It was about 3PM on a brutally cold Monday afternoon – deep in the middle of the sort of weeks-long, marrow-cracking, brutal deep freeze that I haven’t seen since I moved to the Twin Cities, but can still feel in my memory. I was at the Wilson Ice Arena in Jamestown for my seventh-hour “Living Sports” class. We were going to go skating.
I was in the middle of one of those bouts of frenzied overactivity that I was just starting to realize I was addicted to. I was doing my usual load of classes. My band had had a gig the previous weekend, at the “Teen Canteen”. I was doing daily practices to play in a production of “Händel’s Messiah” at Dickinson State College that coming weekend (along with five of my classmates; we’d drive four or five hours through a snowstorm, do a solid day of dress rehearsals, and do the entire performance before driving back to Jamestown on Sunday).
On top of that? My young, undeveloped but still pretty left-of-center mind was awhirl over the threat of our new President-Elect, Ronald Reagan. While I didn’t like Jimmy Carter much – more later this week – Reagan scared the piddle out of me back then.
My eighteenth birthday was also coming up on Thursday.
And I was learning how to ice skate.
Well, no. I knew how to skate, more or less. But the lovely Lesa MacEwan didn’t need to know that; an accomplished skater, she volunteered to help me out. She held my hands and towed me across the ice, showing me how to move forward, as I feigned appreciative ignorance.
Gimme a break. It was as close as I ever got to having a social life back then.
It was chilly in the cavernous arena; not as cold as it was outdoors, of course, where I doubt it broke zero until April, but probably around 20 degrees. The ice was pitted and worn from a day’s worth of hockey practices, gym classes and open skating, , and badly in need of a Zamboni-ing.
The overhead PA was tuned to KFYR in Bismarck, the closest Central North Dakota came to a rock and roll station (Q98 in Fargo was just out of range, mostly, and WLS only came in on clear nights). Springsteen’s single, “Hungry Heart”, from The River, was playing, and Lesa and I were talking music as I marveled at the feel of her hands through both of our mittens in that way seventeen-year-old guys do.
And at the end of the song, the afternoon drive guy – either “R. David Adams” or “Black Jack Dave Novak”, I think – announced that John Lennon had just been shot and killed in New York, and they didn’t have a lot more details.
That day – and the past thirty years – the event has shown me a bunch of things.
For starters, I am no baby boomer. I had little connection to the Beatles; many other musicians, then and now, spoke to me more. I liked the Beatles (although I cordially disliked most of Lennon’s solo career output, including the then-current Double Fantasy album). The British Invasion was significant to me, of course – having worked in radio for most of the previous year, and knowing my way around the history of pop music, you couldn’t ‘miss it. But it was always The Who and The Kinks – the bands that the Punks modeled – that resonated with me.
And as a non-boomer who knew the Beatles’ heyday only as a historical exercise – my first knowledge of the Beatles’ existence was hearing on the radio that they were broken up – I had no idea what it was for a musical group to command that kind of loyalty from everyone. Buddy Holly was amazing, but the music really died somewhere between the day Meredith Hunter died and the Beatles calling it quits. Somewhere in that period, the hippie era ended, music split into “Black” R and B and “White” rock, the twain not to meet again until, ironically, about this time 30 years ago, but then only temporarily, like an aberration, for better or worse.
But I didn’t have to be a baby boomer to notice that the sometimes-joking, sometimes-serious calls and rumors and chatter about “Beatles Reunions” – a staple of the first couple of years on Saturday Night Live – took on a new urgency, which carried on another 20-odd years, until the death of George Harrison.
So where were you when you heard John Lennon had died?