I was fascinated by jukeboxes when I was a kid. They were everywhere when I was growing up – in greasy-spoon diners, in upscale eateries and even in the dining room of the posh country club which my father would take us to go swimming. I could never resist watching one of them robotically search its rack for a particular side, put it on, and play it. Every time my family ate out, my siblings and I would bug them for change to play a record by Freddy Cannon, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, or (much to their unending chagrin), the Beatles.
The boys from Liverpool inspired a mini moral panic in my industrial home town even a good year or so before John Lennon's ill-advised wisecrack about Jesus. People my parents' age traded innumerable jokes, each one sillier and more tasteless than the next (“How much 2-4-D do you need to get rid of The Beatles?”) Everyone from borscht belt comedians to our very own teachers weighed in with their own snide commentary. Actually, my fourth grade music teacher, bless her, relented and led the class in rousing renditions of I Want To Hold Your Hand and She Loves You at the end of each class. She seemed to be genuinely enjoying it! (Did she watch the Fab Four on Ed Sullivan like so many did then? We can only guess!) It wasn't long until school administrators put a stop to it, doubtlessly due to pressure from not-with-it parents!
Anyway, back to jukeboxes. On one afternoon at my father's favorite diner, while begging him for a dime to stuff into wall box near our table, my father, businessman that he was, asked me rhetorically why I should spend a dime to hear a song once when for a dollar (or a mere ten dimes) I could buy the record for a buck and hear it as many times as I wanted to? He sweetened the deal by offering me a dollar to buy it with. That clinched it. The next day he dropped me off at Woolworth's, me with dollar in hand, heading straight for the record department. That is how I got my first Beatles record - She Loves You b/w I'll Get You, on Swan records. I played that record – both sides of it – on my little $18.00 Spear-Tone portable phonograph until the grooves turned white.
The boys from Liverpool were with me, individually or as a group, at every stage of my life. They were there when I got my first library card and my first pet. They were there when I began high school and when I graduated. They were there when I got my first part-time job. They were there when I met my first girlfriend (They weren't there the night I lost my virginity. That honor went to their mentors, the Everly Brothers, but that's another story for another time).
One frigid, snowy day in 1970, the local record shop I hung out at treated all present to a hearing of John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono's “Plastic Ono Band” album. I had heard that he was in therapy, but damn, I still wasn't prepared to hear so much anger and agony on vinyl. It got to me, because I knew he wasn't faking it. His low-key but acidic vilification of the social system he grew up in (Working Class Hero) made my blood boil; the the litany of indignities he'd suffered while growing up were chillingly similar to the ones which I'd endured. The lyric "God is a concept by which we measure our pain" (God) made me flinch. It also made me think. The primal screams at the end of I Found Out tied my guts in knots with each one.
Months later Lennon's audio Christmas card Happy Xmas (War Is Over) made its appearance. I was mesmerized by its green vinyl and Lennon's face morphing into Yoko's on the label (and remember, there was no Photoshop back then!). Its antiwar message seemed candy-coated to me but mainly it seemed to make it more palatable, not to dumb it down. The children's choir singing Yoko's refrain ("War is over if you want it!") made it almost sound to me like a children's record.
I never paid that much attention to John Lennon over the ensuing years (save for the time my idol Frank Zappa did a surprise jam session with him at the Fillmore East). I didn't dislike his music, it just wasn't my thing anymore. My tastes were rapidly gravitating toward electronic artists like Wendy (then Walter) Carlos, “Kraut rock” bands like Can and Tangerine Dream and eventually, punk and New Wave. Yet I know that even these wildly diverse flavors of music all owed props to John Lennon and his former bandmates in one way or another (I think it said something when new-wave act Generation X covered Lennon's Gimme Some Truth, one of the the angriest songs ever recorded in the pre-punk era).
I wasn't watching Monday Night Football on the evening of December 8, 1980 when sportscaster Howard Cosell broke into the play-by-play to bring viewers the news of John Lennon's assassination by a deranged fan (or by an undercover government agent, depending on who you talked to). That grim task fell to Gerry Martire. At the time, he was the general manager of WHRW, the radio station of my alma mater. A talented man with impeccable on-air patter so unlike many college jocks trying to break into the business, he'd managed to land himself a paying gig the local album-oriented-rock outlet, WAAL, or “The Whale” as it dubbed itself. I just happened to be listening to his air shift that night when he broke in after a song had just finished. As I recall, he was virtually in tears as he read the Associated Press bulletin.
I was too.