and for this, he was idolized. Upon withdrawing to raise a family (he wrote, sang, and partied through the first try), he was missed but admired for being his own man.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” captures Lennon’s qualities as well as any of the post-Beatles, Beatles books. Included is an explanation of almost every important mid and late Beatles song chiefly attributed to John. “All You Need Is Love” is labeled one of Lennon’s “best Utopian fantasies, a national mantra.” The author’s finest prose is saved for Lennon’s inimitable solo work. “Instant Karma” both satirized and summarized Lennon’s search for higher awareness with its hit-bound hook, anticipating an entire generation standing on the threshold of Tom Wolfe’s Me Decade. “Plastic One Band” is described as a “raw and self-indicting confession, harrowing in its stark minimalism.”
Alas, the final third of the book is little more than filler. A 37-page interview with Barbara Graustark of Newsweek lacks the warmth and incisiveness of Lennon’s superior January 1981 Playboy interview. The concluding chronological biography is no different than a dozen other Beatles / Lennon chronicles.
After finishing the book, I was most struck by its speed of publication. It broke no new real ground but serves as a simple compendium of the many post-Beatles history books of the past decade. If for nothing else, the effort will be remembered as the first well-written book that long-time Beatles-freaks or newly converted Lennon-lover could enjoy, in a melancholy sort of way.
But, perhaps it’s little more than sweet-tasting medicine to help his fans swallow one seemingly irrefutable fact: Lennon is as large in death, as he was in life.