DECEMBER 8th, 1980

the day my childhood died

My little corner of SUBSTACK is called “The Blues News”, yet I haven’t yet had a chance to write about my life in music. My thoughts - like yours, I’m sure - are constantly preoccupied with the societal catastrophe our governments have wrought in their criminal mishandling of

the Covid pandemic. I must take time away from that preoccupation now and then, lest it drives me insane. Today’s piece is not about *my* work in music but it is about a musical hero of mine and the way his life and death have shaped my life. I promise I’ll get to the juicy music stuff at some point soon.

George G

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Toronto winter arrived with a bang in the beginning of December 1980. Daily temperatures plunged to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and the keen Lake Ontario wind felt like a razor blade. Monday, December 8 was one such day: blustery and cutting. I hurried home, ate dinner with Helga, finished prepping for my Tuesday morning class, we watched some TV and went to bed. The radio was always on, even though in those days radio programming substantially lacked in diversity: it was all hard rock, all the time. CFNY was the exception: the station played a lot of “new wave” music, and up and coming Canadian bands. It was highly unusual that all they were playing that night – it was around midnight – was Beatle music. CFNY never played Beatle songs, unless they were covers done by a more current artist. The Beatles were old hat. Other stations might have played the odd cut, like Let It Be or Yesterday but CFNY considered itself cutting edge. True outré radio. Had something happened to one of the Fab Four? Were they planning a reunion? That would have been major news. I was in bed reading, the radio kept playing Beatle music, but no announcement was made. I turned it off, turned out the light and started drifting off.

The phone rang in the living room; our red Bell touch-pad phone we had proudly purchased a few weeks earlier. I leapt out of bed. In that instant I knew something terrible had happened. It was my good buddy Danny S. from Los Angeles. A decade prior, Danny and I were the only two kids in our Tel Aviv high school who had long hair and ignored the dress code by wearing jeans to school. We would often skip classes to go back to Danny’s place and listen to our favorite music on Danny’s dad’s high-end stereo system.

“John Lennon is dead, man. John is dead. Shot in New York” Danny was sobbing. I said nothing, held the phone to my ear and waited for more. There was silence. All I heard was Danny’s sobs. I hung up, shook Helga awake and turned on our little TV set. There it was: the Dakota building on the Upper West Side of New York City. Police lights flashing, people scurrying back and forth, sirens blaring. The announcer was barely able to get the words out. “John Lennon was fatally wounded last night just before eleven o’clock, as he and Yoko stepped out of their limousine. Lennon was taken to Roosevelt Hospital in a police car but was pronounced dead on arrival.”

There were more details, but we were too stunned to take them in. I called Danny back. Not many words were said. We just cried. John Lennon’s death was the end of a road. A fabulous, exciting, colorful road of youth, hope, possibility, and music that inspired my own life journey and millions of others. There had never been and never will be a band like the Beatles. Of course their music was fabulous. Their vocal harmonies, their tunefulness, their inventiveness – all unparalleled in popular music. But more importantly, they were arguably the only rock band that truly changed the world. They changed fashions and trends and they opened the world of music to millions of boys who longed to be like them, look like them, play like them. In my own case the feeling of loss was perhaps even more keen. For so long during my childhood, the Beatles were “forbidden fruit”. Unlike British and American teenagers, I couldn’t just walk over to a music store and buy their newest release. I had to wait for months and pray it would become available - in strictly limited quantities - in one of the “foreign currency” stores the regime permitted as a tiny release valve for the isolated population. Since my family had relatives in “the West”, we were able to receive limited amounts of foreign currency to be used in these exclusive shops. Beatle records sold out in minutes. The underground rock’n’roll grapevine buzzed with excitement when a new record made it to Prague. Line-ups would start forming as soon as word had gotten out. I had bought my very first Beatle record, “A Hard Day’s Night” in Israel, but “Help” was purchased in a foreign currency store in Prague. I begged my guitar teacher, to show me the chords to their songs, which he was happy to do. I remember he had trouble deciphering the exact chord changes of a few tunes, and I, in turn, had trouble playing some of the more complex chords. One day, a classmate had brought in a copy of an album we knew about but had never seen or heard: “Rubber Soul” Not much studying was done that day. There was no place at school to play the album; we just passed it around and gazed at the cover, tried our hand at understanding and translating the song titles: “Norwegian Wood” – why would the Beatles sing about Scandinavian timbre? My favorite track from that record – when I finally got to hear it – was and remains “Girl”. Definitely in Lennon’s top five for me. The ethnic sounding melody – almost Jewish, I thought – and Lennon’s vocal delivery are breathtaking.

That’s how it was for us in Prague in the mid-1960’s. Every Beatle recording, the music, the vocals, the cover art: it looked exotic, sounded wild, it even smelled different. It was a world we wanted to be a part of, a world we had to make certain we WOULD be a part of one day. It all spelled freedom to us, teenage boys behind the Iron Curtain.

And now Lennon was gone. It’s hard to describe the grief we all felt 41 years ago. This was the end of the past; that much was obvious. With Lennon’s death, our teenage years, our formative years, were undeniably over. But it also felt like the end of the future. Nonsensical for a young man of 27 to think that – but that’s how it felt. We had all been hoping the day would come when the Fab Four would get back together and with the advances of recording techniques would make even better music than before. Perhaps that was just a desire to extend our youth, who knows? I felt hurt, confused and lost. None of it made any sense. All I know that Lennon’s assassination is as important a milestone in my life as the day my father died – just 7 weeks later, and the day my mother died, 40 years later. Something was torn out of my world on December 8th 1980, never to be found again.