Thirty years ago tonight I was out taking pictures of Christmas lights with my friend Roger. I was a junior in high school, Roger was graduating. We both loved cameras, and I loved his best friend who I thought was going to be joining us that night.
Austin was cold, in that good cold way –bundle up, see your breath, spike the hot cocoa with brandy stolen from Roger’s parent’s liquor cabinet. We were downtown where all the best Christmas lights were. It was only about a week until school let out for winter vacation, and we were already feeling lazy. Still young enough for Christmas to be a shiver-up-the-back morning of surprise and expectation. But old enough to envision of all of the new presents to unwrap when we finally escaped home, and high school, and the youth that we’ve probably spent most of our lives wishing we appreciated more at the time.
Austin has always been a music town. You can’t walk around a corner without tripping over someone playing an acoustic guitar. Even the deepest of dive bars has a decent band. On that night, thirty years ago, Roger and I wondered why all we heard — from every music joint downtown, from every car stereo driving by — was a Beatles song.
“Jesus,” Roger said, “Which one died?”
“I hope it was Paul,” we both said together. And laughed.
We weren’t serious. It was just one of those smart-assed things we always said about death. Death wasn’t something faraway or unimaginable to our generation. They call us Generation Jones. Sandwiched between the very end of the Boomers and year Gen X was spawned, we were weaned on the Vietnam war. We grew up with nightly news calmly discussing mutual nuclear annihilation. Personally, I’d already seen someone I knew shot dead, and most of my peers had known people who had been taken young. Drugs. Car wrecks. Suicide. I don’t remember those years as being carefree as much as being tinged with the possibility of destruction– which is a kind of fuel for the teenage soul, already well-oiled with drama, and fearlessness, and the ace-up-the-sleeve secret knowledge that somehow you might be immortal, but the rest of the world just hasn’t figured it out yet.
When Roger brought me back to my parents’ house, he joined me inside for coffee. The family Christmas tree was lit. There were a few embers still struggling to stay alight in the fireplace. My parents were asleep, so when I turned on the stereo– you remember the kind, one of those massive old pieces of furniture with speakers that took up an entire side of the room — I made sure to turn it down low. Instant Karma was playing on the radio.
“Are the Beatles getting back together or something?” Roger said.
“I wonder who’ll open for the reunion tour,” I said.
“Blondie would be cool.”
“They’re too old to let Blondie open for them,” I said.
I don’t remember exactly when the DJ mentioned that John Lennon had been killed, but he was crying. It made me think of the TV footage I’d seen of Cronkite crying when Kennedy was shot. Roger and I just looked at each other. The Beatles were not the band of our generation. But they were part of our landscape — like, well, like the moon, and the stars and the sun. They just were. And now the coolest, the most brilliant, the one we all would have liked to meet most, the one whose lyrics made Day in the Life poetry instead of just pop music, the one who seemed somehow redeemed from his own violent past and wise without being over-the-hill or out of touch, the cosmic, love-in, hippie shaman was dead.
Imagine if he’d have lived.
Imagine how he might have influenced our world.
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