John Lennon: 12/08/80
The 4th quarter. It’s as critical for retailers as it is for a basketball team. The game’s on the line and some three-pointers are needed. The three-pointer equivalent for retailers is a plastic-happy customer. ‘Tis the season to run up lots of debt. The plastic allows the stores to sell their goods at a torrid pace in the last few weeks of the year. At least people working in the stores hope so. Otherwise they may not be working in the first quarter. The months after the 4th quarter are usually sluggish anyway. If the retailers sell a lot when people want to buy, they can likely hang on during the slow months.
In December of 1980 I had a very good job with a national record retailer. My job was to handle the advertising for the stores east of Illinois and south of Pennsylvania. The stores in that region were in growing, mostly Sunbelt, cities. In the 4th quarter we’d sell a lot of records. We’d get those three-pointers. The record companies would subsidize our advertising as we promoted and sold their records. When everything went as planned, all were happy.
Double Fantasy, John Lennon’s first new album in more than 5 years, was keeping many of us happy. Critical reaction, perhaps due to the album’s co-billing of Yoko Ono, was mixed, but most fans were pleased. The album’s first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” received significant airplay. It had an infectious, rock and roll feel; it brought to mind old songs by Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, both early heroes of Lennon’s. The song was a celebration. John Lennon made the idea of starting over sound enticing.
The Lennon/Ono collaboration was a hit. Some were disappointed that Lennon’s hard edge was not evident, but he was still a great singer and still crafted engaging melodies. Double Fantasy, along with other albums, such as Bruce Springsteen’s The River, was doing well in our stores. Certainly the 4th quarter would put us in the “Win” column.
So with only 16 shopping days left until Christmas, we felt good about things. We could breathe easier for a few weeks. It was time to celebrate. In town with his own plastic card was one of our company’s VP’s. He liked a fine dinner and he liked company at dinnertime as well. What else could we do? The three of us in management gladly accepted his invitation to dinner at Atlanta’s preeminent steakhouse, Bone’s.
The usual talk about business took place at the table. There were some record labels hurting. A lot of merging and consolidation had taken place. My company knew much about the struggles of the record labels. We were partly responsible, given the millions of dollars we owed them. A label that needed a shot in the arm was RCA. Our VP made a crass remark, wondering if RCA wished they could dig up Elvis Presley and then have him die again. We groaned and then recalled the crazy few weeks after Presley’s death in August ’77. People came into our stores ready to buy anything by Elvis. His great records sold out first. Then his lesser material. Even the forgettable soundtrack albums were snapped up. The pressing plants went into overtime. RCA had tragically lost its greatest star but the financial windfall eased the company’s pain. After all, Presley had not scored a number one single (Billboard charts) since 1969. He was their legendary performer but no longer crucial to their bottom line. At that time, they depended on Dolly Parton, John Denver and Hall and Oates to bring in the big bucks.
A lot of us in the business so admired Presley that it hurt deeply to see him gone. Yes, much of his recent work had been lackluster but he was still The King. He left behind a lot of great music. We kept that in mind and hoped not to see such a monumental passing for a few years at least.
After dinner we returned to our VP’s hotel, thinking we might see the last few minutes of Monday Night Football. The TV was turned on but the game had just ended. The local TV news anchor came on with something about John Lennon being shot outside his home in New York. The words sped by us. Then the newsman said, “Lennon did not make it.” That’s when the news took hold. A real punch in the gut.
Before we started to comment on Lennon’s greatness, as a Beatle, solo artist, activist for peace, etc, our VP quickly collected himself and started talking to me. He said I needed to be up early the next morning, on the phone to the managers at my stores. It was my duty to remind them of how important (the VP’s word) it was to get as much Lennon stock in the stores as possible. We knew the drill. We remembered August ’77 very well. We also noted the irony of the VP crudely reminding us of it a few hours earlier.
The next morning, quite distraught, I called my managers but did not relay the instructions. They were on top of it anyway. They understood their jobs. Instead we just talked of the loss we felt. Many of us had our jobs because of how inspired we were seeing Lennon and the other Beatles on those cold winter nights nearly 17 years before on Ed Sullivan. We spent hours that day discussing John Lennon’s profound impact.
The first few days after Lennon died were days we just worked our way through. During that time his songs ruled the airwaves. People came in large numbers to our stores to buy his music. The solo recordings. The Beatles’ albums. Yet there wasn’t the frenzy we witnessed after Presley’s death. In ’77 a lot of people who rarely came into record stores sought and bought all things Elvis. Fans of the Beatles, younger than the Presley customers, were often at the stores anyway. They’d continue to seek out Lennon’s music in the years ahead. The calmer response in that regard was assuring but it provoked a summation: we’d always have his music, but we’d always miss the guy. He was the joyful provocateur who delighted and challenged us.
Paul Simon’s ’83 recording, “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” recalls the dark mood of 12-08-80 and the days that followed. The music is sad and alluring. Simon’s story is a coming-of-age tale. He sings of a young boy’s sadness over the death of R&B singer Johnny Ace. The boy had never been “such a Johnny Ace fan” but he “felt bad all the same.” Absorbing the grief felt by others, the boy orders a picture of Johnny Ace. Expressing the boy’s sense of wonder, reflective of life’s pace in 1954, Simon tells us the picture “came all the way from Texas.”
In the song’s bridge, Simon picks up the story after 10 years had passed. The young man is in London. Great cultural shifts are taking place. It was the year of The Beatles. It was the year of the Stones. A year after JFK. The young man has become familiar with the cycles in life that lift and dampen spirits.
The last verse sets the scene sweetly and sadly. It’s late at night during the holiday season. One can visualize “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” playing on some radio as Simon’s character, still a young man, is walking past the storefronts in New York. There, a stranger approaches him. The stranger asks if he knows John Lennon had died. Shaken by the news, he and the stranger go into a bar and “stayed to close the place.” Through the hours, it’s likely the two men talked about John Lennon and related subjects, all the while putting coins in the jukebox. And as each song played, memories of years gone by seemed as fresh as yesterday.
Paul Simon’s song closes with a one minute coda written by Philip Glass. Featuring strings, clarinet and flute, the coda is stark and beautiful; it captures the sense of loss described in the song and by those of us with vivid memories of that December night. Our thoughts the next several days and nights were dominated by the great loss. One of those nights my friend Bob Woodland and I met up at Manuel’s Tavern. Naturally, John Lennon was the subject of the evening. In that beloved watering hole, Bob touched on the greatness of Lennon that went beyond the music. Recognizing Lennon’s spirit and courage, Bob said, “What I really admired was that John made peace his cause, even though his stand brought him trouble. Here was a tough guy who had made his own way in the world but embraced and spoke out for peace and non-violence.” Yes, there are lots of reasons why we miss John Lennon.