Wednesday, December 08, 2010

John Lennon Remembered

(This is a post I originally published on Dec. 8th, 2006, the 26th anniversary of John Lennon's death. I am putting it out again today, the 30th year, in case you hadn't seen it before.)
Mozart had it.

Beethoven had it.

Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers had it.

Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan had it once.

I guess Paul McCartney also had it, but I'm not sure if he still does. And Stevie Wonder, he may still have it.

But, man, John Lennon really had it: the rare ability to master each element of a musical composition - lyrics, voice, melody, rhythm, harmony, instrumentation - in order to produce perfect music - a lot of perfect music, actually - that stands the test of time. Music that sounds fresh, interesting, and vibrant no matter how many times you listen to it. Music that continues to intrigue the listener, to produce emotional impact upon the listener, year after year, and that just doesn't get old.

Plus, at least in the case of John Lennon, a social conscience to go along with it and courage in the extreme to take a stand.

I really miss this guy and continue to feel cheated that he was taken from us. I think of him each time I drive past the Dakota in my taxi and wonder what further music he would have created that now we will never hear. In fact, if I ever find myself feeling a bit too cheerful, all I need to do to restore my cynicism is remind myself of his tragedy - that the reward you get from a certain segment of the human race for creating great art is to be snuffed out like an insect if you make the mistake of letting them know where you live.

I would like to use this occasion, the 26th anniversary of his absurd death, to share with you a few John Lennon stories - really just glimpses - I happen to have as both a New Yorker and a taxi driver. A little trip down the misty passageways of time, if you will indulge me...

I actually used to live across the street from him. Mini (my ex) and I shared a large, two-bedroom apartment with another couple, Bob and Claire Luhrs, in the Bancroft building at 40 W. 72nd Street in 1975 and 1976. It was quite a kick in those days to be able to say to someone, "Oh, yeah, well, John Lennon is my neighbor, you know..."

Spotting him was kind of a game people in the Upper West Side would play in those days. You might walk into a shop and the girl behind the counter would say, "Hey, guess what, John Lennon was just here!" And lots of people would mention that they'd seen him walking around at one time or another. But I lived there for a year and had never laid eyes on him. After awhile I began to feel like there was something wrong with me! Why were these other people seeing John Lennon all the time and I never was? And then one day, finally, there he was, walking down 72nd Street toward Columbus Avenue.

The truth is, I never would have noticed him if he hadn't been with Yoko Ono. She stood out like a beacon, smiling right at everyone on the street, as if to say hello to the world, and you recognized her instantly. And then you looked around to see if he was there. And yes, there he was! - along with the baby, Sean. But his way of carrying himself was the opposite of Yoko Ono's. He wore a big hat, a scarf covered half his face, and his gaze was downward, not outward. She was the extrovert and he the introvert, it seemed. (Of course, appearances can be deceiving. If you really want to know about John Lennon's personal life, I suggest reading LOVING JOHN, by May Pang, John's companion for the year and a half he was separated from Yoko Ono.) I felt an impulse to say hello, but immediately sensed that that would be an harrassment to him, so I just smiled and kept walking.

And I saw him one other time, in 1977, when I was doing a brief stint as a street peddler. One morning Phil Reinstein and I were waiting on the 3rd Avenue side of Bloomingdale's for the truck with the umbrellas to arrive, when suddenly John and Yoko walked by. And it was just as it had been the first time - Yoko was smiling at the world and John was looking down at the sidewalk (perhaps composing a song in his mind, who knows?). And again I wouldn't have recognized him if he hadn't been with her.

They crossed 3rd Avenue and walked down 60th Street toward 2nd. Phil and I looked at each other and said, "Let's follow them!" And for a block we shamelessly did trail them, from a distance, of course, so they wouldn't know we were there. I remember two things from this little adventure: John and Yoko stopped and did some window shopping in the stores that were not yet opened, and a girl, walking by them, turned around and did the most classic double-take (widened eyes and dropped jaw) I have ever seen a human being do.

By 1979 I was a full-time taxi driver. One summer night I had two gorgeous "party girls" in my cab and they were going to the Dakota - John and Yoko were having a party.

They were both very friendly and quite conversational and one of them was kind of silly, as well. She was interested in what it's like to be a cab driver and was asking me all sorts of questions. One thing she wanted to know was how much money we made.

"Is it ludicrous?" she asked (meaning "lucrative").

"Not as ludicrous as this conversation," I replied with a smile, doing my imitation of Groucho Marx.

"Touche," her friend said, laughing. The silly one laughed, too, but didn't realize anything funny had been said. We pulled up to the Dakota and they jumped out of the cab, merrily waving goodbye before disappearing into the caverns of the building. Out of my world and into the world of John and Yoko, where so many people of my generation wanted to be.

Now, a hundred years later, I look back and think that if I'd played my cards right, I could have gotten those girls to bring me upstairs to that party. I could have said this or that and one of them would have said, "Hey, why don't you come on up with us? Come on, you'll be our guest, no one will mind." And I would have gone upstairs with them and had that experience.

When the Time Machine is invented I'm going to go back to that night and I'm going to that party. I'll stand in a corner like a ghost and take it all in and I'm sure I will realize then, more than I ever could have in 1979, what a very special and fragile time it was.

I was driving a cab on that night of December 8, 1980. Around midnight a bizarre bulletin came across the radio - John Lennon had been shot and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital. The hospital wasn't far from where I was at that moment and I decided on impulse to go there to find out for myself what condition he was in. It actually hadn't occurred to me that he might have been killed. I thought it must have been some stupid accident and he'd been shot in the foot or something.

I parked my cab on 9th Avenue near 57th Street and walked two blocks to the hospital's emergency room. There, in the ambulance parking area in front of the E.R., was a scene quite surreal. People scurried in all directions. Television broadcasting trucks and cameras were everywhere. A young man was making a spectacle of himself by kneeling in prayer with the TV cameras on him. A girl came running out of the hospital crying and screaming. Jimmy Breslin, the reporter, showed up and was ushered inside. Then someone announced that everyone should go to the hospital's lobby on 59th Street where a statement would be made to the media.

I went along.

The lobby was a small area with a few tables and chairs. The room was tight and tense and filled with about sixty or seventy people, mostly reporters from news agencies. A middle-aged woman representing the hospital came out first and briefed the reporters on how to correctly spell the name of the place and the name of the doctor who was about to talk to them. She had an odd smile as she spoke that I found annoying.

A girl standing next to me started to move her body to sit down on a wobbly table that would not have supported her weight. I stopped her from sitting there by touching her on the back, probably saving her from injury. She didn't seem to appreciate my helpfulness, however, not bothering to thank me. (It's funny how I remember this, considering the magnitude of what was happening, but I do.)

Then the doctor whose name it was important not to misspell came out and read a prepared statement. John Lennon, he said, had been admitted to the hospital at such and such a time - and was "dead on arrival".

A collective gasp - a terrible sound I have never forgotten - immediately filled the room.

A few months later I had three women in my cab who turned out to be nurses at Roosevelt Hospital. They spoke among themselves but I, the fly on the wall, overheard their conversation. John Lennon was still alive when he was brought into the hospital, they said. The doctors didn't know who he was, they said. He was NOT "dead on arrival", they said.

Could the doctors have saved him? Based on the very carefully worded statement the doctor made and the conversation I overheard, I speculate that they thought they might have been able to had they been totally on the ball. But I doubt that there's any real blame to be shared. I would suppose they did the best they could. Still, I find it disturbing to have the feeling that they were more concerned with protecting their reputations than in telling the whole truth.

So those are my Lennon memoirs. Just a few glimpses from a distance. The pictures are from the ironwork that surrounds the Dakota building, by the way.

I do think John Lennon's music will be listened to as long as people have ears. It continues to speak to us, people of all ages. I am often impressed by how well many teenagers I have in my cab are very knowledgeable of the music of the Beatles, indeed.

One other thing. You know, I wish I'd said this to him when I had the chance: thank you, John.


Loui (and his mum!) said...

Lovely story as always Gene!

J xx

Mike S said...

A fitting tribute.

John said...

Don't know if it went through.
JFK. Martin Luther King and John Lennon. We can remember what we were doing and where we were when we herd the news.
Perhaps a little bit of ourselves died then too.

Anonymous said...

I love your story about John and Yoko. I was a limo driver for years. But that was after John went on.

My brother and I used to try to see John at the Dakota when he was alive. We never did. I actually knew one of the musicians on Double Fantasy when it was released.

I, like you, feel a terrible loss about the loss of John Lennon; even 28 years later.

Anonymous said...

Another great story. Thanks Gene.
Louis NL

jodester said...

one day I'll show you John's home town ! in the mean time enjoy this :)

John said...

Yes that was another great post from you.
With a name John McCartney i have followed the Beatles all my life. When my wife offered to buy me a ticket to see Paul McCartney a few years ago I had to explain about how the past in our minds can be destroyed by seeing how our heros might have sold out and aged.
Keep them in your minds, fresh and young. Yoko is 70 now!

april said...

I well remember the discrepancy over the D.O.A. details of his death. Yoko has undoubtedly lived with and in spite of a major gag order all these years. Beautifully put tribute Gene. And yes, John (of Dublin Taxi), I share your sentiments remembering our heroes as they were, having eschewed numerous concerts of late (all free). Sadly, most of those Bic lighters ran out of butane even when we still carry a torch.