By Mike Derrico
Taken from …AND THE CATHEDRAL FELL TO THE GROUND: Tales of Rock & Roll Suburbia
Long before I turned 27, I was always aware of all the rock stars who died at the age of 27, along with the fact that there were so many of them. I grew up with rock music being at the center of my life, and now squirming my way through my late 40s, not much has changed.
We grow up listening to the music of these people…idolizing some of them…aspiring to write or play like them…look like them. As kids, they’re our icons, and they seem so much older than us. They’re adults, but not adults like our parents. They’re cool, hip, and we want to be like them. Yet, they’re adults, and so much older than us. We exit our teens, hit our 20s, and suddenly we’re aware of something…our own age. At some point in my mid 20s, it hit me that one day I would officially have outlived all of those dead rock stars. It seemed surreal. Even when I was 25 or 26, artists like Hendrix seemed so worldly and evolved, as if he had passed through far more lives than I ever would have passed through by that same age. But on May 9, 1998, I turned 28, and it hit me that I had been alive longer than Hendrix was. And Janis, and Brian, and Otis, and Jim, and Kurt. I politely include Kurt in this only because he died at 27. I did not grow up listening to Kurt’s music the way I did the others simply because he was only three years older than me, and we were pretty much the same generation. There are rock stars of all ages who have died. The same profound thought has occurred to me every time I realize I’ve outlived someone. When I turned 33, I realized I outlived Keith Moon and John Bonham. I could probably come up with someone’s death for every year of my adult life, but I’m sure I’ve made my point. The point is, man, it’s just fucked up when you realize you’ve been on the planet longer than your icons were.
When I turned 40, I immediately calculated the time frame between John Lennon’s 40th birthday and his death. Lennon lived only 60 days past his 40th birthday. With that information applied to myself, and imagining myself as Lennon, I tabulated my death day as July 8, 2010. I remember a few days before July 8, thinking if I were Lennon I’d only have a few days to live. On the evening of July 8, I didn’t have anything in particular to do. While it was still light out, I sat on the back deck and watched some friends play horseshoes, a clanking, clumsy and lumbering game in which I could never take the noise of. I must have left and taken a lengthy drive somewhere because I remember being on the road as it grew dark. It makes sense because horseshoes bored the piss out of me and I probably left while everybody else clanked away. At some point, I decided I was hungry and ended up in a dreadfully long White Castle drive-thru line. The clock read 10:50-something as I approached the point of ordering. I sat there thinking to myself “If I were John Lennon, I’d be getting out of the limo right about now. I’ll be shot in another minute.” As I’m thinking this, I’m rudely interrupted by a woman named Paula who says in one breath, “Good evening, welcome to White Castle, my name is Paula, may I take your order?”
Paula is asking what I want to eat as I’m flashing on Lennon walking past the guard booth toward his bloody death.
“I’ll have a number one with a Coke please,” I tell Paula.
Lennon is shot four times as a fifth bullet ricochets around the archway of the Dakota, cracking the glass of the guard booth. The sound rings out and echoes across 72nd Street, up and down Columbus Ave, and into Central Park West and beyond.
“Would you like that with cheese or without?”
Blood spills everywhere as Lennon stumbles up six stairs and collapses into a vestibule. Yoko shrieks out a blood-curdling scream and falls to her knees over his body. Lennon’s bloody glasses would soon be imposed on the retina of the world some six months later when they appeared on the cover of Yoko’s Season of Glass album.
“With cheese. And can I get one bacon and cheddar slider in addition to that?”
My mother tells me that I danced with the refrigerator to “Maggie May” at the age of one. I have no memory of this, but as the story goes, I was just learning how to walk, and when the Rod Stewart classic (brand new at the time) would come on the radio, I’d stand with my hands against the green Frigidaire and sway back and forth from leg to leg. I suppose this was the first music I was affected by. Slightly off topic but always crucial to the point, I’m one of those people with Superior Autobiographical Memory. Those are the people who can literally remember every day of their lives. You can throw any random date at them and they’ll tell you what they did that day, what they wore, what they ate, where they went, what day of the week it was, and things like that. Anyway, I’m sort of one of those people. Sort of meaning there are less than 50 confirmed cases around the world, and I’m not officially one of them, as I only have a mild case of it and I’m not nearly as endowed in the details of memory as the most severe cases. Most memories I have though, are accompanied by music. Memories and music seem to go hand-in-hand throughout our lives. This can be said of most people, although many are not aware of it, and many who are aware don’t spend too much time contemplating it. I contemplate it.
My memory is very calendrical. If no such word exists, I’ve probably invented it. It means guided, informed, or pertaining to the calendar. In my mind’s eye I see calendars floating everywhere…just kind of like hovering in mid air. Sort of like icons on a computer desktop. You click on whatever you want to enter. If somebody asks me about December 5, 1980, I immediately see a timeline in my head, floating up there in space with 1980 pushing its way up front in a Mandelbrot Set effect, the fractal being a calendar marked December, as the zoom lens of mid air pulls up Friday the fifth so close that I’m transported back to that day. I’m suddenly inside it. I automatically know I’m in fifth grade, and I’m on the school playground playing kickball with my class. As I’m running from second base to third base, some fat douchebag charges into me and knocks me well into the outfield where I land and hit the back of my head on a rock, splitting it open. My head, not the rock. I remember this Friday not only because of such a traumatic event, but because John Lennon was still alive, and come Monday, he’d be dead.
At the age of ten, I wasn’t yet a Beatles fan and wasn’t all that familiar with Lennon or his music. I had heard of the Beatles, but for reasons beyond my comprehension and reasons we will get into a little further along, I thought they were Elton John’s backing band. Yet, it was the event of Lennon’s murder and the way in which it dominated the news for the next few weeks that left an indelible impression on me for the rest of my life. I remember some teachers crying the morning after it was announced. My teacher kept mentioning it all week and saying how sad she was and how important Lennon was to her and to the rest of the world. At this point in life, I was still listening to my Kiss records and was just beginning to branch out in my interest in rock music. I really had no idea. Two weeks later on a Sunday afternoon, I was at my grandparent’s house in Elizabeth, New Jersey. For some reason most of the family was there as we often were on Sundays….aunts, uncles, cousins. In the dining room, the talk was split between English and Italian conversations on various different subjects going simultaneously. I was in the living room focused on the TV where every channel had cut to a Special Report (“Breaking News” in today’s terms). Reporters were camped out with thousands upon thousands of people in Central Park where Yoko Ono was about to lead a vigil for John and a worldwide ten minutes of silence. Not a moment of silence. Ten fucking minutes of silence. That’s how big the death of this one person was, and as a ten year old kid who didn’t yet understand the magnitude of the loss, the vigil made the whole experience that much more intense and intimidating. Even my family, none of whom are Beatles fans, reacted with complete quiet. Somehow all of the conversation broke up into dead silence as we all just sat or stood there with our eyes on the TV. It was an excruciating ten minutes that lasted forever. Silence. Nothing but silence as the TV kept cutting to people standing outside in the cold crying. People crying everywhere. And silence. Nobody in my family was crying. They seemed rather indifferent to the whole thing. But nobody said a word for ten minutes. That’s very telling toward the power of who this man was.
Seven years would pass before I would begin to become personally effected by the death of Lennon. On December 8, 1987, I was hanging out in the bedroom with WNEW on in the background as it always was. They played one of those “today in music” segments where they recounted 1980’s WNEW Christmas concert, an annual fundraiser that featured a different artist each year. The narrating voice of this short segment spoke about the event of that year as a success, and briefly mentioned how everyone was feeling festive and in good spirits, and how the good cheer of the holiday season was present throughout the evening. And then in words and a changing tone that I’ll never forget, “It was an evening of the highest highs……to the lowest lows.” Suddenly the narrator’s voiceover cuts to a clip from the night of December 8, 1980. The voice is Vin Scelsa’s. He doesn’t sound his usual talkative self. In fact his voice is trembling and hesitant. He then says something to the effect of “I just got an official report that John Lennon died tonight.” Then an uncomfortable silence rarely heard on live radio. Scelsa continues, “I…I…I’m at a loss for words. I think for the first time in my career on the radio I don’t have anything to say.” There in my bedroom, following those words, I was instantly hit with a flashback of my initial experience with Lennon’s murder. I remembered not fully knowing about him or how significant his death was. I also remembered the ill feeling of knowing something extra terrible had happened by the way so many adults were crying, and when you’re a kid that young, nothing scares you more than seeing grownups crying. It was a memory that I suppose I had hidden since then, or blocked out so to speak. By this point in my life, at 17, I had a much better perspective on the history of rock music, and through this brief radio clip, was hearing for the first time what it sounded like if you had learned of Lennon’s death from radio. The sound of a broken up Vin Scelsa also left a heavy impression on me, almost as traumatically indelible as the event itself through the eyes of an unknowing child.
From that moment, December 8, 1980 was never at any time all that far from my imagination. For the better part of my adult life, John Lennon’s murder has been something of an obsession. I’ve studied, dissected, and analyzed the shit out of the subject from every angle possible. I’ve retraced John’s footsteps on that last day of his life, and with further extensive research was later able to retrace his final week on the planet. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve stood outside the Dakota trying to envision his view every time he left home and walked out on the street, so freely and unprotected. Of all the celebrities and music artists who can’t go anywhere without bodyguards, John was one of the four most famous people in the world. We don’t have to go over the importance of The Beatles. In the world of music, there was the Beatles and there was everyone else.
And there were only four of them.
Four people who wrote and recorded a major chunk of the greatest music of our lifetime. And one of them trusted mankind so much, that he put himself out there unprotected and accessible to anybody who wanted to meet and talk with him.
You wanted to meet John Lennon?
Stand outside the Dakota for a while and eventually he’d come out. And even back then, long before the word stalking became an everyday vocabulary word in the tabloid press and the pop culture it reflected, you couldn’t just stand around and meet anybody. It didn’t work that way even back then. Most stars were inaccessible, and the thought of even getting near someone was far-fetched. Not with John Lennon.
And so he went out one night in early December unprotected just as he always did, and he came home to meet the bullets that ended his life. Almost eight years later in October 1988, I went with a bunch of friends to the opening night of Imagine John Lennon, the first and only real feature film with a theatrical release to celebrate and mourn the life and loss of Lennon. It had been almost a year since I heard the Scelsa flashback on the radio, and memories of that entire weekend in December 1980 began haunting me. I’ve heard of people blocking things out of their memory, but as someone who remembers everything, and more than most people, I’ve realized that I must have been blocking out Lennon’s death as first experienced from the viewpoint of a ten-year old. And starting late in 1987, I began to remember it and think about it regularly. Within the course of the next year, I’d begin getting into the Beatles catalog very quickly. I went through a heavy metal phase during my teens, and at 18, I was outgrowing it with my tastes expanding and evolving. By the end of the summer of 1988, I had been through every Beatles album and was around five albums into Bob Dylan’s catalog. I had taken a genuine interest in the counterculture of the 1960s, and was beginning to let my musical tastes travel back 20-25 years. I had just graduated high school, and as someone who hated school, got atrocious grades, and found history boring, it was a remarkable transformation as I quickly began to delve into modern American history and pop culture as it was reflected through music. The Beatles, although from across the ocean, had left a permanent mark on the States, and the States had left a permanent mark on the Beatles. I identified mostly with John and later on, George. Going into the fall of 1988, Lennon and Dylan’s music had spoken to me in ways that no other music had ever done before. For the first time, lyrics began to take precedence over the music. It helped of course, that I liked the music of both artists, but for the first time in my life, I was getting things out of the words to songs that I never got in the metal stuff I had been listening to for years. Bruce Springsteen would be an exception through those years. But even though I knew I was finding something substantial in his music, my connection with the Boss was kept in the closet around my metalhead friends who were beyond redemption and caught up in the total superficiality of metal and the 1980s metal code, which read: If you listen to any music other than metal, you’re a fucking homo.
Going into the theater in South Amboy, New Jersey on the night of Friday, October 7, 1988, I had already been profoundly effected by Lennon’s music in the months prior. Imagine John Lennon was set for release during the weekend of what woud have been John’s 48th birthday, so this was something we had been looking forward to. When I say “we,” I mean my core group of friends (Tom, Eric, and Chris) along with a host of others associated with us. It was true, what they said about graduating high school. Once you leave, you never see any of those people again. And in my pre-Facebook life, it was mostly just me and my inner circle of people with whom I’ve always been unapologetically myself. There were around a dozen of us in the theater. I remember some girls who were there to hang out with Chris were talking through most of it, and Tom got pissed off and quietly got out of his seat toward the back of the theater and went to sit by himself down front. For some reason, that always sticks out when I think of that movie. Regarding the movie itself, I only ask you, the reader, to put in perspective the timeframe we’re dealing with. It had only been eight years since we lost John. A lot of the footage we’ve seen so much of and often take for granted had not been seen before. At the young age of 18, I was still soaking everything in. Watching this film was an experience of one revelation after another. By the time it ended with the expected and inevitable death report and aftermath footage, I lost it. The credits rolled, the lights went on, and people filed out of the room. I remember sitting there with tears streaming down my face and taking several minutes before I got up to go meet my friends out in the parking lot.
And so, on the night of July 8, 2010, sometime between 10:30 and 11:00, I drove away from the White Castle with my number one and an extra bacon cheddar slider. Being the obsessive motherfucker that I am, there isn’t a goddamn thing that I don’t consider or think of going into any situation. I miss nothing. That means don’t ever try to pull one over on me because it will backfire on you even as it’s happening. That said, it hit me as I drove home: John and I were born at different times of the day. If I were measuring my time on the planet against John’s, I would have been dead a few hours already since I was born earlier in the day. But the drama of the evening that John’s murder took place was far too indelible not to recreate in my mind in real time. So I ignored the fact that I was dead, and kept driving. As I pulled up and parked my car, I envisioned the police arriving at the Dakota in response to shots fired on 72nd Street. I grab my Coke and White Castle bag, get out the car, close the door, and head up the walkway toward the stairs. Jose Perdomo, the doorman at the Dakota is pointing out the guy who shot me. He has a copy of The Catcher in the Rye with him. It’s one of my very favorite books. Pretty soon, he’s going to use it as his reason for killing me. He sees himself as Holden Caulfield and he needs to free me by removing me from the planet. He saw me as an innocent about to be corrupted, so he saved me.
I call bullshit.
Holden Caulfield, as confused and miserable as he was, never hurt anybody.
I go in the house and shut the door. My two friends, Stick and Stick are comatose on the couch and the chair next to the couch. The television is on showing Woody Allen’s Interiors. Both Sticks are looking at the television, but neither of them can see it. I sit down at the table in the kitchen and begin inhaling my food, barely chewing it. Just devouring it. I think of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever as he’s shoving the burgers into his fat Tony Manero face and his friends are ridiculing him for not chewing. Big chunks of hamburger going down my throat.
Ya know what, Joey? I’m gonna turn into a dog.
I sit staring into my food for longer than I would like to. After this is all over, it’s around 11:10, and I head upstairs for a shower. As I’m lathering up my head with shampoo, my mind wanders over to Roosevelt Hospital where I’m in the hands of Dr. David Halleran. Throughout the rest of my shower, my mind is flashing on what the chaos in and around the emergency room must have been like. I’ve often wondered what went through John’s mind in those initial moments after he was shot. As freely as he lived, venturing around town unprotected on a daily basis, he still carried around a sense of paranoia until the day he died. There was always that sense of they.
After fighting to remain in the United States, a certain level of fear resided within him. Nixon had an FBI file taken out on him less than a decade before. Once he was hit by those bullets, there had to have been something going through his mind, even if only for a fraction of an instant where he thought, “They finally did it. They got me.”
He never got to know his killer the way we did. He was never told why he was killed, yet we were given very specific reasons for it. Yet, for a brief flashing second after hearing his name called, followed by the burst of gunfire that ripped four holes in his body with extreme precision, John Lennon must have thought or at least wondered what the hell kind of government order was behind this. Of course there remain the conspiracy theories that suggest Jose the Doorman, a supposed former CIA agent, was the real shooter, but that’s neither here nor there, and it doesn’t really matter. Either way, John Lennon was still fucking dead.
I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off at around 11:20. It was then that I was pronounced dead. I threw on some shorts and a t-shirt and headed to the living room where my two friends were still seated in the same spots, their heads bobbling around in Oxycontin nods. I lay down on the other couch pinning the hair on the back of my head to the pillow. My hair has been in that shit stage between short and long that happens when you skip a few haircuts and it begins to take on length. It has a natural wave to it, so I lay against a pillow to make it dry straight. Summer is a bitch. The TV is still on but nobody is watching it. I fall into a deep zone-out trance reflecting on the past night, realizing I’m very much alive and quite happy to be. Amidst all of that zoning, my mind begins to fade and my body begins to drift.