Memories of a shocking death are hard to shake. Many still remember every single detail of where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated — the weather, what activity was interrupted, who delivered the news, what they did next. And not in the hazy black and white of the ’60s either. Somehow bad news has always had a patent on high definition color imagery well before it became a recent consumer option.
I was working in a small newspaper office in East Orange, N.J. It was my first job out of college, and I was just more than three months in. The tasks at this place were as mundane as they come in journalism — answer phones, take notes from stringers at town council meetings, type in death notices and write obituaries, and make sure all the high school sports scores were accounted for each night.
When the news came over a small television perched atop a filing cabinet that former Beatle John Lennon had been gunned down by a stalker outside the Dakota, his Manhattan apartment building, frankly it didn’t register, perhaps because the office was so busy, or because I just didn’t know how to process it.
I didn’t go home and cry. I didn’t pound my desk in outrage. I loved Lennon’s music, and I loved everything he stood for. But I didn’t know him. He was a celebrity as distant as Liverpool was to my hometown. Sadness was the best I could muster.
Yet something compelled me to attend a memorial service for Lennon a few days later in Central Park. I was a rock and roll fan. I was a Beatles fan. They had been like distant cousins I had never met, who never failed to entertain me either with their songs or through films like “Help!” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” When my older sister brought home a copy of “Meet The Beatles,” I recall latching on to it with both hands and declaring, “It’s mine.”
Now one of them was dead. I should pay respects.
The service was held in an area of the park now known as Strawberry Fields. News reports had predicted upwards of a half million people, but the actual turnout was far less than that, maybe 100,000.
When I arrived, people were sitting cross-legged on the ground. All was quiet, save for some soft classical music playing over loudspeakers. A small band shell stood at the corner of the field. On it was an easel, holding a portrait of Lennon.
It seemed odd that no Beatles music was playing. I wondered who was running this show, and how they could get the soundtrack of an event like this so wrong.
All of a sudden — I believe it came at the strike of 2 p.m. — the opening notes of the French national anthem, “Le Marseillaise,” which forms the beginning of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” jolted everybody from their bucolic sedation. Immediately, everybody in the park stood up and waved the peace sign as the song played. When the chorus, “All You Need Is Love” played, we all sang along at the top of our lungs.
It was at that moment that I realized just how much I would miss John Lennon.
I loved John. I hated the freak who shot him. I ached for John’s wife and son. A torrent of emotions bombarded me, as if they had been swirling, waiting for the ideal time to strike.
John Lennon was gone. It couldn’t be.
Just like those 100,000 in the park, Lennon reached people throughout the world with the power of his music. Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr made music that endured. But Lennon was the leader. He was the one the other three looked up to. Certainly the relationship changed over the years, especially when it came to John and Paul. There was a rivalry there, remnants of which exist to this day; Ono and McCartney have clashed over the order of songwriting credits from some songs.
But Lennon was brash, bold, iconoclastic. The people who were fans of John connected with his irrepressible spirit. He was the rule breaker, the mischief maker, the one who once proclaimed the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ (and he heard an earful from rebuttal witnesses).
As it turned out, “All You Need Is Love” was the perfect selection for that celebration of John’s life in the park. The Beatles were approached by the BBC in 1967 to compose a song to be performed in a first-ever global television event, which would be shown in 26 countries. The Lennon-McCartney team worked separately on that one. It was John who finally came up with “All You Need Is Love.”
Love was his driving force. It brought him into music in the first place. It helped provide a cavalcade of classic Beatles tunes. It propelled him into the anti-war movement in the ’60s, and into bed naked with Yoko for photographers. It was responsible for sons Julian and Sean. Despite times of friction, his boundless love spread to the other Beatles, and from them to the rest of the world. Even the brief French anthem intro was the Beatles’ attempt to sooth tensions between Britain and France.
Although it has been 25 years since his death, it still really hasn’t completely sunk in. Certainly he is missed. But his image endures. And his music, solo and with the Beatles, continues to provide comfort and enjoyment for baby boomers and new converts. The love that is felt from his continued presence trumps the pain of his untimely exit.
What might help people get through this anniversary is to put on “All You Need Is Love” at full blast while standing and singing along. It still works for me.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.