December 08, 2005

December 8, 1980

We were living in an NYU-owned studio apartment on the fifteenth floor of Washington Square Village on Bleecker Street. I was awaiting the publication of my first book and writing the second one; Ann was in her last year of law school and pregnant with our first child, who, three months later, we decided to name John.

The clock radio woke us, and the first sound that came over it was an announcer’s voice: “We’ll have more about the murder of John Lennon after this.”

We sat bolt upright in bed. Had we heard correctly? It had come to us at the tail end of sleep, maybe he had really said some other name, or not the word “murder.”

But when the commercial was over, we learned that it was true. Then we remembered hearing an unusual storm of sirens when we’d gone to bed around midnight, sirens which we now learned had been a couple of miles north of us.

I remember the disc jockey, Scott Muni, vowing that morning that as long as he remained in the business he would open his program each day with a John Lennon song. It was no harsh restriction, there were so many songs. Scottso had been one of the first wave of deejays to interview the Beatles in America. He was legendary in New York from the doo-wop days of WABC-AM, and in 1980 he was program manager at WNEW-FM, which was at that time the leading progressive commercial rock station in town.

I remember getting two phone calls in the next half hour or so, one from each of my younger brothers. The middle one was a rock musician up in Albany, and we sobbed together and agreed that Lennon was the most important of all of them, and like a father to us. The youngest brother was a newspaper reporter in Binghamton, just a year out of college, and he was so upset he didn’t want to go to work that morning. I told him it was important for him to go to work: he was a journalist, he had to confront hard things.

Our style of wisecracking had been learned from Beatle interviews and press conferences. Countless times we’d quoted his lines from HELP or A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, and sung along with “I’ll Cry Instead” and “Slow Down” and “Hide Your Love Away.”

Once in the 1970s, when we were living up in Yorkville, Ann and I went with a childhood friend of mine to a fancy French restaurant, Residence, on First Avenue in the lower Eighties. Sitting at the next table were John and Yoko. It was the window table and John’s back was to the room. His hair was shoulder-length, and I don’t remember whether he had a beard or not. We sat near them for almost the full length of our meal. None of the other diners approached them. At one point John and Yoko went to the bathroom together. She was pregnant with Sean. At the end of their meal, the maitre d’ brought them a tray with lots of liqueurs, and they chose samples from it. I have no memory of what I ate, and probably wasn’t noticing what I ate at that moment.

My childhood friend was a Wall Street lawyer at the time and has gone on to much greater prosperity. During our meal, he tried to minimize the importance of this closeness to greatness: he himself, he said, knew all kinds of big shots, such as financier Michael Milken and the president of Columbia University, and so he took such encounters in stride.

“What’s the matter, Cone, why are you acting so intimidated?”

“Because he writes better songs than me,” I said.

Another anecdote: a different friend of mine, who lived on the Upper West Side, was sitting at a glassed café terrace on Columbus Avenue with his Chinese-Filipino girlfriend one day, when John and Yoko went strolling past. John noticed my friend’s girlfriend and stopped suddenly and stared at her through the window for minutes on end, before Yoko came to scold him away. My friend’s girl wasn’t outstandingly beautiful. The man liked Asian women.

Some time on the morning of December 8 I went out for my daily jog, a few circuits of Washington Square Park. Or maybe it was the next day. I think I remember that it was a chilly gray day, much as it is here in Austin today. And I remember how quiet and still the streets were. Few people were out walking. There were no laughing groups of young people.

All that weekend, no one could think or talk about anything else. There were moments of silence around the world. Radios and TVs were on all the time and there was little conversation. We were all waiting for signals about how next to show our grief. I got sick of the song “Imagine,” especially as quoted by the very authorities it challenged. What I imagined was poor John Lennon being reduced to that one song, treacly and nihilistic at the same time. There were so many other songs.

We went to a law students’ party, and one guy, a student’s husband, a short, plump, blond-haired young man, told us that he and his wife lived on the Upper West Side and had been out walking at the time of the murder, just a couple of blocks away, and had heard the horrible sirens, and without knowing anything about what they were for, he had suddenly begun to cry as he walked home.

I didn’t go uptown to join the throng outside the Dakota apartment building or light candles or place flowers. I don’t like displays for the cameras.

That’s all I remember about that weekend, and it’s more than I wish there were to remember.

UPDATE: Read Ann's version here.

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