Friday, September 18, 2009

The Grounded Walrus

Despite my scholarship, I still needed money during my first semester of college. So, I took a job as a campus switchboard operator. Generally, I worked really boring shifts (Sunday mornings, Monday nights), where I might get maybe five to ten calls per hour on a busy day.

A shame, too. With two banks of twenty connections each, I was loaded for bear--especially on a tiny campus with a live-in population of about 800.

One Monday night, I had settled in with a good book, anticipating yet one more shift of tedium. And for the most part, that’s exactly what I got, until suddenly, almost all eight hundred spaces lit up at once. I first thought that something had gone wrong with the console. Worse, I feared getting the blame for it. But when randomly plugging a connection into one of the calls, a terse, feminine voice from one dorm asked me to plug her into the room of another. I then fielded a call from an outside line. Another voice, another request. Time and again, I plugged in to find that someone urgently wanted to talk to someone else. Within a couple of minutes, I’d used up all forty connections, and still hadn’t made an appreciable dent in accommodating the traffic. I took my own, dedicated operator’s line. Starting from the top left, and working my way down, I plugged in, and explained that I had maxed out my lines. I asked the party to call again in a few minutes, and pulled the plug out again without waiting for a response, all the while patching in fresh calls as old ones terminated.

It didn’t take me long to realize that nothing was wrong with that console. Something really big had happened. Alone at the front desk, I couldn’t even guess. Half an hour, forty-five minutes later, things had quieted down some, although I still frantically pulled and plugged.

One of the dorm head residents dropped by the office to complete some paperwork and turn it in. I didn’t have time to talk to him at first, but eventually I got a short breather.

“What’s happened?” I asked.

The HR, looking down on his paperwork, calmly, emotionlessly said, “John Lennon’s been shot.”

“John Lennon? Are you sure?”

He placed his report in the inbox muttering, “Howard Cosell just said so on Monday Night Football.”

“Is he dead?”

For the first time, the HR glared at me, his face red, his voice struggling against rage. “Of course, he’s dead,” he spat back, his contempt at the question raw and sore. “He got shot didn’t he?”

At the time, I couldn’t understand his anger. After all, I didn’t kill John Lennon. And people survive shootings, just as rumors of celebrity deaths often turn out false. I couldn’t fathom the level of his grief, either. To me, it’s sad when anyone dies, so I could understand some distress. But it seemed wrong for someone to mourn so profoundly over somebody he never met—unless the decedent had a tangible, identifiable impact on the mourner’s life (e.g., a political or social leader).

Of course, that might have been the point. What seemed to me a sad situation constituted “such a loss” (his words) for the ex-Beatle. The HR took the shooting personally. Lennon must have had some impact on his life, as if he were a political leader or figure. In fact, shortly after Lennon’s death, people referred to it as an ‘assassination,' which I found equally curious. I couldn’t figure out what political ramifications his death might have had.

I also wondered why someone would lionize John Lennon in the first place. Okay, he’s famous. His death meant the effective death of the Beatles—who, for ardent fans, seemed always on the verge of a reunion. But from what I knew of him, the man was something of a flake. In his famous 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Little Richard spoke about the naked hatred Lennon had for him personally because of his homosexuality and race—a hatred not shared by bandmates George Harrison, Paul McCartney or Pete Best. Then, of course, there was Albert Goldman’s massive 1988 biography, The Lives of John Lennon, which I read in grad school. It depicted Lennon as a psychotically violent and narcissistic hypocrite—and that seemed reasonable to me.

My understanding of Lennon changed after a few years in New York, largely in part due to the number of friends and acquaintances who had personal contact with him on the streets of Manhattan. The image they painted of him stood in stark contrast to Goldman’s portrait. Granted, people often speak favorably of the dead, especially people they’ve met. Nevertheless, I could begin to fathom the high public esteem for the man. My informants characterized him, in a sense, as the anti-celebrity, a famous person who didn’t act as though he were anyone special.

In time, although I can’t say that I ever became a fan, I would develop a deeper appreciation of the man and his accomplishments. After all, people do grow and change for the better. And after becoming involved with cultural studies, and doing more research, I began to see the political implications of Lennon’s life, and death. Thus, the term ‘assassination’ seemed possibly accurate.

During the course of developing this X. Dell alter ego that I have taken on, I also began to question the conventional wisdom surrounding the case. As the Twentieth Century drew to a close, I began to consider the possibility that John Lennon’s murder was the result of a conspiracy.

I wasn’t the only one asking that question.

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  • At 12:09 AM, Blogger foam said…

    so great to have you back, ..
    this is a great introduction to your conspiracey theory ..
    and of course it's a conspiracey. if you say so, it is .. definitely .. :)

    and guess what ...
    i know how to operate a switchboard too ..
    i was in the same position of needing cash as a young university student.

    i'm not really exactly sure where i was when lennon died. not on the switchboard though. i mostly remember the shocked reactions of other people and of dd. i didn't quite have that reaction, just the normal sadness when somebody dies tragically. i did like the beatles very much, even picked out a favorite beatle .. george ..

    i liked many of lennons songs. i remember feeling a bit out of touch because so many of my friends practically worshipped him and i didn't though.

    i do remember with whom i was when i saw the lennon memorial in central park for the first time .. :)

  • At 12:58 AM, Blogger Devin said…

    I agree with foam Xdell so great to have you back posting altho I know you are busy as heck -I remember the Lennon murder well-and he is one who I liked so much of his later music-altho I bet it is the opposite for people growing up in his era -very much a tragedy!! another of America's "Loan Nuts" shot him-and it seems as if we have an awful lot of them here! I enjoyed this post-shoudl have waited to read on Sunday-I have been awake about 27 hours and its making my already minimal intelligence seem less! I will come back to this Sunday-have a beautiful weekend my friend!!

  • At 1:16 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    So, Foam, you remember whom you were with when you first visited Lennon's memorial in Central Park?


    I'm not saying there was a conspiracy. I'm just asking the question.

    Devin, dude, by all means get some sleep.

    And you're right. For public figures, "Loan Nuts" seem to be an occupational hazard.

    (Hey, you're sleepy. I do worse when I haven't gotten at least ten winks.)

  • At 1:20 AM, Blogger pjazzypar said…

    Coming back strong! I did not know about his dislike for Little Richard and it is quite surprising actually. I always figured that Lennon had a very liberal, open-minded ideology (It just goes to show you). In any event I do not know enough about the circumstances surrounding his death to say whether it was a conspiracy or not, but I am sure you will enlighten me as this series progresses. Welcome back :-)

  • At 8:47 AM, Blogger Dale said…

    X. Dell Fields Calls Forever! :-) Lovely to read you again, I've been busy (doing nothing really).

  • At 11:57 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Pjazzypar, Lennon became more sensitive to political, racial and feminist issues as he grew older. Lennon, in fact, supported Black Panthers financially and personally. He demonstrated against labor discrimination based on race (or at least planned to--got murdered before he could do it).

    In short, the John Lennon of 1961 wouldn't be the John Lennon of 1969. When people think of him politically, they're thinking of him as a mature man, not a young one.

    Dale, glad to see you nonetheless.

  • At 2:06 PM, Blogger Libby said…

    x, that's interesting that you say that lennon became more liberal mostly seems like it goes the other way as you get older...hmmmm...

  • At 5:52 PM, Blogger Mary said…

    Lennon had a rude awakening about race when he married Yoko. It's common nowadays to see white men with Asian women, but back then it wasn't. I remember one story about how John and Yoko sent blank cards out through London for people to write messages back to them. Expecting the stunt to have a fun/positive vibe, they were instead stunned to receive a lot of racist anti-Japanese hate mail.

    On a side note, it's worth watching George Harrison's interview with Dick Cavett, just to see Harrison casually mention he'd heard the American Red Cross discriminated against black people when giving out aid. Cavett got this look on his face that was nearly identical to Mike Myers' when Kanye West made his infamous "George Bush does not care about black people" remark.

  • At 6:07 PM, Blogger dr.alistair said…

    according to some, lennon and his manager had a thing for a while in germany.

    maybe that`s why little richard set him off.

    lennon`s mum/wife is the biggest clue as to his emotional state, whereas his political state was always fascist.

    he identified with che guevara a nd castro, not because of his love for "the people" but because of the power they exerted over people.

    he also dissed the queen, which even as a child, i disliked.

  • At 6:10 PM, Blogger dr.alistair said…

    oh, and his music mostly sucked after the beatles.

    and yoko ono should never be anywhere near a microphone.

  • At 6:13 PM, Blogger Charles Gramlich said…

    I've generally been pretty ambivilent about Lennon. I didn't really care for his music that much and didn't follow his political stuff. I know someone who lionized him though and it never quite made sense to me. Of course, I don't really understand that attitude toward any celebrity figure. I can appreciate them or dislike them but none of them has any kind of huge impact on my life.

  • At 8:45 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Libby, it depends on the person. I can name a lot of people whose belief systems changed because of what they experienced or witnessed. It wasn't that their values changed. It was simply that they reassessed how those values applied afterward.

    Mary, welcome to the X-Spot, and thanks for your comment. I've heard about that, and other instances where people expressed disapproval over Lennon and Ono's union. I think he was perhaps in the prcess of reassessing many of his attitudes at the time, but you're right. His relationship with her opened his eyes to many things, not just about race and gender.

    I find it also interesting that to this day a lot of criticism of Ono bears varying degrees of racist tinges--for starters, the characterization of "dragon lady" that has haunted her for decades.

    Alistair, I see you've read the Goldman bio too. In his last interview, with David Sheff, he mentions that Epstein had fallen in love with him, but that was years after his association with Little Richard. And Lennon (as well as the other three) had great affection for him. The whole band took his death pretty hard.

    As for your characterization of him as a fascist, I'm sure he and many others would disagree.

    Charles, when I first came to New York, I would be in conversations where Lennon's name would come up, and people would literally look skyward. Good thing they did. That way they couldn't see my eyes rolling.

    Of course, how an individual feels about a particular celebrity isn't really the issue, here. What I wish to look at here is how others viewed him, and what they might have acted upon those views.

  • At 12:00 AM, Blogger Mayden' s Voyage said…

    I was fairly young when he died- and the news reported he was shot by a crazy guy...but in 1981 (?) NYC seemed to me to be big pool of crazy people- or at least that was what I remember thinking. Or that it was a dangerous place to be.
    Obviously the easy thing is to be spoon fed a version of the truth the media, or powers that be, want you to swallow. Someone shot at Reagan too- which was more upsetting to me, because I thought the President was of more value than an aging rock star. (sorry mom!) But again, I was a kid and these are fuzzy memories.
    BTW- if I didn't know better, Foamy was getting a little mushy in her reply here :) lol :) NYC is a lovely place- and I found the people of that city to be very special when I was there- not so long ago.

  • At 7:35 AM, Blogger dr.alistair said…

    a view i read regarding lennon`s death was that he was beginning to prosetylise in ways that certain types weren`t happy with.

    i read a story once where some young people had approached his mansion in england with the idea that the great hippy god would welcome them in put them up.

    he had them seen off by the groundskeeper.

    my view was that he was always the power broker type, and that he got a taste for socialist views and saw how youth could be caught by the romanticism, not just for album sales, but for political motives.

    we see this sort of thing today with bands like green day and bruce springsteen and john mellencamp...and strangely enough, dee snyder.

    lennon`s attitude was one of self-loathing, and as he gained wealth and notariety, this feeling grew.

    the mommy/wife thing didn`t help either, in fact it did much to anger and alienate many who loved the beatles and saw the damage this new partnership did for his persona and his music.

    personally, i though mccartney was the creative genius in the band and that harrison lent a steady crafted hand to the mix, whereas lennon brought an edge that was always going to be disruptive.

    i heard an interview on radio here in toronto with a recording engineer who had worked with the beatles at abbey road studios. he said that lennon`s heroin use became so bad that he was virtually useless for long periods of the sessions.

    ringo was always the goofy clown, but held a back beat that is clearly identifiable to this day.

    and i never believed that a lone nut killed lennon.

    psychotic/delusional types are aimed.

    look at the types of people who take out abortion doctors for instance.

    they come from religious groups that prey on weak minds.

  • At 8:13 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Mayden, New York isn't nearly the dangerous place popular mythos has made it out to be--as you perhaps know by now. Still dangrous things can happen anywhere.

    BTW, I was on the road, traveling to Colorado when Reagan was shot. That's an interesting story too.

    Then again, it might not matter what you or I think of Lennon. The point here is what someone else really thought of Lennon, and wondering how far they would go to act upon those feelings.

    Alistair, I'm not familiar with those particular stories about Lennon (other than the heroin use, which Lennon himself was quite candid about). Perhaps you could point me towards a source?

    I also wouldn't deny he creative role played by the other three. To me, the question of McCartney as opposed to Lennon was always one of those angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin arguments.

    If psychotics/schizophrenics are always aimed, we would still have to question whether or not Chapman actually was psychotic of schizophrenic.

  • At 7:16 PM, Blogger dr.alistair said…

    i had always thought the fact that the government wanted lennon out was common knowledge.

    the story about the kids at lennon`s mansion was something i had read somewhere, though the source esxcapes me for the moment.

    the mommy/wife thing is pretty self-evident.

    regarding chapman, i couldn`t say conclusively his psychological profile, but asperger`s is my first thought.

    asperger`s is a spectrum of behaviours and deficits that appear in clusters.

    the question in chapman`s case was who conditioned him to go after lennon.

    given the attitude of the government`s attitude toward lennon, one could surmise that they might have wanted him hit.

  • At 12:37 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Alistair, thanks for the link. I didn't find anything corroborating the story of Lennon being rude to people, but there was some good stuff there on his immigration defense from someone who apparently worked on it.

    As for Asperger's, Chapman's highest IQ scores fell in the range of 115-125. Maybe a form of Asperger's

  • At 7:48 AM, Blogger dr.alistair said…

    asperger`s is a spectrum of behaviours. social ineptitude, physical awkwardness, obsessive ideation, etc.

    limited i.q. isn`t always one of them.

    many computer geeks, doctors, judges and other eccentrics fall into to the spectrum of diagnosis for asperger`s.

    as for lennon being rude to people, one doesn`t have to go further than a live royal command performance where he encouraged those in the royal box to rattle their pearls.

    it has become fashionable in a modern liberal secular society to be openly rude and offensive in many ways, and particularly toward the royal family.

    mr.lennon could be seen as a pioneer in that capacity.

    the story about lennon`s rebuff of the hippy kids was written in a biography i read many years ago.

    i`ll find it eventually.

  • At 7:27 AM, Blogger Holy Cannoli said…

    This is going to be an interesting series. I can't wait to read the rest. I also remember when Lennon was shot, but being a pre-teen, I found out about the shooting from the newspaper.

  • At 12:29 AM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Cannoli, you're just a kiddie!

  • At 12:51 PM, Blogger Gerard Tomoculus said…

    "In his famous 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Little Richard spoke about the naked hatred Lennon had for him personally because of his homosexuality and race—a hatred not shared by bandmates George Harrison, Paul McCartney or Pete Best."

    What were the comments, or can you tell me what issue of Rolling Stone this is, so that I may find the quotes about Lennon and Little Richard?

  • At 10:40 PM, Blogger X. Dell said…

    Hi Dr. T. You'll have to forgive me, but I don't have that particular issue in front of me, although I do recall it being issued in the summer of 1984.

    Penniman was fairly detailed about his relationship with Lennon, among other things talking about his sort of obvious avoidance of him or making rude noises whenever he walked by. To Lennon's defence, he had a lot of growing up yet to do. And during his brief life began to develop more profound understandings of racism, gender equality and gender orientation.

  • At 5:38 PM, Blogger Gerard Tomoculus said…

    Thanks X.Dell, no worries about not having it to hand, summer of 1984 works for me.

    I shall try listen to the defence. I have a theory about Lennon though, in regards to his early violence, his caustic and cruel treatment of homosexuals and/or those of race (but surely said nothing to Muhummad Ali/Cassius Clay) --- there's some things just not adding up with his childhood, and the young adult he turned into. Which did exhibit extreme violence at points.


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