Sunday, December 9, 2012


On the night of December 8, 1980 my son, eight months old at the time, was asleep in his crib, my wife—now ex-wife—was out with a friend and I was...well, I don't recall what I was doing.  Maybe working on a script (I don't write much at night these days, but in '80 all-nighters were still commonplace) or just puttering around the apartment.  What I do remember is the phone ringing, some time after ten o'clock:  It was my old friend Karen Berger (yes, we've known each other so long she was an old friend even then) calling to tell me that John Lennon had been shot.  "Is he okay?" I asked.  "He's dead," she replied—and it was clear from her tone that she knew it was true, but couldn't digest that awful reality.

I got off the phone, switched on the television—and the global mourning ritual soon began.  At first I was taken aback by the public displays of grief.  Strange as it sounds, my connection to John Lennon—to his extraordinary life and music—ran so deep that his death felt profoundly personal.  It was as if I'd lost one of my dearest friends.  I couldn't quite wrap my head around the fact that millions of people around the world had lost one of their dearest friends, as well.

Perhaps it wasn't so strange at all.  Lennon lived his life openly, nakedly; raw emotion poured equally into songs and interviews.  This was a man who, almost compulsively, shared the deeps of his heart—the highest qualities and the lowest—seemingly without reservation.  I'm sure that quality was hard for some people to take, but that's what drew me to Lennon, almost instinctively, from the first time I saw John, Paul, George and Ringo perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.  I crave honesty, the raw core of the soul, in art —and John Lennon delivered that in spades, first as a member of the Beatles and then, with even more soul-baring honesty, in his solo career.  A career I'd expected to follow for many more years.

"He's dead."  Those words still resonate in my mind and heart.  Thirty-two years ago?  It feels like thirty-two minutes.

©copyright 2012 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. I remember that day, well, sort of. I was 7 and everybody was talking about the assassination. I did not know who The Beatles were. All I cared for were my toys, and DC comics super-heroes. But in a way I felt sad.

    Years later when I realized the importance of The Beatles and John Lennon things were strange because his legend was living somewhere in our memories. Truth to be told, I still think Lennon is not dead.

    You wrote about this topic, myths transcending life so well and about the 20th century, politics, wars, peace and love and changing the world one heart at once at the superb The Life And Times of Savior 28, which I really thought it is as good as Moonshadow, which tops my list of favorite comics.

    Still speaking of John Lennon, I always think of the tv show Wonder Years, the special episode when the kids make a protest against the Vietnam War in their school and they sing Give Peace A Chance.

    You play guitar don't you ? Whenever I try to write a good song using Major and Minor keys, with little accidents, mainly adding 7th notes, I rip off the Beatles.

  2. I learned so much of the art and craft of songwriting and singing from listening to the Beatles, Daniel. Just about everyone in popular music has been influenced by them in some way. Their impact is incalculable.

    You asked if I play guitar: If you want to sample my music, just hop over to the section of the site called (surprise!) music to get a taste of my CD, "How Many Lifetimes?"

  3. I was 11 years old. I woke up for school the next morning. I was in sixth grade, attending Seth Low Intermediate School in Brooklyn, NY. My mom was already awake, and first thing she said to me was, "John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his house last night." I was literally still half-asleep, so while I heard her, it didn't really sink in and I didn't really react to it.

    I was a Beatles fan already, but at that time, I didn't know much about their personal lives. I didn't know a thing about where any of them lived, or the Dakota. So I envisioned John living in a suburb in England, standing in front of his nice, quaint house, and some crazy man just running up to him and shooting him and then running away.

    It wasn't till I got to school and saw the reactions of the kids in my class that it truly became "real" to me. I remember thinking "Wow... it really happened." That's also when I discovered that the catchy new song I'd been hearing on the radio over the last few weeks, "(Just Like) Starting Over," was actually by John.

    That night at dinner, I blurted out to my parents and older sister, "Why couldn't this guy have had lousy aim and hit Yoko instead?" I was scolded by everyone at the table, rightfully so. But in defense of my much younger self, it wasn't so much that I wanted Yoko out of the picture, it's that I didn't want John to be gone. (Keith Richards said something sort of along the same lines on a TV interview not too long after--not about wanting Yoko to have been shot instead, it was more like, "Eight million people in New York City and he chooses JOHN to kill? Er, ahm, not that he should be killing ANYONE, but, uhm..."

    Anyway, a few days later I watched the silent vigil on TV and got pretty choked up. I started thinking that if I had the power to travel through time, I would go back and prevent this from happening.

    I still can't help but IMAGINE what things would be like, what things could have happened, if John had lived.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that, Glenn. I don't think a month goes by when I don't ponder, in some way, what the world would be like if Lennon had lived.

  4. Hey JM, man your music rocks, wonder how tempted between two great talents you are! Rocking songs and you are definitely a professional guitar player. I play heavy metal mostly, but I am not GOOD :-)

    1. Thanks so much, Daniel. I'm very proud of that CD and have been looking for an opportunity to do more recording. (I've got enough material for at least three more at the moment.)

      Re: the great guitar work. I'm a rhythm guitarist, like my hero Mr. Lennon. I had a fantastic lead guitarist playing on those sessions.

  5. Hi, J.M. My name is Declan, and I'm a long-time reader. I wanted my first post here to be about how much I admire your work (especially your early-90s run on "The Spectacular Spider-Man," which got me hooked on comics), but that's a post for another time. For now, I want to respond to your John Lennon piece. I apologise in advance for how rambling this will be.

    I was born on 15 December 1981 - a year and a week after the death of John Lennon. I grew up a fan of the Beatles, but a fan for whom the Lennon's death was always part and parcel of Beatles history. I never knew the Beatles before Lennon was murdered; and, to be honest, the fact that Lennon died a tragic death made him more alluring to me (an immature attitude, but one not surprising coming from an Irish Catholic kid raised on stories of noble martyrdom). So I've always had to rely on other people's stories of feeling the shock of Lennon's murder, not having one of my own.

    All of these stories - yours included - are moving. One of the my favourite tributes to Lennon came from one of his friends - my main musical hero, David Bowie. At a show in Hong Kong on 8 December 1983, Bowie told his audience that the last time he was with John, they came across an old Beatles jacket in a market stall, and Bowie asked Lennon to try it on. Lennon obliged, but Bowie told the crowd that the jacket didn't fit. John had outgrown it. Bowie's anecdote is an effective reminder that while John Lennon was a Beatle, he was also much more than a Beatle.

    In his book "Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988," Michael Palin recalls that, on a day he was supposed to spend revising his "Time Bandits" script, he felt "A plunge into unreality, or at least into the area where comprehension slips and the world seems an orderless swirl of disconnected, arbitrary events. How does such a thing happen? How do I begin to comprehend the killing of one of the Beatles? The Beatles seemed the mortal immortals, the legend that would live and grow old with us. But now, this ordinary December morning, I learn that one of my heroes has been shot dead."

    Something about Palin invoking "the legend that would live and grow old with us" makes me wonder if the death of John Lennon - horrible as it was, in itself - also profoundly affected people because it reminded them of their own mortality. In 1970, Lennon sang "The dream is over," but I doubt anyone believed him. As long as the four Beatles were around, there was always the hope - no matter how slim - that they would get back together and sing again, and fans could relive whatever it was they felt in the heady days of Beatlemania. But after December 1980, a generation would have to accept that a chapter of their life really was over, and they would have to let go and grow old. Maybe you can tell me if I'm right or wrong about that. But, of course, while Lennon might be representative of a generation, he doesn't belong to it. His accomplishments transcend time, and I'm sure every day there are new fans discovering them.

    One more thing, J.M. Today I got around to watching this year's final episodes of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," both of which I recorded last week, days before the senseless massacre that took place in Connecticut. Jon Stewart ended the year wishing his audience happy holidays and imploring them to "Just be safe," and Colbert's episode finished with a performance of "Merry Xmas (War is Over)," with Sean Lennon on guitar and co-vocals, and the Harlem Gospel Choir singing, "Let's hope it's a good one, without any fear."

    An unbearable poignancy.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your heartfelt and eloquent thoughts, Declan. As someone who grew up with the Beatles as they were happening, I'm always amazed at the impact they continue to have on the generations that followed.

      I suspect that, had Lennon lived, something like The Beatles Anthology project would have happened (in fact, it was being discussed while he was still alive) and that he would have participated, offering up a much needed bit of Lennon wit...along with his usual mix of cynicism and idealism. And, who knows, maybe they would have made some music, too.

      Didn't see the Colbert show. I'll have to look it up on Youtube.

      Thanks for checking in, Declan. Don't be a stranger. And happiest of holidays to you and yours.

  6. Thanks for your kind response, J.M. :)

    I remember there was an issue of "Q" Magazine about 20 years ago that had a "What if they'd lived?" piece on a number of dead rock stars - Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious - and John Lennon. Fan fiction, basically. In Q's fantasy scenario, the climactic highlight of the Live Aid concert in 1985 was the the Beatles' reunion performance. I don't know how likely that would have been, but I do think that, had Lennon lived beyond 1980, he and Paul McCartney, at least, would have gotten back together for something, sometime (after all, they very nearly made an impromptu appearance together on "Saturday Night Live" in 1976. In hindsight, it's maddening that they didn't do it...but then, they probably thought if they didn't do it then, they could have done it some other time. How could they have known that wouldn't be the case?). If anything, I think George Harrison would have held out against a Beatles reunion more than the others would have. In any case, it's intriguing - and, in my case, difficult - to imagine what a 72-year-old John Lennon would be like.

    A digression: I've recently been getting into Harry Nilsson, who for years I'd only had a passing knowledge of (a smattering of songs, being aware that he was one of John Lennon's drinking buddies, etc). I recently watched John Scheinfeld's excellent documentary film on Nilsson, and the segment focusing on his reaction to Lennon's death is quite affecting - the stunned belief that so many people had, followed by the personal devastation that he'd never had his "last conversation" with John. Nilsson spent much of the following decade campaigning against handguns, to the detriment of his musical career.

    Thanks again for the kind words and well wishes, J.M. And, of course, for your most excellent blog. I wish all the best for you and your loved ones these holidays.

    1. And the happiest of holidays to you and yours, Declan.

      I love Nilsson. A wonderful songwriter and one of the greatest voices of the rock era.

      Re: Lennon still being alive. I've sometimes imagined that he and Paul would have gotten together to write a batch of new songs and then record them acoustically. Two voices, two guitars, just as it was in the early days when they were first writing together. Somewhere, in some parallel universe, I hope it happened.

    2. Admittedly, I'm only at the novice stage of appreciating Nilsson, but to me, he almost seems like a hybrid of McCartney and Lennon - the sweet, medodic sensibility of Paul, combined with the irreverence and cynical wit of Lennon. That's probably too reductive a view, though. I'm certainly looking forward to exploring more of Nilsson's work, beyond his 2-disc "Personal Best" anthology.

      As for Lennon and McCartney, J.M., have you by any chance seen the 2000 TV movie "Two of Us," the dramatisation of John and Paul's get-together in 1976? Starring Aidan Quinn as Paul and Jared Harris as John? It's a nice, bittersweet little film, though not without its flaws (Lennon is too infantilized, IMO), and it might have worked better as a play rather than a film. Although apparently McCartney did like it (which is more than can be said for "Backbeat"...).

    3. I think you're right on the money in your analysis of Nilsson, Declan. He was, in many ways, a sort of hybrid of John and Paul. And yet very much his own unique talent.

      I saw "Two of Us" years ago. It wasn't a dramatization of a John and Paul get-together. It was a complete fantasy. I think you're right that it might have worked better as a play. As a movie, I didn't really care for it, especially the portrayal of Lennon. Although now that you point out that it was the great Jared Harris as John, I may have to watch it again. He's an amazing actor.

      And, for the record, I liked BACKBEAT.

      Thanks again for checking in. I'm always up for a good Beatles/Lennon discussion!

  7. I think Ian Hart was a pretty good Lennon in "Backbeat," although I wasn't sold on Aaron Johnson in "Nowhere Boy" (too pouty-lipped and pretty to be Lennon. Looked more like Pete Best). I haven't seen "Lennon Naked," so I don't know how good Christopher Eccleston was in that one. But personally I find it hard to suspend my disbelief when I'm watchng actors portray someone as iconic as John Lennon. I'd rather watch a documentary than a dramatisation (and thankfully, there's no shortage of Lennon/Beatles documentaries out there. Still waiting for 1982's "The Compleat Beatles" to get a DVD release, though!).

    It's interesting that dramatisations of John Lennon tend to vary in terms of what years of his life they choose to portray. You could string together "Nowhere Boy," "Backbeat," "The Hours and the Times," "Lennon Naked," and "Two of Us" (in that order) to get some filmic semblance of the chronology of Lennon's life - although the quality, and accuracy, will be variable...

    1. Never saw LENNON NAKED, Declon. Wonder if it's on DVD or YouTube...?

      It would be interesting to string them all together but you're right, the accuracy would vary wildly: You'd end up with a Lennon who was just an IDEA of the man instead of the man.

      Happy Holidays to you and yours!


  8. I'm going to try and enjoy the holidays, but here in Western Australia we're apparently facing one of the hottest weeks on record - we're looking at 40ºC (104ºF) for the next seven days (well, we're luckier in the coastal regions to the folks further inland, who have to put up with 45ºC [113ºF]). This is what Christmas is like in the Southern Hemisphere...

    J.M., have you heard of Peter Serafinowicz, the British comedian? On his series, "The Peter Serafinowicz Show," he had a recurring segment called "Ringo Remembers," in which Peter plays all of the Beatles (as well as being a terrific impressionist, it doesn't hurt that he's from Liverpool himself). His Paul McCartney is especially good (in fact, Peter was supposed to voice McCartney in Robert Zemeckis' aborted 3D remake of "Yellow Submarine"). The "Ringo Remembers" clips are all up on YouTube, in case you're in the mood for something silly and you're curious to see Ringo's Bond theme, Paul's "erotic" Christmas pop song, and John's "big-headed" original lyrics for "Imagine." I'm especially fond of the way Benedict Wong doesn't bother to hide his English accent as Yoko Ono. :-) Peter also did a parody of McCartney's "Blackbird" ("Head Lice") for Funny or Die, and a clip of John Lennon supposedly inventing the iPod in 1968. They're on YouTube as well...

    1. Never heard of Peter Seafinowicz, Declan, but you can bet I'll be looking up those YouTube clips.

      A HUNDRED AND FOUR for Christmas? You have officially blown my mind. Stay cool and make sure you have a cold drink waiting for Santa!

  9. The heatwave has finally broken. Apparently it was Perth's fifth hottest Christmas Day on record, and its hottest December heatwave since 1942. With weather like that, a lot of people head out to the beach, but I prefer staying indoors with the air-conditioning. (I'm well-used to these blistering-hot Christmases, but I still retain an enormous fond nostalgia for the winter Christmases I used to get in Scotland/Ireland. I've not had a White Christmas since about 1985 though! What I'd really like to do one day is experience Christmas in New York. Rockefeller Center and all that. I have been to NYC, but it was in the mid-year.)

    As for Peter Serafinowicz... I also recommend "Look Around You," a science-education-show spoof that ran for two seasons (2002 and 2005), which PS co-wrote and starred in. It's quite hilarious, especially if you're a fan of utterly absurd things being delivered with matter-of-fact mock-earnestness. It also replicates the visuals and music of late 70s/early 80s educational films so precisely that the first time I saw it, I had no idea it was a parody...

    1. Glad the heat wave has broken, Declan. We had a white Christmas here in New York and it's freezing now. If you need to cool off, you know which direction to go!

      I really enjoyed the "Ringo Remembers" bits—but you knew I would, didn't you? Sharp, funny and yet affectionate.

      A very happy new year to you and yours!