Nothing to kill or die for

Thirty-one years ago tomorrow, I was an 18-year-old moody kid.  My mother and step-father’s seemingly happy marriage was exactly 16 days from imploding, but no one knew that yet.  It was just another Tuesday to endure before looking forward to Christmas holidays.

In other words, it was a normal Tuesday morning for this teenager.  He was young for his age, naive in some ways, though he’d lived through a lot already in those short first years of his life.  More than anything, he was insecure.  He’d learned to hide it very well over the previous three years, to mask it, but it had never ever really gone away.

But at this time, things weren’t bad.  Yes, he was moody, but what teenager wasn’t to some degree?  Yes, he thought he knew everything and his parents knew little.  Yes, he thought this was one of the hardest times of his life.  It would be years before he would understand these were some of the best years of his life.

And the one thing that always got him through the worst times.  When friends let him down, when family disappointed him, when life became hard…he could always retreat to his room and put an album on.  Music was his salvation.  Music made all the bad stuff go away, even if for a little while.  Music was rebellion, it was attitude, it was confidence…it was everything he wanted to be and could be, even if it was for the duration of a three-minute song.

Music was life.

So on this Tuesday morning, the teen was, as usual, the first one up in the house, his parents both retired and usually not up for another half-hour or so.  He got up, let his dog out, had his shower, let the dog back in, fed her, then set about getting his own breakfast.

Before he poured out his cereal, he was already turning on the stereo that was set up in the dining room, already tuned to Ottawa’s CHEZ 106, the only radio station worth listening to at the time.

And the teen was delighted when he came in just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” began playing. 

The teen then set about getting his breakfast, singing along with the words, memorized years before and, as far as he was concerned, not only one of Lennon’s best songs ever, but one of the best songs by anyone, anywhere.

Then the teen sat down at the dining room table, opened a Fantastic Four comic book and had only gotten a couple of pages in by the time the song ended.  And then the DJ came on and told the teen that John Lennon was dead, that he’d been shot late the night before.

And I sat frozen, one palm flat on the table, the other holding a forgotten spoon, as the tears first welled up, then spilled over in a torrent.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  I realize now that I was having my first panic attack. 

I don’t know how long I sat there.  I don’t know how long I cried for, but it was quite a while.  Then I got up and called my brother.  He’d heard the night before so he’d had some time to process it.  We commiserated briefly, then I had to hang up.

Around then, my mother came out from her bedroom.  She saw me and immediately asked what was wrong.  Again, looking back, I’m sure she was simply relieved nothing was wrong with her son, but at the time I took her reaction as callous.  Cold.

Though I felt I could barely function, as though my brain had grown cold and sluggish, I still managed to be ready and waiting as the bus stopped to pick me up, the last student before hitting the high school.  I don’t remember what anyone else on that bus looked like.  I wasn’t seeing anything.

I also don’t remember much of that school day.  I know I drifted from class to class.  I know one of my friends, Robert, seemed as upset as I was, the two of us having discovered the Beatles around the same time.

And yes, I know some of it was the fact that I was enamored with the music of not only the Beatles, but of all four musicians’ solo work.  And some of it was my age.  I know how, from an adult perspective, it’s stupid to become so despondent over a guy who, when it comes down to it, wrote and performed music for a living and did some strange events with his strange wife.  I know all this.  Hell, I knew it then.

But my world got a little bit darker then.  It would get much darker before I began to finally see some light again, but this was like the first hint of that.  With those four words, “John Lennon is dead”, I had been led to an abyss that I had only been vaguely aware of previously, and I had been shown a first glimpse of its depths.

And my tour guide was a shitstain named Mark David Chapman.

It wasn’t just that my world got darker, it was the blossom of an idea that there were other people out there that were simply monsters in human skin.  That there were minds out there that were broken and twisted.  That there were some that would hurt you badly, and do it on purpose, and smile as they did it.

This wasn’t the world the Beatles sang of.  This was all the injustices John Lennon railed against, both in speech and in song.

This was this other world, this darker world rising up and muzzling him, shutting him out, cancelling him out.  This was the dark hating the light and swallowing it.

I couldn’t, as that teen, ever express that sudden knowledge, and the paralyzing fear that accompanied it.  I don’t think, before writing this, that I’ve ever had the words to express it.  I don’t feel I’m even doing it justice now.

All I can say is, that teen, that moody, naive, insecure, scared teen had his eyes opened a lot wider that day over three decades ago.  He didn’t like what he saw, and, for a long time afterward, he flinched and looked away, not wanting to believe what he saw.

There’s a lot of good and beauty in this world.  I know that.  But not far behind it, sitting just out of sight, but always ready to rear up and tear your heart out, there’s a lot of bad.  There’s ugliness and terror.

John Lennon fought that ugliness.  He saw it for what it was, looked it in the face and had the courage to stare it down.  To shout it down.

Even knowing that one day, it may get the better of him, he still railed at it.  To quote another singer, he kicked at the darkness til it bled daylight.

I don’t ever think we’ll see his like again.

And all these years later, right or wrong, I still miss the man.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one


5 thoughts on “Nothing to kill or die for

  1. You’ve written your tribute honestly, Tobin. Teens need good role models, and it just so happened John Lennon bridged the sentiments of more than one generation of listeners who chose to dream his dream. In today’s Globe and Mail, a small article about how Lennon spent his last day, thankfully captured by the iconic photograph of him with Yoko, naked and entangled. And in a late day interview, expounding on how much more he had to do in his life. All the love and innocence and messages of peace he brought to us died with him. And his killer lives. Life is not fair, but that will never change.

    Thanks for the thoughtful presentation of your thoughts about a teenager’s pain at the loss of a role model.

    • Thanks, Mary. You know the funny thing? As I related the events of that morning when I found out, my heart was back in my throat and I was tearing up all over again. Three decades on and that pain and loss is still riding just beneath the surface.

  2. I was never much of a Beatles fan, I much preferred the Stones, but their legacy (and Lennon’s as well) is undeniable. It’s incredibly sad that a man’s quest for peace was ended so violently, but his image remains a symbol of hope.

  3. Tremendous post Tobin, written poignantly from a teenagers point of view. Sometimes I think writers should be called ‘rememberers,’ we remember things in ways others don’t. People generally have only a vague recollection of the past or it slips out of consciousness, but writers remember in living colour each nuance of their lives, large and small. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. This is an exceptional post, Tobin. I was right there with you through the whole thing. You wrote beautifully how your world took a mad curve in a new direction. I love how you captured not only the morning you heard of Lennon’s death, but tied it into your mother and step-dad’s divorce. A lot was going on to make you a troubled young man. I can believe you still find those emotions about John…he was a master. A man born to change the world. Love what that singer said about him…”he kicked at the darkness til it bled daylight.” That’s beautiful…and so is your writing.

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