So, do I really want to write, in the first place?
Ah, do I really want to do what it takes to be a writer, after all?
Can I really do it? “Aye, there’s the rub…” I can quote, but can I actually write?
This entire exercise isn’t working out as expected, nor as I’d hoped.
What do I know of Death? I started out trying to express my understanding of death by describing my experience of death, but it feels like a futile exercise, a self-absorbed picture of “Me and my friend Death”, which is both pointless and narcissistic. Or maybe I’m just taking too much time to get to the point.
But I have to know what the point is, to get there directly; so I’m going about this indirectly, looking for clues to comprehension of this immense subject.
A new month, a long list of things to accomplish and no money or means or initiative to accomplish them.
I’ve started blog posts, and left them sketchy at best. I‘m in my comfort zone where I’ve developed competence, and thus confidence: on the game grid. That is its appeal, I believe; when people are overwhelmed, out of their depth, disenfranchised from work, or worse within work, outplayed and outperformed, they resort to their computerized comfort zone: the Game Grid, to demonstrate competence.
I may display competence in the writing, but I don’t have confidence, so it’s not comfortable; it never has been, and that’s why it’s so frightening to me. And then there’s the issue of content. What have I got to say that is of interest to anyone? And how do I separate the genius from the idiocy? In retrospect, it always looks like idiocy.
I know what I have to say, I am in the midst of writing it, but I’m avoiding saying any of it, posting any of it.
I know what I’m trying to talk about – if not quite what I want to say about it – but all I wind up talking about is myself, and my circumstances, not my reactions, not my thoughts or emotions about John and the loss we sustained that Monday night, but about the chaos in my own personal life, during which I could maintain no wider perspective than the next day, the next paycheck, the next argument, the next movie, the next record, the next joint, and the next session of passionate lovemaking. I felt for the widow and the young son, I felt for my City, I felt for the wider world, but my own personal feelings were such a whirlwind, it may have taken a back seat, but it never goes away. 43 years and counting, and that December day never dawns that I don’t think about it, continue thinking about it in the days and months leading up to it. I mourn John Lennon every day between October 9th and December 8th every year. Consideration of the Christmas season doesn’t even begin in my house until after the 9th of December, and frankly it’s hardly observed at all. Same thing with Gay Pride and 4th of July. The 4th of July is usually a day of rest for me, after the madness that can be Gay Pride Month, Week and Day. I’m not active as I once was, but the days surrounding the 27th of June and that last Sunday in June are always marked in my yearly observances. Now, in 2009, Shawn passed away on October 3rd, on the Full Hunter’s Moon, further extending back the time of mourning observance, sometimes by as much as a month. My mother died on September 22nd, so basically, the entire Autumn season is about mourning for me, by now.
Everyone alive and conscious on the day Kennedy died remembers where they were when they heard the news. It was a moment of such shock that everyone remembers it. Now we are less than three months later, the holiday season has passed, and The Beatles are on Ed Sullivan.
I didn’t think much of the Fab Four before that night; my sister had bought the first #1 single, so I knew I Want to Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed; too noisy and raucous for my refined tastes – at 11 years old. But that has been a pattern, it turns out. I never judge by first impressions, because with art, some things have to develop on their own and in their own way. Already at 11, I believe I was looking for maturity I didn’t find in “Hold Your Hand”, or later “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, or “Sweet Dreams”; I had to be convinced, I had to be shown. And on that February night in the basement of my parents’ house, watching on the old TV I’d watched my earliest cartoons on, I witnessed the future, I saw the world crack back open. That was the last time we watched our first TV as a family; by the next spring, my dad had sprung for a brand-new COLOR TV.
That winter, we had been an entire nation in grief, still uncomprehending, as yet as unknowing of the reality of the situation as we remain to this day; everybody believes they know, but at the same time, everybody knows they’ll NEVER know, because those actually in the know don’t want the rest of us TO know. It was that trust, along with historical certainty and many other hard-held beliefs, that died that day. We would never again know what to believe of what we were told. The events that were to come only manifested that change we had already experienced.
But the Beatles were the real deal; they were talented AND charming, young and vibrant, full of the hope of ideals and hope in the future, something we’d believed we’d lost the previous November. In the midst of our grief, the Beatles gave us something to smile about, something to be grateful for, something to look forward to, with the next sunrise we’d felt we’d never experience again. The Beatles gave the human spirit the burst of joy it needed to carry on. They offered, they promised, and over the course of their career as the Beatles, they delivered – gloriously, to a degree no one originally thought possible. They transformed popular music, popular entertainment; they transformed the world, but the world resisted. That is as it will always be.
Over the 17 years between VJ Day and President Kennedy’s death, the world had been constant and consistent; humanity knew, men and women knew, who they were, and they knew their place in the world. After Kennedy’s death and the shifting of the ground beneath our feet, everyone seemed to regain some kind of footing, albeit on altered terrain, but the world went on turning. It would be another 17 years, but another assassination would rock our world, and wreck our sense of who we are as humans, and who we are as humanity.
It wasn’t just the actions of Mark David Chapman that wrecked our sense of ourselves; it was a larger struggle going on throughout society, throughout politics, and throughout the world. With the advent of Reagan conservatism, our very identity as human beings was undergoing a battle between who we are as a society, and who we are as individuals. Our innate nature was pulling us one way, but conservative forces in society were pulling in the opposite direction, and the forces of “rugged individualism” won out over the forces of community.
What John Lennon said to Cynthia that London afternoon, about the popularity of the Beatles – and by this time, it was worldwide; the music of the Beatles, and the forces of Beatlemania transcended all worldly and ideological barriers – Russians today proclaim the Beatles had as much to do with the fall of the Soviet Union as the politics and economics of the period. The Beatles influenced minds in ways beyond ideology and partisanship, beyond personal chauvinism. John spoke his mind, and he spoke the truth as he saw it – the Beatles had become more popular than the Church. Popularity is not a value, popularity has no intrinsic worth, because attention is fickle, and popularity doesn’t always translate into loyalty.
Personally, I draw a direct line from that statement to his assassination. He died because he offended American evangelical Christians, by pointing out the futility of their efforts. When authority turned on us, and killed a popular leader because he was leading the nation in a direction those in authority didn’t want to pursue, all authority suffered, the Church foremost among them. In America, certainly, people had always maintained a healthy cynicism about politics, politicians and government, but the Church was something else again, and John Lennon challenged that, as was his wont, as was his right.
If you read Chapman’s story, you’ll see he was another early Beatlemaniac like me and my friends, but he was a Southern Christian boy, we were New Yorkers; we took everything with a grain of salt. His conversion from Beatle fan to evangelical led him to turn against John Lennon, on a very direct and personal way. America was beginning to turn away from organized religion, and the religious organizations and organizers were fighting back with every weapon they had, outrage chief among them.
Now, I don’t know if the reborn Christian movement was as yet in its infancy, or was in fact born as a result of John’s sacrilege – he wasn’t “a believer”, it wasn’t sacrilege; it was opinion, based on his beliefs in the nature of the world – but the fact of the matter is, I’d never encountered the evangelical movement or the Christian evangelicals until I was already in high school, in the mid- to late-60s. Which is the cart, and which is the horse? How can we ever know?
This is where it gets sticky and personal, for me. I grew up on Long Island, and by 1980, I was living in Atlanta. St♥ and I had just gotten together that previous Spring; he led a rock‘n’roll band, and at the time, his bass player HAD GONE TO SCHOOL WITH MARK DAVID CHAPMAN.
MDC had grown up in Atlanta, and wound up in New York to accomplish his dirty deed. As I read more about his history, his fractured mind, I began to notice the “there but for the grace of God go I” nature of this. I have since come to believe MDC is my shadow. He came from, where I went, I went where he came from; we had the same experiences (of John and the Beatles), but we reached very opposing conclusions about what we’d been through, and what we’d witnessed. During his early solo career, John had lost a lot of appeal, to me; “This is a song about pain” was his introduction to the live rendition of his song about heroin addiction (Cold Turkey?), and at the time, ranging through bouts of cyclical depression, I ha dmore than enough of my own, and I couldn’t take on any more, even that of an earlier hero, John Lenon. I never even listened to Walls and Bridges until I bought the CD 25 years after his death. His music was not to my taste, but he was still former-Beatle John, and I followed the misadventures of John and Yoko, Quixote and Panza, the wizard and the witch, avidly.
I was happy in their happiness, and when they split, I followed the stories of the fabled Lost Weekend, watching the appalling self-destruction that often accompanied addiction. I didn’t know the details at the time, I didn’t understand addiction either by then, but I recognized pain when I saw it, and sympathized rather than attacked. I knew, somewhere in there, “All You Need” still lived within the suffering shell of this wonderful, unhappy man.
When he retired, my reaction was simply, “Do what you need to do, man.” It wasn’t until the end of the decade that I would give up the artistic strivings of young adulthood, but I understood the urge NOT TO compete, not to HAVE TO show off (of course, I had nothing TO show off, but I understood the impulse, for some internal reasons). Now, how much of my own behavior was directly influenced by the story of John and Yoko, but the parallels were strong and remain significant for me.
When he re-emerged, it was a joyous occasion for every former Beatlemaniac – or so I thought, until I learned of the twisted path and the twisted psychology of MDC. I was working early the next morning, so I was asleep when IT HAPPENED. When I found out the next morning, I crumbled, my world fell apart, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to hold it together. I DON’T KNOW WHY. I only know THAT. My life was largely intact, I was in a new relationship with the man it would turn out is the love of my life. And yet, what came out of the assassination, and the Vigil the following Sunday was a stronger bonding than we would have had otherwise; we were shattered together, and when we put ourselves together, it was as a unit, troubled and with problems to be sure, but we were well and truly bonded in our love and our grief. And those pesky, uncanny parallels.
After half of our time together, we would break up – AND I WOULD MOVE TO L.A. TO GET AWAY from the dissolution of my very life; I couldn’t remain across town from him, and not be with him, so when the invitation to move to L.A. came, I didn’t think about the Lost Weekend parallels, I just jumped. Nine months later, he jumped to be with me, and we were together until the day and the hour of his death, 8 years later.
We were Holy Fools for Art, but as St♥ was fond of responding when I pointed out the parallels to him, “They’re nothing like us. They’re RICH.”
Grow Old Along With Me/The Best Is Yet To Be
But the rest was not to be.
Yoko Ono taught me that true art two elements: expression AND communication; you’ve got to have both. For me, John Lennon’s “This is a song about pain…” was more expression than I could take at the time, it overpowered me I suppose, but instead of communicating with me, it alienated me. And I stayed that way almost until the end. I never even heard Walls & Bridges all the way through until I bought the CD, somewhere around 2004. Actually, he recorded that album during the exact time I was crossing the country on my way to California; he was in New York City, and I was running as fast as I could toward San Francisco. Once there, I had little money for “records”, and though I had a record player, I don’t think my records would have traveled that well, by thumb in 1974; what I had in San Francisco was stuff I’d have managed to buy while I was there. But the end result was that I sat on the sidelines for those first 5 years of John’s solo career. I was still an ex-Beatlemaniac, and he had chosen my own, “The City”, for his home, but even Imagine wasn’t iconic, really, until 1981; it was a genius pop song by one of the foremost artists of his generation, but his work gained so much .. stature and depth and resonance .. after What Happened. I “came back” to John, as a musical artist, with the first things I heard from DOUBLE FANTASY. “He’s back, and Yoko’s with him,” I told myself. And so it was. As it should be. Until, that night between his birthday and Christmas, it wasn’t any more.
I remember being so .. deflated .. that day, so drained, just by standing up and walking around in my “normal” day. I was anything but normal that day, and that was anything but a normal day. I lost that job almost immediately afterward. It was the suddenness, the inappropriateness, the absoluteness that just staggered me. There was no going back from this one. I had just met St♥ that previous spring; our first night was their wedding anniversary; by the time it was the anniversary of our first night, it wasn’t theirs any longer. I mean, it still had been, but they didn’t share it any longer. Then, eight years later, neither would St♥ and I. We had moved into midtown during that first year, so we were two blocks away, so we attended the vigil together, everyone had joined up into a gigantic circle on the golf course on the east side of Piedmont Park. I wrote Yoko a condolence note after What Happened, and when she publicly published a note thanking everyone for the notes she’d received, I wrote back and thanked her for the acknowledgment, and started writing to her periodically, over the next 15 years, and I know she saw my letters because I got two and a half responses. The half-response was a flyer her assistant mailed out, as a reminder of her performance with Sean – with Cibo Matto and Ween – in Central Park’s SummerStage the year he turned 21 – which I would have missed by a few hours without it. SummerStage was an afternoon music series, and it would have been over by the time I stumbled over to the Park to have a look-see. As it was, I was there, chair and all, camera in hand, and primed and ready by the time they took the stage. So, thank you, Yoko and your staff, and Sean, of course.
But, on a drearier note, it’s hard to imagine it was 17 years since the previous “everybody remembers where they were” moment – well, moments, if you count the Ed Sullivan show following the holidays – but remember, this was before Reagan got shot, the Challenger blew up, any of it. This was earth-shattering because it was worldwide, it was again, one of those instant and absolute moments when everything seems to change, seems to have changed in retrospect – and it’s not a question of direct consequence, but more the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences. No one could have foreseen the world that emerged from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. No one can point directly to the assassination of John Lennon 17 years later, and say, “This changed that”, because nothing changed, but everything changed. We, as members of the human race, had been changed. Everyone was affected – detractor and supported both, especially in light of the way his death came about, by a former fan driven to extremes of behavior by inner demons and outer indoctrination by the sensitive Christians Righteous that turned on him, and turned his fans on him with such vengeance that this is the only direct line I draw between John Lennon’s life and his death at age 40; he insulted their religion, and they incited the hate that led directly to his death. It’s even in Mark David Chapman’s biography – he was a Christian camp counselor at some point – and took on and made personal the Christian Righteous offense at John’s statement about popularity of popular music vs. religion – and that is the essence of the point he was making. AND IT’S MORE TRUE TODAY than it WAS over 45 years ago.
I was 28 when What Happened, still young enough to be in love, think of myself as invincible (“I’ve lived forever so far, so what’s to say I won’t continue to?” Now, I know better, viscerally, immediately, not mentally or imaginatively; I don’t have to imagine it, I feel it, every day, this lack of invincibility and its inevitable consequence), still imagine an open road ahead, a chance to accomplish something, to make a mark, to express and communicate, all at the same time. We weren’t failures, we were struggling artists; well, he was an artist, I was just a struggling human being, with artistic sensibilities. Henry James describes it this way, “he had a little taste, a little cleverness, a little reading, … a little French and Italian …”, and I think it was a Huxley reaction, perhaps in one of his own novels, about the limitations of “a little taste, a little cleverness” when life requires true talent to succeed – even if only talent at achieving success in whatever way lies open ahead. I had the drive but not the driver, I suppose. Half of you will think to yourself, “What is he talking about?” and the other half will think, “Oh, I get it.” There is no way to convey this drive/driver dichotomy unless you’ve experienced it, but it’s a condition I suffer from.
I fell apart that (next) day, my life fell apart that month, and stayed fallen apart until Honeywell, early in 1981, which lasted until 1984, when I skedaddled to L.A. I lost the job I’d had on December 9th by the 15th. By the 31st, my next employer had evacuated the premises, in fact the state, to avoid prosecution. It would be two months later that I found the job that would keep me going for the next 4 years. In the meantime, I found I could not for the life of me sit down and write any of the tales taking shape in my head. This was a continuation of my inability to be productive the previous May/June, when I was between jobs after failing as a Book Buyer at Georgia Tech; I didn’t know what I was doing, so it was no surprise, and no true loss, except in the moment
The world shifted, and I shifted with it, and like my cat, Mr. Huxley, I landed on my feet. Those were safe years, productive years. All the drama was in the relationship, and I rode it out through biannual moves, in and out of Midtown or the Perimeter, for 4 years of 2 not living as cheaply as one, but living on one reliable paycheck much of the time. Our lives together followed theirs together, but when I pointed that out to him St♥ fairly screamed, “We’re nothing like them. They’re RICH!” Oh, sensitive, that one. But we were; we were Sancho and Panza, a wizard and a wizard, holy fools; they lived their lives at a different strata than we did, but we joined our lives on the same day, split up when one partner went to L.A., got back together and loved one another until death did us part. They laid a path that we followed, but then something even stranger happened. Yoko started to release music; her first album (they were albums back then) was ‘SEASON OF GLASS”.
SEASON OF GLASS
Spring passes, and one remembers one’s innocence
Summer passes, and one remembers one’s exuberance
Autumn passes, and one remembers one’s reverence
Winter passes, and one remembers one’s perseverance
There is a season that never passes, and that is the season of glass
While I was living in San Francisco in the mid ‘70s, we found out that my mother had cancer, from which she would die 10 years later. Yoko taught me how to grieve, or she gave my grief a focus, and every night after we picked up our copy (it came out June 9th, we got ours that next Sunday, the 14th) until my mother’s passing 5 years later, I would listen to Yoko, and learn about grief, understand grief, and with the release of her follow-up, “It’s Alright (I See Rainbows)”, I learned that there is life after grief. Yoko got me through the greatest losses of my life, and for that alone, I will be forever grateful.
Going through the loss of John, with Yoko, for whom it was immediate and direct helped in immeasurable ways to prepare me for my own losses that were to come. That much is true, that much is a given.