Early every winter, I think about the day John Lennon died. I remember it clearly. I woke up that day (Dec. 8, 1980) at 5:30 am to deliver my Detroit Free Press route and couldn’t believe what I was hearing on the radio. Howard Stern, who was a local Detroit DJ back then, was literally crying on the air about John Lennon being shot. I got to my drop point to pick up my papers and my friend Ian was sitting on his stack of papers (the two of us picked up our papers at the same spot) reading about the shooting. We both sat there in the dark and freezing weather (it was probably 15° that morning) reading about the tragedy. It was a sad morning. I’ll never forget it.
Years later I read somewhere (I honestly can’t remember) about how the greatest losses to 20th Century music were the premature deaths of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and George Gershwin. Each of these musical geniuses greatly shaped music as we know it today and would have continued to do so if not for their unfortunate early demises. It’s impossible to say what direction their music would have taken had they lived longer. We only know what they accomplished and who they influenced while alive. Gershwin lives forever as the creator of such timeless gems as Porgy and Bess, An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. Jimi Hendrix (who shares my birthday) electrified the world with his songs and guitar. I challenge any rock, blues or funk band since him to deny he was an influence. And John Lennon, of course, wrote some of the most beautiful and thoughtful music on the latter 20th Century. Here’s a little background on each.
George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershovitz in 1898 in Brooklyn, NY. I can’t verify this, but I attended a lecture on Gershwin a few years ago at the DSO, and learned that Gershwin had a very troubled early life. He was basically a “Bowery Boy.” He ran with gangs, indulged in “adult” activity as early as eight years old and spent time in reform schools. Suffering from extreme excessive compulsive behavior, Gershwin never picked up an instrument until age 11 when he heard a violin playing while he was cutting class. He decided he wanted to make music and devoted every day of his life to music until his sudden death from a brain tumor at age 38. His music has thrived for ¾ of a century since his death, and Porgy and Bess is often performed by major opera companies worldwide.
Jimi Hendrix busted onto the worldwide music scene with his explosive performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. If you’ve never seen it, I urge you to do so. Now! He played the guitar like nobody before him and knocked down barriers of race and genre in a way few have been able to do. He didn’t play the guitar. The guitar played him. His rise to fame was quick (but not as quick as many think) and his fall was sudden. Before he shot to stardom, Hendrix actually played with several popular bands such as The Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson. His big break came when he met a member of the group The Animals and the rest is history. His death in 1970 at age 27 deprived the world of one of the most inspirational and creative musicians of modern music.
John Lennon was, well, do I need to even explain? We all know who he was and what he did with the Beatles and as a solo artist. He was the world’s most popular musician in the early 70s, who gave it all up to be a husband and a father. His return to music in 1980 (or was it earlier?) gave us one last great album before he was shot and killed by a lunatic who thought he was John Lennon. Whatever. That idiot took something from all of us and left nothing but memories. I’ve been to the spot where Lennon was killed and it feels strange to stand there. Back in the late 80s, I traveled to Liverpool and visited some of the famous Beatle locations. I recommend that trip to any Beatles fan. Seeing Penny Lane was wild. I mean, there it was, Penny Lane, with the fire station and everything. And Strawberry Fields was an orphanage around the corner from where Lennon spent much of his youth. And I saw the spot where the Cavern Club once housed a very young crowd hysterically screaming for a very young Beatles. I even saw Lennon’s childhood home. The bus driver on the way to his house told us that he was in a band that competed with the Beatles. He told us that anyone who wasn’t in a band back then just wasn’t right. “There was somfin wrong wit you if you wasn’t in a band back then! I knew John a lit’l bit. Not really much, though.”
So that’s that. Sorry to make this so long. I love music and I love all three of these guys. I just wish they could have lived a little longer to give us more of what they did so well.