Monday, November 2, 2009

Plastic Ono Memories

John Lennon signs an autograph for Mark David Chapman, 8 December 1980.  
At night's end, Lennon would be dead, by Chapman's hand.

I remember the night John Lennon died better than I remember almost anything about my childhood, remember it with clarity that verges on crystalline.  I never much liked John Lennon: he always struck me as a snarky, self-absorbed, egotistical blowhard.  I was always a George guy.  Compare "All Things Must Pass", a song subtle and profound and hopeful and altogether beautiful, to "Imagine", which sounds like a spoiled rotten multimillionaire trying to sound deep.

Before my marriage, I had a little holiday tradition: sometime around Christmas, I'd go off by myself, and rent "Local Hero", the wonderful Bill Forsyth film, and "Let It Be", the documentary about the Beatles' breakup.  If you can find a copy of "Let It Be", get it.  It's long out of print, apparently because Sir Paul thinks it puts him in a bad light.  He should get over it.  It's remarkable, and that impromptu concert on the Apple Records roof puts chills down your back, simply an amazing performance.  And Paul's the one you watch.  He's the one with the charisma, the one trying with everything he has to revive the old magic, to hold it all together.  John is just sort of there, bopping his head and looking disinterested.

Like I said, I'm not a Lennon fan.

But I came home on that Monday night in 1980, and flipped on "Monday Night Football" and heard Howard Cosell announce that John Lennon was dead and I sat in front of the teevee in that freezing, drafty white house on Sweeney Street, all alone in the dark, and I felt my throat tighten and my stomach flip and I cried.

Or maybe I didn't.

That is the way I remember it, nearly thirty years after the fact.  This is the way I want for it to have happened, the cerebral loner who loved music alone in the dark, silently mourning one of the giants of rock.  This is the way I've created that night, the way I've told myself it happened, the way I've told others it happened.  Maybe I didn't really cry.  Maybe I didn't sit in front of the teevee, aching as Cosell made his grim announcement.  Maybe I just felt a ripple of sadness, shrugged my shoulders, and went to bed.

My brother, who was three when our father died, recently wrote a vivid remembrance of my father's death and funeral.  It reads a little like the script for a Jean Cocteau film, shadowy and strange and filled with odd images.   As I read it, I found myself muttering, "That never happened" and "That's all wrong," over and over again.

I missed the point.  He was three.  He's had thirty years to manufacture a memory from whatever raw materials -- tattered recollections, stories he's heard from his mother and siblings, that fertile brain wrinkle where imagination grows -- to create something that's coherent and logical, something real, to him.

If I didn't cry at John Lennon's death, does that make that memory false?  I can still remember the bite of the Buffalo winter that night, remember the blue glow of the television, remember Cosell's voice.  So what if it was the Patriots and the Dolphins, and I've always remembered it as the Eagles and somebody else?  So what if the announcement came at the end of the game, which would have been well after 11:00, and I remember it as happening much earlier than that?  Mention John Lennon, and I am coming in from the cold, standing in that drafty house, and someone who had always been around, someone whose voice I knew as well as I knew my father's voice, was gone.  The rest doesn't matter much.

I started this blog by saying that we need to divide truth from reality, as if constructing history is like a baker separating the yolk from an egg white, something elemental and easily mastered.  It's not like that, not at all.

We still see, no matter how long we polish, through a glass, darkly.  We hold as self-evident truths that make sense only to us.  I still think we need to search for families' real history.  We just need to accept that the train we travel on is manned by plasticine porters with looking glass ties, and the landscape is peppered with cellophane flowers, and tangerine trees, and everything is subject to review.

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